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ERIC BERGESON COLUMN: Chinese traffic

To those who seek thrills by climbing mountains, riding roller coasters or racing cars, I suggest an alternative activity: Take a taxi-cab ride in Shanghai.

To those who seek thrills by climbing mountains, riding roller coasters or racing cars, I suggest an alternative activity: Take a taxi-cab ride in Shanghai.

Cabs are cheap in China, cheaper than tickets to carnival rides at the county fair. In fact, you'll get more near-death experiences for your dollar in a cab in China than almost anywhere in the world.

Chinese traffic is a hair-raising mix of speeding cars, roaring motorcycles, whining mopeds- and millions of Flying Pigeons.

Flying Pigeons are the trusty, rusty, dusty bicycles which dominate the Chinese street. There are 10 million Flying Pigeons in Beijing alone, and hundreds of millions more across the country.

Flying Pigeons are basic: One gear. Old-time fenders. Plain handle-bars. Built with heavy steel, with a platform on the back designed to be strong enough to haul a pig.

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The People's Bicycle was designed by a factory worker in the early 1950s. He called it the Flying Dove, a tribute to the peace which followed the Korean War.

Due to a translation error, the bicycle was misnamed the Flying Pigeon. The Model-T of Chinese bicycling, the bike of the masses, has kept the unpoetic name ever since.

TrafficOn a typical Shanghai street, several lanes of cars go in each direction. Motorcycles and mopeds worm their way in between the lanes of traffic, usually going in the right direction.

But Flying Pigeons are absolutely everywhere, going in all directions, with traffic or against, on the shoulder, on the sidewalk, in traffic, against traffic or sideways through traffic.

The bicycles amble along at a stately pace. On the face of each bike rider, whether they are 25 or 85, is the placid look of a Buddhist monk. Nothing, not even a close encounter with a city bus, will make the rider flinch.

The crowning moment in my Chinese traffic experience came in the front seat of a Shanghai taxi. We were moving along at a brisk pace, with fully 4 inches to spare in front of us, behind us, and on each side. Boring.

Wrong waySuddenly, between our lane and the one to the right, appeared a Shanghai grandma on her Flying Pigeon, as calm as Buddha himself. With only a few inches of clearance on each side, there she was in 30 mph traffic, between lanes of speeding cars- going in the wrong direction!

Now, what if a motorcycle or moped, or a rickshaw, or another Flying Pigeon had shown up in Shanghai Grandma's lane-between-lanes of cars?

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It didn't happen, and it just doesn't seem to happen. A nice little pocket of room just seemed to open up for Shanghai Grandma, as if she were parting the Red Sea.

The only thing I can compare Chinese traffic to is a game of Chinese checkers: Five sets of marbles moving in five separate directions over the same space and at the same time- - and nobody gets hurt.

China now has freeways. We hired a car which took us on a freeway up to the Great Wall. The snazzily dressed driver drove his new Audi 70 mph. With the wide lanes and smooth surface, it almost seemed like home.

Almost. Then we came across the woman sweeping the right lane with a willow-brush broom. No blinking signs, no pylons, nothing protected her. Traffic did not slow. Cars just wove around her, on both sides. She could have scratched the passing cars with her broom.

HornsCars honk in China, but usually when things get boring and the driver has nothing better to do. If there's a long red light that for some reason cars have decided to observe, honking is how you change it to green.

A Chinese honk is not the same as a honk in English. In English, a car honk means "move over! I am coming through!"

A Chinese honk means the opposite: "I am coming through, but I know what you are doing and where you are, even if it makes no sense, so just keep doing what you are doing and don't move or I'll hit you!"

So, when you are walking on a sidewalk and a bus that has decided to drive on the sidewalk today honks, by all means do not jump out of the way. Just do what the Chinese do: nothing. Keep walking. Keep that imperturbable look of Buddha on your face.

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Go forward. Be utterly predictable. Do not flinch. Those are the only rules of Chinese traffic apparent to this still-dazed Yankee.

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