Day two and time for the crucial purchase: a bicycle. Got myself one from Carrefour for 287 yuan and fully expect it to fall apart before the year is over. Unless it gets stolen, of course. I’m considering cutting it with a knife to make it look less new and shiny. But my knife is too precious to waste it this way… yes, more precious than the bike. Anyway. For now I’m transport-independent.
Having got a bicycle, I now had to join the traffic. And that’s the subject of today’s lesson.
There are some rules you have to follow.
First of all, don’t expect mercy from drivers. They’ve honked at you, so if you die, it’s your own fault. They drive up to the junction and start turning while looking BACK. Motors will expect you to give way even though it’s your turn to go and they’re blocking the whole stream of people. Pedestrians just stroll everywhere. It seems like, having survived childhood in these conditions, they’ve acquired special powers of survival and can now stumble through the middle of the road without looking either right of left. Bizarrely, this strategy seems to be working… The idea of traffic lights is apparently a bit of a novelty, so don’t expect that people will take any notice of them. They’re more like general guidelines. Maybe it’s a clever strategy to provide work for the policemen directing the traffic? And the soldiers? And the strange old men in blue garb? Yes, there are times and places when you can see 2 or 3 different kinds of traffic-facilitators… at each corner of the junction. Occasionally one of them will get ahead of himself and start yelling at you for actually moving according to the lights.
At a zebra crossing with no lights just calculate your chances and start walking. It’s a bit of a gamble as you never know if the car will stop till you actually walk right in front of it. Very thrilling. Except for buses. Bus drivers, for whatever strange reason (must be some regulation) are your friends. They will always let you cross. Love and cherish them, for they’re the only friendly beings out there.
The traffic saving grace are the special separate lanes for bikes – real life savers, though you still have to navigate your way through the junctions. Sometimes one thinks how wonderful it would be if one could only ever turn right and never had to turn left… But still these lanes have their own dangers too. For example the electric bikes (you plug it in, charge it and off you go! A green alternative to scooters): they creep up soundlessly like death on wheels. Plus the honking of the drivers who think that if they honk long enough, the waves of vehicles in front of them will magically part and let them through (my advice: keep your mp3 player close at hand. It won’t drown out the honking completely, but will make it more bearable. Even better: get a honking device yourself. It’s much less annoying when you’re also doing it. And one can’t deny that those people parading slowly down your lane during rush hours when there’s a perfectly empty pavement right next to them are, quite plainly, infuriating!). Plus the people who decide to go in the other direction…
All this sounds a bit scary and it would’ve been so, had I not had a preview in Taiwan. Nothing scares me now. Yes, it’s annoying, disorderly and potentially suicidal. On the other hand it’s also very convenient if you just keep your wits about you. You just do what you want. In short: terrible during rush hours, absolutely wonderful at about 3 am.
On the other hand, they have a really great public bicycle service here. Everywhere you go there are sheds with characteristic red bikes. You buy an IC card (that also serves as a bus-pass), swipe it through the reader, grab a bike (remember to choose one with inflated tyres and a seat high enough that you don’t need to pedal with your head between your knees!) and then leave the bike at another shed when you’re done. If it takes less than one hour, you don’t get charged at all (and yes, it’s perfectly ok to return your bike just before the hour is up and immediately rent another one). The only downside – the sheds close down at the ridiculous hour of 8.30 pm. So if you’re planning a night out, you’ll need a cab home.
PS1: Getting a cab is not necessarily a bad idea. Granted, they’re comparatively cheap as cabs go, but still they’re the most expensive means of transport. But there’s one huge advantage. Being in a cab puts you on the inflicting end of the road madness rather than the receiving one.
PS2: When you’re randomly exploring a strange city on a bicycle, remember: thinking that ‘I’ll go home now, but first I’ll just check out this little street here’ leads to about 4 hours of trying to find your way back.
PS3: A short update: the bicycle has already needed a repair. The pedals felt like they were going to fall off… Also, the breaks are more like slower-downs now and rust is starting to creep in. All this within two weeks.