I resisted it for over four years: the silent death of churning wheels cascading over sidewalks. I said I would just as soon ride a bike and take it slow. I said I detested those machines and how they owned the roads, sidewalks, and exhales between cars. But when I saw my friend post an ad for his secondhand electric bike and when I saw the price, I resisted no longer. I gave in to all that my friends said, that those wheels would radically change how I viewed Hangzhou, and would in turn radically change my life.
I took to the roads on my clanky ebike, on a nighttime mission to find lightning trees.
On the whole, I’m pretty resistant to new technology. I remember how long I waited to actually ride a bicycle, how I hesitated before getting a slider cell phone in college, how I debated over getting a smart phone my second year in China, and how I didn’t want to use Alipay, the online payment system that is quickly making cash obsolete in China. I wanted to keep the hum of technology at a low volume, to feel the sensation of money disappearing from my fingers. I wanted to be able to disappear and be unreachable for long stretches of time. I wanted slow, silent days to accompany my thoughts.
Well, life in a city is different. Just trying to get to those lightning trees takes about 45 minutes of biking through congested downtown traffic. Buses are even slower, and when buses get trapped in turn-lanes, it’s hard not to watch those ebikes weaving in and out traffic with envy.
So I listened to my friend explain his old bike to me — how to charge it, how to lock it, how he had added extra power to it and had obtained all of the legal license plates and registration. And I plotted where I would take it for a test ride on my own.
When the time came, I flicked on the headlights. My roommate helped me put on a reflector armband, and I checked the brakes, letting myself glide to a gradual halt when I saw other pedestrians. Then, I left our apartment complex to enter a Hangzhou that I already knew quite well.
I turned back the handle — oh god! Walkers! Glide, honk, brake, glide, my feet skimming the surface of the asphalt. Up ahead, a stoplight. Oh god. Glide, brake, plant feet. The night was not so much an evening jaunt as it was a blur of headlights, stoplights, illuminated cell phone lights, and dark shapes passing along sidewalks as I glided, braked, stopped, glided along the bike lane. A red light, my heart pounding as I rehearsed how I would get started again. Along Beishan Road along West Lake, turning into bright-light cityscape as I entered the Nanshan Road area.
I already knew the route, and was used to it taking perhaps 40 minutes. In about 20, however, I was already close. Not only that, but roads that I knew felt somehow less congested. I could honk at pedestrians walking in the bike lane. I could glide past silently, too, if there was enough space and I wanted to hear the patter of passing feet.
Then, I turned the corner onto Nanshan Road and Hangzhou was like I’d never seen before. I saw where the lightning trees ended.
As sudden as rain, the canopy of well-lit trees draped over the sidewalk, strings of white Christmas lights wrapped around the boughs. The streaks of white against black were like negative images of trees, as if by cracking across the sky they became exclamation points in Hangzhou. I scooted forward, enjoying the silence of the motor, and the smoothness of asphalt. I followed the tunnel of lightning trees, underneath the signs that had been made for the G2o saying “Welcome to Hangzhou!” and processed my way toward the other side of the area, where one tree branch flickered, as if being erased and drawn over and over again. Light rain flecked my jacket, but none of it mattered. I had a full battery. I could go beyond the lightning trees and into the dark street beyond it. I could get lost and find my way back, and I could do it on creeping wheels.
I only went along the tunnel and then back, relishing the feel of the “Welcome to Hangzhou” sign as I passed it again.
Indeed, where the lightning trees end, it was as though I was entering a new Hangzhou, where distance was only a concept, and I could connect scattered scenes together and re-map a home I have come to know so well.
It’s never too late to rediscover home.