China’s long history, rich culture, and low prices make it easy to find activities to do, both within Beijing and outside of the city for those looking to travel. However, in a city as big and bustling as Beijing, getting anywhere is often an adventure all on its own. Many foreigners will stick to cabs, cheap when compared with cabs in the United States or other Western countries, or otherwise Beijing’s extensive public transportation network. However, for foreigners really looking to live like a local (and with access to a Chinese phone number), biking is the real way to go.
Biking is an integral part of Chinese contemporary life. Some estimates placed the number of bikes in China at 435 million in 2008—it has likely risen. Bikes provide a speedy and convenient way of getting around in a city where a so-called quick walk usually lasts 20 to 30 minutes. Most Beijing residents that I have met could not live without their bikes and use them to go nearly anywhere. Although bikes don’t necessarily hold the fun and romantic characters that they do in some European cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, there remains something heartwarming about seeing groups of friends chatting on their respective bikes or parents shuttling small, wide-eyed children and showing them the world through the front basket of their bikes.
Any visitor in Beijing will inevitably notice a few things about bikes. First, passersby will not be able to miss the sheer amount of bike lanes across the city’s streets. Stand at an intersection for long enough and you are bound to see bikes, mopeds, and all sorts of two-wheeled vehicles crisscrossing at daunting speeds. If it’s raining, nothing changes besides the addition of umbrellas and poncho-wearing riders. If you’re lucky enough to get a truly local experience, you might witness a bike rider lugging a ten-foot-high load creatively arranged on the back of his or her bike. That load might consist of anything from timber and metal to garbage bags piled high—after all, it wouldn’t be a day in China if you weren’t baffled by something you saw on the street. In this way, bikes also reveal the Chinese entrepreneurial spirit—why not find a way to shuttle an incredible load on a two-wheeled vehicle?
Next, visitors will come across an uncanny number of identical bikes—congratulations! You have stumbled upon the wonder of bike sharing in China. In the past few years, bike sharing companies have taken the nation’s cities by storm. The two largest companies, Mobike and Ofo, lead a pack of over a dozen other competing operators. Each of them follows a unique business model different from Western bike sharing services: Chinese shared bikes don’t require users to park them at a station. Rather, users can scan a QR-code on the bike and get moving, later parking it among other bikes near their destination. Though it often creates clutter on sidewalks and in bike parking areas, it’s a remarkably convenient system that I’ve begun using this summer. Stay tuned as I continue to explore the mosaic of new experiences that life in China provides!