Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Life in China

Last week Beijing was confused: it was not sure if it was winter or spring. 1 minute the canals were frozen, the next they were ice-free. one minute it was freezing cold, the next you could bask in the sunshine! Anyway, I think its finally making up its mind and only 1 of the next 15 days should be below 7 degrees.

Endless topics of conversation take place regarding traffic in Beijing -problems, solutions, surviving.. all kinds. Yesterday I forced Leon (1 of my chinese room mates) to look at the beijing subway website to find out when the new lines will open. I heard a rumour line 5 would open soon. Damn, actually it won't open until next summer! And then they will also open lines, 10, 4, 9, 8 and L 1 in the next 12 months before the Olympics. In fact L1 will be the airport shuttle line and will only open 14 days before the Olympics start! Shanghai on the other hand opens about a new line (or extension) every 6 months -much more sensible.

I normally try to get buses before 4pm or after 7pm, then the traffic is not so bad, and its quicker than the subway which we have to get a bus (or 25 min walk) to get to and often change lines to get to ultimate destination (if its near the subway). Now, though, I bought another bike and happily cycle around Beijing. In fact its almost the same as before my bike was nicked last summer -the difference being i am now cycling around the 3rd ring, and not the 4th ring. The 4th ring was built later and is designed for bikes to be able to go above or under trafiic junctions. In fact the 3rd ring is possibly the worst designed road ever. The implications for bikes are that they cannot go over or under traffic junctions but must pile up at every set of traffic lights. Inevitably people will:
-try and dash all the way across when there is a gap in the traffic (rare): all 6 lanes
-try and dash across, but get stuck halfway with a 1.5m long bike sticking out and blocking a couple of lanes
-try to be at the front of the bike queue and thus every new bike arriving at the lights stops in front of the other, ensuring the queue gets longer and longer jutting out and blocking a lane or two (especially the cars trying to turn right)
...and so on..

The other problem is the variation is speeds and type of bikes in Beijing. An entire piece of research could be taken on the kinds of people on bikes and the bikes they have. A summary:
-those pulling their big carts that are like weelbarrows piled up with crockery or something else they will later stop to sell
-those cycling a tricycle type contraction that might be a pancake machine or piled high with cardboard boxes/sofas/scrap wood etc etc
-the old ppl on a normal, crappy, bike going very slowly
-the younger ones talking on their mobiles while wondering all over the cycle lane
-the younger ones on slightly flash bikes (maybe even a racing bike) speeding along
-the various scooters and motorbikes that just get in the way and don't go much faster than a bike
-... and the cars that use the bike lanes when there is so much traffic (or whilst trying to turn down a side road), and that causes the bikes to then have to overtake the said stationary vehicle blocking the bike lane, by veering onto the pavement or into all the other lanes (NB: useless brakes as standard on all bikes)

The other stupid thing are the horrendous number of buses in China (last year they added about 2,000 to the current number -whereas London has about 2,000 in total!) which don't travel in the bike lanes usually, but have to stop there to pick up passengers, forcing bikes to overtake them by going into the normal lanes and forcing cars into fewer lanes or by going on the inside between the bus and the curb (where all the passengers are trying to get on the bus!) Or, if you are me, you also go on the pavement, behind everyone knowing its the quickest and safest option (since stopping and waiting for the bus to leave would just take too long!)

Finally, the bravest people in China are those that are trying to learn English -never afraid to come up to a foreigner to annoy them/befriend them (depending on foreigner's mood!); they would make great salesmen in the UK! I have a few right now who managed to get my number whilst i was in a good mood...whose messages and calls are, well, just....


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