Cycling in China is insane

I've started cycling to work in Beijing, which means my life hangs in the balance twice a day.

Provided you don't actually die, it's quite an invigorating lifestyle. That shaky high you feel after a near-death experience gets your entire cardiovascular system pumping more than espresso shots and hot yoga combined.

Actually though, Beijing is quite a friendly city to cyclists and has a massive biped population.

All the major roads have wide bike lanes drawn in and given that almost all motorists were once on bicycles - an evolutionary dynamic that does not exist in Singapore where the two exist on impermeable strata - the motoring atmosphere is not unfriendly to those on two wheels.

The cycling problem in Beijing, unlike in Singapore, is not car drivers. Rather, it is something that permeates Chinese society from top to bottom, and which can only be described as a laissez-faire attitude towards the law.

Chinese everywhere take the rules, whether for road traffic or for insider trading, more as guidelines. Good to have only so that everyone knows what the starting point for creativity is.

So, those wide, convenient bike lanes go from heaven to hell for cyclists because every other motorised vehicle uses them at will. And the special traffic lights that guide bicycles are rendered useless by the fact that Chinese drivers don't left-turn on red; they left-turn when they feel like it.

Then there are the three-wheeled taxis, evil creatures that look like pimped-up trishaws offering a touristy experience but are actually open-air caskets. They're motorised bicycles dragging sedans - a set-up that would make one think that they shouldn't go above certain speeds, nor barrel their way between bollards and over speed humps like tanks. One would be wrong and one would also feel every piece of gravel reverberate through one's intestines.

Despite all this, a sort of insane stability keeps the whole system in balance, and it's due to what I call the "well- played" factor. You see, on roads where everyone is expected to follow the rules, departing from them invites a disproportionate, intense backlash.

Hence, the obscene levels of road rage in Singapore, where people literally break someone else's fingers for blocking their reverse path for five minutes.

But since nobody follows traffic rules here, everyone accepts the non-following of rules with what comes close to admiration. Besides honking, which Chinese drivers use more as a tool of communication than an expression of outrage, I've never seen a confrontation between road-users here. Instead, there is a grudging respect when one is out- manoeuvred.

Cut me off on the turn although I have the right of way and you have a five-year-old in the front seat? Well-played.

Going the wrong way on a major road in an open-air trishaw because you'll get there five minutes faster? Well-played.


Now, I'm not good at following the rules either. I cycled regularly during university in the UK, and there was once when I navigated a roundabout while looking at my iPod because I didn't like the song that was playing.

A British woman rolled down her window and yelled at me, "Do you want to die?!" 

(I was also wearing a mini-skirt on my bicycle, which definitely p***ed her off even more.  "You're not even dressed for a traffic accident!" I imagined her follow- up to be.)

That sort of social policing would never happen in China. When I cycle home from the office, I'm going against the flow of traffic the entire time. If I didn't, it would take longer and also my apartment is on this side of the street, so I would have to go past it, cross over at the intersection, double back et cetera - it's too much of a faff.

Instead, for 15 minutes, I can make eye contact with every cyclist and motorist on my route home. The thing is, nobody has once yelled at me. I will cause an elderly man to almost fall off his bicycle and his face will remain expressionless, although a look of remorse starts to form on my own features.

"Well-played," his blank expression tells me. And so it was.