Spin City

Asia's oldest taxis may be nearing the end of the road, but their drivers are still getting in plenty of legwork

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Don't panic if you're stuck in Beijing's rush-hour traffic. You can always hail a tricycle pedaled by an octogenarian to snake through the gridlock. In Manila, you can beat the traffic on a toy-size pedicab powered by a 13-year-old schoolboy. Lost in the back alleys of Penang? Any licensed trishaw rider will be more than happy to scoot you through the maze as adeptly as the outlaw becak riders of Jakarta, cycloists of Hanoi or tricicloists of Macao tending their own urban labyrinths.

Bobbing and weaving around Tercels and sacred cows alike, rickshaws are the true road warriors of Asia. In the annals of manpowered transit, they're probably the final chapter. Yet, while they may be on their last spokes, there are still a few roads where these rolling anachronisms are finding ready fares-and political controversy.

Born in Japan about 150 years ago, rickshaws have since served as primary street transit in cities all over Asia. Most are pedaled bicycle contraptions, but a few of the original hand-pulled devices remain. Some rickshaws come fully loaded-with stereos, potted plants and a horn section. Others are semi-upgraded wheelbarrows. Some have front passenger seating, some have rear, some side, and almost all of them have lousy brakes. But for enthusiasts like Lonely Planet Publications founder Tony Wheeler and photographer Richard I'Anson, most of these vintage Asian cabs are worth a spin before they go the way of the Fiero.

The two hit the road on a rickshaw odyssey that covered a dozen cities in nine countries across Asia, a trip that would leave no trishaw, tricycle or triciclo fleet untested. They bounced on the becaks of Indonesia, sampled some sidecars in the Philippines, hunt-ed down the rickshaw remains of Hong Kong and combed the squalid streets of Calcutta, chronicling the ride in a photo book called Chasing Rickshaws, Lonely Planet's first foray into large-format books.

'Over the years I'd ridden on a lot of rickshaws in a lot of countries,' says Wheeler, a former engineer whose series of guidebooks covers most of the globe. 'I was interested in them from an engineering standpoint and also because they're dying out in most places. Richard had been talking to me for a while about doing some sort of photographic book. Finally I told him, 'Look, I want to do something on rickshaws.' They'd always been part of my travels through Asia, and it was good timing to chase them around and learn more about them.'

In Dhaka, the bustling capital of Bangladesh, you don't have to chase too far. It's the world's unofficial rickshaw capital and a window to the way it was when bicycle taxis ruled the roads of Asia. There are nearly half a million cycle-rickshaws serving 8 million residents. Swarming around cars and buses while muscling motorized taxis off the main roads, the local rickshaw fleet has left so little space for other vehicles that the government has banned any more licenses. Two-thirds of Dhaka's rickshaws are now unlicensed, but otherwise, it's business as usual-and a booming one at that. Bangladesh's waves of rickshaws account for about a third of the nation's entire transport revenues-about twice the revenue of Bangladesh Biman, the national airline.

It makes for some of the most aesthetically pleasing traffic around. 'We'd look out of our hotel window,' recalls Wheeler, 'and it would just be a sea of them-a huge mess of rickshaws. About 50 to every car. Most of the cities we visited had fairly utilitarian rickshaws, but Dhaka's were different. They combined art with commerce.'

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