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In Beijing, Red Means Go

And you meet people. Xianfang -- her name means "beautiful aroma of flowers" -- came down from China's northeast Shandong province two years ago to study at the Beijing Community Management Institute. In her striped T-shirt, black pants and slippers, she was cute, composed and ready to take on a grizzled foreigner. In her shoulder bag she carried a Chinese translation of a book about General Electric's management program and the uniform for her night job as an "assistant" -- I think that meant waitress -- at the Tomato, a pizza-and-beer restaurant frequented by Korean students.

As we walked along the side of the Summer Palace's lotus-filled lake, we ran into a knot of families taking pictures of each other. Xianfang grabbed my hand and wove us through them as quickly as she had led me through the Chengfu traffic."They are looking at us," she said after we had passed through the crowd. "They think we are bad people because we are holding hands. But we are good people." And she high-fived me.

In Beijing, biking is a great way to experience the city from the ground up. (AP)

The next day as I pedaled by the Drum and Bell Towers near central Beijing, two men eating a Mongolian hot pot waved me off my bike, out of the rain, and into a small restaurant. "We can be three," one of them said. "We will go Dutch."

Yang Bing Zhen -- "Call me Nathan" -- is a manager at a company that arranges rickshaw tours of the hutongs. His friend Shang Guo Jing is either an accountant, a tour guide or both; sometimes language barriers leave these things unclear. They turned up the heat under the hot pot on their table, started throwing in thin slices of lamb and vegetables, and told the waitress to bring me a bowl of thick sesame-flavored soup.

Guo Jing chopsticked gobbets of meat, spinach, leek and parsley into my bowl. He added a dash of red pepper oil and a square of tofu, which promptly dissolved. "Eat," he said. "It is good."

He was right. Its warmth took away the chill of the rain. And it tasted wonderful.

I reached deep into my roughly six-word lexicon of Chinese. "Hao chi ji le," I said. "It's delicious."

And then I had to climb back on that cold, wet seat.

Joost Polak, a Washington writer and editor, last wrote for Travel about Chile's Atacama desert.

Details: Biking Beijing

RENTING A BIKE: I rented my nearly new 15-speed mountain bike from the Giant shop at 4-18 Jiaodaokou East St. in Beijing's Dongcheng District for about $6 a day. The store required a deposit of almost $100, but allowed me to put it on a credit card.

You can also rent bikes at several hotels, including the Kempinski (Lufthansa Center, 50 Liangmaqiao Rd.) and the Beijing Hilton (1 Dong Fang Rd.). If your hotel can't arrange a rental, ask them to look through the yellow pages (which are, of course, in Chinese) and find you a nearby bike store. Rental rates run from about $1.80 per hour to $12 a day, depending on where you rent and how fancy a bike you get. Guarded bicycle parking lots, many of them covered, are almost everywhere and cost about 2 1/2 cents for two hours to about 5 cents for overnight.

WHERE TO BIKE: Tiananmen Square and the moat around the Forbidden City are pretty spectacular from a bicycle, though the heavy traffic surrounding these areas can force you to spend more time navigating than enjoying the sights -- and bicycles are not allowed within the square itself. A couple of suggestions:

• There are some nice hutongs (alleyways) just south of Tiananmen, and even nicer ones around the Drum and Bell Towers in the Shichahai District, about 1 1/2 miles north of Tiananmen. If you ride up the west side of the Forbidden City to get to the Bell Tower, there is a lovely set of linked lakes on your left. Cross over the lakes at an arched bridge about two-thirds of the way up to visit Prince Gong's palace.

• The Summer Palace northwest of central Beijing is amazing, with lakes, high-arched bridges, pavilions and lotus blossoms, but you can't take a bike onto its grounds. While the ride there is mostly along freeways and crowded city streets, there are some nice wooded areas en route. It is very much a real Beijing experience -- and you might get picked up by someone wanting to practice English.

WHEN TO GO: Beijing is at its best -- for biking or anything else -- in autumn, when the skies are clear and the air is cool and breezy. Spring is also nice but can be marred by dust storms blowing in from the Mongolian steppe. Winter is impossibly cold, and late summer, when I went, has only a few clear days scattered among the rain, heat and smog.

-- Joost Polak

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