China is a land of bicycles. At least it was back in 1992 when I traveled the country. Back then everyone seemed to ride a bicycle. Up and down Chang'an Avenue that runs across the center of the city you would see people on bicycles. Millions of them. And all bicycles were black and would only go as fast as you could pedal. Cars were rare. They were a presence on the busy streets but most citizens did not own one.
Yet since I arrived last year the opposite is true. Now there are millions of cars. In fact, every day they claim that 1,000 new cars are put on the road in Beijing alone.
But back to the bicycles. While they are outnumbered by cars, when you venture out to the outer ring roads of the city, people still use their bicycles to get around. It's the fastest and cheapest way to travel.
Today, bicycles also come in a rainbow array of colors. You can find them in silver, green, red, blue, yellow, whatever you want. And they are no longer just one speed. You can find 10-, 15- and 20-speed bicycles.
It's fun watching people on their bicycles dodge cars, trucks, buses and people as they ride along. They whiz through intersections, maneuver through cars and traffic, and ride on the sidewalk and even inside malls. They allow you a freedom to move about that cars just can't provide in Beijing.
The weather is probably the biggest impediment to an enjoyable bicycle ride in Beijing. Rain can be disastrous for bikers. When it's hot you will work up a sweat and possibly suffer from dehydration. When it's cold it's impossible to ride without having your face freeze. Even on nice days, pollution will make it difficult to breathe.
I eventually decided it was time to immerse myself in this aspect of Chinese culture and bought a bike. I found a nice one at a thrift shop for 300 yuan ($45) that came with a lock. Great weather accompanied my great buy and I finally jumped up on my bike seat and started home.
The ride took longer than expected as I learned the features of my new bicycle. I also didn't want to get hit by a car, so I took it slow.
They do have bicycle lanes on the roads in Beijing and most people obey them. The cars don't always obey, but the people do.
The ride home was very orderly. Cars came whizzing out of nowhere at times, but I stayed alert. To be safe, I stayed with a "pack" of bikers, huddling in the middle so that if a car where to hit someone, it would be someone on the outer fringe of our group. You have to be careful, because as cars come inches from your fender, you become more likely to become a hood ornament.
Crossing the intersections was the biggest challenge. It's a lot like crossing a major highway back in the United States, like the Long Island Expressway. The streets here are big—10 lanes are not uncommon, so crossing takes time, skill and a little bit of luck.
I rode along the street until I came to Sanlitun. Then it was on past the Workers Stadium all the way to the Silk Market.
Eventually I made it home. The feeling of freedom was unbelievable. The air hitting my face and going through my hair was wonderful. I am sitting on top of the world as I cruised by places and people and it made me feel alive.
I brought my new bicycle up to my apartment and parked it in the vestibule. A parking space at the apartment costs about $4 a month, but it takes time to register and find a space, which is already limited. So for now the bicycle stays by the front door ready for me to grab my bag, toss it in the basket and hit the street on another trip around Beijing.
The author is an American living in Beijing