Within seconds of leaving the hotel's driveway on our Flying Pigeons, we were confronted with one of the facts of bicycling life in Beijing: At some point, you must cross six-lane, hyperactive Donghuan Road. To experienced city bikers, this is not a tough assignment. For us, it was a game of chicken in which no one wanted to blink.
We finally made it across and into the flow of bike traffic. And, almost immediately, we learned the first rule of the road: What's behind you is not important.
Then we learned the second, and final, rule of Beijing biking: What's in front of you, or on either side, is also not important.
Travelers to Beijing city, and we decided recently that there's no better way to see what goes on beyond tour bus windows than by bicycle. In Beijing, as in many other Chinese cities, bicycling is the great equalizer. Two-wheeled timidity is not tolerated, and tenacity is encouraged by the sheer number of bicycles that compete for space in the streets.
For just $6 apiece, we arranged through the Great Wall Sheraton to rent bicycles for a day. The hotel con1667851634us a city map and suggested a route that would take us from the hotel to downtown Beijing and around the Forbidden City.
Once across Donghuan Road, we were making progress. Since the Great Wall Sheraton is located just a few blocks from most major foreign embassies, we turned down quiet, tree-lined streets and pedaled lazily past other bikers, mothers with strollers and guards posted in front of a few dozen buildings housing diplomats from Ghana, Bolivia, Canada, Zaire and Iran, among others.
We waved at the guards, and they saluted back.
the streets, and this gave us a false sense of bicycle mastery. But this feeling evaporated as soon as we turned south on Xindong Road. We were suddenly thrust into the never-ending flow of traffic. Within seconds, we were surrounded by hundreds of bicyclists.immediately dependent on our instincts.
Beijing bikers possess a sixth sense -- they always seem to know when a car or bus or truck is closing in behind them and without hesitation change lanes at the last second into the constantly moving stream of other cyclists. Surprisingly, despite the often bumpy and potholed streets, and other roadways full of small, sharp gravel, we never saw a flat tire.
And these cyclists never seem to race to their destinations. In many cases, they have ridden for miles and seem to reach and maintain a certain slow pace, despite any obstacles. There are no demonstrations of speed, only incredible displays of balance and perseverance.
In fact, it almost seemed as if we had been trapped inside a bike convoy of resident world-class balancing acts. There were bicycles carrying fruit. Others were laden with cabbages. A family of three rode on the back basket of one bike. Other bikes hauled steel bars, mattresses and cases of soda. One bike managed to balance a six-foot couch. And another was carrying four other bicycles.
But we were no longer just watching this urban roller derby -- we were now part of it.
What we quickly discovered is that there are, quite simply, two kinds of bicycle riders in the capital city: confident bikers and targets. As long as you appear to know what you're doing and where you're going, you'll have no trouble. If you begin to make a right turn and then realize it's not where you wanted to go, keep going. Hesitation usually results in a collision and does not score diplomacy points.
Newcomers also need a great sense of navigation. Street maps are not usually drawn to scale, and asking directions is often more confusing than taking a chance on dead reckoning. But often it seems that just at the moment you feel you are hopelessly lost, you turn the corner and there is a recognizable building or monument.
Besides, not following the map does have some pleasant and unexpected compensations, and wrong turns aren't always bad decisions. We turned down one forbidding alley, only to find hundreds of schoolchildren playing behind a small wall.
One of them was throwing an old Frisbee, and soon we had dismounted our bikes and were playing a hard and fast game of Frisbee catch, to the delight of just about everyone except a few anxious mothers who had never seen a Frisbee -- or us -- before.
When we headed out again, into the swarm of traffic, we soon learned that in Beijing there are few traffic lights, and those that do exist are purely ornamental. A red light here doesn't really mean stop. Instead, it simply indicates you should cross the street very quickly.
There are a number of white-uniformed traffic cops, usually positioned in the middle of busy intersections. Occasionally they will point their finger at a particularly disobedient biker and then spend 10 minutes lecturing him or her, but they do little to actually control the traffic.
A typical bike tour of Beijing takes between one and three hours. One route goes around the Imperial City (with the Forbidden City at its core); another takes you around Wangfujing Avenue, Beijing's major shopping area. There are other routes that go to Xi Dan (the main intersection on Beijing's west end) and to the Qian Men district and the double gate at the south end of Tian An Men Square.
In our case, we circled the Forbidden City, wheeled past the Capital Hospital and the National Art Museum and then headed back to the hotel, where we later toasted our feat with a Tsingtao beer followed by a long and much-needed shower. (One piece of advice: Since Beijing is an incredibly dusty city, it's a good idea to take along a handkerchief or tissue for your eyes, as well as for your camera.)
In general, visitors to Beijing are not encouraged to ride bicycles and bikes are not readily available for rent. The Great Wall Sheraton's rental program began last spring. the good things about renting from the hotel is that, should your bike get crunched in traffic, it will cost you only $50 to replace it. (That's how much the hotel paid for the bikes originally.)
So far, only one guest has had to cough up $50. He didn't destroy his bike. He simply forgot where he parked it. And, believe me, if you leave your bicycle in Beijing and can't remember where you left it, you can forget it. Peter S. Greenberg is a free-lance writer.