That is the only picture I have of my bike tour. My nearly “three hour tour.” Really, the guide was much friendlier than the picture shows. I expected to be joining a group, but I was the only person. The bike was a cleaner version of the same basic bike everyone on the streets were riding. It looked like it came out of the 1950s, felt wobbly, and had a bell that I could use, but everyone would ignore.
The guide, “Jimmy,” wore a bright green vest. There was a flag of the same color that he put on the back of his or my bike, by turns. These items also boldly displayed the company name, China Cycling Tours. We were the ONLY bicyclists that wore helmets, so with all of these things, I felt very conspicuously “tourist,” but I had promised a few people to be careful on my adventures, so I swallowed my pride and proceeded.
The streets were filled with all the normal traffic mix of cars, taxis, scooters, bicycles, and three-wheeler bike-wagons. I was told I could stop anywhere and take pictures, but I was either navigating traffic patterns for my life, or filtering communist propaganda that Jimmy seemed to believe important to impart to me. The sights of the city he showed me were either depressing and inappropriate places to take pictures, or they were contrived shopping centers built to please tourists and put on a good face for the government. He didn’t seem to see the contradictions between what he told me about all the “good things” the government does for people and the poverty of these same people.
For instance, the first stop was a section that used to house French expatriates, before the communist revolution. Now, it has been made into government apartments where families live 20 to a room and share common kitchens and bathrooms between families. The spaces between buildings was barely five feet, having been constructed in the pre-car era. Another stop was a labyrinth of small, but nice stores, the wares being marketed to mostly foreigners, who, Jimmy says, “are the face of money.”. Hmm… Foreigners from free countries are prosperous. I wonder what it means?
To his credit, Jimmy was an excellent haggler for me. All I ended up buying was a deck of cards because he said everything was too expensive and I shouldn’t let them take advantage of me. He took a lot of heat from one elderly woman for “helping the foreigner.”. We did try bargaining for some scarves, but the ladies would not deal, so they didn’t get to sell me anything. Jimmy says they are probably still waiting for me to come back.
The last place he was going to take me was either Yu Garden or a temple. Obviously, I didn’t need to go to the garden again. He was stunned that I do not like temples. He said that left one more option, which showed the “true face of Shanghai.”. He got very serious when he said this.
We rode up to another narrow alley and he began to tell me about the “village” here, where the inhabitants never came out into the rest of the city, many didn’t have phones or computers, and they were all very poor. As he spoke, we passed a man sitting to the side of the road working on a laptop, another man walking while talking on his cell phone, and a girl wearing some decent looking leather boots. I became skeptical of the presentation, but as we went further into the section, it did seem like I was walking into a no man’s land. After just a few yards, I firmly told him that I was done with that section, what about lunch?!
Although the tour was scheduled from 10 AM – 2 PM, I thought two and a half hours was enough time spent, especially since there was no time allowed for lunch. Poor Jimmy was distressed that he hadn’t given me my money’s worth and concerned that I was a dissatisfied customer. I assured him that just being able to ride around through the normal life of the city, without getting lost, had been what I wanted. We headed back, him taking the side next to traffic. Or pulling ahead to cut a path. No one gave us any leeway or advantage, in spite of the odd attire. On the way, we passed a pretty park that Jimmy said was built for the tourists, with nice fountains, but the government had to stop running the fountains because “all the people were bathing and washing their clothes in them.
I don’t think I would recommend the city tour, but I do think it was an interesting experience. I would be inclined to take one of the full day country tours, with a group, if the opportunity ever came up. I can certainly say that I have developed my skills for big city survival. If I can ride a bike in Shanghai, I can ride anywhere!