In 1991, Fred Strebeigh, who now teaches non-fiction writing at Yale, wrote about how students and citizens used bicycles to mobilize for the Tiananmen Square protests. He described China as “a country with only a few thousand privately-owned cars but some 220 million cycles.”
So much has changed in the country since then. Last Friday, I looked across from the Forbidden City to Tiananmen Square and saw countless cars passing on the street. According to a January report in the New York Times, there are about 4.76 million cars in Beijing.
Nevertheless, bicycles are still a popular method of short-distance transportation in the city. Most students at Peking University own a bike. In an attempt to fit in, I bought a single-speed Flying Pigeon (飞鸽) my first week — riding from the bicycle stop to my dorm was a nerve-wracking effort to steer clear of automobiles whose drivers paid no mind to cyclists.
Also, I didn’t wear a helmet. (Nobody wears helmets here.)
If riding bikes in New Haven is somewhat dangerous, riding in Peking University can be downright treacherous. You have to dodge pedestrians and cars. People walk, bike and ride in the streets. In some areas, sidewalk and street blend into a seamless mess without lanes or divisions, and the increase in automobile traffic on campus makes the already slim streets even narrower. Clueless foreign exchange students standing in the middle of the road provide just one more obstacle.
I had two close calls in the past week: 1) I crashed into a guy, who was luckily uninjured, 2) Trying to avoid a girl on roller skates, I almost fell into a lake.
These days, I have become more careful, but I still don’t wear a helmet.