Monday, 20 January 2014

The Story of How the Bicycle First Came to Tibet

Phuntsok Tashi is a well known writer from Shigatse. His work focuses mainly on the Shigatse of his youth, usually in the form of humorous essays that draw on very personal experiences. In 'The Story of How the Bicycle First Came to Tibet', Phuntsok Tashi relates the history of the bicycle in Tibet, from it's introduction by the British, through the Cultural Revolution and finally to the modern day. A bicycle enthusiast himself he can often be seen cycling his Flying Pigeon past Shigatse's football ground.

The original Tibetan will be posted at a later date. Do not have access to a scanner at the moment.

The Story of How the Bicycle First Came to Tibet

Phuntsok Tashi

Translated by Ingsel

Of all forms of transport I have a special affection for the simple bicycle. The bicycle helped me navigate the twists and turns of those hungry and needy times. Yes, cycling helped me get from place to place but more importantly my bicycle was like a companion to me. Together we experienced moments of inexpressible joy. These days I still ride my old bicycle. Whenever I visit the repair shop, the mechanic remarks ' isn't it time to exchange your bike for a new one?'. I have to admit that in the bottom of my heart, I have a strange sense of attachment to my old bicycle. One that I can never forget. This curious attachment inspired me to study the bicycle over these many months and years.

Recently I read an article in the newspaper that said the bicycle was invented by the French in 1819. The first bicycle was made of wood! There was a photo of that strange looking bicycle in the paper too. The article was at most six hundred words long but I was caught up in a net of thoughts and ideas. The bicycle has a played an important part in my life. In the past I have the impression that the bicycle was a status symbol, a rather costly play thing. As time passed and social conditions improved, the bicycle gradually came to be used by ordinary people. Even I had the fortune of being able to use one. The land and times have changed the bicycle's role as a brilliant status symbol, these days bicycles can be found resting against the walls of many households. Can today's youths even imagine that bicycle once occupied such an elevated position?

If I were to relate to you the history of the bicycle in Tibet it would be necessary for me to explain a little about the bicycle boom in the twentieth century. According to the stories and recollections of the elderly it's been about 80 years since the bicycle came to the land of the snows. The city of Lhasa was supposedly where the Tibetans were first introduced to the bicycle. But some people have told me that bicycles appeared earlier, in Gyantse. In any case if one were to pay heed to those venerables in Lhasa, those with matchless memories, the bicycle surely came to Lhasa first. They say that back then the Nepalese traders in Lhasa would ride bicycles. Others tell me the first cyclist in Lhasa was a British doctor resident in Dekyilingka. Each to their own sayings and reasons. In brief the bicycle was an object that came from a foreign country and the first cyclist in Lhasa was a foreigner. 

In old Tibetan society the footsteps of development were very slow. People's quality of life was low. Those who were able to use and enjoy luxury items were the high born or those occupied powerful positions. In Tibet, the bicycle at first gained popularity among the children of aristocratic families and merchants. 'Two wheels attached to a seat and band. What a strange animal!' the people used to remark in wonder. Hearing this you can understand why, that at the time whenever you saw a bicycle, a large amazed crowd would not be far off. One man was riding his bicycle and when he was coming to the end of his journey, a group of people gathered nearby fled, trembling in fright. Some people would startle an run off at the ring ring of a bicycle bell. In order to name that creature that moved on two wheels, those intelligent Tibetans put together a compound word of Tibetan and foreign languages. When I was a child the elders would debate whether they should ride a bicycle or motorcycle. They'd look less favourably on the bicycle (as compared to the motorcar or motorcycle). To me it was inconceivable! To ride a bicycle well you need to be able to have good control of the handlebars. You'd have to turn the pedals with your feet. Furthermore you'd have to be able to sit upright with your weight distributed evenly. If I think a little, at that time and from those people's points of view the bicycle was nothing but a tiring plaything. 

In old Tibet, new ideas and inventions would be met with a blow to the the top of the hair locks. The bicycle was unable to escape this fate. Certain people took the two wheels of the bicycle to stand for the two wheels of the dharma. They considered those who rode atop the wheels of the dharma to be heinous and sinful. Those conservatives and fundamentalists bore great enmity and resentment towards cyclists .At this time, the Kashag almost passed a law making it illegal to ride a bicycle. The bicycle faced a long and bumpy road before it could finally call Tibet home. I remember seeing a documentary about the first meeting of the Tibetan Work Committee after the Peaceful Liberation. The camera panned to committee members hurrying along to the meeting. A few aristocrats in traditional dress were riding on horseback.  Some however were dressed in very contemporary fashion, speeding along together on bicycles or motorcycles . One could easily tell those conservatives apart from those more forward minded. 

Before the Peaceful Liberation most of the bicycles in Tibet were British made. I can remember some of the brand names clearly; Three Rifles, Crane, Lion, Hubbard and Sons. When I think of these old British bicycles, I immediately think back to my uncle's very own Three Rifles bicycle. I can confirm that his bicycle is one of the most long lived bicycles in Tibet. The bicycle still remains in pristine condition. Not just in it's outward appearance too. It's still in perfect working order, one can still take it out for a ride today. According to my uncle, he ordered the bicycle in 1956 from a Tibetan trader who regularly brought goods over from India. At this time fashionable young men would order items such as wristwatches from such traders. My uncle's 'Three Rifles' bicycle was brought over unassembled from Calcutta. It's been almost fifty years but my uncle's most prized possession has still retained its charm and lustre. Today when I see my elderly uncle ride his bicycle I can't help but be reminded of the swagger of his youth. 

In the sixties and seventies Flying Pidgeon's and Yong Jiu became available for purchase in Lhasa. These Chinese made bicycles were now competing with the British made ones imported from India. At this time there were only a few bicycles in my hometown of Shigatse. I could instantly recognise the ringing of my uncle's bell from the the other bicycles in town. When he rode his bicycle through the streets, I would give chase and run up alongside him. Whenever I got the chance to actually ride on the bicycle I'd be overcome with joy. Nothing could make be happier than when uncle would take me on the bicycle with him. I'd only really get the chance when I fell ill and my uncle would cycle me over to the hospital. On such occasion I would sit perched atop the handlebars with my head bent down, often craning my neck to look at the tire tracks and upturned pebbles we'd leave behind on the dirt road. I'd survey the countryside, watching the trees and potato fields disappear as my uncle pedalled. I'd have such incomparable experiences on those rides to the hospital. Sometimes I'd think to myself how happy it would be if I fell sick more often and got to ride on my uncle's 'Three Rifles' bicycle. 

My uncle had a great love for his bicycle and paid close attention to and took great care of each part of his bicycle. He kept a raggedy cloth underneath the seat (Uncle was very meticulous and systematic in his maintenance). Before setting out from home or leaving for work in the morning he would remove the cloth from its place beneath the seat and he would wipe each part of the bicycle once thoroughly. He'd then place the cloth back under the seat. Next he'd clean the spokes of the wheel, turning the bike upside down and wiping down all the parts of the wheel. First the front wheel, then the rear. First the left side of the bicycle, and then turning it onto the other side he would begin on the right. Only after getting the bicycle shiny would he take it for a ride. Unless he was in a great hurry my uncle would always carry out this maintenance procedure. Once in a while he'd take his bicycle apart, wash each piece individually and if need be repair them. He'd keep a repair kit of a pump and a net  in a small leather pouch under the seat so he was ready to use them in case of emergency. 

During the sixties personalizing your bicycle was very popular. No two bicycles looked the same. Most bicycles had lights fastened to them with red cloth. Some bicycles not only had bells but electric horns. Several cyclists had their frames adorned with tassels, ribbons and feathers or wrapped entirely with rubber tape. Others covered their handle bars with yarn knit sleeves. A few people would cut up squares of mutlticoloured rubber and attach them to the spokes of their wheels.

During the Cultural Revolution bicycles were adorned with revolutionary paraphernalia. At the time my uncle would hang Mao's Little Red Book from the frame of his bicycle, when he went for a ride the book would sway from left to right. It was quite sight. My uncle would take great care of the bicycle. One day my uncle rode his bicycle to watch a film. Coming out of the film, the bicycle was nowhere to be seen. He spent that night in great distress. He found out the next day that one his friends had seen the bicycle outside the cinema hall and had taken it home for safekeeping. We saw how much he valued his bicycle and he never let it out of his sight again.

In the sixties and seventies many government employees were sent to the countryside. Each stay would last for a few months and in total they had to stay for a bit over a year. At that time my uncle who had to spend time in the villages gradually started to wrap his bicycle in tattered cloth and leave atop the beams of our houses roof. Doing so he kept the bicycle safe as well as discouraging other people from borrowing it. Despite taking such a precaution there would always be someone trying to borrow the bicycle. I remember my aunt being very worried when some distant relations of ours working in Lhasa would ask us to lend them the bicycle. We thought that if we lent it out once, we'd never get it back so we told them we'd never ever lend it out. Some time before when my family was facing very hard times, my uncle decided to economize and sold his bicycle to buy supplies. I protested immediately. I had an especial love for my uncle's bicycle. This bicycle was the first bicycle I'd ridden on. This bicycle was the one I'd learnt to cycle on. My family were angry but the bicycle was safe. Now whenever I see the bicycles receipt and registration that have been preserved by my uncle, I think of how the history of how the bicycle came to Tibet.

In my youth, the children whose families owned bicycles would venture out secretly with them and play together. These were some of the happiest moments. We'd ride those bicycles everywhere and sometimes forget about returning home. Those whose families were lucky enough to have a bicycle were subject to much envy. They'd always encourage me to bring the bicycle out to play. One of my  childhood friends rode a bicycle that had its wheels out of alignment. When you'd ride that old bicycle, the two wheels wouldn't stay centred, the prints of the front and back wheel would always veer to opposite sides.  We could always tell where that particular friend had been going from his tire tracks. One day our teacher's friend was riding this old bicycle to another county and upon seeing him we joked 'Your bicycle keeps on moving from side to side. If you're not careful, it'll fall apart!' Even though it was such an ancient bicycle we would have so much fun playing with it. During Shigatse Losar, the favourite amusement for all children was to go and learn how to ride a bicycle at the football ground. It was the same during the Children's day festival on the first of june, parks would be full of children learning to cycle. It seems like todays youth have known how to cycle from the moment they were born. Back then during the new year or picnic times, you could see a child on his bicycle, with their friend or relative running alongside. 'Keep your head up!' 'Look ahead!' you'd hear. Whenever a guest would come to a house by bicycle, children would approach bearing bashful expressions and ask for a ride. The guests usually handed over their bicycles, albeit begrudgingly. With bicycle in hand, most children would lose track of time. When it was time for the visitor to leave they wouldn't even be a trace of their bicycle left!

At the time bicycle was not only a mode of transport or a children's plaything, for some families it was even a means of life. In our neighbourhood there were a few families who would make a living catching and selling fish. The men of these families would set out on their bicycles in the early morning, with gunny sacks and bamboo baskets atop their racks. They'd return around dusk, their sacks almost bursting with fish. Construction workers commuting to work on far off roads, cadres who worked in the villages returning home to the city. They'd have their bicycles piled high with all sorts of items. They'd have pumps tied to their frames, ready for a flat tire in the middle of a journey. Most bicycles of this time had to bear much more than they could carry. Reduced to just handlebars, frames and wheels, if any other parts fell off you'd be unable to go anywhere. Many a time I saw my neighbours elderly father returning home carrying his frame on his back and a wheel in each hand. 

With the bicycle bearing such heavy responsibilities, maintenance and repairs were of the utmost importance. At the time there were only two or three bicycle mechanics in the whole of Shigatse. If you'd brought your bicycle for a minor repair you could expect it back in a few months. Anything more serious and  anywhere between six months and a year was common. The yard of the repair shop would be old bicycles piled on top of each other. Something as simple as a patching the inner tube would require leaving your bicycle for a two or three days, not like nowadays when you repair your bike in a few minutes on the side of the street. Some who knew how to do even a little repair work would command the respect of a flight technician. One of my brightest friends knew how to fix bicycles and he would always go out to repair our friend's. He'd even work on our teacher's bicycle. I remember how our teacher's wife would secretly reward him with packs of cigarettes. How we'd cherish those filtered cigarettes.

In the seventies you had to buy bicycles with coupons. Crowds would gather staring at the bicycles in the storefront. Only a lucky few with the right connections could take them home. Most people had the money but still couldn't get hold of those elusive coupons. After mid decade reforms, Lhasa saw an abundance of Shanghai brand model 17 and 18 bicycles. Everybody was now free to buy their own bicycle. Bicycle had reach the peak of their popularity. Gone were the days were days people would scare at the sight of a metal beast.
Towards the end of the decade I was studying at the teaching training college. My family sold a cat's eye and bought me a model 17. I finally had a bicycle of my own! Going to the cinema became more and more fashionable. I remember how after watching a film, we'd cycle home proudly amongst the crowds. As the bicycle grew in popularity, bicycle theft became more and more of an issue. 

The biggest problem in the eighties was bicycle theft. I lost two bicycles. That was nothing compared to other people. A friend of mine lost at least ten bicycles. In any given night seven or more bicycles would be stolen from the front of those new high rise buildings. They had gotten rid of the old bicycle licensing system and if you lost your bicycle, you'd likely never see it again. A few years into the decade, racing bicycles became popular in Tibet. Immediately the roads were full of people bending over onto the low handlebars. They looked like cyclists competing in a race. Today it's mostly middle school students riding bicycles. Second most are Chinese migrant workers and then construction workers. It's quite the sight to see a Lhasa local cycling! Salaried office workers are a far cry from those fisherman struggling to make their living. With a months wages they could afford a bicycle many times over. Today a lot of people save up for cars. It's thought that only the poor need to ride bicycles. Most people look down on cyclists. The eyes of thieves look only at cars and car parts.

With developments in living standards for everybody the bicycle is no longer the only alternative to walking. Motorcycles, cars, buses, taxis and so on can take you where you need to go. Those people to who the bicycle was a livelihood can no longer persist in their professions. We live in such times of such an international market, I think the time of the car won't last for too long. But I'm certain that the brilliant time of the bicycle will not dawn upon us again. Yet the numerous, unforgettable stories the bicycle has left me will stay alive in my my heart forever.