Lost then found: a tale of bike theft in Beijing / by Thomas O'Malley

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This wasn’t the first time I’d had a bike stolen in Beijing. But according to two-wheeled warrior Shannon Bufton of Serk,it’s the first he’s heard of anyone getting it back again. So here’s the story, for interest, posterity, or if anyone else finds themselves faced with this (almost inconceivable) situation.

A year ago I bought a Yongjiu ‘Forever C’ Pingchiang’ from Serk (in black). I wanted a hutong run-around a step up from a stocky GIANT Khan or a clanky postman’s bike, and I was sold on the brand story, the styling and the price (about 1,600 RMB).

By the way, Yongjiu’s original English-website is worth a look – they don’t make ‘em like this any more.

So, the other evening at about 10pm, I went for a quick bite at a hole-in-the-wall on Jiaodaokou Nan Dajie in the Gulou area. The bike (locked to itself but not to anything – habitual carelessness), was nabbed. Gutted.

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The very next day, walking (trudging) to the office at Beixinqiao, I passed the spot outside the subway station where a group of guys sell second-hand bikes on the street. And there it was. A Yongjiu Forever C in black. Rust cleaned up, parts polished. Gleaming. Cue creeping feeling of dread.

If you’re not familiar with the geography of the area, it was being sold in open sight a day later just one street across from the spot where it was stolen. I sauntered over, casually checked it for the distinguishing dents and scratches I knew would be there (they were), looked at a few other bikes randomly and then kept walking without drawing the sellers’ attention.

What to do? I ran through the options in my mind. Call the police, have them arrive, initiate a street-side slagging match I was bound to lose with my poor language skills. Best outcome? I end up buying it back for a cheap(er) price. No thanks.

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Next option – ‘steal’ it back. Take it for a test pedal and keep on pedalling. The bike sellers all looked fairly harmless apart from one – the muscle? - covered in what I reckoned to be prison tattoos. I’d passed this guy every day to work for a year and was always struck by how genuinely menacing he was. Best outcome? I get the bike back, but have to take a different route to work forever more. Nah.

Going it alone - march up to these guys and claim it’s mine... but this wasn’t really an option. There's a chance they bought it from the thief under the impression it wasn’t stolen; at least they’d surely claim that - and it’s their word against mine. What’s more, I wasn’t sure I still had the receipt, or whether these bikes had serial numbers etc. And I hadn’t registered the theft with the police.

Going to the police station – this seemed to be the best of a bad set of choices, though of course, the bike could be sold to someone else at any minute. I called Shannon for advice, and he said that licensed second-hand bike dealers need to be able to prove where the bike was purchased from. Lacking a premises, I was fairly sure these guys were unlicensed, which seemed like decent ammunition to get the police on my side.

So I ran home, searched for the receipt in vain (but found the instruction booklet / brochure) grabbed my passport and legged it to the police station just off Jiaodaokou (close to Mao Mao Chong). Fair dues to the police, they fished out an officer who spoke a bit of English but my Chinese sufficed. I described where the bike was being sold and the two officers exchanged glances. Of course they know about these guys. I showed them a picture of the bike model in the brochure and marked the identifying dents with a pen.

Next thing, the three of us pull up in a police van, get out, march straight up to the bike, and the scary dude dashes over with a smile on his face, saying “take it, take it!” He then tries to bend the policeman’s ear conspiratorially, but they aren’t having any of it. Then followed a bizarre moment of silence with all four of us just standing there next to the bike. The police impassive, gauging the situation, the bike seller dumbstruck.

And no further words were spoken. One of the police got on my bike and pedalled it back to the station, the seller sloped off, and the other officer and I got back in the van.

I had to produce a receipt to reclaim the bike from the station (thanks to Shannon again) and that was that. I’ve got my bike back. The guys continue to sell 'second-hand' bikes - there are probably 30 or more there on any given day, many of them expensive-looking models. And nothing’s really changed. Will there be a big bust of these guys in the future? Who knows. Doesn't seem to be much of a moral to this tale, but certainly a few things learned:

- The police are quite effective when approaching a situation armed with prior knowledge / briefing about it (rather than just mediating a street argument)

- This is a really long-winded and frankly risky way of getting a free clean-up / service for your bike

- Any kind of paperwork helps, so hang on to your receipts

- Lock your bike to other things (duh)

- If you are the victim of bike theft in Beijing, go to Beixinqiao subway station the very next day and see if it’s there, then follow the steps above.

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Peace out.