Life In The Hutongs of Beijing
Your first dawn in Beijing. You look out over a gray rolling prairie of tile roofs; a fuzzy peach orb rises through a gray haze, warming the white fur of a cat prowling for pigeons. The roofs are broken by a maze of alleys; here they are known as hutongs, and they refer also to the neighborhoods they encompass.
You walk through Tieshuxie Jie, in search of breakfast: an old man places cages of singing birds in the morning sunshine; another bends to the task of planting garlic in a tiny raised bed; a young woman beckons you into a noodle shop, another offers pastries; an old woman shuffles past, oblivious to the honking of a delivery van; bicycles weave between walkers and three wheeled pedal trucks hauling recyclables, beer, everything else; the ring of bicycle bells bounces off the narrow walls; men ponder moves in a game of Chinese chess, nearly blocking the hutong as friends offer advice; in a tiny shop a woman on her couch holds a Pomeranian on her lap and it bares it’s teeth; a man welds a bicycle frame as bicycles and walkers swerve around him. After a time you are absorbed into it and flow with it; but make no mistake, as a foreigner, you are noticed; another foreigner, passing through.
Life in the hutongs is close and public, and real. It goes on as it has for centuries; there is no differentiating life and commerce; here they are the same, for 18 hours a day, seven days a week, life and work are one, there is no privacy, or seemingly a need for it. The hutongs have a smell that is their own: pastries frying, recycled beer bottles add yeast, sewage sometimes, and sausages and corn on a smoking grill, and spices and tea and others a westerner can not know.
Chinese chess, game of the hutongs and parks of Beijing.
The hutongs are the life of Beijing. If you go, walk past the ones that front the boulevards offering upscale accommodations and the newest DVDs, the newest pop albums and knock-offs of luxury watches. Keep moving until you find where the people live and work and birth and die. The hutongs are disappearing, being bulldozed to build high-rise apartments and shopping centers and Western style commerce. Progress. Visit a real one before they are gone.
Zippy’s rear wheel takes in the sights of Beijing.
We couldn’t leave Zippy (our tandem) behind; not after all we’d been through together; 35,000 miles of self-contained touring: bone-shaking outback tracks in Australia, grueling mountain passes in the US and windblown prairies in Canada. No, Zippy is family, we would find a way to cure him, somehow.
I pack our tandem as carefully as I can, before offering him up to the airline baggage gods, but it wasn’t enough this time. We noticed the box had a couple of holes when we claimed it at Beijing airport, but there was no major damage to the exterior. Negotiating a mini-van into town revealed the enormity of the language issue, which would bite us again soon enough (see Claire’s take on that).
Things went well with the rebuilding until I tried to adjust the headset: it went from loosie goosie to bound up tight, and no degree of subtlety helped. The headset had obviously been driven into the box with enough force to break through, and it appeared to both of us that the headset was slightly bent. Bad. Bad. This is a 1.25-inch headset, the production of which ended nearly a decade ago; how would we ever find one and get it to Beijing?
Okay, take a break, have some breakfast, send an email or two, and try again. No change. Take it apart and start over again. Damn, no change. Okay, work on the rest of the bike. Oh no; why does the drum brake rub the frame; is it bent! Major panic; wake and dirge time; there is no fixing a bent aluminum frame.
But no; closer inspection revealed an axle spacer missing from the non-drive side. It must have been knocked loose and found one of the holes in the box. We turned the room upside down several times to no avail. This very specific part is available nowhere in Beijing, one of the world’s major capitals. The most up-to-date bike mechanics in town all shook their heads, “Mei you.” (no), they couldn’t order the part. Don’t ask me why; the language problem wouldn’t allow us to ask, or to understand.
But one young man with a bit of English at Wind Speed bicycle shop, located in the heart of the expatriate part of town, was able to machine a nut to serve as a temporary spacer. After close inspection of the headset, he determined that it was not bent enough to cause the problem. Apparently a jet-lagged mechanic (me) had not seen that the bottom dust cap was obstructing the top bearing race, black on dark green grease. I was not nearly so embarrassed as relieved.
Bike Friendly City, Beijing Style
The bicycle traffic in Beijing is thick, competing with busses and cars. Horns constantly blare, beep, bike bells ding, bus brakes screech; all manner of unencumbered partially burned petro-chemicals assault lungs and eyes, and that’s just the fun part. No really. Beijing should get an award for the most bicycle friendly city on the planet; the major exception being that the standard issue set of lungs is probably good for five years max. The major boulevards (courtesy of Soviet style modernization) all have 5 metre wide bike lanes, or a complete bikeway separated completely from the vehicles.
However, the system sort of falls apart at intersections; here the laws of physics, social order and chaos theory meet in a nexus of terror. Cars nose into a mob of cyclists, claiming their right of greater mass to avoid themselves being run over by a bus, claiming its own right of greater mass. And whom do the bicycles pick on? Pedestrians be damned! Zippy, having greater mass than other cycles has a bit of advantage, unless meeting a three wheeled pedal truck carrying a load of tin and cardboard two metres wide! Often the separation between panniers and objects come down to centimeters; Claire has learned to keep her hands inside the stoker handlebar ends; and her elbows out!
This cacophony lays siege to the eardrums; yet in retrospect, it is an oddly musical assault, sort of like John Cage on speed. The regular sudden panic stops, the odd stare-down with a motorist, a near miss with little old lady with cane, and the shoulder bumping with a too intimate fellow cyclist become tolerable just as we arrive at our cross-town destination. Then we have lunch, visit a site, whatever, and enter the maelstrom once again. Fortunately all this happens at a relative slow speed and serious accidents are few. Perhaps chaos has gotten a bad rap as traffic control; it seems to work here.
Two days of this and my shoulders, neck and hands are toast. I am looking forward to getting into the countryside, I think; we got a better map, and the mountains just west of the city reach nearly 3,000 metres in places!
Smart Alecks, Don’t Mess With Zippy!
Claire abandoned Zippy and me to shop for an atlas of China in a bookstore. We were immediately surrounded by about a dozen men of varying ages, pointing and poking, smiling and asking questions in Mandarin. All I could do was smile and nod, smile and nod. One young man knew a little English, and asked, “Where you from?” I answered US, and the response seemed positive. “Where you go?” This was not so easy, since he didn’t seem to understand my pronunciation of Urumchi, a city in the far west. Then I remembered the Tyvek ™ jackets Norm Land got for us in Tucson printed with a huge world map. I showed them our routes around Australia, and North America. Big eyes stared back at me, as they comprehended. One man patted his chest to indicate I must have a strong heart. Another braved to squeeze my quad. The English speaker then asked my age, and they registered shock at the, 60 he translated for them. An old man insisted on a friend taking our picture with my camera and then gave me a packet of postcards he was selling, “For you free!” I was feeling a little nervous about so many people so close to our bags and had to turn often to check.
One man of 30 or so had been strutting around the group making remarks, and pointing at me, a very rude thing to do in China. I felt something shake Zippy and turned to find him grinning at me from Claire’s seat. He aggressively pushed against my shoulder and pointed to indicate we should ride. He was baiting, making fun. Zippy doesn’t like being taken lightly. I smiled back, turned and waved the group away, “Okay Zippy, lets take this dude for a ride.” We took off, fast, with him desperately getting his feet on the pedals. We pedaled through the courtyard at a good middle chainring clip to the applause and laughter of a bigger crowd. I could imagine the surprise on my passenger’s face.
Zippy decided to show off a bit, swerving in and out of parked cars, leaving inches to spare and increasing the speed, he even sped under a makeshift clothesline. That was too much for our passenger; he found the only English he knew; “Ok, ok. Ok, ok,” came his plaintiff plea. I stopped and let him off in front of his laughing friends. I turned and gave him a smile, and a big, face-saving, thumbs up before riding off to pick up my preferred stoker.
This is perhaps my favorite portrait in China. Is there anything more universal than the love of a beautiful bicycle? Zippy may be old at 70,000 or so miles, scratched from his adventurous life, but he’s still a beautiful piece of (American) work.
The Joys Of The Chinese Language
People here have been extremely patient in trying to communicate with us. Just listening to other conversations, I hear a lot of repetition, so I’m beginning to think that knowing the “common tongue” may not help. For some reason, the word bicycle is especially difficult: zìxíngche looks almost onomatopoetic, and we’ve tried pronouncing it several different ways while sitting on top of-and pointing at-a double zìxíngche no less, and we still get blank looks.
Thankfully, a few key words and gestures generally open the doors to negotiations peppered with many “duibuqi”s (sorry, or excuse me) from both sides.
Food, of course, is a main concern and we’ve only had the joy of the unknown dish once so far. We won’t go hungry and I’m looking forward to learning more about both food and language.
In Trouble Already?
The tall, stoic guard gave us the white glove wave, we were in trouble. A small crowd of 20 or so people had gathered around Zippy under Chairman Mao’s portrait. One man asked questions in broken English as the crowd grew. It was too much for the guard so we got the wave of dismissal. I asked the English speaker what it meant. Yes, leave.
We had come to meet Karen at the entrance to the Forbidden City for a ride around the hutongs. When she didn’t show up, we waited and people watched. That was when the crowd had gathered.
We had already ridden through one intersection with a policeman yelling and waving at us. It was a really big intersection and for some reason, no other bicycles were around. I suppose that should have struck me as peculiar. We’ll have to leave this town soon or officials will start to recognize us.
The Ex-patriot Tour of Beijing
Riding around the lakes and hutongs on a busy Sunday was a blast. Karen (who is generously letting us stay in her apartment), Denny and Sue, all teachers here showed us some of their favorite narrow, residential alleys. I was certain that at some point I would have to hug another cyclist or push them away to keep us both from crashing. We stopped at a busy park so Denny could pick up on a game of table tennis. The cherry trees are blooming and the willow leaves are a bright, light green. Sue exclaimed that we could see the mountains to the northwest of town. The American Embassy recommends Americans spend no more than five years in Beijing due to the pollution. On especially bad days, children are not allowed outside to play. One un-photographed sight was a little girl who appeared to be trying to put on her own diaper while workers nearby congregated on a digging project.
Don’t know why I’m surprised to see pet dogs about. No strays; here they are a sign of wealth. Why then, should I be further surprised to see that most of the dogs are Pekinese? So far, all dogs we’ve seen have been small, Pekinese, Pomeranians or Pugs. The few cats we’ve seen have been rangy, skittish toms.
The New Chinese Army: Hot Pink Pumps
One image that will stay with me forever was that of a woman in full forest-green military uniform (slacks) who came out of her compound listening to an i-Pod, wearing hot pink satin high heels. The symbolism of Beijing at this point in history may be more telling than I know. Who knows?
Sharon Horne would. She agreed that Chinese are big on consumerism and the soldier in pink is representative of a nation in transition. A Canadian consultant in teamwork and international business relations, Sharon e-mailed a response to our frantic call for help. With a can-do attitude, she plucked us from the throng at Qianmen subway station and whisked us to the Wind Speed Bike Shop. That we found each other through the crush of traffic on Quianmen Dongdajie was proof of the power in the nearby tower of Manifest Benevolence. (That Wind Speed was actually able to help was further proof.)
Stay tuned to find out: Will Karen come back to find we have sub-let her apartment? Will Zippy make the entire tour using a machined nut to hold the rear wheel in the dropouts? Will Bob start charging for Zippy amusement rides? Will Claire buy herself a pair of hot pink pumps to pedal in? All this and more in the next issue of the NewBohemians.