Collection by Miyoko Ohtake

Cycle China: Week 5


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 (find the previous posts here). Join us as she tells about her journey and files exclusive photos from the road in an attempt to better understand China's urban and rural biking culture. Week Five: Back in the USA...

After three weeks of cycling from Beijing to Shanghai, landscape designer Amirah Shahid is back on U.S. soil. She traveled on dirt roads and newly paved national highways, around cows and drying bark on the road, on a ferry to cross the Yangtze River, and more. We caught up with Shahid over a cup of coffee, her first in weeks, to recount the 800-mile journey.

First off, what was the most surprising thing about the trip?That nothing crazy happened: I didn’t get sick, I only had to patch one tire, I was always done cycling before dark, and I finished two and a half days ahead of schedule. The most surprising thing was that there were no “Oh, shit” situations. How did locals react when they learned about your trip?It was all “Where are you going?”, “How far are you biking?”, and “Wow, that’s really good for you.” It was all really positive. Everyone here [in San Francisco] before I left was like, “You’re going to die!” and they were very concerned for my personal safety. There [in China], I didn’t get one safety comment.Before you left, you were concerned about finding accurate maps and being able to use the ones you brought with you since the rate at which roads are built and demolished there far exceeds the rate at which maps are updated and printed. How did your navigation pan out?I usually researched my route online the night before so I knew where I was going. I ended up mostly following the national roads instead of the local roads I’d originally intended to take so it was pretty easy. I used the GPS on my iPhone sparingly on the road, and I had a copy of Road Atlas I used on the road to check where I was. Did you ever run into roads that were on the map but not actually built?A lot of times it wasn’t that the roads weren’t there but that new roads were under construction. However, that meant I got to ride on them car-free since they were open to bikes but not vehicles. There was one area where the road had been taken out, and it was just a dirt path. I took it anyway, and it ended up being really cool since I was able to see things off the national roads that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. What was the best day of the ride?Getting to Jinan. The next day was scheduled as my first rest day so arriving there was my first big milestone. I also crossed the Yellow River to get there and that was also a big milestone since it was my first major river crossing. It was nice to arrive in a big city again after being in the rural areas. I went out and wandered around. The city square was really active and there was lots to see and do. What was the most challenging day?Day 4. I was either going to or leaving Changchou. It was the first day of really bad weather, and it was overcast and smoggy all day. The area was really industrial, and I was constantly passed by trucks that blew exhaust in my face. It was my first time encountering this and so I wasn’t sure if I’d make it all the way to Shanghai, if the entire ride would be like this. Then it started to rain, and it was just like, “Okay, this sucks.” It was a long day, but fortunately they weren’t all like that.What were the most interesting or unexpected things you learned about China’s bicycling culture?Every developed area, even the little villages, had bike lanes. Even if they were not well maintained they were there, and they were always separated from the car lanes by a three-foot-tall rail or a planted median.Did you see anything in regards to the landscape and urban designs that was new to you?The areas where they are building entirely new cities from nothing. I’ve never seen that much cleared land. Here, okay, there’s a mall going up and it looks big but it’s just a few acres; it’s not a city-size raising. What was your most useful discovery that you anticipate being able to integrate into your future landscape projects, especially with SWA’s work in China?That bikes are still an important part of Chinese culture. Despite everything people say about cars taking over, you still need to accommodate for cyclists. In Shanghai, a big problem was that not all bike lanes were connected to one another so in future projects, we'll need to be sure to join new lanes to existing lanes and to public transit to make them usable.Anything else you’re taking away?That planners, developers, architects, and anyone working on a project should always use a bike as a site-analysis tool. You often are driven around a site but you don’t get a full impression. Cars are distracting: you pull out your phone and play with it, the car is moving too fast to really see anything meaningful, you don’t get to interact with the site. It’s not just about being at Point A or Point B but about how you move in between them. You can’t cover enough ground walking and the car is too fast. By biking, whether it’s around the UCLA campus or around China, you are more likely to interact with people and observe how people interact with each other and with the surroundings. Would you recommend the trip to others?It was really good for my research but if you want to do a big, maybe once-in-a-lifetime ride, there are other, more scenic places. It was great for experiencing many different landscapes—big urban areas, small towns, agricultural fields—and understanding how everything is interconnected and how rapidly everything is developing.

The author taking a break along the road from Beijing to Shanghai to snap this self-take photo.
The best place to ride in China? Newly paved highways that haven't yet been open to cars but are available to cyclists.
Though many may have found another way around this rutted-out road, Shahid saw it as an adventure.
To close out this week's report from the road, Shahid sent this image of Jinan's canal at night, which "brought a sense...
Day 4 proved the most trying.
One of the most unusual things Shahid saw on her trip were the acres and acres of land cleared for the development of...