Cycling China: Not As Hectic As You’ve Been Lead To Believe
China is prone to a lot of preconceptions from Westerners, and while many are warranted, some of them seem to have materialised out of thin air. Speaking of air, pollution is usually one of the first topics that springs to mind when China is brought up in conversation. This one is 100% warranted.
I don’t want to start off on a negative note, but I was in China for a whole week before I saw a shadow. I know this sounds bizarre, but think about overcast weather, when there is so much cloud overhead that the sun can’t penetrate it – now imagine the cloud is actually smog, and you’re beginning to picture what is a reality for many of China’s industrialised and highly populated areas.
The other topic that is usually pretty high up the “things associated with China” list is traffic, which makes cycling south from Shanghai all the way to the Vietnamese border and beyond seem ridiculous and ill-advised.
And yes, I’ll admit that our convoy out of town from the centre of Shanghai on Day 1 was sketchy at times, to say the least. But I couldn’t help noticing that while the traffic was indeed chaotic, we generally didn’t have much to do with it.
All the chaos was happening several metres to the left, with a nice big railing, pedestrian island or at the very least a giant painted line separating us from the dodging and weaving cars. Sometimes we even had our own pathway that ran parallel to the main road but on a completely different bridge or tunnel.
The traffic lights were very clear in stating whether it was the cars’ turn, the bicycles’ turn, or the pedestrians’ turn, as well as illustrating through little flashing arrows under bicycle symbols when it was safe to cycle across the gigantic intersections to turn left, for example.
Now, let me just state before we go any further that just because you SHOULD have right away according to the road rules, doesn’t mean someone isn’t going to come barrelling through the intersection illegally anyway. Traffic lights seem to be more like guidelines than official rules in China.
But generally if you’re not whizzing along with both earphones in, you wait a few moments after the light turns green and you keep your head on a swivel, cycling is actually an extremely efficient way of getting around Shanghai… a city with a population of 25 million, don’t forget!
While the sedans, buses and trucks all sit in gridlocked traffic jams, the motorized scooters and bicycles flow quite nicely in their own separate entity. Once we started passing through other towns, I soon realized this “flow” isn’t exclusive to Shanghai.
At the end of our second riding day of the tour, we cycled into what would be considered a large capital city in most countries, but a population of merely 9.2 million makes it a small country town by Chinese standards – Hangzhou. Here is where we have enjoyed our first rest day.
Walking into town this morning, you could be forgiven for thinking you’re in Europe. There are bicycles stacked up neatly all along the sidewalk, trendy two-storey cafes overlooking the lake, and a beautiful tree-lined promenade forming a canopy over your head as you follow the lake’s curve into the city centre.
The hustle and bustle is still there, but it’s a very different vibe to Shanghai. The locals seem to be in less of a rush, and hopefully this is a taster of the more relaxed lifestyle I’m assuming we will experience as we cycle south into more rural areas before the hustle and bustle picks up again as we approach Hong Kong in a couple weeks’ time.
The general consensus around the lunch truck and dinner table is that people are excited to reach the more remote and traditional areas of China that we’re approaching, not just for a calmer ride but to get a more accurate snapshot of Chinese culture as well.
After speaking to our Tour Leader, Doug (who has done this tour before as the bike mechanic), it sounds like we’re in for a treat over the coming days.