The International Writers
Life in China
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
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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
a Chinese sauna with my student
of my students invited me to a sauna to see a show and have dinner. I
was slightly apprehensive
is firmly established as a favourite destination for the Chinese traveler
and is one of the prettiest historic cities in China.
as a Model
Paul Haire in Beijing
Yesterday I had a very unusual experience,
possibly the most unusual experience Ive had in my life so far.
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