I have never been comfortable with rickshaws. To me, they smack of imperialism and all I can think of is a wealthy British couple wheeling about 1800’s Hong Kong, in a rickshaw run by a chinaman wearing blue work clothes and a queue hairstyle. You know, from an old kung-fu movie or something.
But rickshaw are a big part of modern China and pretty unavoidable. Trust us, we’ve tried. I mean, I never had any desire to make some 60-year-old stick thin Chinese guy pedal me around for my amusement. (Modern rickshaws are either motorized or a regular bikes. No one carries them anymore here, but even so, it is still a lot of work.) But despite not wanting to ride them, I have been on bicycle rickshaws four times.
The first time was Jason in Kaifeng when we hired him (and his rickshaw) for a day-long tour. We felt a little bad, but it was more than just him pedaling us around. He was talking to us and giving us a tour as well. In fact, it was clear he enjoyed it.
At lunchtime we talked to him about buying a motorized rickshaw. We figure it can’t be too much money and considering he guides people almost every day it would be so much more convenient. But Jason steadfast refused. He said he enjoyed driving a rickshaw, it kept him healthy and he liked the slow quiet place. We kept saying, “yeah but,” and he kept coming up with reasons to shoot down our arguments. Then I began feeling like a heel. I realized we were being technology pusher and if he wanted to continue using his outdated, but enjoyable bike, then by all means. Who were we to tell him what was better. That was the beginning of my change in mindset to riding a rickshaw.
Our other rickshaw rides were in cities and they were simple rides from point A to B. Our most recent ride was the other day in Suzhou. We stepped out of the bus station to a maelstrom of drivers and rickshaw guys convincing us to take their bikes. After being quoted outrageous sums we quickly walked away looking for a cab, but for some reason, the cabbies couldn’t pick us up unless we were at an official stop. The stop was, of course, at the bus station and we didn’t feel like dealing with that again. It was in this moment of frustration a rickshaw driver, silently following us from the train station, entered the picture. We talked, and haggled and eventually we settled on $4 for about 2-3 mile ride.
Bargaining is a hassle, and can be frustrating, so I laughed smugly to myself after Ryan and I (and our bags) piled in. Sure, maybe we got ripped off, but the guy was going to WORK for his money pedaling us large Americans. But soon the smug feeling melted into guilt as he sweated and worked hard just to keep the bike going. (At one slight hill he even had to get off the bike and push it because it was too heavy for him.)
While we bargained him down to 28rmb, we ended up giving him 30 because he had worked so hard. He seemed grateful but he was panting so hard who could really tell.
I will say that riding in a rickshaw is really fun. That’s where part of the moral dilemma comes in. I mean, if I hated the, I could avoid them. But they are really cool and the perfect way to travel shorter distances.
You are slightly protected from the elements (you have a little canopy covering you) but you get a great view of things as you cycle slowly by them. You really feel like you get to see everything as you pass by, and rickshaws are also quite comfy and cozy.
Interestingly enough I recently read that rickshaws are banned in some cities due to their size. Since most are two-seaters they can take up almost the whole width of the bike lane, or most of a car lane, and because they are so slow they can cause congestion and backup traffic.
So I think every traveler has to come up with their own comfort level of riding a rickshaw. They are far from just a Chinese thing so this could come up wherever you travel. (They are all over Asia and are gaining popularity in America and Europe as being a green transportation alternative.) You just need to figure out how comfortable you are with it. I think I am getting more and more okay with it as time goes on, as I see the workers are not exploited as work horses, but rather tiny entrepreneurs trying to make a buck like everyone else. As for me, I think I’ve changed my mind and gotten off my high horse and into a rolling rickshaw (after bargaining for a fair price for the ride that is).
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