My days of safari hunting down green lights for taxis are done…for the most part. I inherited a bike from a good friend this past weekend and feel like I’ve been given instant access to the entire city.
In hindsight, a bike should have been one of the very first things I purchased when I arrived. I had every intention of buying one mid-November, but then it started to get cold and I got busy with the semester. All excuses aside, I learned about my lucky inheritance on a hike the day after Christmas.
Sophie, the bike’s first mom, took it all around Hangzhou for her six months here. As a result, she gained scores of friends and knew her way around the city better than most temporary residents. Since her internship was ending just two months after Christmas (last week), she needed to figure out something to do with her bicycle. We talked it over – I was desperate for a bike and she knew I was sincere about putting it to good use. The one and only caveat to the deal was that before I leave, I have to find a very cool foreigner to pass it along to, preferably one as unhappily lost as I was when I first arrived.
After plenty of pictures and hugs, she handed over the bike and all three of its locks to me on Saturday afternoon. It’s certainly nothing fancy – the wheels are small with a thick tread, and there is only a single gear. But it has a big basket in the front, a bell on the handlebars and a sophisticated anti-theft system consisting of a taped-on paper sign that reads, in Chinese, “Please don’t steal me, my owner doesn’t have very much money :)”
It was such a good feeling pedaling my way back to my apartment that afternoon. Sophie promised me the city would look differently atop two wheels, and she was absolutely right. I thought I would be more nervous about the traffic or other bikes, but after spending five months observing the illogical set of traffic standards here, things seemed to come somewhat naturally. Or maybe that’s just because I’ve developed a sturdy false sense of security…
Sunday promised sunny skies and a temperature of nearly 70 degrees, so I set out onto the streets around 10:30 a.m. Hangzhou famously boasts bicycle tours around West Lake, so I thought that would be an appropriate inaugural journey with my bicycle.
Since the weather was so nice, there were scores of people around the lake. The traffic and crowds were a little daunting, and there were more than a few times I found myself squeezing my way through cars and weaving around other cyclists and pedestrians.
The bike lanes here are as wide as a lane of traffic, for the most part. There’s no regulation as to the direction you go in the lane either, it’s a bit of a free-for-all. Playing chicken with a bike or motorbike quickly coming at you head-on is a normal thing that I will hopefully soon become a pro at. The key is to commit to a trajectory path and stick to it. Otherwise, if I wobble they’ll wobble, and we’ll both fall down.
Once I found myself in the southwest corner of the lake, the crowds thinned and I was surrounded by nature. That area of Hangzhou is home to a preserve that has tea fields, a bamboo forest, and an arboretum. Hiking trails line the hilltops, surrounding the side of the lake like a cooked spine. For a few minutes, I didn’t feel like I was in a city with millions of people.
The streets came easy to me – I thought I would feel lost or unsure of my way, but apparently months of sitting in the backseats of cabs and struggling to remember strange sounding streets made an impression. Yugu lu, Xueyuan, Tianmushan, Jiaogong, Wen San, Wen Er, Wen Yi… it all was laid out nicely in my mind. Even when I was on streets I had never been on before, I still knew my cardinal directions and knew where to turn.
It was then that I reminded myself that I was in a huge city, and I knew my way around it! Well…to a certain extent, anyway.
I have two months left here and I hope that will be enough time to explore everything that I want to with my new set of wheels. I’m not sure that it’ll be enough time, but I will have to make sure the time spent is worthwhile.
As sad as I am to see Sophie go, I can’t be more thankful for her gift. Here’s to hoping we’re starting a soon-to-be-legendary laowai (foreigner) bike, passed down from foreigner to foreigner, all of who are earnestly seeking to make Hangzhou feel a little more like home.