Gliding past a honking rush-hour traffic jam on a historic road in Beijing, past Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, it is hard to imagine this was once a kingdom of bicycles.
The Chinese capital today is swamped with cars and trucks due to rapid urbanization. It is easy to believe all 18 million Beijingers have abandoned their iconic Flying Pigeons and Forever bicycles for a Buick or an Audi.
But the good news is the city government has put a quota on new car sales -- and despite the gridlock, this fast-changing city remains a cyclist’s dream, as long as you learn the rules of the road and are willing to get lost. Despite the slowly improving smog, getting around by bike is an ideal way to explore Beijing.
The capital is flat, most main streets have bike lanes, and bicycles (called zi xing che, “self driven transport”) are practical, cheap, green and slice through the perpetual gridlock. Cyclists can take in the sights, sounds and smells denied to many four-wheeled travellers or subway passengers.
Beijing was built to show off the power of the emperor and leave visitors in awe. It is constructed on a grid using a 1,000-year-old urban planning technique, with a 7.5km north-to-south axis slicing through the city and marked by the impressive gate houses dotted symmetrical along the skyline. Using the Forbidden City as your locus, you can branch out in any direction.
Start your cycle tour at breakfast time in one of the hutongs (alleys) north of the Forbidden City. Look for one of the small outlets serving on an array of breads and buns and dumplings which you wash down with warm soya milk or tea.
Heading south along the popular Nanluoguxiang alleyway you cross over the main road at the pedestrian crossing and pick up the next hutong. And from there continue south, zig-zagging through ancient small streets with traditional courtyard residences. The local cottage industries and their smells waft up from woks, fruit and meat markets, carpenters working in pine and stone masons. The area is a riot on the senses.
Eventually you will come to Jinghsen Qanyie Road and the moat and wall of the Forbidden City. Skirting the east side of this imperial palace you can reach the huge expanse of Tiananmen Square, the symbolic and politically charged centre of China.
Farther south is Chairman Mao's Zedong mausoleum and the Temple of Heavenly Peace. From here you can ride on to the ancient (and recently renovated) Qianmen area, where lunch at the famous Qianmen Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant (30 Qianmen Dajie/Road; 010 6511 2418) is a must.
By heading back north for approximately half a mile, up the west side of Tiananmen Square and the Great Hall of the People, you will reach three imperial lakes lined with willow trees. A clockwise tour of the largest, Hou Hai, is a pleasant ride, with opportunities to stop for refreshments at its waterside cafes.
Before dusk, head west toward the Drum and Bell Tower, located at the south of Hou Hai lake on Gulou Dajie, where you can wiggle your way down the hutongs once more. Look for a cosy or lively place for dinner among the many traditional restaurants, bars, cafes and boutiques.
Rules of the road
The first hour on two wheels is not for the faint hearted. The lack of space means pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles all vie for pavement.
But there is a method in the madness. As long as you keep your wits about you and a thumb poised on the bell, you will soon be peddling alongside the saddled-up masses with aplomb. The city’s informal highway code includes no yielding, vehicles making turns without signalling and pedestrians cross without looking. Keep your eye on what is in front of you. Always give way to buses. The use of hand signals is rare but other road users will take note. It sounds daunting but there is a respect for bikers.
On another safety note: few Chinese bother with helmets, but they are easily purchased from most bike shops and hire companies provide them. You can always bring your own for assurance and comfort.
There are scores of bike shops selling cheap and reliable bike starting from around 200 Chinese RMB – a bargain.
If you are not comfortable going it alone, there are plenty of tour groups that offer excellent guided rides around the major sites, including to the Summer Palace which is located on the northwest edge of the capital. Most hotels can arrange bike hire or tours, but two reliable companies are Bike Beijing and Bicycle Kingdom.