Written by/ Edwin Maher
Edwin Maher is an Australian journalist and broadcaster who previously worked with the ABC. In a strange twist of fate, Maher came to China in 2003 where he worked as the CCTV main broadcaster for the English language channel. In 2007, he was awarded China’s prestigious “Friendship Award”. “China Diaries” is Maher’s latest book. With a series of 23 articles in both Chinese and English, Maher’s self-deprecating wit shines through with his observations about living as a foreigner in China, sharing his insights on China’s culture and changing society.
Back in the saddle again — Beijing bicycle style
When I first came to China last year, Beijing’s traffic opened my eyes to the endless stream of vehicles, my ears to the tooting horns, and my nose to the exhaust fumes. Watching cars and cabs dart across lanes without indicating, I saw a few near-misses. Fearing the worst, I simply held my breath.
I thought Beijing’s drivers must be among the worst I had seen, but it became clear that they are in fact highly skilled when coping with extremely difficult conditions. Pressing their horns seems to release their frustrations rather than producing road rage so common in the west. And when the lights turn red, they usually stop, rather than make a run for it and risking a smash.
Just before leaving Australia, I saw a TV travel show about Beijing, with the host perched on a bike declaring: ‘There’s only one way to really see this city — on two wheels.’ But once here, I knew I didn’t have the courage or skill to take her advice.
Two of my foreign work colleagues at China Radio International (CRI) told me how they had been knocked off their bicycles by people opening car doors, one of them sustaining injuries to keep him on the sick list for a week. Soon after joining CCTV International last March, an American colleague told me of her collision and how the experience had put her off trying again.
When my son and daughter spent a week in Beijing last year, they agreed: ‘It’s too dangerous, Dad.’ But two months ago, the wheels in my head started turning, taking my mind back to an experience a long way from Beijing and a long time ago. That memory would give me the momentum to make a decision to shock my family and surprise myself.
As a boy growing up in the small New Zealand town of Levin, one of the most exciting moments was getting my first bicycle. I can’ t remember my age, but I had never ridden a two-wheeler before, and it took a day of getting my balance, before Dad could let go
and watch me ‘take off’ only to fall within a short distance.
What I can remember is going to bed that night, creating a mental image of riding my new machine and not falling off. After all, things are meant to be ‘as easy as riding a bike’ aren’t they?
Next morning I was up with the birds, firmly believing I could get aboard without Dad’s help, stay on, and pedal my way to wherever I wanted, without crashing into a neighbour’s garden or fence. Sure enough, confidence matched balance, and away I went, both boy and bike unscathed.
The bike and I became firm friends and I rode it to and from school until something unexpected happened. It was a wet afternoon and I had misbehaved in my primary school class. The teacher caught me pulling the plaitted hair of a girl at the desk in front. My punishment was to stay half an hour after the home bell rang, and write out one hundred times, ‘I will pay attention.’
When I left school that afternoon, it started raining, and I mentally cursed the teacher for keeping me back. I was pedalling home on my bike, and about to cross a car lane (there were no cycling lanes) when suddenly I became airborne.
Within seconds I was upside down on the bonnet of a car driven by an elderly man, my bike dragging behind, caught under the back bumper. Luckily I didn’t topple over as the startled driver jammed on his brakes.
As those memories resurfaced in China, I knew what I had to do. On a sunny Friday afternoon, I caught a bus to the Carrefour supermarket near the Beijing Zoo and walked into the cycle department with its vast array of machines from the simple to the super. Even the simplest looked super to me, and those on special promotion for just under ¥200 had genuine appeal.
After sitting down on one of them and getting the feel of the pedals and handlebars, I made a snap decision. ‘I’m having it. I want this bike and no one’s going to change my mind.’ Within minutes, I had made the transaction for cycle and extras including a basket, bell, lock and pump. All for well under ¥300, a price so low, no one back home would believe it possible.
But what I couldn’t find was the one accessory the law requires all cyclists in my home state of Victoria to wear — a helmet. That would have to wait because I was ready to join the throng outside. Nervous and excited, I wheeled the bike out of the supermarket and onto the street. It was a long way from one of the smallest towns in New Zealand to one of the biggest cities in the world. My heart was nearly out of my mouth as I took the plunge and jumped into the stream of cyclists at the busiest time for afternoon traffic.