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Modern Life in China

Beijing Bicycles
Paul Haire

I unlock my bike, a big black iron horse, old even for here, and wipe the dust off the seat, I lift it up and kick back the heavy metal stand then wheel it back out, ready for todays adventure. It's unseasonably warm and the sky is clear, unusual for Beijing where it's usually choked up with sickly, yellow smog. I climb onto the saddle and immediately feel a sense of freedom, I feel more at home on my bicycle than on my own two legs.

The excitement of a new trip and prospect of feeling the air flowing through my hair takes me over for a brief moment, then I get back to concentrating on where I'm going. Cycling here requires concentration as people come from all directions, the rules of the road being only mildly adhered to. I pass the 5 kuai kebab stand on my right and then the bicycle shed, which I stopped using once I found out they'd been overcharging me, deciding to keep my bike outside instead. I negotiate the cramped car park, cycle past the friendly fruit guy with his big green coat and yellowing teeth.

I turn left onto the road, Vantone shopping centre and office complex towers above, shining brightly in the sun and backed by a pale blue sky. I carry on past the jian bing stall, where I buy my favourite Beijing food. Past the dvd shop blasting music into the street and then onto the main road.

It's fairly busy, as it always is in Beijing, but I still feel a sense of freedom. When I cross the bridge traversing the highway I am able to see for miles in either direction as cars speed by underneath. I cycle past men straining as they propel their heavy tricycle carts laden with goods onwards and onwards. I pass old ladies and young girls, being careful of the old ladies, experience guiding me. I cycle past the geological museum and it's big dinosaur outside. The street contains shops selling sports trophies, lots of them There's a bus stop just in front of this junction and it alway creates a traffic jam. The dilemma confronts me as I see a bus indicating to pull into the bus stop, do I go inside or outside? I'll have to go fast if I want to go inside and there's the possibility of knocking down and killing an old granny as she hops on/off the bus, but on the other hand if I go outside, there's the possibility of me being squashed like a piece of ham between a car and bus. I decide to go inside and make it past unscathed.
I come to a halt at the junction, getting into my position like a formula one driver on the grid, other cyclists wait in front, to the side and behind me. The junction man stands with his flag and whistle ready to enforce the law of the junction mercilessly on anybody reckless enough to break it. The lights turn green and with a big effort I get my heavy machine moving again, I ignore the cars trying to cross in front of me to turn right, and again as I reach the other side when a white car comes towards me fast, but I keep going. Luckily he slows down and gives way, and then I feel foolish for taking the chance.
I keep going and come up behind an old man with two bird cages attached to the back of his bike. I decide to take a few pictures, so one handedly I take my camera out of my bag and, with great difficulty, take a photo whilst negotiating the road at the same time. I get two or three good shots before I put the camera back in my bag and pass him. Beihai lake is on both sides of the road and the sun is shinging brightly on the water, the white stupa on the left is lit up like a beacon.

I reach the majestic walls of the forbidden city, relics from another era and stop at the junction where a little girl perched on the back of her mother's bike looks at me with wide eyed wonder, then the lights change and I turn left and head into the quieter streets around Jingshan park. Trees line the side of the road and there is less traffic. I reach Pinganli Xidajie, one of Beijings main arteries. I know this road well. I've lived at three different points along it in my short while here. Sanlitun in the east, Nan Luo Gu Xiang in the middle and Fuchengmen in the west where I live now.

I pass Houhai lake with its rickshaw drivers and tourists, and the Starbucks where I like to sit and read in the summer. I stop at the pedestrian crossing opposite Nan Luo Gu Xiang and wait for the lights to turn red before I cycle across the road, breathing a sigh of relief as I reach the familiar and relatively peaceful hutong . The relief is short lived though as cycling here requires just as much attention as on the main road because cars, cyclists and pedestrians clog the narrow road, and dart across it in every direction. There are lots of foreigners here, due to the trendy cafes and restaurants. Though I've only been in Beijing a short time the street has already changed significantly, new bars and shops have opened and other ones have closed down. As can be seen by the gutted remains of shops, where workmen prepare the space for someone else to try and fulfill their dream whilst simultaneously throwing someone else's onto the skip.

A group of old men crowd around a game of Chinese chess, wizened old faces full of concentration, wiling away the long hours. I reach Gulou Dongdajie and cross the street into another hutong, less developed than Nan Luo Gu Xiang, less of a tourist trap. A big black Audi barges past and I stop to make room for it beside another cyclist as two children play on the ground beside me under the watchful eye of an aging hooker sitting in a 'barber shop'. The sun still shines and in the sheltered hutong it is pleasantly warm, I stop to take off my heavy winter coat, aware that spring is approaching and Beijings harsh winter is coming to an end. I stuff my coat into the basket on the front of the bike and notice bits of old firecrackers, left over from Chinese New Year.

The hutong is made up of low buildings painted grey, the traditional houses of Beijing, Chinese style roofs the only sign I'm in China. The hutong opens out occasionally to make room for a hotel, a police office, or a school. This is the real Beijing, hustle and bustle and an aliveness that fills your senses. Scenes from another era can be glimpsed inside the entrances of faded old courtyards, old bicycles standing rusting, propped up by old clay bricks. I turn right and head east towards Yong He Gong, past restaurants and food stalls then crossing over the road onto College street where a colourful and ornate Chinese gate greets you at the entrance.
This street holds the college where the entrance examinations for government positions were traditionally held and also the Confucius temple. It is a street with a long history, like many in this city. It's also pleasantly free from traffic and it's wide boulevard makes a relief from the narrow, warren like hutongs. I turn right up the steep slope leading to the teahouse and park my bike in it's usual spot just in front. The teahouse is dark as I step into it from the bright sunshine and my eyes take a while to adjust. I greet the hostess, walk in and sit down in my usual seat and look out onto the brightly lit street I've just cycled on. My muscles feel warm and well used and my heart beats slightly faster than usual.

© Paul Haire April 2007

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