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FOREIGN EXCHANGE

In Beijing, a wild ride on rickshaw

In China's capital, the rickshaw bicycle is an expedient way to get home. But beware the toughs who will rough up drivers and seize their vehicles.

October 07, 2012|By Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times
  • A bicycle rickshaw driver near Ritan Park in Beijing.
A bicycle rickshaw driver near Ritan Park in Beijing. (Julie Makinen, Los Angeles…)

BEIJING — Getting around China's congested capital requires a certain calculus: In choosing a means of transportation, you must weigh factors like rush-hour traffic, precipitation and how long you can stand being pressed up against a stranger's armpit. But no one warned me about figuring in billy club-wielding attackers.

It was a Thursday, and an angry, swirling wind was blowing down Chaowai South Street as I emerged from the Starbucks at the sleek U-Town Mall. The scent of an approaching storm told me I needed to figure out how to get home — fast.

Taxis in Beijing are cheap for a world capital, but demand is so brisk that hailing one can be tough even on a blue-sky day. The subway? A bargain at 32 cents per trip, but the station was too far to walk. The bus? Even cheaper, but I didn't know which line to use. A pricey, unmarked, unauthorized "black cab"? None in sight.

I saw but one option: a bicycle rickshaw.

China has blasted astronauts into space and is bringing bullet trains on line at a frantic pace, but the bicycle rickshaw endures. The roads in this city of 20 million people are choked with more than 5 million vehicles, and 20,000 are added monthly. That means the three-wheeled pedicabs are often at a competitive advantage, at least for short trips.

Relatively unregulated and mostly unlicensed, the drivers duck and weave down side lanes and back streets, avoiding the clogged main thoroughfares. Their wanton disregard for lane markers, traffic rules and stoplights is hair-raising but expedient.

These days, all but the poorest drivers have electrified their drive trains, creating e-bikes using car batteries stashed under the passenger seat. Your knuckles may be white, but the adrenaline takes your mind off all the exhaust you're inhaling.

Outside the mall, I spotted a young bicycle rickshaw driver in a red jacket waiting for a passenger. Twenty yuan, he said, for the one-mile ride home, twice the $1.60 that a regular cab would charge. I didn't argue. I was lugging my laptop and a bunch of other stuff.

This might have been his biggest fare of the day. A number of rickshaw drivers have told me they'll pocket 100 yuan daily, about $16. Regular taxi drivers may gross five times as much in fares over a 10-hour shift, but must pay for gas and the cab company commission; some say they're lucky to net $24.

As the sky darkened and my rickshaw driver hurtled us around a bend on the wrong side of the road, I gave thanks he was there to pick me up. I might make it home before it began to pour. Even if he stopped at what I'd come to think of as "the force field."

Regular cabs always make the turn onto my lane and deposit me at my front gate, but I had found that rickshaw drivers avoid venturing beyond the corner. I'd gotten used to alighting at the intersection and walking the final few hundred feet.

Not this day. The driver sped past the corner. Then suddenly, like a scene from a kung fu movie, the ambush began.

Three men wearing black jackets and flailing batons set upon us with a vengeance. Shouting curses, one jammed his baton into the spokes of one of the back wheels. Another struck the driver on his back. The third began rifling through the basket on the front of the bike.

I squawked and tumbled out of the back seat, aghast. The driver hopped off his perch. A crowd gathered.

The assailants, I learned later, apparently were local toughs with some murky connection to the chengguan — lowly municipal officers, a rung below the police, with a reputation for thuggery. The duties of chengguan vary from district to district, but frequently they target unlicensed street vendors, levying fines and seizing property, or worse, meting out beatings.

Apparently, my district's boundary begins at my corner, and no rickshaws are allowed. Maybe my driver was new in the big city, a rural migrant like most others in the rickshaw brigade, many poorly educated and lacking a Beijing residency card that might open other avenues of employment.

In the chaos, I didn't have a chance to ask him such questions, let alone pay him my 20 yuan. The men commandeered his vehicle; there was no ticket written, no confiscated property report issued. This was summary justice, up close and ugly. And yet the driver quickly strode away with no protest, fixated on sending text messages from his phone.

Who was on the receiving end? I wondered. And what would this misfortune mean to my rickshaw driver? Fortunately, we were not hurt.

The next day, I went back to the U-town Mall, searching for him. Maybe I could at least find a friend of his, find out what happened, perhaps offer some help.

He was nowhere to be found. Another driver, a 42-year-old woman from Henan province named Liu, said there had been a crackdown this year. She said she's had four rickshaws confiscated since the spring.

If you have connections, she said, you can pay $150 — a bribe or fine, it's not clear — to get your vehicle back. She said she had to dip into her savings for replacements, which cost at least $320 each.

"You just have to find a way to keep going," she said, smiling. "What other choice do I have?"

I could only hope that my red-jacketed driver had a similar sense of resilience. As for me, I'm thinking of trying out the city's new public bike rental program, which was launched in June with self-serve stations in several neighborhoods, including mine.

If I do use the rickshaws, I'll insist that the drivers stop at the corner.

julie.makinen@latimes.com

Nicole Liu in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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