There are 9,000,002 bicycles in Beijing

November 29, 2009 at 9:40 pm 3 comments

Monday 22nd November

Our first day in Beijing got off to a rough start when we saw a man being dragged by his ankles into a waiting police van by some acne-ridden soilders whose fingertips still hadn’t quite made it to the edge of their coat sleeves. Reserving judgement (and heavily influenced by Katie Melua), we decided to hire some bicycles to get to grips with the city. This, if I may say so myself (and it’s our blog, so I may) was the best idea ever.

First let me explain how the road system works in Beijing. To accomodate the massive amount of people living in the city, the roads range from 4 lanes (for the “tiny” sidealleys) to 12 lanes for the main thoroughfares. On the outside of the road there is a cycling lane – usually around 1 1/2 times the width of a normal lane – which is often closed off by a metal fence. Of course, this being China, it wouldn’t be any fun at all if there wasn’t a little chaos thrown into the mix. With an almost Irish disregard for the rules of the road, people wander in and out of the cycle lanes, bikes dart between 12 lanes of cars and impatient taxis and buses plough through any cyclists that are too slow to outrun them. Crossings are a whole other kettle of fish too. Rather than one filter light turning at a time, cars turning off are given a green at the same time as pedestrians and, with rarely any light to guide them, cyclists tend to just move into a tight formation and dart across the road, relying on the ‘safety in numbers’ principle and hoping that, while killing 1 in 1.3 billion might not raise any eyebrows, taking out 100 might.

So with blatant disregard for our safety, we packed up our baskets and hopped on our bikes. Gary, always the cautious one, took a while to get into the rhythm of things but once I demonstrated the best way to plough through slow pedestrians whilst ringing his bell manically and screaming, there was no stopping him. Barring a few close on calls with buses baring down on us head-on and stopping only 2ft away and a particularly daring u-turn across an 8-lane road, it was pretty smooth sailing.

Having a bike was a blessing as well as an exhilarating near-death experience though because it meant that when we came into contact with the telling odor of a public restroom (you can’t flush toilet paper here so faeces-coated tissue is just piled up in a seldom-emptied bin located a few inches from your squatting, pale green face) we were able to pick up the pace. It gave us a great sense of being removed from the city too, like we could see all the people squatting around cards tables and milling in and out of shops, but they couldn’t see us. Best of all, it gave us the means to visit loads of sites spread out across the city without ever having to sit on a bus with our ankles tucked behind our ears.

First stop was Tian’amen square. With the city’s smog-rating hovering around full scale we could hardly see 10 metres in front of our noses and, as a result, it was a lot more chilling than I thought a vast, empty slab of concrete ever could be. Knowing the history of the square and its massacre, it was pretty intimidating to see child soldier after child soldier emerging out of the clouds. We didn’t linger long though as we were drawing too much attention so, after being approached by two conmen hoping to take us to their “art exhibition” and four people hoping to have their photo taken with the only blonde in Beijing, we located our bikes and got going again – this time heading for the Temple of Heaven.

What can I say about the Temple of Heaven? It was big, round, had a lovely roof and I would imagine, a beautiful rose garden during the summer months. Like so many things in the city, it was a little lost to us in all its barren winter appearance. Maybe Beijing is beautiful and flower-scented during the warmer months but it’s just baltic and smelly right now so we didn’t hang about for too long. Gary took some beautiful photos though.

While we were cycling towards the three artificial lakes in the north of the city, we tripped across this absolute gem – The National Centre for Performing Arts.

It being late in the evening, the sun was setting and throwing the most beautiful orange glow across the glass hemisphere set in its own little lake. Reflected in the water, the Centre looked like a full sphere and, having a positive effect for once, the smog that shrouded the city behind the dome lent the whole scene a really eritheral quality – like a dream in which you can see the outline of your destination but can never reach it. Quite out of the blue (or in this case the smog) we were sold on China’s capital city.

Tomorrow – the Forbidden City!

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Trekking Magome to Tsumago It’s all about Cixi. Imperial residences, Beijing, China

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Eamo  |  November 30, 2009 at 4:57 am

    I think one of the big attractions of the Temple of Heaven is the trees. The famous story (most things in China have a story) is Kissinger went to the Temple of Heaven and said America could build the temple bigger, better, stronger, and more beautiful, but it couldn’t recreate the trees, given that they’re well over a few hundred yrs old.

    I hope Chengdu is off the hook!!!

    Reply
  • 2. Barb Addison  |  December 28, 2009 at 10:41 pm

    Would love to connect with you on Facebook – saw your post on Gerry Boylan’s wall. Could you send me a friend invitation? Barb Addison – Pompano Beach – Florida. Anyway, I am looking for a lady in Shangri-la – any chance you will be returning there? Your photos are amazing! Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
    • 3. yearlongbreakup  |  December 29, 2009 at 3:39 am

      Hi Barb. I’m in vietnam at the moment and access to Facebook is limited. As soon as I’m at a computer where it works again I’ll drop you an invite. Unfortunately we will not be making out way back to Shangrila this trip. Glad you are enjoying the blog.

      Reply

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Thanks for coming to visit us – stay tuned to watch us argue, punch, kick, pinch and scream our way around some of the most beautiful parts of the world.

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