Travelmag Banner

Buying China’s Oldest Bike

My walk started out from the east gate of campus with much more of a direction on my mind than a purpose.  North.  North on Xue Yuan Road towards the north end of campus, towards the upper end of Haidian district, towards the top end of Beijing, I was walking north towards Mongolia.  I passed Beijing Capital Books, past Mr. Pizza and the China Life Insurance Company.  Next to the sidewalk a thick stream of bicycles, busses and cars were honking and swerving southbound.  Hustling towards downtown they twisted the air thick with silt and smog in their wake. 

Across an intersection, passed Subway, Starbucks and the Beijing Business Club a kilometer long stretch of storefronts were strung together selling everything from spark plugs to custom made curtains.  Most proprietors sat out front drinking green tea, smoking cigarettes and sweeping.  Their actions and demeanor seemed misplaced in the hyper capitalist setting.  Their movements were slow and deliberate, much more like a morning tai-chi routine than a preparation to sell vacuums. 

I peered in at the stores with the vague idea of finding a bicycle shop, but with no luck, was content to keep the journey going north.  Ten minutes later the string of storefronts ended at the wide-open intersection of Tsinghua Dong Road.  Further north the buildings looked more spaced out and the sidewalk was ending, so I changed my direction. West I went, west towards Beijing University, towards the west end of Beijing, towards the undeveloped, arid, impoverished western regions of China.

On a bench in front of a unmarked industrial building an old man wearing glasses half the size of his face sat with his legs crossed, hands folded in his lap, his head following my movements along the quiet two-lane road.  His gaze turned in rhythm to the slow pace of my walk and I imagined the theme of our mornings was equally matched.  He sought out this bench to pass away the early hours of the day absorbing the world, the sun, and the movement of what went on before him.  I walked out to watch China change by the block as it so readily does.  We both saw things we’d never seen before.

The ‘Flying Pigeon’ in all its glory

Passed the man and further down the street I turned south into an alley.  It was wide for an alley, enough room for a car to pass comfortably among the people walking about.  Down the way the sides were lined with small stores, fruit stands and street vendors.  It was busy with people like the bigger street was busy with cars.  The road was dirty and filled with holes, like nothing had been touched in twenty years.

Four steps in on the left was another aged man sitting in a broken bamboo chair placed next to a brick wall.  He was staring down at a mahjong board while his younger companion was up fixing a bicycle cart.  He worked next to a small wooden wagon covered in grease and full of old pedals, chains, baskets and brake parts.  A woman who appeared to be his wife stood five feet away in loose fitting camouflaged clothing watching this man work.

I asked the old man where I might be able to buy a bicycle.  He looked up and pointed with the half extinguished cigarette at the younger man.  I asked him, and he pointed behind me at an old bicycle tucked in between the brick wall and a telephone pole.

She was nothing to behold.  The wheels were flat, the kick stand missing, the handlebars misaligned and the brakes, made from a solid steel pole attached to a wide lever below the handlebar, were detached at the front.  The younger man pretended to ignore me, the old one turned slightly to look at me while the woman stared me down.  I asked how much.  “150.”  I didn’t respond yet the woman came over and started to pump the tires up.  I told the man the front brakes were broken and he came over with a wrench clasped in his grease-stained hands and quickly reattached it. 

Won’t bend this

It seemed clear to all involved that I was going to buy the bike.  But I tried to pretend like I wasn’t and he tried to pretend that he didn’t care.  We haggled a bit.  100.  “150.”  I took her out for a test ride down the alley and back.  The seat was made of solid plastic set on loose springs with the characters for the city Tianjin emblazoned in the side.   The bike was all black except for silver handlebars and one white stripe at the end of the rear splashguard.  Just above the stripe was a small metal plaque with “fei ge” carved into it.  Written vertically along the frame and once again on the chain cover in gold English letters were the words “Flying Pigeon.”

I was enchanted by this aged, 100% steel beast of a bicycle.  I always admired the old men who rode around with their wives seated on the rack over the rear tire.  It reminded me of old China; one that I’ll never see with my own eyes but still exists in the back alleys of any big city and throughout the countryside.  It is the China that feels untouched by all that changes around it; so beautiful and perfect through its imperfections.    

I threw out a final offer of 130 that was agreed upon with a fake look of disgust.  After buying a lock and having a basket installed on the front, I set out south down the alley and began to watch China move by at a slightly quickened pace. 

   [Top of Page]  
 Latest Headlines
Central Asia