In this special five-part series, we're riding along with SWA Group landscape designer Amirah Shahid as she cycles nearly 800 miles from Beijing to Shanghai. Join us as she tells us about her journey and files exclusive photos from the road as she attempts to understand China's urban and rural biking cultures. Week One: Meet Amirah...
Right now, San Francisco-based landscape designer Amirah Shahid is somewhere between Beijing and Cangzhou City, China—and she has a long way to go, especially since she's self-propelling herself nearly 800 miles by bike. Over the course of the next three weeks, Shahid is cycling from Beijing to Shanghai. The goal: to learn as much as she can about biking in China so she can share the new knowledge with her colleagues at SWA Group so they can incorporate it into their many development projects in the country.
Shahid started her ride earlier this week and is already tweeting (at @cyclechina1) and blogging (at cycle-china.com) about her adventure. Each week for the next three, she'll be sending in slideshows with exclusive photos just for dwell.com readers. We caught up with Shahid in downtown San Francisco—before she packed her two waterproof panniers, one handlebar bag, helmet, and Surly's Long Haul Trucker—and hopped on a plane across the Pacific. (We'll catch up with her when she gets back for a retrospective as well but in the meantime, read on.)
Biking nearly 800 miles across China on your own is a pretty ambitious endeavor. How did you come up with the idea and get the gumption to go for it?
At SWA I work on a lot of new developments in China that involve taking undeveloped land and building new central business districts on them, which includes examining transportation and infrastructure issues. A lot of our projects are for high-end users and feature up-scape retailers and luxury residential towers. Something I think about quite often is how people without a lot of money can be involved, move through these sites, and have a place in them. Cars are expensive but a bike could be a good way to travel within these new developments. I also have my own personal interest in biking as a mode of transportation from experience bike touring, and I know that it can be easy, fun, and efficient. I wanted to take my biking experience and see how I could integrate it into what we're doing at work.
How were you able to make this happen?
SWA created the Patrick Curran Fellowship three years ago to give people in our company, which spans seven offices including one in Shanghai, the opportunity to pursue something relevant to our work that we normally wouldn't get a chance to explore on a typical day-to-day, project-based basis. Past recipients have examined the San Francisco waterfront, created a website about the field of landscape urbanism, and studied urban heat islands like those in Las Vegas. This year I'm one of four fellows. The goal of the program is to integrate what the fellows learn into current projects and to increase the SWA and general landscape design knowledge base.
You've completed quite a number of bike trips in the past, including a five-week, solo trip around New Zealand's South Island. How did you get into cycling?
At the high school I went to in Toledo, Ohio, there aren't normal classes in January; instead you get to pursue something in depth for one month. My math teacher and his wife were into bike touring so they offered to take 15 high-schoolers to bike the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico for four weeks. That's when I discovered bike touring and the fact that I like it. The pace is slow and you see things you'd normally miss in the car, in what I call the "green blur." In the car, you don't see anything, you don't smell anything. You miss the texture and topography of the landscape. When you're on a bike, you can really tell if something is hilly or not, which you might miss while driving.
How did you pick your route from Beijing to Shanghai?
First, I was looking for a route that I could do in three weeks since the fellowship offers funding for four weeks. Second, I wanted to include Beijing and Shanghai because they're such big cities and I wanted to see their urban infrastructures. Third, it's a relatively flat, easy, and moderate riding route, which is good because I don't have enough time to take rest days, which would allow for riding more extreme terrain.
What do you hope to see and encounter on your journey from Beijing to Shanghai?
I want to see how people actually use the bicycle in China's urban and rural areas. In between Beijing and Shanghai, there are some places that are less developed and that may give us insight into the history of the bicycle and how it has been traditionally used in China. I want to see this so that in future SWA projects, we can respect the existing bike culture and incorporate cycling into the urban planning without trying to implement models that have been successful in Europe or North America, which might not be appropriate for a country with so much new development. A lot of research about cycling has been done in Portland, England, Denmark, and other such places but not much has been done in China.
What concerns do you have as you embark on this adventure?
It'll be different than the bike touring I've done before because I don't know the language, I'm on a schedule, and there is a greater emphasis on documentation so I can share what I see and learn. I'm concerned about the air quality, traffic, and the language barrier, but I'm expecting people to be interested in what I'm doing rather than being hostile. Navigation is going to be interesting. With so much new development, many maps show roads that don't yet exist or are missing roads that have recently been completed. I've printed out a ton of detailed maps from Google Maps so I can cross reference them with the local maps I'll pick up. I've also got a list of the cities I'm going to with their Chinese characters written out.
Besides your pile of map print-outs, what else are you bringing?
I'm not camping but staying in hotels this time, which is new for me when I've biked but which also means I don't have to carry as much stuff. On my bike, I have one rear rack with two waterproof panniers, and I'll also have a front handlebar bag. Everything I take with me, I'll carry on the bike. I'll have to do laundry in the sink and buy food as I go. I've been referring to this as "urban backpacking": I'll have some provisions but I also won't be alone so don't need to be entirely self-sustaining and carry everything for the whole trip.