Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Oct 14 2006

I took a friend’s advice and rented a bicycle yest…

I took a friend’s advice and rented a bicycle yesterday to see the city more effectively. It does make quite a difference and seem to be the only way to make a dent in such an effort. I just wished I had the Crazy Bike here, as my ass was sore for hours after riding the rental bike.

The weather was grey and dismal as I pedaled northeast from Dongzhimen Station, following the canal through what appeared to be embassy territory, with lots of large complexes with guards, or lots of guards with large complexes, I’m not sure which. Eventually the road ended in a contruction site, and I turned north by a school apparently for foreign kids. Children of all colors clustered around the gate. The area was full of foreigners, actually, foreigners walking, riding bikes, riding motorcycles, with children, waiting for buses, etc.

I kept riding back west and found myself in some pretty nice neighborhoods, quiet and shady, and another canal. Bicycles here can go anywhere, even on the freeway, unlike Taiwan, where not even motorcycles with engines larger than small cars are allowed on the freeways.

A large group of chefs and waiters, all dressed in white with tall hats, lounged in front of a restaurant. Some were playing a lively game of badminton. I reached for my camera, looked up, and they had all vanished. The entire courtyard was empty. People here seem camera-shy, but this was uncanny. I hadn’t even heard them leave in the 1.5 seconds I’d looked away.

I passed by another canal, lined with luxury high-rises and parks full of old people and frolicking dogs, and then through some of the first “real” feeling city streets I’ve seen here. The huge avenues succeed only in dwarfing the inhabitants, making them seem insignificant and ill-suited to their environment, but these were inhabitable streets and thus much more enjoyable. The buildings in Beijing remind me more of Taipei’s rather than Shanghai’s. More utilitarian, less aesthetically pleasing. I passed shops with the staff all lined up outside, shouting slogans about service and productivity for their manager.

I turned south again and found myself back where I started, more or less. While riding I learned that, no matter the color of the light, you’re safe as long as 1) other riders are doing what you’re doing or 2) a guy in a blue uniform isn’t holding you back with his baton. You can run red lights, stop at greens, ride into oncoming traffic on the highway, whatever you like. Perhaps traffic chaos is a less-than-democratic society’s way of expressing personal freedom. In any case, I do like the choice of electric vehicles available here, ranging from bicycles with motors to small electric scooters. Taiwan would do well to copy the mainland in this respect.

After returning the bike and returning to pedestrian status, I called up Brendan, who was hanging out at the Shalou Cafe in a nearby Hutong, right next to the place we’d had tea the day before. He gave me directions, and I eventually found the place, stopping to take pictures of interesting doorways in the alleys on the way. Schoolgirls skipped past large two-car garage doors that had been carved into the Hutong walls, singing, “Studying is good, if you don’t study when you’re young, you’ll be miserable all your life!”

The cafe bosses, two Mongolian brothers with an impressive music collection, promised that a Mongolian band’s arrival was imminent, but it wasn’t until the wee hours of the morning that they finally showed up. In the meantime Brendan and I chatted about the differences between Mainland and Taiwanese Mandarin, as well as with some of the foreigners there, including David from newsinchinese.com. Though we have our differences on what makes good Chinese, both of us couldn’t help but wince at some of the awful pronunciation we heard during the course of the evening.

The music, when it happened, was great, consisting of sad and sometimes upbeat melodies and unusual voices including throat singing. Performed by a group called Hang-gai and consisting of four or five Mongolians on traditional instruments, it reminded me of Albert and the other Tuvan throat singers of Yat-ka, whom we’d played with in Taipei a while ago. I was out taking short videos and had just come in when the end of a crutch slammed the door open. The crutch belonged to an elderly neighborhood man who lived next door. He was insensed about the “noise” and had it out with one of the Mongolian brothers in the entryway. Unfortunately this meant that the performance had to end prematurely.

Brendan, David and I chatted for a while longer, but at one point Brendan gave a start. “I know that guy,” he whispered, indicating an older foreign fellow at the bar shouting loud, grating Mandarin at the staff. We quickly made plans to leave, but they were in vain, as the guy came over and recognized Brendan from their days in Harbin. Some polite chatting necessarily ensued, but we extricated ourselves nontheless, parted ways in the dark, deserted alleys and headed to our respective beds.

It was a pretty good day. I think Beijing might be growing on me a bit after all.

posted by Poagao at 5:54 am  


  1. Glad to hear Beijing’s going easier on you. As you seem to have discovered, this city can be daunting, uncomfortable, intimidating, or downright offensive, but there are moments and pockets of beauty and humanity hidden amongst the dust and construction cranes. I hope your stay here gives you as rounded and full an appreciation of my adopted home as possible.


    Comment by chriswaugh_bj — October 15, 2006 @ 6:23 am

  2. I’ll be needing more time here to really get to know this city; it’s a tough one to figure out.

    Comment by TC — October 15, 2006 @ 6:28 am

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