Thursday, 10 December 2015 Filed in: Travel | Shanghai | Public Transport
I had an amazing bike. I bought it when I moved back to Ireland from Singapore and I had grand plans about cycling into work in St. Stephen's Green from our house in Stoneybatter. I got a semi-customised Trek bicycle with special hand grips (no idea of the technical name) for people with sensitive wrists. Eoghan had a Trek too so it was important to me that we had matching bicycles as a sign of our commitment as a couple. I later discovered that having children with someone renders relationship-affirming-matching-cycles superfluous.
Anyway, I loved my bike. It had a bell and a basket and lots of gears that I didn't know what to do with. I loved it so much that I took my chances along the quays in Dublin every morning, wedged in between double deckers and trying not to employ my general approach to scary situations (i.e. closing my eyes and waiting for the danger to pass). I cycled to work in the rain, when I was tired, when I was grumpy, when I didn't feel like cycling. I gave it up after the first trimester of pregnancy (first time mothers do things like that) and my beautiful bike was relegated to a dusty corner.
The bike didn't get dusted off until Little A was 9 months old and we bought a bike seat for it. The seat had to go on my bike because Mr Oh had a road bike which was not suited to bike seats (so he told me). The weight on the back freaked me out as I cycled carefully down the cycle tracks of Brussels - slow, flat and safe - wobbling and occasionally wailing in terror.
I got better with the extra weight on the back and when we went on our month long road-trip honeymoon to Cork, Inishbofin, Cornwall and Normandy, we took our baby and our bikes with us. Finally, the bike was back in action, with a passenger this time…one that used to pull down my pants from his seat behind me and laugh uproariously as I screeched at him. He also liked to wriggle his feet free and use my coccyx as a foot rest. All was rosy for my beautiful bike.
And then we moved to Shanghai where I took one look at the traffic and bid the bike farewell. We moved the child-seat to Mr Oh's road bike which, miraculously, we discovered had been capable of carrying children this whole time (imagine that!). For a while, this was a good solution. And then Snugglepunk came along and it became clear that, at some point, I was going to have to get back on the saddle...literally.
But you know, two years is time enough for a bit of traffic desensitisation to set in so, a few weeks ago, I decided that I would rather cycle Snugglepunk the 5km to baby-school rather than subject us both to being flung around the inside of the overcrowded buses for half an hour every morning.
So, I went down to get my bike. It had been so long, it was hard to identify. I had to look at photos of my bike from our honeymoon to make sure I had the right one. But the weird thing was, it had recently been serviced and there was a lock on it that was not mine. Once we had decided this was definitely my bike, we put our own lock on in and that marked the beginning of the great bicycle standoff of 2015. This lasted approximately three days before the building management tipped me off that the person responsible for unlawfully requisitioning my bicycle was another building resident. I sent my heavies round to deal with him. Ok, I sent Mr Oh round to discuss the matter politely and, within minutes, my bicycle had been liberated and the great bicycle standoff of 2015 came for a rather anti-climactic end.
So, no excuses left, I strapped a rather perplexed Snugglepunk onto the back and off we went. We almost fell off before I even got out of the garage because...well, I forgot how to ride my bike and Snugglepunk was screaming like a banshee.
We almost crashed into a motorbike before we got out of the laneway because, you know, it's China, and almost is the key word anyway. And we were off. Within the first ten minutes, three people stopped me to tell me that Snugglepunk was asleep and shout at me because it was dangerous. He wasn't actually asleep, he was just examining a leaf which had become stuck to his knee but I just kept cycling shouting "it's not dangerous" and throwing them my best contemptuous glare - turns out its hard to throw contempt safely from a moving bicycle.
It occurred to me later that the reason the Chinese freak out when they see a child asleep on the back of a bike is because, generally, in China, the child bike seats don’t have harnesses. They don’t tend to put children this young on the back of bikes (unless on the lap of their mother who is sitting side saddle across the pannier). So, naturally, they think Snugglepunk is in danger of falling out. I’ve had a few long chats with Chinese ladies on bicycles while we’ve been stopped at traffic lights and I’ve explained to them about European bike seat engineering. They remain unconvinced. Some have even tried to poke Snugglepunk awake on the journey back from nursery (he has never once stayed awake for the whole thing).
There's one straight big long road from our house to Snugglepunk's nursery. We didn't cycle on that though because bicycles are banned from this road, for good reason. Chinese buses were the whole reason we were cycling in the first place because they are death-traps and the bus drivers are, without exception, angry lunatics who will plough into anything that crosses their path and enjoy randomly braking for no particular reason.
So, we had to make our way to nursery through a series of back streets, mostly cycling the wrong way down one-way streets. This is ok in Shanghai though. It would be foolish not to. My strategy was to hitch myself behind a slow-moving granny and just do what she did. Sometimes, the granny would do weird stuff like veer into oncoming traffic but, in these cases, I just made a judgement call.
Cars came at us from every direction, motorbikes laden with boxes careened out of driveways, scooters broke lights when we were crossing roads, people stepped off the pavement into our path right in front of us and at one point we seemed to be playing chicken with a flatbed truck. I kept my eyes open, my wits about me and I moved at the pace of a gently scampering cockroach.
Chinese traffic might seem crazy and dangerous - ok, it is a little bit crazy and dangerous - but there's a beauty in it too...something very reflective of Chinese society generally. Everyone is pulling out in front of other people, breaking lights, ignoring pedestrian crossings...but they won't hurt you (one hopes). They know you're there, they see you, they expect you. And if you cut them off, or pull out in front of them, or make them slam on their brakes, they don't get angry...they just shrug and get on with it. There is a kind of live and let live vibe on the roads.
It makes me think of a story I read a few years ago about a town somewhere that was getting rid of traffic lights and signs to make the roads less dangerous…and I think there’s something in that. In Shanghai, no one relies on a light to guarantee their safety or a sign to give them a right of way. Everyone is looking around, all the time, judging the safety risk, making calls…they’re just probably not doing it aloud like I do. I think it makes things safer generally. All surprise is no surprise! (This is a new phrase I’ve just coined and I’m going to use it liberally once I figure out what it means).
So, for a while, things were great. And then one morning, my bike wasn’t in the apartment bike garage (the one with a 24-hour guard outside and enough CCTV cameras to make a Sharon Stone movie). It had been stolen!
In fact, Mr Oh’s bike had gone missing a few weeks before but he didn’t get very far with our building in making a fuss, being stopped in his tracks by their claim that the CCTV footage “only went back 24 hours”. (Also he had left the bike unlocked and unattended for several days in the garage, feeling safe in the knowledge that no one in China would have any compunction to steal a bike with a frame they’d need a ladder to get on to).
Well, one bike gone could be chalked up to carelessness, but this was two bikes in a month! So I looked around and started shouting at the first person I saw.
No one else’s bikes had been stolen. Only ours, both of ours. I demanded to see the CCTV footage. They refused. I went down to the lobby every hour and shouted at whoever I saw there. I was just angry…and shouting felt good. I didn’t think it would make my bike come back. I banged on the security room door and asked to look at their cameras (ok, I knocked politely but they still refused to tell me anything).
But something happened, it seemed my shouting was working. They asked me to write down the value of our bikes, both of them. And then a few days later I was presented with a letter of apology and, in a very Chinese way, an envelope stuffed with money. I asked if they had seen who stole my bike on the CCTV footage. They said they had. I asked if they knew who it was. They looked to the side, giggled nervously and said “a stranger”.
I looked at the pile of money in my hand. I knew they knew more than they were saying. Something wasn’t right - I knew they wanted me to stop shouting and asking questions. I was being bought off. I was surprisingly ok with that.
I toddled off and bought a new bike. It’s orange and while I really wish my bike hadn’t been stolen in the first place…the best way to get over an old bike is to find a new one.