BEIJING — Many travelers to Beijing see most of the expected attractions: the Great Wall, the Ming Tombs, the Forbidden City, and first-timers always try to experience at least one Peking duck dinner.
Unfortunately, few tourists ever get to really see the best of China's capital city, and what they do see is more often than not viewed from the window of a tour bus.
Now, however, as travelers are becoming more adventurous and government officials more cooperative, more individualized itineraries are being developed.
One, which isn't advertised, is available to guests at the Great Wall Hotel. You can, for a nominal cost, rent a bicycle. It seemed like a great idea, and some friends and I decided to give it a try.
The hotel concierge gave us a city map and suggested a route that would take us from the hotel to downtown Beijing and around the Forbidden City.
We picked up our Flying Pigeon brand bikes from the basement parking garage at the hotel and headed west toward the center of the city.
Within seconds of leaving the hotel's driveway we were confronted with one of the facts of bicycling in Beijing: At some point you must cross Dongsanhuan Zhong Avenue.
To experienced city bikers, this may not have been 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.
Almost immediately we learned the rules of the road. The first rule of Beijing biking: What's behind you is not important.
The second rule of Beijing biking: What's in front of you, or on either side, is also not important.
And, according to knowlegeable sources, no third rule concerning bike riding in Beijing has ever been discussed.
What is important while riding your bike is that you must always move forward.
Having crossed the first busy road, we were making progress. As the Great Wall Hotel is 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, Kampuchea, Iran and the PLO, among others.
Wild and Crazy Guys
We waved at the guards, and they saluted back. Two wild and crazy guys (one was wearing a Madonna T-shirt), who turned out to be staffers at the Yugoslavian Embassy, stopped to chat with us. The ultra-modern Iranian Embassy was heavily guarded and half a dozen officials walked around the circular driveway, speaking in hushed tones. Their foreign minister was in town.
Because it was a diplomatic zone, no cars were parked on the streets, and that gave us a false sense of bicycle mastery.
But the 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.
In Beijing, as in many other Chinese cities, bicycling is the great equalizer. Two-wheeled timidity is not tolerated. Tenacity is encouraged by the sheer number of bicycles that compete for space in the streets. By necessity, you soon become totally dependent on your 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 into the constantly moving stream of other cyclists at the last second.
Surprisingly, despite the often bumpy and potholed streets, and other roadways full of small, sharp gravel stones, we never saw one flat tire.
No one races to get anywhere. In many cases, bicyclists in the city have driven for miles to get to where they're going. They seem to reach a certain slow pace, and work to maintain it despite any obstacles. In Beijing there are no demonstrations of speed, only incredible displays of balance and perseverance.
It almost seemed as if we had been trapped inside a bike convoy of balancing acts. Some bicycles carried fruit. Others were laden with cabbages. A family of three rode in 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. Another was carrying four other bicycles.
Urban Roller Derby
But we were no longer just watching this urban roller derby-- we were part of it.
What we also quickly discovered was that there are two kinds of bicycle riders in the capital city: confident bikers and targets. And 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 collisions with other bicyclists and does not score diplomacy points.
Newcomers will also need a great navigation sense. Street maps are not usually drawn to scale, and asking directions is often more confusing than taking a chance on dead reckoning.