Peking — ``China is a kingdom of bicycles,'' an official said proudly, not displeased with the image of his country rushing to modernize using ``appropriate technology.'' With a total number pushing 200 million, or one for every five people, bicycles are a major means of transportation in Chinese cities, with modifications and added wheels to accommodate heavy loads.
For urban Chinese, a 20-minute peddle to work is considered normal, and cyclists resort to crowded city buses only in the worst weather. Owning a bicycle is almost taken for granted, but it's still a major expense. A new bike costs two months' salary for most workers.
In the rural areas, peasant farmers and rural entrepreneurs rely on animal power and motor vehicles, especially trucks, for carrying goods to market. Offering transport services is a quick road to wealth, and everything that moves is put to use. About 10 percent of China's 3.2 million civilian motor vehicles is owned by private households, mostly trucks in the private transportation business.
There are also millions of tractors, once part of a massive effort to mechanize agriculture, which spend most of their time chugging down country roads. More valuable as transport than as plows, they carry vegetables to market and grain to state storehouses.
Eventually, these awkward contraptions will give way to mini-trucks, some with only three wheels, which are just now being produced domestically. The vehicles are modeled after Japanese designs. So far their numbers are much too few to meet the demand of the large number of prosperous peasants who can afford to buy them.
Transportation is a top priority for state planners since it is a key to the expansion of commerce and industry. The emphasis in the current five-year plan is on port development, to accommodate China's rapidly growing foreign trade, and highway projects to spur domestic commerce. State planners know that a good highway system is a key to rural development. The most prosperous areas are those linked to the city by a paved road.
Aviation has also grown, with China's national airlines carrying more than 4 million passengers last year. But the number seems insignificant compared to the 1 billion passengers riding the national rail system.
Railroads are the nation's transportation workhorse. With long distances to travel and a shortage of motor vehicles, the bulk of passenger and cargo transport is by rail. With the highest load rate in the world, China's railroads are strained to the limits.
Steam engines are common sights in some parts of the country, especially in the northeast. There are some 1,000 still in use in the province of Heilongjiang, which has turned its collection of steam locomotives into a tourist attraction.
Since 1982, the province has held mid-winter tours for steam-engine buffs. Hundreds of foreign tourists have traveled to the north just to see Chinese-built engines and old makes from Europe, Japan, and the United States sending up great billows of steam in the cold Manchurian air.