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Bicycling through Asia: the Y2K Experience
July 8, 2000

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Clearly an artifact from the Qing Dynasty
Bicycling through China was an authentic travel experience, I suppose. And I hope to never repeat it again, as long as I live.

Kavitha, our Danish friend Tin, and I wanted to visit the Giant Panda Research Center, which is only about 10 kilometers from our hotel. Our trusty guidebook recommended biking there. Cool! I love riding bikes. And, with 300 million bikes in China (more than anywhere else in the world) the Chinese must love cycling, too. "It will be a cultural experience!" I thought. After all, China's streets are packed with bicycles at all hours, and they even have their own stoplights with little red and green bikes on them. It's a cyclist's dream!

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Even the coal that makes the smog is carried on bicycles!
Last night, Tin and I spent about an hour sorting through the horde of old bicycles that Sam had for rent. Unlike the nice, multi-geared mountain bikes we had rented in Dali, all Sam had were decrepit black no-speeds that were probably made during the Qing Dynasty. We tried one after another. "These brakes don't work." "These breaks don't STOP working." "This one insists on turning left all the time." "This one has a flat tire." "This one is made for a midget." Of course, every time I pointed a problem out to Sam, he just grinned and nodded, as if to say "That's part of the fun!"

The China Syndrome

In China, it seems like people are spitting all the time and in all place. They even spit inside the buses! Now I understand why. Upper Respiratory Tract Infections (URTI's or the common cold) are extremely common here, and most visitors end up with a nagging cough for their entire stay. This problem has even got a name: "The China Syndrome" in English or ganmao in Chinese. Of course, the fact that so many people smoke, even on crowded buses or trains with the windows closed, doesn't help matters any.

The influenza virus also is a big problem here in China, and many worldwide flu epidemics have their origin here. Some experts think that China is a good breeding ground for new strains of the influenza virus because the rural people live so close to pigs and ducks, which can carry a very similar virus. If the two viruses come into contact, they can chop their little genetic strands together and make all kinds of new versions of the same old thing, a few of which can infect humans.

The conditions of crowded cities, high pollution, lots of cigarette smoke, cold weather in the winters, and the sharing of germs through coughing and spitting encourage the spread of colds and flus. Until those factors change, visitors to China can add a bad cough to their list of souvenirs.

Finally, we picked the three least frightening beasts, and put them away until early the next morning.

Snacks, water bottles, cameras, and the map! We're ready to go! Or so we thought. A better check list would have been tools, gas masks, helmets, and full body armor.

As the morning sun filtered its way through the dense fog, we steered our two-wheeled black stallions into the bike-filled streets of Chengdu. The adventure was on! I think the Chinese learned their biking etiquette at the bumper-car ride in Disney World! Seriously! When I was about eight or nine, we learned bicycle safety in school, and I thought it was sort of ridiculous. Of course, no one riding a bike in traffic would swerve back and forth, or stop suddenly in the middle of the road, or walk or bike into oncoming traffic without so much as a sideways glance, would they?

"This may be the stupidest thing I've ever done in my life," Tin cried, barely avoiding a collision as a woman stepped in front of Tin's bike. "Feel the force, young Skywalker!" I encouraged her. "You have to SEE what is going to happen before it happens."

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Getting coal for his home furnace
Back in 1891, the first bicycles reached China, pedaled by two Americans, Allen and Sachtleben, who took three years to cycle from Istanbul to Beijing. I haven't read about their adventures, chronicled in the book Across Asia by Bicycle, but it couldn't have been more hazardous than our 10 kilometers through Chengdu! Puyi, an emperor of the Qing Dynasty, was born around 1900, when bikes were still a novelty here. Of course, Puyi obtained a bike and he was often seen tearing around the Forbidden City in Beijing on his fancy toy.

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Kavitha looks like the masked bandit
Today, of course, bicycles aren't a children's toy, but rather a very affordable means of transportation for the Chinese workers whose wages are meager. You would think that, with so many people riding bikes, the air would be clearer here, and the people would be healthier. Think again! China has 5 of the 10 most polluted cities in the world, and is one of the biggest sources of air pollution in the world. This is mostly due to the fact that 70 percent of China's energy comes from burning coal, usually in inefficient furnaces.

Soon, my eyes were burning and my lungs hurt. Kavitha had a scarf tied over her nose and mouth like a masked bandit. As we pedaled out of the city center, it got worse because there were more factories. We passed one small shop that used paint or something, and suddenly the inside of my mouth felt as if it had been varnished. I turned my head and spit, almost hitting Tin. "Sorry!"


meager - a small amount
chronicle - to tell or write the history of
etiquette - the manners established by society
novelty - something new or unusual
varnish - to cover

My lungs and eyes were in agony by the time we reached the Giant Panda Research Center. At 526 micrograms of airborne suspended particles per square meter, the air in Northern China is almost 10 times more polluted than what the World Health Organization recommends as a safe limit! How can the pandas stand it? For that matter, how do the humans survive? Obviously, they get sick a lot!

A bicycle attendant charged us 1 Yuan each for the right to park our bikes on the road. I suppose she was there to protect them, but I can't imagine anyone desperate enough to steal those bikes! And hey, if the bikes were stolen, we'd have an excuse not to brave the return trip!

For better or for worse, the bikes were still there when we came out, and we saddled up for the return trip. Other than the dense air, biking didn't seem so bad anymore--we were getting used to the Zen art of riding bikes with no brakes and faulty steering!

Our spirits were high until I realized that my rear tire was rapidly loosing air. I stopped by one of the many men who sit on the side of the road with a box of tools and a pump. The man pumped up my tire, and I was off again. Of course, it was flat again within two minutes, but I didn't care anymore. Who needs steering? Who needs brakes? Who needs tires? Who needs lungs? Carpe Diem! I bumped and rattled all the way back to Sam, who listened to our story with a huge, toothy grin.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Jasmine - The World Gone MAD with Over-consumption
Kavitha - Pandas on the Edge: Trying to Survive in Modern China

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