Beijing: Getting lost and getting home

For my last day in China, I wanted to ride out of the city. I imagined that I could reach farmland, get some good miles in, and work in a visit to the Summer Palace to boot, which from pictures appeared to be set in hills, with vegetation about. That looked nice for a change.

The general road plan around Beijing resembles a garden-spider’s web, with concentric ring roads cut by radial spoke roads converging on the city center. Conceived alternatively as a clock, my hotel was at about one-thirty near the third ring road. The Summer Palace was at ten-o’clock out well past the fourth ring road. So the most direct route would be to follow the third ring road counter-clockwise until ten-o’clock, then outwards. But I supposed that I would see more interesting country riding outward first, then taking a wider arc beyond the fourth ring road, along minor roads.

It’s fair to say that I was continually lost attempting this route; without the bright sun to keep me from going in circles, I would never have made it. It soon became apparent that my map was hopelessly out of date for the entire general area, as I was riding through what must be among the world’s largest construction sites nearly the whole time, including those of some of the larger 2008 Olympics facilities. A vast forest of heavy cranes cast their shadows like sun-dials over the confusion. I turned back many times upon finding myself sharing narrow rutted dusty roads with speeding columns of enormous dump trucks, their wheels as tall as my head. I sure found where the sidewalk ends, and it wasn’t in farmland.

The dust and fumes and threat of becoming pavement were unpleasant, but the social spectacle was worse: there were people living amid the din — lots of people — in huddles composed half of the ruins of previously existing buildings, and half of lean-tos and other impromptu shelters made of pallets, plastic sheeting, and other leavings from the construction. Often enough, the people living here were wearing office attire. “Honey, I’m home! Did you and the kids have a nice swim in the solvent lagoon?” The structures rising from these refugees’ presumed former homes were splashed with advertising for the promised order of “New York Luxury Lifestyle Prosperity Choice Suites.” They are building multi-level parking garages. They are building a fifth ring road, a superhighway, not on my map published in 2005. One of the (English) placards exhorting Olympics-site laborers to work hard listed “sustainability” as one of the goals. The extremities of poverty and wealth, the leaden hand of planning and unplanning, was crushing. I kept trying and failing to imagine all that this juggernaut of development would destroy before it stopped.

I rode nearly five hours before I came into the environs of the Summer Palace. I checked my bike at the gate as at the park the previous day, and spent a couple hours exploring inside. The most impressive structure was shrouded in scaffolding. The site in general was worth the visit, but I couldn’t get the images from the trip out of my head.

ringroadIt took me less than one hour to ride back via the straightforward route, along the third ring road. I kept a brisk, cleansing pace. Essentially it’s like riding on a freeway. I took a video clip.

I was to meet Kenny for dinner this final evening. He picked me up alone in his car, and I told him about my day and some of my then-forming impressions of China in general. He didn’t believe that I rode from the Summer Palace back to the hotel in less than an hour. I asked whether I could ask him a political question.

“Of course!”

“All of this development looks like Las Vegas to me. It isn’t socialism. It seems to me that the Party government in China relied on ideology for legitimacy. Now that the ideology is gone, is the Party gaining or losing strength?”

“The Chinese people do not care who is in power as long as our economic opportunities improve. So they are getting stronger.”

There followed some word-mincing about the difference between “socialist” and the current “socialized” descriptor.

He took me, at my request, to a Sichuan place, apparently near his home. I explained that Sichuan peppercorns have been banned in America for years, and I missed the flavor. We ordered more than we could eat, and talked mostly about business. I surprised both of us by picking up and eating peanuts deftly with chopsticks. Before ordering his second beer, he made a phone call to his driver to meet us. He wasn’t going to drink and drive. I asked whether he had tried the extremely strong IPA beer I had brought as a gift for him. His indirect answer and downcast eyes told me that he hated it. He told me that he found Beck’s “unacceptable.” The local beer is extremely light and soft on the palette. Yeah, he’d hate the IPA. We each had two tall beers over a few hours; Kenny seemed somewhat affected. My guidebook had led me errantly to expect that I would seldom leave a Chinese table, especially with business associates, before draining many glasses of strong spirits.

At one point he found it necessary to assure me that he liked bicycles, as I suppose my fixation on the subject had put him on the defensive. He told me that he needed a car for business, that a bicycle was not acceptable for hosting clients, for traveling with his family to the mountains, etc. I accepted this, but told him only half-jokingly that if he traveled to Portland for business, I would pick him up on a Stokemonkey-equipped bicycle; that this would be as unforgettable an experience for a Western person as a car ride would have been for a Chinese person not too long ago. We agreed that I was not typical, and left it at that.

Later that evening we stopped by one of a few apartments Kenny keeps for business, this one full of stock. He showed me a secret project he was working on, and one of his extra-heavy motors installed on a mountain bike. I rode both; it was hard for me to overlook the poor tuning of the rides, as I was unable to pedal effectively, but then that wasn’t the point with these vehicles. I wished then that I had brought an Xtracycle to China, so Kenny could get a taste of the “work smarter not harder” design philosophy of Stokemonkey, but honestly I can’t see my product doing well outside of cultures that take bicycle maintenance and mechanical refinement more seriously. We returned to the hotel late. His driver’s car had no seatbelts, and the suspension was shot from transporting too many bicycle motors over the years.

He met me early the next morning to take me to the airport, and presented me with a gift he proudly told me his employee had stayed up all night to sew: a padded bag for my Brompton! What to say? I was amazed at the elaborate sewing and sacrifice of sleep, but fearful that checking the Brompton in a soft bag would invite rougher handling than the gate-checked bare bike would. Also, having the bike in the bag meant that I’d need a separate luggage cart. What concerned me most, though was that having a bulky bag to transport in addition to full luggage meant that I couldn’t ride to and from the airport. “You take taxi!” I should probably have shut up earlier to spare his feelings, but I’m slow this way. I thanked him as well as I could at that point and put the bike inside, hoping nervously for the best. Kenny had been so helpful to me, and I felt like we were on much more solid footing than before; as we parted, I nearly reached out to pull him close, but I sensed somehow that that would mortify him. We shook hands.

homewardhaloI slept surprisingly well on the flight home. The bike arrived in Portland with some evidence of having been under heavy items, but I bent things back into shape. Best of all, I had enough free space in my luggage to stuff the empty bag inside. The ride home, in the dewy morning light and spring greenery of Portland, was far too short. The sheer sweetness of the air, the quiet, and the unwalled gardens of the beautiful old homes filled me with a dark gratitude.

This concludes my China trip notes. If you’ve been reading the installments as I’ve published them serially, and you’ve enjoyed, you might go back and skim them from the beginning, as I have edited a fair amount along the way.

  1. Arrival
  2. Gay shepherds
  3. The controller shop
  4. The motor shop
  5. Kites and jets
  6. Hutong
  7. Zombies, animatrons, and the UNICEF guard
  8. Tiananmen Square demonstration
  9. Getting lost and getting home

10 thoughts on “Beijing: Getting lost and getting home”

  • George

    I’ve been following along……..quite an amazing trip.

    Thanks for blogging it, I’m sure you’ll never forget it:-)

    Reply
  • miketually

    As George says, an amazing trip. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    Reply
  • Holly

    Thanks so much, Todd, for the Beijing Diaries. I, like many, find China fascinating: for its powerful role in current American politics, the fact that it’s floating our ecomony, and because of the strange mirror they provide as they work to “catch-up” to American standards of living. I cannot blame Chinese people for wanting some taste of the plenty they are seeking to acquire—as I cannot blame most of the world’s population for wanting some of what “the West” has kept so greedily for its own tiny population. But I also see it as one of the great tragedies of this time, knowing the extreme environmental damage and the decimation of tremendous cultural and agricultural knowledge that is occuring as we teeter at the brink of the end of cheap oil.

    There is something about seeing a place on a bike that is like nothing else. It is so fine-grained, but you can cover so much more ground than you can by walking. Someone taking a walk in Beijing from their hotel is not going to see what you saw. (I’d note that few people have your endurance even on a bike, but that’s another issue!) I wish, so often, that i could show folks I know who are still car-bound what I see and feel riding a bike on my regular, everyday perambulations. It changes how I understand our landscape—and those I visit.

    I am thusly haunted by your story of riding through the giant cranes on your tiny Brompton, wandering through endless, collossal construction projects. In an insomniac meshing of visions in the wee hours last night, I thought of you amidst the Beijing cranes, and thought of an absurd visit Patrick and I made to Vegas, where we used our Dahons to get around. I saw some dark parallel in scale and defining cultural motif in the two cities—”Luxury Lifestyle Prosperity Choice Suites” meets off-world colonies. But no one in Vegas asked how much our bikes cost . . .

    But I especially share your melancholy about how little affection the average Chinese person has for cycling as a mode of transportation. It occurred to me, as it no doubt did to you, that it may be a requirement to be on a bike to see things a certain way, but being on a bike is no guaruntee that you will see.

    Reply
  • John Prue

    Hi!

    I just finished reading all your China trip commentary. Wonderful! My brother in-law also has some manufacturaing taking place in China, but your commentary really provided some intruguing insights.

    I’ve watched your website for some time and have been fascinated by your product. To be honest it’s a bit out of my budget (if I could convince my wife to use it it might work out, but I can barely get her on a conventional bike!). I’m a frequent reader of the Yahoo Power-Assist group and found a link that lead me to your trip report.

    Your dedication to your business, and your product are very admirable.

    I wish you the best of success!

    Very Best Regards,

    John.

    Reply
  • Todd

    Here’s an article I just came across that echoes my impressions of the construction boom: http://observer.guardian.co.uk/magazine/story/0,11913,1591270,00.html

    Reply
  • Holly

    Ouch. What will they do with those skyscrapers without the energy to heat and cool them? The architects get a new playground, it is nothing more, whatever they tell themselves. They have no excuse, except that the discipline is rooted in a model of modernist manifest destiny that refuses to accept any limitation. This is so sad.

    Reply
  • Erik Sandblom

    I think skyscrapers are pretty cool. I don’t know if they’re practical, but they cut down on transportation since people can use elevators in the building, and rapid transit to and from the building. Doesn’t that qualify as a car-free, sustainable development?

    I heard skycrapers are a bad idea in warm places, since the airconditioning always needs to be on. But if it’s not too hot, you should be able to use unmotorised ventilation. It’s windy a few floors up.

    Reply
  • Holly

    There is a fascinating and disturbing account of the ascendency of motoring in China in the NYT Sunday mag from a couple weeks ago.

    Reply
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