First day on vacation HAS to be a big day: you’re excited about arriving in a new place and you want to see EVERYTHING right NOW…and boy did we try.
Our first order of business was to find and buy a cheap phone because the one I brought from Maine (an old Droid) mysteriously would not charge. I had spotted a phone stall on the main street just above our hotel the night before s so at 9:00 we went back to the main street to look for it. Shutters everywhere. There was very little street life (at least compared to the night before) and nothing was open. I guess our area is all about the night life.
One of the things I really liked about our hotel, as I browsed among the choices, was that they offered free access to bicycles, and many people we talked to who had been to Beijing told us that biking was a great way to travel around the city. After our failed attempt to find a phone stall, we returned to our hotel around 10am and picked up our bikes. They came with locks that were fixed to the bikes, and nice baskets on the handle bars. They were both one speed with sketchy brakes, but they basically worked.
Our objective was the US Embassy in the Chaoyang District where we had arranged to meet a fellow Monroe, Maine resident who works there for lunch. It also gave us an excuse to explore because the district was on the other side of the 3rd Ring Road, a couple miles from the city center.
We started on one of the back alleys heading east so that we could get comfortable on the bikes and with the traffic. Between pedestrians, cars, and other bikes/cycles we realized that there was only one rule of etiquette in Beijing Biking: you go WHERE EVER you can go. The corollary to that rule is that every other vehicle will go where ever it can, so be prepared. If there is space in front of you, someone might fill it without warning or an “excuse me.” But once we figured that out, and were always prepared for someone passing us and/or cutting us off, we got the hang of it. And there are bike lines on EVERY big street — in the alleys it’s just a free for all, but there are many fewer cars — and on the biggest roads they’re physically separated from the speeding cars (cars will travel in the bike lanes to park and/or pick-up/drop-off, but they generally move much slower, and they understand the One Rule.
The bikes did not move fast, but they moved steadily, and you didn’t want to go TOO fast because of the One Rule. We were quickly able to keep up with the general flow of traffic because it isn’t that fast in the bike lanes. Also, Beijing is literally flat as a moo shu pancake, so very little effort is expended — it felt easier than walking to travel at basically a full run (maybe 10 miles/hour) PLUS you got a breeze that felt very pleasant.
We had many stops and starts as we moved farther east because we wanted to check and re-check our position on our maps, though we “fell off” of the good map that we had and had to rely on a big scale map for the last half of the journey. Even so, it took us only about 45 minutes to travel the four miles or so to the embassy district. Since we were almost an hour early for our lunch appointment at 11:30, we explored the area which is also full of “International Residence” compounds and towers.
The US Embassy is a sprawling low concrete bunker (probably literally) that takes up most of an entire block. It’s surrounded by the French, Indian, Israeli, Malaysian, Korean, and Burundi embassies which are a bit more ornate but smaller. On the east side is the visa office which was (naturally!) crowded with many people standing in line on the sidewalk. We were directed to the west side where the employee and service entrance was located: no line of people, but an elaborate set-up for checking cars and vehicles for bombs before they’re allowed to enter what looks like a parking garage.
Michael joined us outside the gate and was immediately impressed that we were with bikes that looked like “real” bikes (i.e. beat up and non-descript), as well that our hotel offered bikes like that to guests. We walked up a few blocks to a main road and then he directed us to an entrance with all Chinese characters that led us upstairs to a Japanese restaurant where he liked to get a big bowl of ramen almost every day. There are three choices: ramen with dumplings, ramen with seaweed salad, or ramen with a regular salad. He liked the seaweed salad version, and Alison also got that. I got a bowl with dumplings. Everything was very good.
We actually didn’t know Michael at all, and I had met him briefly at the Farmers Market this summer where he had given me his card and offered to meet us for lunch when we arrived, so we spent most of lunch learning about each other and how we managed to get to Monroe and Beijing. He works for the USDA foreign service (not the State Dept) that’s responsible for helping US companies import and export food from other countries. He didn’t have an agricultural background as much as a economic trade background, but he seemed very interested in learning more about how agriculture works at the ground level.
When we said goodbye to Michael we had two options. We were *most* of the way out to the “798 Art District” which is well known, but did not get good reviews from art people that we asked (it had, apparently, crossed over the line into “touristy”). Instead we chose to head south, paralleling the 3rd Ring Road (which is a highway) until we ran into an area of great development and new buildings with often crazy designs, including the very famous CCTV Building designed by Rem Koolhaus that taxi drivers apparently call the “Boxer Shorts.”
What I enjoyed about approaching the CCTV building by bicycle is that you could really absorb the context surrounding this amazing sculpture. In all the pictures I’ve seen of it (most from the air to capture the design), it exists almost isolated from the city, but it turns out that the mundane apartment and other buildings of the city marge right up to its flanks, not to mention the bustling city circulating right around it.
Just south of the CCTV Building is “SOHO New City” flanking one of the major east-west avenues with futuristic buildings of glass and steel, very much a hodgepodge of what might be considered “modern” in a vacuum. Nothing relates to it’s surroundings, but every building shouting “ME! ME! ME!” We also rode just past a building site that’s still in the demolition phase. The site was walled off, but every so often there was an access point that you could peak in to see the ruins that was being cleaned up. You could also see some temporary three story buildings here and there on the site that I figured out was the worker HOUSING because they had laundry hanging from some windows, but they were clearly not older buildings, or buildings meant to survive the construction of whatever was planned.
From there we headed back west along the major avenue because we knew it would pass right between Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, and that on the far (west) side of Tiananmen was the National Performing Arts Center building, a famous dome of a building sited in the middle of a “lake” (you enter it from underground). The major avenue was fairly easy to negotiate on bikes, except for the city buses that also used the bike lanes to pick-up/drop-off and were quite intimidating because they were the giant bendy buses and you couldn’t ride on the sidewalk side of them or you ran into passengers, but if you rode to the street side of them, they took the One Rule to an extreme, and were very aggressive about it (otherwise they’d never get back onto the road…) Alison didn’t like the buses AT ALL.
We rode up the west side of the Forbidden City where a lot of work was being done on a new water/sewer line, then as we guestimated our location we turned east back into the Dongcheng District of our hotel. By chance we found a pretty (and quiet) canal lined by brand new residences that dumped us back into the crowded alleys near our hotel. From there we walked our bikes up the crowded pedestrian shopping mall street and collapsed in our (mercifully!) air conditioned hotel room.
Ahhghh….by now you will have noticed the air quality in many of the pictures. We asked Michael whether this was a “foggy” day or a “smoggy” day. It was, very definitely, the latter. The stuff was so thick that the sun barely appeared. It felt overcast (and VERY humid) but there were no clouds that you could see that were obviously blocking the sun. There were no shadows, and buildings faded in just a few blocks. We did not check the US Embassy pollution index (which residents, apparently, religiously check every day) but we heard it was “only” 200 — there have recently (last winter) been days around 750! It was an amazing example of what we only read about from very far away, but it certainly made me appreciate the Clean Air Act as never before. (And Beijing isn’t the only — or the worst — polluted Chinese city…) Even though we were biking, we weren’t really exerting ourselves that much, and I never “felt” the effects of the pollution today, but I’m sure if I lived here I would wonder about the long term effects. You did see people in masks, but it was not common, even among the Big Noses. In then window of one of the International Residence towers I spotted the back of a box for an air purifier, which are apparently quite common for those who can afford them. Perhaps this visible sign of how China has changed was the most interesting thing we saw today.