My lack of sleep began to hit hard as we returned to Beijing. I was about to ask to cancel dinner together, fearing that I would nod off. But Kenny and Lee would hear nothing of it; we arrived at a shiny bright restaurant with at least half a dozen uniformed parking attendants. As we entered the broad glass doors, a cadre of eight young women in formation chirped a sentence-long greeting in synch. To the right was a series of pools and tanks teaming with live fish, frogs, squid and octopi, geoducks, mussels, shrimp, lobster, crabs, and so on. To the left the dining area. It was a Hong Kong – style place, said Kenny. The sturgeon, shrimp, mussels were tasty, though I’m not big on molluscs or crustaceans. The fresh-kill aspect puts me off a little. The pea shoots were excellent. Chrysanthemum tea, the yellow local beer.
Service at the table was in keeping with the greeting: very high touch, forward, almost aggressive, as if it were measured by the speed and number of unnecessary plate changes. I suppose this helped me stay awake. I have some hang-ups with being served. For example, I get a little uncomfortable when, in a grocery store, they won’t let me pack my bags. I asked Kenny whether the fact that there seemed to be at least as many service personnel as diners in the full restaurant was normal. “They know that nobody come back if service is not good” he said, not catching my drift. Dinner for three came out to about $25 US.
Kenny thoughtfully set me up with a cell phone in case I got lost over the next three days of solo exploration. I bade the cephalopods a futile farewell; the greeter squadron ladies performed their parting piece; I slept.
The next morning early I rolled out the Brompton into Beijing traffic. I stopped often to study a map and orient myself, concerned that I’d get hopelessly lost without a good set of mental breadcrumbs. I realized soon that the hazy sun, the ring roads, and minor bodies of water were going to be my main navigational devices, because very few buildings in modern Beijing are much taller than their peers, and they are remarkably the same. The street names are given in Roman characters at major crossings, but those long names, difficult for my European-language-programmed brain to remember, often differed from each other in only a few characters; moreover, the names of the streets seemed to change every few blocks, and my map didn’t show most of the changes. Even the parks on the map were hard to recognize in proximity, because they are walled up like everything else.
Beijing is a maze. The built environment in China seems governed overwhelmingly by the idea of boundaries, walls, gates, doors, inside and outside. The more conspicuous, abrupt and redundant these boundaries, the better. Take away these features and very little notable remains. I began to suppose this is among the seductions of the car uniquely powerful to the Chinese, a little tinted-window Forbidden City for everyman. A few years after two Americans rode from Constantinople to introduce bicycles to China, the last emperor, Pu Yi, ordered holes cut into the walls of the Forbidden City so he could ride his bicycle freely. That was then; today: not even this American’s folding bike went inside.
There aren’t a lot of old buildings, at least not in compare to newer. From the 50′s through the 80′s went up dull socialist international style buildings, differing mainly in degree of decay. 90s and later buildings are glassy, frequently with ostentatious Vegas/Disney-style touches including decorative phrases in bad English grammar seldom rising to the level of humor.
The major exception, growing more minor by the hour, are the hutong or alleyway complexes of older, single-level courtyard houses and other small buildings. I spent many hours wending my way aimlessly through them. I took a jerky video clip of one passage like many others, showing ordinary hutong life.
I’ve always liked alleyways, as frequently the only unplanned space in otherwise planned places, the negative space where unexpected things are more likely to happen — things that, while not always good, are usually far better than what many people fear. Meanwhile, highly programmed events and places like holidays or amusement parks — or tourist attractions — seldom match expectations, and seem to me like a false substitute for the risks and rewards of winging it. For the most part I skirted tourist attractions in Beijing; I took no guided tours; maybe I’ll bike to the Great Wall next time. The bike was all the glass-bottom-boat I desired; I could float quickly through the passages that might have bored or discomforted me as a pedestrian, yet at any moment I could slow or halt and study any details that called out. My Brompton track-stand is almost Centaurian. The main thing is that I was seeing Beijing as many Beijingers saw it, at least superficially.
The hutong are disappearing in the construction boom, being destroyed for the land they occupy, and in part because they reflect a modesty inconsistent with the go-go image planners are striving to present to the world by the 2008 Olympic Games. You can’t fit cars in most of them. The hutong are filled with clotheslines, refuse, bicycles and tricycles, children playing, and the occasional mysterious piece of flesh hanging to cure. The bathrooms are communal; the handful of hutong that have been selected for preservation are being fitted with ultra-sleek modern restrooms, as incongruous as 2001‘s monolith. Below is a fresh rubble pile in one alleyway; I found the mannequins amid the ruins somewhat chilling. They haul construction debris away with tricycles.
I hadn’t yet gotten any local currency (yuan), so I kept eyes open for an ATM linked to the various international systems. I found one and tried my card, only to be told that my PIN was incorrect. Now, I remember my PIN by the word it spells, not the numbers. And the keypads on these ATMs had only numbers. What’s more, their layout is different from US ones, so muscle memory was no help in reconstructing what my PIN works out to in numbers. I began sketching US keypads and wondering why I thought that A, B, and C mapped to “2″ instead of to “1,” and weren’t there some other characters mapped to “1,” and what were they, and why? I was pretty sure I figured out the numbers in spite of these doubts, but this one machine, and then another, and finally four over the course of a long day all told me that my PIN candidates were wrong, on all four of the cards I tried.
I wasn’t going to let the quest for pocket money rule or ruin my day, so I just kept riding. I meandered along a lake, stopping to watch people haul rather large fish out of its murky waters. A fellow with one leg stripped and dove in for a swim. I sat at a bench perusing my map, and a young guy nearby, eager to practice his English, asked me my opinion about … sports. “I don’t follow sports, really.” He listed all the sport names he knew, questioningly. “I like bicycling. That is my sport, though I do not compete.” He didn’t seem to recognize bicycling as a sport; certainly his own bicycle bore no resemblance to sporting equipment. He proceeded to ask me my opinions of:
* science and technology
* the nine planets (listed)
* the cooking of meat
* “the very famous state of Ohio”
* aquatic life forms
I couldn’t say much worthwhile about any of these (and many more) broad headings. I did say that I was finding Beijing interesting. He said he hated Beijing. By this time a small crowd of young people had gathered to listen to our awkward conversation. Three or four chimed in that they, too, hated Beijing. “Why?” I asked. “Because we are poor!” “That seems to be changing” I offered. He asked “What kind of car do you have?” “I don’t have a car. I am a bicyclist. I like bicycling.” “What kind of car is the best?” “I don’t like cars at all.” “How much money do you make every month?” I gave him a straight answer, which was too complicated to follow. This wasn’t going too well. I told him I wanted to go, friendly. “Good bye, pleased to meet you!” he said formally as I rode off on my funny overpriced bicycle, leaving him and the crowd and their forlorn rides to wonder, I suppose.
I rode for a few more hours, stopping at each ATM I saw; unfortunately this kept me in and around the duller parts of town with internationally-connected banks. By the time I accepted the fact that my cards weren’t going to work, it was getting dark, and I hadn’t had a morsel or drop since breakfast. Faint and trembly, I made for the hotel at the height of rush hour.
Western drivers operate by a pretty rigid notion of rights and (sometimes) responsibilities. When a right is violated, people get really angry. The rights-and-responsibilities model, when it works, means that driving can be a mindless activity, a simple playing out of rules. It evolved this way, I suppose, because the amount of time people in car cultures spend thus encaged engenders desire to escape mentally if not actually. But it often doesn’t work because the tedium dulls senses and social skills. Rules get broken, horns and airbags get deployed, people get mad and hurt. It’s supposed to work like a clock, but there’s always a grain of sand or two to bring it to a fuming halt.
In Beijing, in contrast, right of way is held only tentatively, in a constant state of negotiation with others nearby. Everybody is continually “cutting off” everybody else, going the wrong way, veering into lanes of their own fleeting creation, but nobody seems to get angry. Taxis queue in the bike lanes, bicyclists run lights, and jaywalkers brave ten-lane roads without anybody getting bent out of shape. Honking the horn means “kindly note that I am traversing your blind spot, esteemed telephone conversationalist.” Honking back means “acknowledged with gratitude, once and future tricycle jockey!” Everybody must pay attention. Traffic is thick and sometimes slow, but it never seems to stop. It flows like blood in a body with countless hearts. I’m sure bad things happen in Beijing traffic, but I didn’t see any. Meanwhile, outside Asia, an apparently similar shared space model of traffic is heralded as a pioneering Dutch invention.
My first frightening impressions of Chinese driving technique had eased over the day to recognition of a more harmonious disorder than prevails in America. Street manners are wonderfully relaxed; not mellow, but improvisational, opportunist. Walkers, bikers, drivers mingle without alarm or rancor. In the later dusk, none of the cars even turn on their lights, and mine were the only lights at all on any bicycle I saw there. The scene would strike terror and certainty of imminent death in any American city, but here it was just the daily five minutes of heaven, dancing in the dark, feeling without touching, wheeling free.
I regret not having any video of riding in dense traffic, but all of the “can you believe this?” passages definitely required me not to be operating a hand-held camera. Especially wondrous were the major crossings, undertaken with dozens or more other cyclists nudging their way interstitially through torrents of cars and trucks going 35 MPH and faster.
While the dynamics of riding a bike in Beijing are great, as I’ve noted previously the social and cultural aspects are somewhat depressing. With the single exception of the hotel porter who told me he rode 30km daily, I never saw any clear indicators of joy or pride in bicycles or bicycling per se among the tens of thousands of cyclists I pedaled past. A shocking proportion ride with saddles too low, handlebars askew, chains dragging, hunched over and bobbing, very, very slowly. They pedal with the arch instead of the ball of the foot over the pedal spindle, seemingly without exception, and I looked long. Frequently the pedal platforms are gone, so the bare spindles settle in the crook of their shoes’ heels. I used to think these were marks of inexperienced cyclists; now I know they can also indicate merely an indifference to technique or maintenance so profound it’s beyond the reach of pain to correct.
No wonder Chinese bicyclists in their hundreds of millions appear to want cars, and will make huge sacrifices to get them, preferably stylish ones. The idea of spending a tiny fraction of that cost on better bicycles, stylish ones that can go fast, comfortably, safely, that can carry things and maybe have lights and so on, this idea is nowhere in evidence, unless the “no pedal” bicycle motorization trend can be substituted. They don’t seem to want to improve the working model of bicycle transportation they already have, but to replace it with an automotive one unthinkable, or unthinkably grim, on China’s scale. “A new life awaits you in the Off-World colonies.”
No wonder Lan the controller engineer thought Stokemonkey’s driven pedals and gear-shifting was nuts: his notion of bicycling and of the value of a motor are completely incompatible with it. I feel freshly conflicted about offering assist motors for bikes in America, in view of the obvious position of this technology in China as a complete replacement, rather than as a discretionary complement to human power.
I have supposed that bicycling is a more central part of my identity than language, nation, genes — that I had more essential in common with any practical bicyclist anywhere in the world than most any non-cyclist. I believed that bicycles as transportation were inexorably an expression of certain values, and that a distinct strain of culture would spring from these values everywhere the material conditions were favorable. Just one day in Beijing rid me of this idea, and now it strikes me as shockingly naive. It seems to hold across some cultures; I’m waiting for my honorary Dutch citizenship any day now. But Beijing alone is about as populous as the whole Netherlands, twenty or so times as big as Amsterdam. China is the largest cycling civilization that may ever be, and they seem determined to gut it.