TRAVEL MEM­OIR

The Party ruled the peo­ple of Bei­jing, writes LINDA JAIVIN, but cy­clists ruled the streets.

Gourmet Traveller (Australia) - - Oct -

Pedal power in Bei­jing.

Ilived in Hong Kong in the early 1980s, though Bei­jing had be­come my sec­ond home. Be­tween a grow­ing num­ber of Chi­nese friends and my work as a re­porter for Asi­aweek mag­a­zine, my days were crowded with ap­point­ments in the cap­i­tal. Mak­ing plans in Bei­jing was easy; get­ting around less so. You could hire a driver but you couldn’t yet hail taxis on the street. The metro was just one line that ran in a straight, po­lit­i­cally sym­bolic but rel­a­tively use­less east-west di­rec­tion un­der Tianan­men Square. The buses and trol­ley­buses, mean­while, were slow and over­crowded, their in­te­ri­ors a con­fit of sharp el­bows and jostling bod­ies. One day, a con­duc­tor or­dered an older woman to yield her seat to me, “the for­eign guest”. I protested. The other pas­sen­gers ob­served the con­duc­tor and me with sullen hos­til­ity. The woman, eyes down­cast, va­cated her seat. I urged her to sit, but in­stead we both re­mained stand­ing.

When I bought a bi­cy­cle, Bei­jing opened up. The city’s che­quer­board streets, de­signed in the 13th cen­tury, are aligned with the com­pass points, and the city is flat: a cy­clist’s par­adise. Bei­jing would even­tu­ally be­come a conur­ba­tion of more than 20 mil­lion peo­ple, but at the time it was still a man­age­able city of nine mil­lion.

With hardly any traf­fic, and an un­fenced-in Tianan­men Square, the streets seemed lux­u­ri­ously broad and empty. There were the buses, of course, and horses and don­keys pulling carts of farm pro­duce, as well as flatbed tri­cy­cles trans­port­ing ev­ery­thing from pig car­casses to so­fas, and the odd govern­ment or em­bassy car. Ev­ery so of­ten a shiny black Red Flag limou­sine – a grand af­fair re­sem­bling a 1955 Chrysler – slipped past, con­vey­ing some high leader or for­eign dig­ni­tary be­hind its dark­ened win­dows. The lead­ers ran the coun­try, but the cy­clists owned the streets.

Work­ers ped­alled home, leeks and cab­bages strapped to their bikes. En­tire fam­i­lies oc­cu­pied a sin­gle bi­cy­cle, the kids perched on laps and han­dle­bars. Cy­cling, I was part of a dy­namic mass, one brain cell in a hive mind that chore­ographed move­ments and min­imised ac­ci­dents. When­ever one of those long, ac­cor­dion-hinged buses veered right to­wards a stop, the or­gan­ism split flu­idly into two flanks – the larger, in wedge for­ma­tion, over­tak­ing the bus to the left; the smaller, dare­devil faction rac­ing to beat the bus past the curb in sin­gle file be­fore blend­ing back into the mob.

Off the wide av­enues it was even more fun – wend­ing through the nar­row hu­tongs, bump­ing along dusty un­paved vil­lage streets, scat­ter­ing chick­ens, to reach the ru­ins of im­pe­rial sum­mer palaces. My bike, a Shang­hai-made Phoenix, was the envy of my friends, not least be­cause it was bright blue and easy to spot in the vast bi­cy­cle park­ing lots that were a sea of black. I gave it to a friend in 1986 when I moved to Aus­tralia.

I don’t cy­cle when I’m back in Bei­jing these days. Traf­fic jams the streets and a pol­luted haze of­ten hangs in the air. Most of the hu­tongs are gone, as are the vil­lages, flat­tened by bull­doz­ers, their mem­ory buried in the foun­da­tions of anony­mous high-rises and shop­ping malls that sprawl out­wards to­wards the Great Wall.

Twenty-first cen­tury Bei­jing has no fewer than 21 sub­way lines that get you any­where, in­clud­ing the old sum­mer palaces. There are taxis and Uber-like ser­vices. Friends who once en­vied my Phoenix now col­lect me in their SUVs. The truth is, cy­cling was never quite as ro­man­tic as I re­mem­ber. It was al­ways dan­ger­ous in win­ter, when treach­er­ous patches of black ice lay ev­ery­where. It was fiendishly dusty in spring, and the hu­mid heat and sud­den down­pours of sum­mer left you basted in your clothes.

Yet even to­day, when I see some­one sail­ing along on their bi­cy­cle on a per­fect au­tumn day, a breeze in their hair and joy in their eyes, I re­mem­ber my Phoenix, as blue as those old blue skies.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.