Bicycle is a dirty word
It seems that across the ditch in China bikes are disappearing from everyday life. During Golden Week, a week spanning April/May which in Japan has five public holidays in it, I hopped over to Qingdao, China, to visit a retired Australian couple who teach English at a special hotel college there.
Qingdao, the capital of Shandong Province, is perched about halfway between Shanghai and Beijing on the coast. Host of the Olympic sailing events in 2008, it is considered one of China’s most liveable cities. Given its beautiful historic area that was once leased to the Germans, like Hong Kong was to the British, a myriad of shiny new skyscrapers and endless wide new highways, one could possibly agree. But only if they blind their eyes to the price of that progress.
Everything old is being razed from the earth – homes, customs, traditions – giving rise to an utterly soul-less instant city. Bikes are just one tiny part of this ‘cleansing’. Bikes are still around, the freeways even make a provision for them out on the edges but seeing as they are prohibited in the city centre and there’s nowhere to park them anyway, little wonder that they are a rare sight. Gone is the China of old, its cities a sea of bicycles. The growing middle class has money to burn and wouldn’t be caught dead ‘looking poor’. Living in Japan, and coming from increasingly bike-mad Brisbane, a city devoid of bikes just seems wrong, especially when all of Qingdao except the old German area is basically hill-free. The German area too would have fallen to progress’s sword if it wasn’t full of the elites. Seems they have a taste for Western housing.
Aside from their sub-par social image of two wheeled, pedal-powered transport, the size of the new cities growing with China’s prosperity is making bikes impractical. On roads with little traffic and with the accelerator being given a workout, my friends live 30 minutes by taxi from the centre of town – and they aren’t even on the edge of Qingdao. Everything is so spread out here that even doing errands by bike seems like it would be an ordeal. Far easier and quicker to hop on a bus – and probably healthier too seeing as you wouldn’t be sucking lungfuls of the dusty, polluted air deep into your body as you puff away in the saddle. No matter how far you go on the buses, the fare is at most 2 yuan (AUD$0.32/25 yen), and that’s only when the air conditioning is on. Looks like bikes in Qingdao are set to be condemned to being double or even triple tandem tourist novelties for hire along the boardwalk.
Before I visited Qingdao, I never was much of a fan of mainland China but part of me still wondered if I’d be tempted to ride the tail of the Dragon at some point in the future to further my career. My answer is now an unequivocal ‘no way’. Opportunities for those with the right qualifications are a dime a dozen but a five day taste was enough for me. I need clean air and wild critters around me to survive.
My patch of turf in Tsu has never seemed greener nor more full of life. I’m surrounded by rice fields in which a myriad of creatures flourish. In Qingdao I saw only three types of birds (Chinese magpies which survive untouched because they are considered lucky, sparrows and one lone hawk) and one lonely lizard. The forests around the city are empty of life, silent as the grave if you will. As for waterways, the river by my apartment in Tsu, though concrete walled and not without trash in it, supports enough fish that I often see them jumping when I go for my runs along its bank. It is a far cry from the silted-up messes that I saw in the Middle Kingdom. If development in Qingdao, just one facet of China’s progress, is representative of development across the country, then there is a very sad future ahead for the Middle Kingdom – one that no amount of mass nature strip beautification initiatives can prevent. China, environmental responsibility isn’t an equation that can be solved by throwing more resources at the problem whilst continuing your old ways.