an afternoon on my bike

August 16th, 2008

Like Jeremiah, I saw the beautiful blue sky yesterday and had to get out and enjoy it. I wasn’t urban hiking, though. About half past one I jumped on my bike and took off. I was gone so long I got a concerned phone call from lzh. I got back just before five. Yup, the better part of 3 hours on a bike cruising the streets of Beijing under a bright blue sky.

(Oh, and Jeremiah has a cool little quiz, but allow me to sum it up my way: In 1913 there were 13 foreign embassies in Beijing, in the old legation quarter around Dongjiao Minxiang just east of the Square. The USA, UK, France, Germany, Russia, Japan, the Austro-Hungarian empire, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Portugal all had embassies. Which was the 13th? Answer is at Jeremiah’s blog.)

Anyway, so I headed northwards up through the CBD then a slight zigzag through Tuanjiehu to Changhong Qiao, then straight west past Sanlitun and the Workers’ Stadium and over Dongsi Shitiao into the Old City. Then I kinda lost track of where I was and was powering down the nice, smooth, newly-asphalted road- well, dodging traffic through the dregs of the intersection then powering up for the beautiful, smooth, straight road. Then I looked up and


The Western Hills were there looming in the distance. No, I don’t mean that I’d got up so much speed I was suddenly in Shijingshan. I’m not that good a cyclist and my bike would need a fair bit of maintenance before I could comfortably take it that kind of distance. No, I looked up and was blown away by the view. Long, straight road leading into the west, hills rising in the distance…. It’s been quite a while since we’ve had that kind of visibility. Well, then I decided I’d better get my bearings back and remind myself exactly where I was.

So the death of the hutong has been greatly exaggerated. Well, yes, the hutongs, and more importantly the communities they house and the history and culture they embody, are in danger, but there are still plenty of hutongs left, and every time I go wander through them I see old houses and buildings being renovated and others with plaques indicating their protected status as cultural relics. But yes, they are in danger. So, having reminded myself that I was in Dongsi, I promptly hung a right onto Zhang Zizhong Lu, then ducked down the first hutong to my right, and just randomly zigzagged through with no particular plan beyond avoiding main roads as much as possible.

Speaking of which: What is that old European-looking building on the corner of Zhang Zizhong Lu? I’ve always wondered about that, never quite gotten around to actually finding out.

Anyways, so the hutongs in that area make for some very pleasant, slow, calm cycling- and I’d say they’re just as good for walking. I noticed, though, that a lot of the buildings had gotten at least a new coat of grey paint and some looked to have been properly cleaned up. One public toilet had a new garden outside that did a very good job of hiding the fact there was a public toilet there- great for the locals, perhaps not so convenient for visitors. So I kept zigzagging and following random hutongs, occasionally taking a main road only so far as it was necessary. I found myself towards the western end of 府学胡同 and came across what looked like a temple. Couldn’t see any signs to indicate what it actually was, though. Then I kept going and, not for the first time, found myself at Nanluogu Xiang. Funny, the only times I’ve been there have been purely by accident. Only two things I noticed about the place: There’s a lot of foreigners, and many of them looked like tourists (y’know, maps and/or guidebooks at the ready, silly clothes that suggest they consider a stroll through downtown Beijing to be roughly equivalent to a trip through the Serengeti in the late 19th century…. ); there was a long line of Chinese-looking people outside one shop. I didn’t see why. Well, I got out of there pretty quick, and took a loop round the north side of the Bell and Drum Towers, then down the west side of Houhai and Qianhai (crowds of people, many foreigners, and again, a lot of them looked like tourists), past the Shishahai Sport School and Guo Moruo’s former residence and on to Di’anmen West…. Then I made sure to get my sense of direction back, because that transition has screwed me up before. From there, zigzagged southwestwards, ducking through more hutongs to avoid the chaos of Xidan, then down to Xuanwumen and thence eastwards to Qianmen.

Well, I was curious to see how the new renovations look. Unfortunately, the friendly, if somewhat brainless, security guard assured me that I could not take my bike in to Qianmen Dajie even if I was only walking, so I just saw what I could see from the northern end, then took the new road down the side and had a quick peek from the Zhushikou end, then headed home.

Well, the trams looked like museum pieces. Didn’t really inspire much confidence in their ability to transport people- especially considering the lack of power lines.

qianmen tram

qianmen tram

(once again, all photos taken on my cellphone)

(and damn, this is taking me a long time to write! Constant interruptions! The latest of which was the Evers-Swindell twins nail-biter of a race in women’s double sculls, coming from behind to just barely pip Germany in a photo finish that had to be decided by the judges. That’s now 1 gold and 2 bronzes for NZ (Mahe Drysdale in men’s single sculls and Nathan Twaddle and George Bridgewater in men’s pairs. Phenomenal performance from Drysdale considering he beat a huge stomach bug to only just scrape through the semis.)

So where was I? Qianmen. Right. Now there’s been a lot of talk about the Disneyfication of the area. I’m not going to pass judgement until I’ve had a proper look, and being unwilling to park my bike and walk yesterday, I didn’t get a proper look. From the northern end it looks pretty good, although very new (naturally) and crowded:

qianmen renovated

qianmen renovated

qianmen renovated

So not so bad. Vaguely reminiscent of Liulichang, Nanluogu Xiang (stretching, I know), Nanchizi and parts of the Houhai area But I’d have to be willing to park the bike and get in with the crowds to judge properly. And yes, that northern end was very crowded.

Also, there were plenty of cops, several of whom were carrying what looked like handheld metal detectors, but security did not feel overwhelming or oppressive. It looked like what you’d expect in a major tourist destination in the middle of a big international sporting event. There and visible, but not uncalled for.

So, as I think I said, I got back on my bike and took the new road down the western side then around to the Zhushikou end of the newly-renovated stretch of Qianmen. It’s very clear there is still a hell of a lot of reconstruction work to be done. Many of the buildings on the western side of the street looked partially demolished, missing windows or large sections of wall, and to my right was the usual large steel fence blocking off what was clearly still mostly a construction site. And then heading along to the Zhushikou intersection:

back of qianmen renovated

Notice the construction workers’ hut to the left? Anyway, that’s the newly redone buildings along Qianmen Dajie seen from the rear. They don’t look like much special from that angle. Reminds me of the newly-built parts Tianjin’s Ancient Culture Street, actually: Modern buildings designed to recall traditional China, but not quite succeeding. Perhaps not so good. Still, it’s unfair to judge under the circumstances. A closer look when all the construction is complete will show us just how successful the renovation has been.

Anyway, the southern end of the street is narrower and much less crowded than the northern end:

qianmen renovated southern end

Again, it doesn’t look hugely promising- walls hiding empty space to left and right. But still, let’s see how it looks when work is finished.

Well, then I got back on the bike and headed home. Nothing to report from that final leg of the trip. And after all this afternoon’s distractions, I can’t remember anything else I was going to write….

2 Responses to “an afternoon on my bike”

  1. Ji Village News Says:

    Good for you mate! I need to drag my sorry arse out often to get some exercise.

  2. wangbo Says:

    I find it’s a lot easier to get exercise when the weather’s good, and it was brilliant that day. Made for very pleasurable cycling.