Bike Beijing

A love song to Beijing from the bicycle lane – by Paul Haire


Beijing is just about the perfect cycling city. It’s flat as a pancake, with huge empty cycle lanes and hutongs crying out to be explored, whether in shorts and tshirt on a warm autumn evening or wrapped up to the nines on a freezing winter's day. Hidden gems are behind every corner – from chuanr kebab joints to craft brew pubs.

This is a collection of snapshots from bike rides I made from Fuchengmen, in the west half of central Beijing, to a teahouse near Yonghegong Lama Temple. It was a journey I made many times, and a route that combined the best of Beijing. This was in 2007, when China was new and shiny to me, everything seemed possible, and PM 2.5 hadn’t been invented yet.


I unlock my bicycle, a big black iron horse, old even for here, and wipe the dust off the seat. I lift it up, kick back the heavy metal stand and wheel it out, ready for today’s adventure. It's unseasonably warm and the sky is clear, unusual for Beijing which is usually choked up with sickly yellow smog. I climb onto the saddle, begin to cycle and immediately feel a sense of freedom. I feel more at home on my bike than on my own two legs.

The excitement of a new trip takes me over for a moment, then I concentrate on where I'm going. Cycling here requires concentration as people come from all directions, the rules of the road being only mildly obeyed. I pass the five kuai kebab stand on my right and then the bike shed, which I stopped using once I found out they'd been overcharging me. I negotiate the cramped car park, and cycle past the friendly fruit guy with his big green coat and yellowing teeth.

I turn left, with a shopping centre and office complex towers above me, shining brightly in the sun and backed by a pale blue sky. I carry on past the jianbing pancake stall, selling my favourite Beijing street food, past the DVD shop blasting music into the street, and onto the main road. 

It's busy, as it always is in Beijing, but I still feel that freedom. When I cross the bridge traversing the highway I can see for miles in either direction as cars speed by underneath. I cycle past men straining as they propel their heavy tricycle carts laden with goods. I pass old ladies and young girls – experience tells me to be careful of the old ladies. There’s the geological museum, with a huge dinosaur outside. There's a bus stop just in front of this junction and it alway creates a traffic jam.

I halt at the junction, getting into position like a formula one driver on the grid, while other cyclists wait in front, to the sides and behind. The junction man stands with his flag and whistle, ready to enforce the law of the junction mercilessly on anybody reckless enough to break it. The lights turn green and with a big effort I get my heavy machine moving again. I ignore the cars trying to cross in front of me to turn right. They slow down and give way, but I feel foolish for taking the chance.

I keep going, and come up behind an old man with two bird cages attached to the back of his bike. With one hand I take my camera out of my bag and, with great difficulty, take a photo while negotiating the road at the same time. I get two or three good shots before I put the camera back in my bag and pass him. Beihai lake is on both sides of this bridge and the sun is shining brightly on the water, the white stupa on the left lit up like a beacon.

I reach the walls of the Forbidden City, relics from another era, and stop at the junction where a little girl perched on the back of her mother's bike stares at me. Then the lights change and I turn left, heading into the quieter streets around Jingshan park. Trees line the side of the road and there is less traffic. I reach Pinganlixidajie, one of Beijing’s main arteries that runs all the way to Sanlitun in the east.

I pass Houhai lake, with its rickshaw drivers and tourists, and the Starbucks where I like to sit and read in the summer. I stop at the pedestrian crossing opposite Nanluoguxiang and wait for the lights to turn red so I can cycle across the road, breathing a sigh of relief as I enter the hutongs.

The relief is short lived, as cycling in Nanluoguxiang requires just as much attention as on the main road. Cars and cyclists and pedestrians clog the narrow road, tourists darting across it in every direction. Though I've only been in Beijing a short time the street has already changed significantly, new bars and shops opening and others closing down. In the gutted remains of old shops, workmen prepare the space for someone else to try and fulfill their dream, while throwing the previous owner’s into the skip.

A group of old men crowd around a game of Chinese chess, their wizened faces full of concentration as they wile away the long hours. I come out the other end onto Gulougongdajie, and a big black Audi barges past me. I stop to make room for it, then cross the street into another hutong, Beiluoguxiang, less of a tourist trap and with a quieter feel.

Two children play on the street just inside, under the watchful eye of an ageing hooker sitting in a “barber shop”. The sun is shining, and in the sheltered hutong it’s pleasantly warm. Spring is approaching, and Beijing’s harsh winter is coming to an end. I stuff my coat into my bike’s basket and notice remnants of old firecrackers scattered around, left over from Chinese New Year.

The hutong is made up of low buildings painted grey, with Chinese style roofs. It’s narrow, but opens out occasionally to make room for a hotel, a police office or a school. There’s hustle and bustle and an aliveness that fills your senses. Inside the entrances of the faded courtyards, old bicycles stand rusting, propped up by clay bricks. I turn right and head east, crossing over the main road onto Guozijian street, where a colourful and ornate gate greets you at the entrance.

This is where the ancient entrance examinations for government positions were once held, next to the Confucius temple. It's a wide boulevard, which is a relief from the narrow, warren-like hutongs, and is pleasantly free from traffic. I turn right up the steep slope leading to my favourite teahouse, and park my bike in its usual spot just in front.

The teahouse is dark as I step inside from the bright sunshine, and my eyes take a while to adjust. I greet the hostess, sit down at my regular seat and look out onto the boulevard, with Yonghegong Lama temple rising up at the other end. My muscles feel warm and well used, and my heart beats slightly faster than usual.

Paul Haire is a one time F visa hustler and proud LBH who currently resides in Scotland but is waiting for the right moment to jump back onto the crazy conveyer belt that is China

A version of this article first appeared in Hack Writers