Our hotel here in Beijing is right in the heart of the hutong - the narrow medieval streets to the north of the Forbidden City. Noisy, smelly, crumbling and crammed with all manner of street vendors, bars, markets and workshops. The tiny roads are permanently rammed with vehicles, whizzing in every direction and ringing, honking and shouting according to a strict hierarchy:
- Bicycles ring their bells manically at pedestrians
- Electric bicycles blast out pre-recorded car-alarm sounds at bicycles
- Three wheeled bikes yell furiously at two-wheeled vehicles of all kinds
- Cars honk at all types of bicycles, their drivers possibly supplementing the honking with shouted abuse
- Trucks just park in the middle of the street, blocking traffic in all directions - and ignore everyone
Amidst such carnage, there's really only one way to see the hutong - by bicycle. You may be towards the bottom of the food chain, but at least you're not a pedestrian.
Fortunately our hotel offers a range of cutting-edge road bikes for visiting tourists, and Sammy and I were allowed to take our pick from their extraordinary selection. I opted for the injection-moulded carbon-fibre BMC bike ridden to victory by Cadel Evans in this year's Tour de France:
|That basket is pure carbon fibre|
Sammy, having a more classical sensibility, went for the epoxy-composite Trek Madone SL made famous by Lance Armstrong in his final 2005 Tour victory:
|That's not just rust - it's go-faster rust|
Of course, there was the minor detail that it was my first day with my arm in a plaster cast - but so many other cyclists were talking on mobile phones with one arm while they steered with the other, that I figured 'how hard can it be?'
|No two ways about it - that is one masculine basket|
|"I'm 100% certain this is an excellent idea"|
... cycled from one side of Beijing to the other. We were having such a great time in the hutong that we hit the main roads (with their vast, cordoned-off cycle lanes) and blasted east to the financial district. Then we turned right around and cycled back to the Forbidden City.
It's the strangest thing - the roads are so utterly bonkers that they feel completely safe. Everyone is doing mad things, all around you, all the time - people cycling the wrong way down one-way cycle lanes, pedestrians stepping out in front of buses without a glance - which means that everyone's expecting madness to occur at every moment. So if you mess up and end up in the wrong lane, it doesn't matter - everyone's in the wrong lane, and everyone's ringing their bells and honking their horns, all the time - so you don't really notice if/when it's directed at you. It's a state of perfect, glorious anarchy.
|I fear nothing|
|This is where the magic happens|
Our best day in Beijing, by miles. Something we've said to ourselves every day in Beijing so far. We absolutely love this city...