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So near, yet so feared: reinventing the wheels

Cecilie Gamst Berg

 

Among the many joys of the mainland are the various contraptions people use to ferry around passengers.

It's a strange paradox that as more private cars flood onto the market, more enterprising individuals come up with modifications to motorbikes, lawn mower engines, outboard motors and bicycles - to provide cheap and semi-safe alternatives to taxis.

When I first arrived in China, in 1988, the pedicab (bicycle rickshaw) was the contraption du jour. These were a more humane version of the rickshaw (from the Japanese jinrikisha: "human-powered vehicle") - you know, the two-seater vehicles laden with pink, corpulent gweilos that coolies used to pull, panting, up to the Peak.

One of my first lessons in Putonghua, and certainly my first lesson in haggling, that year came when my friend C and I got a pedicab to the Forbidden City. C felt the poor, sweating man was trying to cheat us, and expertly talked the price down by 10 fen (1/10 of a yuan) as onlookers applauded wildly.

At that time, I was still a bleeding-heart liberal and at first refused to get into the cab: "Oh no, he's so thin! How can we let him drive us?"

C quite rightly pointed out that transporting people was the driver's job and if we didn't let him drive us he would starve.

Since then I've been taking such contraptions whenever I get the chance. I love them all, from the tiny house perched on a motorbike (two wheels at the back, obviously) with a roof, windows and a discreet curtain between passengers and driver, to open-plan truck-beds big enough for 10 people.

I found my favourite contraption of all time in Urumqi: a motorbike truck covered in Persian carpet, its ceiling festooned with plastic grapes and flowers.

Red, blue or military green, built for two, four or 12 passengers, with or without walls/windows/engines/pedals/tarpaulin/awning/canopy/specially made umbrella to shield the passenger from the vagaries of the weather - you can always trust these conveyances to get you where you're going in the most interesting way possible, if not the fastest.

The quickest alternative to four wheels, or rather, the only fast one, is the motorbike taxi. With their drivers' relaxed approach to the rules of the road and the offered helmets nothing but worn-out plastic egg-whisking bowls with straps (if you're lucky), I only dare to get on these late at night when several sheets to the wind. And even then I cling to the driver with my eyes clamped shut.

Real contraptions may offer little or nothing to hang on to, but they just feel much safer, day or night. The only real risk of injury comes from not wearing an underwired bra.

 

 

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