New York to Beijing – Zen and the Art of Bicycle Riding
Journal Entry #11
We were entering into our second week in China. While I had strong city legs from living in New York for over 20 years, I found walking in Beijing taxing because the blocks are very long and the stores we shop at are pretty far away. It was always necessary to use a took-took or cab to bring all the grocery items home. I was not interested in navigating transportation for all our shopping, so we decided to buy a set of bikes for all of us to use in the Shunyi neighborhood.
I was seeking independence and felt that having a bike would help me feel more in control. It would be great to have bikes for the kids too, so we could all go places together. Soren wanted to buy a road bike he could use riding up and down the mountain range near our apartment. He would need to go to a specialized shop downtown for this purchase. Finding a bike big enough for him would be a challenge. He is 6’3” – way above the average here.
The first order of business was getting bikes that were practical, not for exercise. I wanted to get a bike for everyday use. On “Scooter Road”, the aptly named street near Keystone, they had several bike shops. We decided to check them out and compare prices.
Munyiva and her husband, *Richard (see below), were also purchasing bicycles, but they were using the website, Tao Bao. This online shopping is like Amazon, but there are significant issues with us using it. In order to buy things online here, you have to use a Chinese identification number, I guess a little like a social security number. Only Chinese people have these numbers. Expats find Chinese friends who are willing to help them order and buy items on Tao Bao and other sites. Munyiva had already arranged to purchase through a Chinese colleague from Keystone. Because Soren speaks Chinese, it is a little easier for us to navigate purchases from vendors so we opted for to walk over to Scooter Road to see what they had to offer.
The shops were small and in a row, like a strip-mall. In front of each shop, there were a variety of bicycles, scooters, and took-tooks on display. We went into a few shops, asking prices and looking for bikes big enough for me. This turned out to also be tricky. I am only 5’8” but had noticed I am taller than most Chinese women, and many men, here in Beijing.
The kids were easier. At a shop halfway down Scooter Road we found a bike for Lars. After practicing on a few, he found a sporty Pigeon he liked and it fit him well. Nona found one she liked there too. We got her one that was more traditionally what you would see in China. It is not a common type used in the US. It had a low seat, a back flat rack to attach bags or seat a second passenger, and it had tall handle bars. Funnily, its brand name is “Male Stop”. No idea why.
While the kids were trying out bikes in the driveways in front of the store, Soren and I were nosing through all the ones in the tiny shop. Soren located one for me in the very back, up a ramp, nearly hidden and still covered in plastic. It was a black, old-school bike and had a tan seat with visible springs underneath and a bell to ring in traffic. The brakes were super funky. They were simple, thin, silver, metal rods located under the handle bars. It also had a back rack behind the seat for a second rider and pegs to put their feet. Also, it did not have any gears. I wouldn’t be needing gears here anyway because Beijing is very flat – no hills in the city. I gave the bike a test-ride and really liked it. It was slightly too big for me, and slightly too small for Soren. We felt we could both use it for day trips. Sold!
My New Beijing Bike
Soren negotiated all the prices of the three bikes, two helmets for the kids, and three bike locks. We were not sure if we needed locks, but we are from New York and the very idea of not locking a bicycle is unheard of and seems irresponsible to us. Total cost for the purchase was 2100 Kuai/RMB, roughly $350 US dollars. Cheap!
Soren Negotiating the Deal
There was a hole-in-the-wall restaurant next to the bike shop that served traditional Chinese street food. Soren was eyeing it the whole time we were shopping. He loves the food in China! We took a seat at one of the white plastic tables and chairs outside the restaurant and a waiter came over with a menu. So far, it is pretty easy to order for me, even though I can’t read or understand Chinese. Most places have pictures of every single dish on their menus. Just spot what you like and point to it. While the place looked a little run-down, the food we got was delicious. We got scallion pancakes, lamb kabobs, some chicken that Nona even ate, egg-fried rice, and some spicy noodle soup.
Restaurant Next to Bike Shop
Since we only bought three bikes, and we had four people, we had to switch up the bikes to ride them back to the apartment. Soren rode my bike with Nona sitting on the back, holding on. I rode Lars’s bike. And Lars, unhappily, rode Nona’s.
I could tell on the ride back to the apartment that I would love having a bike in Beijing. The bike lanes are wide and the traffic lights have bike-riding signals. My feet were loving me for not walking on the concrete too.
The next day, I told Munyiva that we bought bikes. She had ordered hers from Tao Bao, but they wouldn’t arrive until the end of the week. I told her she could ride Lars’s bike and we could check out the neighborhood on wheels. She was as excited as I was to get off her feet and onto a seat. We decided to head out to Bravo and the big WuMart by bike.
As we headed down to the bike area outside our apartment building, we ran into Stacey, another “trailing spouse”. We told her what we were doing and said she could ride Nona’s bike. Stacy is not as small as Nona, but the bike could be ridden easily by an adult. She was game.
The three of us saddled up and rode out of the back gate to freedom. We all agreed that it was absolutely liberating to go about the neighborhood on bikes. No need to figure out cabs or to exhaust ourselves on the hard concrete for miles. We went into some of the stores and bought a few things that fit in our backpacks and then headed home, wind in our hair and smiles on our faces. It really was Zen-like.
* Richard was feeling neglected in my blogs so he gets a well-deserved shout-out! And, this is his fat-bike he got later in the week from Tao Bao. Munyiva got a fancy BMW bicycle- not pictured.
** Funny story about shopping for q-tips –
While we were in Bravo that day, I told Munyiva that Soren wanted me to pick up some Q-tips. She said she knew where they would be. I followed her through the store to an aisle that had school supplies. She said they should be in this row. I was confused. I said we should look in the cosmetics aisle a few rows over. Then she looked confused, but followed me over. I scouted about the shelves and found a box of generic q-tips. Munyiva said, “What do you call those?” I said, “Q-tips.” She had never heard of that term before. I explained it was like Kleenex – it is a brand that is so common that everyone uses it for all versions. Even if you don’t by the Q-tip brnd, it is what we call them in the US. She thought I was asking for felt-tip pens or a type of marker. That is why she took me to the school supply section. I asked her what she called them. She said everyone just says earbuds. I said, that is what we call headphones. Ahhh, cultural adjustment is real.
***Lastly, this is Dean the Aussie’s motorcycle with sidecar. This would really be Zen.