Being a continuation of my meanderings through the intricacies of China’s modes of transport available to those who can’t afford to go by private jet.
Having made the (possibly unsupportable claim) that despite the general disregard for recognisable road rules the spirit of courtesy and a laid back live-and-let-live ethos keep travelers on Chinese city roads safer than St Christopher, it seemed important to live the philosophy.
It was on this basis I decided that cycling the streets of Shanghai would be a great way for my family to get around the city. Reader: it was!
So much easier on the legs than stomping everywhere. So much more to see than on the Metro! So much less reliant on Tanea’s iPhone than the taxi! So much more alert to it all when everything in your field of vision can be expected to kill you at any moment! I arranged a gentle introduction by purchasing an expensive guided tour (culture-shock-tours.com) with a young French lass called Claire who spoke Chinese well and English pretty well. We started ever so gently down the easy streets of Xintiandi, one of the many high fashion, high priced districts in Shanghai. It was a pretty sweet introduction, if a little unambitious on the food front. The progression to the narrow laneways of the old town was accompanied by pelting and chilly rain so that by the time we bade Claire farewell we were quite damp, and Tanea was no longer so bothered that she’d forgotten to bring the SD card for the camera (which explains the lack of illustrative support for this section).
As in any big (well, giant really) city, walking from seeable sight to shoppable plaza involves long and uneven kilometers of trudgery, leading to some slightly low-energy behaviours as everyone becomes exhausted. Biking, on the other hand, puts just about everything within reach, especially in towns where the concept of a hill or wind is spoken of in hushed, disbelieving tones (“What is wind?” “What is hill?” they ask in fearful wonderment). There’s a wonderful looking civic bike rental scheme in Shanghai called Mobike. These guys have snappy silver and orange bikes with enclosed direct (rather than chain) drive and intelligent locking that allows you to pick them up and drop them off just about anywhere, not making you reliant on docking posts. All you need to do is download the Mobike app and scan the Q-code. Which is all in Chinese, as well as Appstore apparently being blocked.
Plan B. Find a local bike renting concern. As luck would have it there was an enticing bike shop just down the road from us in our first Shanghai apartment, boasting such wonders as a porcelain and bamboo bike and some mean-as looking city wheels. I got the feeling that they were custom-building bikes just for the hell of it (I never saw one go out the door or any serious looking purchaser). In fact their lack of apparent commercial aspiration would have done Jonty proud.
The crappy bikes they had no interest in (but owned nevertheless) were racked up outside. There were new ones you could buy and old ones for rent, though as the shop dude indicated through gestures, the new ones were even crappier than the neglected old ones, so why would you? Renting was what we were after, and after some interesting discussions in which they demonstrated a “Nanny Piggins” style of bargaining we struck a deal: “How much to rent?” “200 Yuan a day.” “No, way too much.” “OK, 10 Yuan an hour then.” “Done.” Then it was just a matter of picking out the least crappy of the crappy bikes and disentangling them for immediate use.
You’re wondering why we didn’t take the tandem chopper? Me too. How cool would that be? You might also like to look at the previous picture and marvel at the fact that all of these bikes had to go into that bike shop at day’s end.
Actually for a town with surely more than a million cyclists, it’s amazing how crappy most bikes were. They evidently practice the same kind of bike maintenance that I do: none. My biggest worry though was how Tanea, who finds the underpopulated streets of Wellington a wind-up, would cope in amongst all of this unabashed mayhem (sorry love, but I was absolutely packing. You and I both know how cranky you’d be with a bus on top of you. So cranky…). Our plan was to get to the site of the Expo held here in 2010 (incidentally when Tanea and Lyn were here to look after Derek). Then it was a splendourland of gigantic pavilions evidencing the might and openness of resurgent China, now it’s an abandoned junkyard of oversized steel structures that would have got J. G. Ballard very excited. A junkyard squatting on several hectares of prime real estate on the banks of the Huangpu River that no one can quite bring themselves to pull down, though nor can they be bothered to do anything with them. Instead they’ve banged barrier fencing all around them and left a platoon of security guards on site to watch then rapidly decay. A cycling wonderland in short, though we were largely forced to stick to the roads and paths.
It’s not every family that leaps at the chance of riding past a long parade of rusty decrepitude, but at least two of us were pretty excited, and the other had been promised a visit to another jumbo plaza as a reward for putting up with this decay-tourism lark. Though presumably all were as excited as me by the crumbling China Railway Pavilion with railway siding detail on the walls.
The only people about apart from security were the occasional elderly joggers and walkers making the most of the winding tracks with stadium-grade red rubber tracks with marks at 20m intervals so they could mark off their achievements. The only decoration apart from the ubiquitous photinia hedges were these giant sculptures dotted randomly about the place.
So delighted were we with our discovery (of biking and wastage) that by the time we came to the spike-guarded waste-water outflow into the Huangpu River we were ready to pose for possibly the only romantic photo from our trip.
Nothing says “I love you” like a bike ride round the detritus of empire
The one building that seemed to have retained a purpose (and secretly, or main reason for being there) was the gigantic old power station that is now, predictably, an art gallery, “open seven days except for Monday”. It was a Monday. We rode on.
Given this international propensity for turning power stations into art galleries, I’m surprised that any power generation gets done at all. Or that Genesis doesn’t just deliver art works to us to burn on our fire.
One other building of note was a cluster of sort of inverted beehives clad in overlapping strips of some kind of composite board (think MDF). There must have been some coating on the strips or they would have turned to mush years ago, but they were certainly starting to show their age (I know: as are we), having taken on the texture of poorly assembled weetbix. The effect was still stunning; velvety from a distance and raggedly furred close up. Photos don’t capture any of this, so please activate your imaginations at this point.
As we turned from the desolation of the Expo site back into the hurly-burly of the city we all realised that we no longer had any fear of the traffic. People really did try to avoid you even as they pushed on through their red light. No one much cared if you were going the wrong way down a one way street. And as we covered more and more miles we still hadn’t seen a single accident.
Well, actually there was one moment. As we rode along in the slipstream of a guy riding his moped the wrong way down a one way street with big signs indicating that bikes were not allowed, we saw him suddenly do a U-turn and fang back towards us. Drawing the obvious inference from our sweating pink flesh he switched on his English briefly to alert us: “Police!” before driving off. Too late! We were already in a police sting among a dozen or so others who had also been pulled over. Our policeman started to lay down the law for me in Chinese. I showed him the palms of my hands, shrugged my shoulders. “You” he tried before deciding that his English just wasn’t up to this. Brusquely he motioned for us to go on our way. So on we went.