China: Beijing's better by bike

By Anthony Doesburg

The sprawl of this ancient city lends itself well to cycling, writes Anthony Doesburg.

A bike tour with an English-speaking guide is an easy way to take in Beijing's top attractions. Photo / Bike Beijing
A bike tour with an English-speaking guide is an easy way to take in Beijing's top attractions. Photo / Bike Beijing

The last thing you should do if thinking of touring Beijing by bike is stand at a busy intersection and watch the traffic. It will only scare you off.

Chinese city streets that were once choked by cyclists are these days clogged by cars, although the infernal combustion engine doesn't have things entirely its way.

Three-wheeled pedal-powered freight haulers compete with cars, light trucks, trolley buses, scooters and a much-diminished fleet of bicycles for space on the roads of China's capital. But cars are in the ascendancy. By one report, more than 1000 additional vehicles join the crush each day and the fleet is expected to reach six million by next year.

Amazingly, the traffic does flow. With the exception of taxis, traffic lights are generally respected. The typical taxi driver clearly thinks the only good pedestrian is the one in the back of his car. If you're crossing the road with the lights, you'll soon learn taxis don't stop.

Scooters are another hazard - as well as being a source of wonder. A family of four can look quite comfortable on one. But the danger for pedestrians and cyclists is you often can't hear scooters coming because most are electric.

Helmets? Rarely. Cyclists don't bother and scooter riders mostly do without, too. Instead of proper motorcycle helmets, construction worker hard-hats are de rigueur - they often dangle from the handle bars, presumably to be quickly jammed on the head if the rider senses a crash coming.

The general approach to uncontrolled intersections is that no one stops. Yet instead of mayhem ensuing, drivers have a knack of creating gaps where there were none and the traffic keeps moving.

Cyclists can take comfort from the fact that pedestrians are an even lower life form.

Pedal-pushers assert their marginal superiority by tinkling their bells so walkers can step out of the way.

The legacy of having once been dominated by bicycles is that there are generous cycleways. Towards Tiananmen Square, for instance, cyclists have a lane at least 10m wide all to themselves.

And accidents - at least in my observation - are infrequent. In several days on the roads of Beijing and Guangzhou in buses, taxis and on a bike, I didn't see a single collision.

So with fears in proper perspective, what actually makes cycling attractive in a city with a user-friendly and extensive subway system, cheap taxis, cycle rickshaws ready to cart you around and dubious air quality?

For starters, in the height of summer, when the temperature is 30C-plus, biking is a great way of generating a bit of a breeze.

Also, Beijing is dead flat so pedalling doesn't take a lot of exertion. And because the city is spread out, biking is an excellent way of eating up kilometres that would scorch your soles if you were trying to see it all on foot.

If you lack the time to familiarise yourself with the layout of the city and its many sights, the way to go is to hire a guide.

Bike Beijing comes highly recommended on Trip Advisor and a day-long tour of old parts of the city, led by English-speaking guide Alan, lived up to the rave reviews.

You often can't hear scooters coming because most of them are electric. Photo / Bike Beijing
You often can't hear scooters coming because most of them are electric. Photo / Bike Beijing

At $200 for the day, it's not the cheapest way of getting yourself on two wheels - Bike Beijing will hire you a cycle for as little as $20. But there's no substitute for the guide's local knowledge, both in terms of grasping the significance of the city's architectural and cultural wonders and for threading through the traffic.

What's more, lunch and entry to the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven and the Drum Tower, some of the headline attractions on our route, were covered.

The reality of old Beijing is Chairman Mao didn't leave a lot of it standing. Roads for all those cars - and tanks - have replaced the city walls. And only a third - about 2000 - of the alleys, or hutong, with the distinctive courtyard dwellings that have housed Beijingers since before Kublai Khan's time, remain.

A day's tour, needless to say, doesn't do justice to a city that is one of the oldest - and was at one time the biggest - on Earth. But by bike is a great way to see it.


Getting there: China Southern Airlines flies daily from Auckland to Beijing via its hub in Guangzhou.

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