Bicycles in Beijing

2 Aug

I had the (mis)fortune to spend a week in Beijing recently, and have a few pictures to share. I say “mis-” because I was just getting over two bouts of pneumonia when I went to Beijing, and something in the air or on the airplane flight home gave me a serious flu which threatened to bring back the pneumonia. But let’s focus on the city (map at end of this post) …

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The new Terminal 3 at Beijing International airport is now by itself the largest airport in Asia, as well as the newest. After registering with the Immigration authorities — who you are invited to grade on their customer service! — you are quickly whisked to Terminal 1 in an automated train that takes only a few minutes (compared to up 45 minutes of hell for the same process at London’s Heathrow airport).

You may see a few, or more likely, a lot, of these fellows if you are arriving during the Olympics.

Speaking of the Olympics, traditionally, synchronized swimming is a women-only event at the Olympics. But the Beijing airport police have a strong contender for a new event – synchronized walking.

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Once through Customs, you are free to head off on your way to Beijing. I was lucky to be met by the office manager of my employer’s Beijing office, and took a taxi to town, but otherwise you can just walk over to the Airport Express train station, location on the roof of the parking garage (which itself has a field of crops growing on its roof). By the way, this picture was taken on a sunny day from my departing aircraft – that’s smog, not fog, in the background. The train station is the silver teardrop in the centre of the circular parking garage.

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The train runs on an elevated track all the way to the city, paralleling the airport expressway. In the photo at left you’re getting your first glimpses of the city through the smog: lots of apartment buildings and some stylish garden work in the cloverleafs. (That’s the 4th Ring Road in the background).

The train eventually dips underground for the final few kilometres to the station. Here’s what that part looks like:

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After I got in to town, I checked in at my hotel, got my room, and gazed upon the bridge where Dongsishitiao Road (E-W) crosses over the 2nd Ring Road (N-S). Pedestrians, bicyles, tricycles, scooter, cars, trucks and buses all seem to negotiate this roundabout without apparent anguish. Friday rush-hour traffic.

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Next morning, I took another look. The traffic was quieter, but the air quality no better: that apartment building disappearing in the smog up the 2nd Ring Road is less than 1 km away.

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After an over-priced breakfast in my hotel, I stepped out the door and into the subway. Gulp – my first solo adventure in a country where I don’t speak more than 3 words of the language. I confess I felt a little appre-hensive. At the ticket counter, I realised I didn’t know how to say “Do you have any all-day tickets?”, or even “I’ll have one ticket, please”, or even “one”, or “please”. All I could do was hold up one finger, to which the agent replied by holding up 2 fingers. Right, I need to pay him 2 Ren Min Bi (about $0.30). I got on the No. 2 line (dark blue) northbound, then transferred to the No. 13 line (yellow) northbound. After one more stop, I got out and started walking. My destination: a Dahon folding-bike store.

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Lucky for me, I found the store without too much difficulty. And even luckier, they could speak a few words of English. Pretty soon, we had most of their stock out on the sidewalk. I felt like Goldilocks trying one that was too big, another one (the pink one) that was too small, then a final one (silver, behind the red one) that was just right. The price: $200. It’s a Prestolite with 16″ wheels (more portable than the 20″ model I already own). At a local clothing market I found a good carry-bag for it for about $15. I was all set to go exploring!

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After a couple of hours of aimless wandering around, just enjoying the new sights, sounds, smells and sensations, I found myself at the north gate of the Forbidden City. It didn’t look like I could take my bike inside, so I rode around to the east gate and walked in there with it. Because the folding bike is so small (and probably because I’m a foreigner) I got away with this. I followed the crowd and eventually emerged out the south door of Forbidden City and then the south door of Chairman Mao’s tomb.

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Here I wanted to take a picture of the portrait of the great leader but a policeman told me to “keep walking” and “no pictures”. Finally, 100m down the sidewalk, I was able to turn around and take a picture of the building. Next, it was time to investigate the very large open space across the road: Tian An Men Square.

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At the exit of the underground passageway that crosses the busy thoroughfare, from Mao’s Tomb to the square, police officers wouldn’t let me take my bike into the square. But after I folded it and stowed it in its bag, I was able to walk right in. The square indeed does seem like it truly is the world’s largest public square. I made my way to a famous local statue, the monument to the people’s heroes. A local resident gestured that he wanted to have his photo taken with me in front of this statue. Individuals are always welcoming; governments less so. The Chinese government in particular doesn’t want its citizens to remember the massacre of June 4th, 1989 in this very square, but I felt the history like a weight on my shoulders as I slowly crossed the enormous space.

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Time for some retail therapy! I rode over to Wangfujing Street, supposedly the shopping street of Beijing. It was jammed with shoppers, or at least pedestrians, as it’s a car-free mall for a couple of blocks. It was bike-free, too, so I rode around the block to the far end, then continued on north.

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I went looking for the Lama Temple, and crossed through a neighbourhood of narrow streets, called Hutongs in Mandarin (not to be confused with the Cantonese that people from Hong Kong speak). Apparently much of Chinese traditional life takes place in the residences that line these hutongs or the side-alleys. I had vivid memories of this topography from the night that I watched the movie ‘Beijing Bicycle’ while in Rio de Janeiro Brazil. You can watch a trailer for the movie below.

The Lama Temple was closed unfortunately, so I returned home and planned to try again the next day.

Sunday: one more day before I change from tourist to business person. I got up early and rode up to the Lama Temple, or Yonghegong, and paid the modest fee to enter. I was greatly honoured to be able to spend a couple of hours contemplating the buildings, originally a royal palace but turned into a Buddhist lamasery in 1744. I was somewhat surprised at how many Chinese-looking people seemed to be paying devotional respects by burning incense and kneeling (always three times). Inside the buildings were a variety of religious statues, including in the largest building an 26m-tall Maitreya Buddha statue carved from a single block of rosewood (and thus, the plaque says, holder of a Guinness Record). The pictures below don’t begin to capture all of the rich visual tapestry of colours and forms that inhabit this place.

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incense offering; Buddhist symbology on rooftop

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prayer wheel; guardian demon

Near the Lama Temple by chance I came across the Guozijiang Hutong, which apparently is Beijing’s only ancient-architecture street, dating back at least 500 years. I found a temple to Confucius which I didn’t have time to visit, and the Xu Xiang Zhai vegeterian restaurant — Beijing’s first — where I returned to dine that evening.

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Guozijiang Street; Hutong alleyway

During my work-week in Beijing, I continued to ride my bike, commuting with a few of the millions doing the same. I got a chance to appreciate some of the impressive office buildings that have gone up in recent years — a testament to the vast inflows of capital to the country. Many of these buildings display an innovative and intriguing architectural style, leading to embarrassment over the beige rectangular boxes that pass for design in downtown Calgary.

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CCTV network headquarters; random office complex

So, what’s it like to travel around Beijing by bicycle? Fairly relaxing, actually. Most of the major roads have separate bike-only frontage lanes, while the lesser roads have painted bike lanes — though these can be a bit tricky when buses decide to pull into and stop. In addition you have to cope with some cyclists travelling the wrong way (probably to avoid having to cross the road for just a block or two). At the intersections, things get a little trickier yet, but the best advice seems to be: ride as slowly as the locals, because you have time to adjust to everything that’s coming at you. If you try to ride as fast as most North Americans do, you’ll find that problems crop up much more quickly — as can be seen in the video below.

And here’s a video I took along one of those separate bike laneways:

One night while riding near the Buy Now Hui electronics market I heard music coming from a parking lot and stopped to investigate. A number of elderly women were performing a traditional dance, while several musicians provided appropriate music for the dancers. Young people passed by without paying any attention (in many cases talking on cell phones) but I was fascinating and stayed quite a while. If I hadn’t been riding a bike, I would have missed this cultural moment.

The remainder of my week was spent working in the nearby Langfang City, just a baby of 3-4 Million, and where the air quality wasn’t any better.

On my final morning in Beijing, I started with breakfast with an American friend, Bill Hardy, who by wild coincidence just happened to be in Beijing and staying in my hotel, then went for a ride out to Chaoyang Park and amongst other things saw two examples of the breadth of experience available in this city caught between the old and the new:

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Brand-new Apple store in San Li Tun; women practicing Tai Chi in Chaoyang Park

If you haven’t been to Beijing, give it a thought. It truly is a world-class city and has lots to offer the tourist. Spring or fall might be best though, as it can get very hot during the summer, and quite cold during the winter.

Below’s a map showing some of the locations mentioned in this post (click on the placemarks to see a description). And if you want to see more pictures from my Beijing trip, check out my Beijing album on Picasa.

Addendum: a couple of weeks after my rides through Beijing, US Cycling team member Jason McCartney went for a ride through Beijing. The NY Times has a story and nice slide show with audio.

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