Cargo bikes in Beijing

My first trip to China took place in 1992. I spent 2 months (October-December) in Beijing. Although I was busy doing research at Tsinghua University, kind of Chinese MIT, my hosts left me enough free time for sightseeing, shopping, or just walking around town. Everything was so exciting, so different to me. I had known before going to China that it was a country of bicycles. However, what I saw in Beijing (the number of bikes, their various usage, etc.) was beyond my wildest expectations.

Everybody in China had a bike. I also got one. It cost 30 yuan, about 4 US$ at the time. It was old, it was heavy, it lacked a headlight, but it had a big and very noisy bell. Even though the bike was very old, it was good enough for me. Since it was so old, I did not even have to lock it for a night. Nobody would steal a bike that old.

Every department at Tsinghua University had a parking lot for bikes. The bikes were parked tightly close to each other. I wondered how it was possible to find someone's bike in such a crowd. Well, every bike had a small registration plate. Besides, students told me, every bike was different. The parking lots were usually kept well organized. However, sometimes on a windy day they would turn into a total mess.

The scariest time on the campus for me was early in the morning before classes, around lunch break, and in the afternoon after classes, when a "river" of bikers would flow along the campus roads. The same picture, maybe even scarier because of a larger scale, one could see on the city roads early in the morning and in the afternoon, when Beijingers were going to and coming back from work.

It is not unusual around the world to use a bike for commuting to work or to school. What caught my attention in Beijing was a widespread use of cargo bikes. The cargo bikes were very solid and heavy three-wheelers, equipped with a solid bamboo platform, strong breaks, and a very loud bell. One day I witnessed a collision of a cargo bike with a Mitsubishi minivan. The tofu transported on the bike's platform was scattered all over the road, but the bike was not even scratched. On the other hand, the minivan suffered so much that it had to be towed away.

Various things were being carried on the cargo bikes. Three sofas stacked on a bike, which I saw near the Beijing ZOO, although maybe not the heaviest load I saw, was certainly one of the most impressive views. However, the single image, which stuck most deeply in my mind, was the view of a biker transporting a very large mirror near Summer Palace. It was a late afternoon, about 5:30 pm, on a cloudy December day, when I took the picture, so the picture is not the best one. But I like it a lot anyway.

In Beijing I lived in a guesthouse on Tsinghua University campus, which was located north-east of the city. As it was late fall, very often I would see on a nearby road several bikes-long convoys transporting chinese cabbage to city markets from as far as 50-60 km. In the past Beijingers used to store the cabbage in great amounts for winter.  The cabbage and rice used to be a primary winter staple of Beijingers. Although their diet is much richer now, the cabbage is still a must for a winter.

Transporting cabbage was an easy task as compared with transporting coal dust bricks. The bricks were made from coal dust, first moistened with water, next loaded into a form and compressed, and finally left to dry. The bricks were transported by cargo bikes and used as a fuel for example in food stalls.

Street food stalls were omnipresent in every city which I visited in China. They ranged from very simple sweet potato stands to small restaurants. A lot of food vendors installed their stalls on bikes. Sweet potato vendors used metal barrels with their bottom part converted into a small furnace. Others, like pancake vendor, built around the cooking platform glass cages to protect their food from omnipresent in Beijing dust. Still others used their bikes only to deliver and serve food cooked in a stationary kitchen.

Beijing, definitely not as clean as Singapore or Japanese cities, was still much cleaner than many other big cities in Asia. It had an army of sanitary workers equipped with garbage bikes, shovels, and brooms.

There were many other interesting cargo bikes usages which I did not photograph. Cistern bikes, with up to four metal barrels installed on a platform, were used to collect food waste from street food stalls. Repairmen or barbers with their equipment installed on a bike traveled around the city looking for customers. Certainly, need is the mother of all inventions.