Bicycle Derby

Written by Life

Posted from: Beijing, China

My goal for the day was not to die.

I didn’t wake up with extreme sports on the brain. When I yawned and stretched at the God-awful hour imposed by the time difference, my first thoughts were not on how effectively I could off myself before sundown. I did have a pile of stuff to do, though, and had to do them faster than my feet could carry me and slower than a cab driver’s slurred Chinese. You see where this is going. I rented a bike.

A bicycle. A ZiXingChe. One of the cultural characteristics we attribute to China. When you think of China, you think of the Great Wall, then you think of tigers, dragons and lanterns, and then a bunch of business men looking silly, legs akimbo and black socks displayed under pant-cuff eyelids, pedaling in their suits.

What you don’t visualize, and what National Geographic does not do picturesque photo spreads about, is the high-impact roller derby that is bicycling in the city of Beijing. Hopping on the bike on my hotel’s relatively benign side-street, I turned the corner onto WangFuJin Avenue and then the world exploded, sending shards of alarmed glass into my brain where they stayed for the next 3 hours as I dodged hurtling meteors and whatever the Chinese equivalent of kamakazis are.

Technically speaking, there are lanes. Someone has gone through the trouble of painting white lines in the road, and in doing so has succeeded in wasting gallons and gallons of paint. Cars shoulder each other about and positively bully the bikers, stopping for no discernable reason and laying the horns on thick. They dart up the shoulder, they nudge and vie, they dogpile on top of each other. Buses come straight at you, expecting that you’ll move.

As you probably are aware, China is a very old culture. Between five and seven thousand years of history, depending on who you ask. The Taoist religion is one of the oldest on earth. Out of Tao everything springs, and back to Tao everything flows. And out of Tao sprung pedestrians, who are so fucking at one with the balance of the universe that they need look neither right nor left before stepping out into the goddamn road.

Through all the Chinese pedal benignly, weaving in and out of ass-crack spaces without a flinch or a wobble, finding and exploiting loopholes the way fencers see an opening and lunge for it.

So there I am, hyper-alert and liberally applying the break, bellowing “JEEESUS!” at indifferent bumpers, on my way to the Imperial Archives. Now how wicked does that sound? Get this: built in 1536, those walls housed royal genealogy records, compendiums of generals’ seals, imperial edicts and the like. Ancient courtyard, musty old tomes… sounds like something worth seeing, doesn’t it? Halls worth wandering, an ambiance worth braving the maelstrom for?

I screeched up, sweaty and panting desperately, to find a lock on the door.

Standing there with one hand rhetorically tugging at the padlock, I was sizing up my bike out of the corner of my eye. An enthusiastic old man tried to sell me a map. He came, he went, and I eyed the bike still. I was thinking, ‘Is my life, the rest of my glorious days, of equal worth to my rental deposit? Shall I leave you here to rust and suffer as I have suffered?”

No, I decided, it would probably welcome the break. And I jumped back on that thing and gave it hell.