Bicycling in Beijing

By Paul Dresman

We rode through the gate of our compound and into the river of Chinese cyclists along the boulevard outside – whirring spokes and pedals beneath the late summer dapple of the arching plane trees. We pushed pedals at a collective speed, neither slow nor too fast but all the same, faster than you might imagine. We all rode two-wheelers then, that autumn of 1986, a decade before private cars came to Beijing. Truck traffic and automobile traffic, mostly taxis, passed by on boulevards beyond the bicycle lanes. Our lanes were wide, enough for ten riders side-by-side in many places. Blank looks on the Chinese. They looked like American commuters, very serious in the early morning rush to work: Monday begets Tuesday, wait for Wednesday. We had a reprieve since we were outsiders in China. Not quite part of the system, not even close. You are an outsider when you cannot even begin to know all you do not know.

In big waves of traffic or late at night, the bicycles hardly made a sound unless someone rang a handlebar bell in warning: Too close. It felt good though, to be wheeling together, hundreds of cranks and hubs spinning. A pair of Americans, we had been used to automobiles and steering wheels, to wide, interstate highways; now we became a part of a mass of humanity, all moving together at the same pace: balanced, physical. I’d think: I’m in China, riding a bike across Beijing, and I’d want to shout “YA-HOO!”

Sometimes in the mornings in bicycle rush-hour, we rode awfully close to one another. Wheel-to-wheel, slow, mass starts and finishes of the Tour de France. Chinese bicycles were fat- tire bikes – big, heavy, welded steel-framed bikes with no gears – no need: Beijing was flat. The bicycles had marvelous brand-names such as “Phoenix” and “Flying Swallow.”

They did not come close to the lone freedom of flying. We rode so near in the morning rush, we could smell the garlic in the air from riders’ breaths because they ate savory soup in the morning. Trim by diet, the Chinese also had to exercise to go anywhere, a winning combination. When the cold winds blew in loess dust from the northwest, we wore protective scarves over our throats and noses.

Big steam locomotives came down rails by a junction of the Ring Road. Under the overpass, old men in blue Mao suits brought out their bamboo cages of singing birds. The train drowned the bird songs, and we straddled our bikes, waiting out the roar of the passing freight cars. Sometimes I felt as if I had been transported to Alameda Boulevard in nineteen-forties Los Angeles, when I was a child and waited for similar trains to pass while I sat on a small bicycle. It was as if, in Beijing, you could find a kind of innocence that no longer existed in the United States. I truly wished that China could be our future, that we could free ourselves from the automobile and find ourselves in the sanity of bicycles, rather than the numbness of cars.

Either that or the Chinese could graduate to the idiocy of the automobile, and they could help pollute the planet to death – along with the rest of us. (Unfortunately that’s what happened.)

One Saturday night in late September, my wife Christine and I were invited to a party at a foreign student’s apartment on the campus of Beijing Normal University where we taught. The party was potluck style. Several students from Europe and America attended.. At the request of the host, Chris and I had brought a package of lao bin, the tortilla-like, flour wrap that was traditionally used with wood-fired duck and a mild plum sauce in northern China. At this party, we used the lao bin as if they were tortillas to create quesadillas, a Mexican dish of melted cheese and hot-flavored chile salsa, these latter two ingredients obtained by the host at a small store for foreign goods in a hotel near the airport. It was a fun dinner, a wonderful party. We ate and talked. Later, we danced to a Walkman tape player with small but powerful speakers. The best part was the journey home.

When we emerged from the apartment building at midnight, a full moon was shining in a clear sky, and, as we unlocked our bicycles, I noticed how the moonlight transformed the wheel spokes into subtle silver. In fact, everything was altered by this celestial display, as if a very ordinary world had become imbued with a theatrical sparkle. Chris saw this effect, too, remarked on it as we started to ride through the campus to the streets beyond. It was very quiet and still. When we reached the normally busy boulevard to ride home, there was a not a car or a truck or a bus in sight. In 1l986, the people living in the capital of China did not stay out late except on special occasions. We quickly realized we could ride along the entirely deserted boulevard wherever we chose. In a few minutes we criss crossed each other, weaving in S patterns down the middle of the wide street in the moonlight as if we were the first or the last couple on earth. We couldn’t help laughing because it seemed impossible to be so alone among millions of people in one of the biggest cities on the planet. We rode home in the magical lunar light on the empty boulevard, encountering a few cars and no other cyclists.

One weekend that early autumn in Beijing we went riding with another American who had been in Asia for a long time. He had the only ten-speed bike I saw in China that year. We rode out through farm country to the Western Hills. We had arranged for someone to watch our children, a special occasion for us where we could go out by ourselves all day long.

My wife’s hair flew behind her as she flashed past me in the dapple under roadside oaks. It was a bright, sunny day, perfect for riding.

It was more like pedaling through French farm fields than through China – except for the loudspeaker in one field of workers that exhorted everyone to toe the party line. Way out of place in the pastoral, it broadcast its seeds far and loudly and, somewhat like that fabled river of my birthplace, Los Angeles, the flow was a mile wide and an inch deep. Piles of corn shucks reminiscent of Iowa stood beside pig pens in shady farmhouse backyards. The deep casements of the windows gave off a brilliant orange with many piled persimmons ripening on gray stone.

It was a long ride on a two-lane road, much further than we thought. We covered many kilometers, but our rear ends got sore and our legs tired. At the Western Hills, we shuffled through the temples along with huge crowds of swirling people in long progressions up and down the one-hundred and eight steps at each building, past the Buddhist guardian lions.

In the astonishing, nearby hotel designed by the Chinese- American architect I.M. Pei, we sat beside a tree growing up through an atrium and drank a few beers. In the hotel gift shop, we bought two, small, polished wooden statues of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, and Xuanzang, the Monk who really did walk to India to learn Pali and bring back translated Buddhist sutras in the seventh century. They are characters in the sixteenth century novel, Journey to the West. These characters regularly appeared in Chinese popular culture in television cartoons and in comic books that were more like graphic novels.

After the stop in the hotel bar, we climbed stiffly on the bikes and rode and rode and rode through the rest of the afternoon, into the dusk, and through the early dark before we ever reached the outskirts of Beijing. Our ten-speed friend left us far behind as we strained to push our fat tires along the pavement: no light-hearted, bike trek then. Worse, we had no idea where we were. The exuberant wanderer in the unknown city – a trope of Walter Benjamin, the later Situationists, and ten-thousand anonymous drifters – has no appeal when you’re dog-tired and seem to be going around in circles.

Chris said, “I’m getting a little tired of our Journey to the West.”

In late October, early November, China’s winter started. The wind blew colder down from Mongolia’s north and out of the west from Siberia’s weather systems. Many of the old men who had brought their caged songbirds to gather under the overpass to the Ring Road no longer appeared at that multiple intersection where we always seemed stopped by long traffic lights on the way to the university where Christine and I taught. The traffic police donned their gloves and greatcoats. Ordinary citizens began to wear layer upon layer of clothing beneath their coats and jackets. Once-shady bicycle lanes along the boulevards and avenues were now revealed beneath leafless trees, and the concrete stele of high-rise apartment buildings cut their sharp outlines against gray sky.

Christine and I went on bike rides through the winding hutongs, the narrow lanes in various parts of Beijing. Sometimes we encountered entirely unexpected sights such as the White Cloud Daoist Temple south and west of Quinmen. Entering the precincts and then the first large building in the compound, one could easily imagine white cranes flying in the deep shadows of the beamed ceiling. The cranes – a symbol of wisdom among the Daoists – became thin old men in white robes, priestly figures with wispy white goatees, wreathed in incense swirls as they performed their ceremonies. Musician-monks dinged and donged percussion or blew on accompanying scratchy flutes.

Other days, other rides, we encountered street vendors who blew particular whistles to summon householders for their services – everything from sharpening knives to selling sweets. Other vendors had special cries or loud calls. This variety of personal announcement scarcely existed any longer in the United States. Christine and I thought of it as a delightful connection that had been almost erased where we came from, and I could only recall vague and distant instances in my childhood in California when ice cream trucks rolled up and down residential streets with recorded music playing to announce themselves. The knife sharpeners and other street sellers belonged to the nineteenth century, artifacts of an American past that might have been nostalgic if they could even be recalled.

One afternoon: “Did you see that old woman back there?” Chris said to me as we rode along a lane. I had seen her. She was also a vestige from a lost past, leaning with one hand on a wall as we wheeled by – her bound feet making every step a precarious adventure. Next, we might encounter beaming little children: a neighborhood gang of four and five-year olds. Little boys could be dressed in oversized army caps while little girls sported red bows on their swallow-tailed hair. One girl lifted her flower skirt to curtsy as a ballerina to another. Simple but charming gardens inside courtyards passed too quickly; we’d have to turn around and pedal back to gawk for a moment around the edges of a spirit wall.

“Are those geraniums?”

“Yes, and don’t you love those wide verandas around the sides of the courtyard?”

For us, traditional Chinese houses, where generations of a family occupied the same large household around an inner courtyard, seemed imbued with distinction. For our students, though, as several of Christine’s students told her, you never had any privacy in such a situation. The vast majority of the students said they preferred a small apartment in a high rise. Anonymity was welcome.

We rode one day far to the Summer Palace, and, while walking through the pavilions along the water, I recalled the San Francisco poet Philip Whalen’s poem about the same place at the end of the nineteenth century when various foreign powers invaded with troops to quell the Boxer rebellion. As Whalen says, United States troops broke up the Empress’s teakwood furniture for cooking fires on an expedition that had the stated purpose of ‘making the Chinese court see reason.’

It was colonial reasoning, of course, and yet it perfectly describes attitudes to China even today, an arrogant assumption that Americans have the right to tell the Chinese what to do. For such a young, raw, boisterous, often violent and unsettled society like my own, the notion of dictating behavior in another part of the world would be laughable except that Americans frequently believe in their own superiority, and the results of this attitude have sometimes proven disastrous. Wisdom and power are often antithetical, much like the enclosed security of the motor vehicle versus the humble openness of the bicycle.

On another day, we rode our bikes in the opposite direction across the capital to The Temple of Heaven, a circular building with an amazing blue-tiled roof. Along the way, we stopped in a street that was traditionally known for its art galleries, art supplies, rare books and scrolls. Meandering through the shops, we couldn’t resist the marvelous and inexpensive prints of famous scenes and figures from the many centuries of Chinese civilization. I carried the thin papers around my torso between shirt and jacket and bicycled them home along the avenues of the city, a warming art vest of subtle protection that might have answered a question of suspicion, “What do you have, hidden under your jacket?”

“Why, I have a herd boy leading an ox further and further on the road to realization. I also have a Song landscape, a waterfall in the mountains, a tiger who roars at a dragon, and a poet at Peach Springs gazing at the moon.”

For my wife and me, when we weren’t correcting student papers and preparing lessons, we could enjoy occasional afternoon rides together following our morning classes. The woman who watched our youngest son, Evan, gladly kept him for extra pay. The older boy, Drew, went to Chinese first grade all day long. Thus, we had more time in China together than we ever had in America. In the California city where we had previously lived, we drove back and forth on freeways between jobs, daycare, shopping malls, and groceries. It was a disconnected existence that caused stress with the hectic traffic that swarmed outside on the highways and in our relationship with one another. We had two cars to navigate the disparate destinations that defined us. Since arriving in China, stripping down to two bicycles had been liberating.

The ride from our compound followed a busy boulevard for several blocks before turning off the pavement and following along a dirt road beside a canal called the Chang he. This was a foul-smelling canal, a true ditch of dirty water – to recall the famous poem by Wen-I- to (do) in the l920s that condemned China’s then-stagnation. The canal ran along the back of the Beijing Zoo, the fence of which stood just across the gruesome soup from where we rode. Yet, once, the Chang he had been an imperial showpiece, a five-and-a-half-mile long canal crossed by stone bridges with evocative names such as “Bridge of the Great Spring” and “Bridge of Embroidered Waves.” Emperors and their retinues sailed out from the Forbidden City to the Summer Palace and back on this now-forgotten waterway.

The unpaved road led to a temple called Wu Ta Si. The Temple of Five Pagodas derived its name from the five, round stelae on the squarish, stone building roof that was Indo-Tibetan in origin, dating from the 13th century. The lone building of this temple had an intriguing interior that had thoughtfully been turned into a gallery of black and white photographs of pagoda-style structures throughout China. Such structures always reminded one of the architecture of dreams with their long-billowing roof eaves, based on the loft and billow of ancient tents, according to Payne and others.

At the entrance to Wu Tai Si, the archway had a picturesque quality. On Sundays in the spring, two or three Chinese painters stood at their easels and depicted the scene in water colors or oils. They followed French Impressionism rather than ancient Chinese painting, the canvases full of lively daubs of color. Like European painters rather than Chinese landscape painters, the Sunday artists liked to fill- in rather than leave-out, to be explicit rather than suggestive.

The road to and from the temple was a challenging bicycle ride because of the dirt moguls we had to negotiate, bouncing high on our sturdy Chinese bikes. We rode standing up on the pedals to avoid taking the hard-knocks of the saddle, and we had to be wary of the road shoulder that sloped steeply down into the stinking water of the royal canal. It was exactly the kind of challenge that I remembered from my childhood in California, when we might have ridden such a road in the dark or by moonlight. Or the challenges taken by surfer friends who would ride Honda motorcycles on dirt back roads in the hills behind Laguna Beach at night in the full moon, lights out – just to see if they could do it. Late-night dare-deviltry. Once, returning with friends from a long ride with some beer stops along the way in downtown Beijing, I made the mistake, at one in the morning, of grabbing a rail of a passing horse-drawn farm wagon with rubber tires at an intersection. I was tipsy enough to try to get a free ride. I got the roller derby “whip” maneuver as the horses sped-up into a turn under the lash of the driver. Shortly thereafter, I found myself shooting out of control toward an oncoming curb, and then I was over the handlebars in a heap on the dirt, my upended bicycle’s front wheel spinning merrily beside my head with subtle mockery, not to mention the hoots of my companions.

One day, returning from Wu Tai Si on the mogul-road by a group of small houses, we passed an open window that blared English pop music by Wham from a radio or tape recorder:

“Wake me up before you go,
Don’t leave me hanging
Like a yo-yo!”

In November, I bundled up in my mountain parka from California and rode alone one cloudy afternoon out through Haidian to the campus of Beijing University. I wanted to find the marker there for Edgar Snow, the American journalist who lived and wrote in China in the nineteen-thirties, including here in Beijing and in Shaanxi province, where he met the Red Chinese at the end of the Long March and wrote the book Red Star Over China. I finally located the stone monument in a residential part of the campus that was nicely gardened, and just as I rode up to read the inscription, it started to snow. It was the first snow to fall that autumn, and, sometime later, I discovered that it was the date traditionally known on the Chinese calendar as The Day of A Little Snow. Their civilization had been at this longer than ours, to be sure.

In December, I received my assignment.

“You know what your son wants for Christmas, don’t you?” Christine asked me.

“A bike?”


“But how? I’ll have to get permission from the waiban – just like we did for our bikes.”

“And then you’ll have to find a bike small enough for a seven-year-old.”

It was a conundrum. Bicycles were built for and owned and ridden by adults in China, not children.

I obtained the necessary papers and first tried Bicycle Consignment Shop #1, where some foreigners had found bikes to ride. They didn’t have any bikes small enough for a child. Then someone in the dining hall told me about another consignment shop in a distant part of Beijing. A few days later, Professor Chen wrote a note in Chinese characters for me that said something to effect of: “Please help this big, foreign fool to find bicycle shop #2.”

After many kilometers to Tiananmen on various modes of public transport, I walked across the vast square in the icy afternoon and entered the once-termed “Chinese Quarter” of the city. As I walked south on Quinmen Boulevard, I was the lone westerner for miles. Scattered snowflakes fell sporadically. I wore long underwear, a woolen cap, gloves, a hooded down- jacket, and I was still cold. Perhaps it was one of those days when it is “too cold to snow.” I wished I had a balaclava mask because the cold stung my bare face.

When I had walked a very long way, I showed the note from Chen to a keeper of a bicycle parking lot. She looked at it, shrugged and by gesture told me she could not read. I may have embarrassed her, and I realized I had to be selective. Yet I felt like an immigrant in central Chicago with a note in English about a shop on the south side. Nobody might ever know where I was supposed to go, and the “hawk” (cold wind) sliced through the streets. No papers swirled as they might have at home – only the dust whirled around on those wintry but clean Chinese streets.

Far beyond, warmed by walking, I found a merchant in the doorway of a store. He read the note and smiled and said: “It’s further...much further...that way.”

Ultimately, late in the afternoon, I over-ran it. Offering the note again, I was directed back a few blocks to a hutong.

Walking up the lane, I passed a couple of small factories. In one, through a streaked window, I saw a crude conveyor line. The belt was stopped. The workers might have gone for the day. The line carried naked and bald pink dolls suspended from hooks, awaiting their wigs and dresses, maybe even a little white purse to match tiny white shoes. These caucasian dolls were probably headed for the other side of the world, to Europe or America from this outsourced Santa’s workshop.

I pushed on and the fabled bicycle shop appeared, the one where I might find a Christmas present for a seven-year old. I entered and then found it – a Japanese-made, ladies’ travel bicycle.

After producing the permission slip from the Communist leader of my work unit at one desk and then paying the money to a caged cashier, I brought back a sheaf of papers that enabled me to take the bike. The staff gathered round while I borrowed a crescent wrench to raise the handlebars and the seat to their maximum height – so I could ride the thing back home. Then I said goodbye to the smiling circle of workers in Bicycle Consignment Shop #2, sat down on the seat and rolled out the double doors as the entire staff erupted into laughter behind me. Everyone I passed in the lane back to the boulevard laughed too, and so did entire busloads of workers going home in my direction. I couldn’t hear them, but I could see them when I glanced up at the windows where they pointed down and howled. It must have been my knees raising up past my cheeks as I pedaled. Also, the bike had gooseneck handlebars, so I certainly resembled a Hell’s Angel on a small child’s tricycle as I pedaled furiously to little effect against the wind and the cold and the gathering darkness.

After several miles to Tiananmen, I gave up and hired a taxi, placed the bike in the trunk, and rode the remaining miles back to the Youyi Bingwan.

I snuck the bike into a neighbor’s apartment because we were still pretending Santa Claus, even in distant China.

Drew was thrilled on Christmas day.

Of course, the bicycle immediately broke, and that required a visit by Chris to one of the curbside mechanics on the boulevard outside the compound to get it fixed. Someone repaired it, and the kid was happy after all.

Paul Dresman - Born in South Gate, California, 1943, educated at San Francisco State University and the University of California at San Diego, Ph.D. in English and American Literature, specializing in contemporary American literature, Paul Dresman was invited to teach in China by the poet Zheng Min at Beijing Normal University in l986-87. He later co-edited a bi-lingual (Spanish and English) literary journal, helicóptero, and is the translator of Hotel Marconi by Chilean poet Jesús Sepúlveda. Dresman's own writing has appeared in various literary magazines (most recently in 34th Parallel, Paris, Be Untexed, Burma, and Permafrost, Alaska) and in a volume his poetry, The Silver Dazzle of the Sun. He retired from the University of Oregon.