Nocturnal Biking in Beijing

So ever since I purchased my 200RMB bike, and ever since I repaired it (incidentally, the seat has since been replaced, so has one of the bolts on the pedals, the right hand brake handle broke and hasn’t been replaced yet, and the rear wheel brake belt broke and also hasn’t been replaced; I’m just running this bike through the ringer aren’t I?!), I’ve biked every day, and biked long distances most every day. The farther I’ve ridden before today was 20km, sort of just randomly through the center of town, along roads I recognized, and it took me about an hour and a half; not the fastest I know, but Beijing is so very obstacular and even at night rides like a video game dodging cars, pedestrians, street cleaning trucks and construction crews that fling water and dirt respectively at you. Today, I biked my farthest distance yet: 22km. It also took me an hour and a half, for reasons that will be explained in further detail later.

First, some raw details:
I started at 3:30am and finished at 5:15am for a total of an hour and a half.
I biked for a total distance of 22km, just about 14 miles.
At around 4:30am the sun had started to rise and the skies were lightening.
I took a measure of my speed at the one hour mark and I was at about 16km/hour, or 10 miles/hour.
I took the circle route around the city, basically tracking around the 2nd Ring Road, one of 5 major highways that circles the city at different intervals. I had actually always meant to ride around this, but this was my first time.

Obviously the hours I’ve been keeping have be weird. Part of the problem is that I’ve been a bit depressed and lonely, mostly because Maria’s been out of town and I’m having job woes and family problems, etc. Whatever. The short of it is that I’ve been avoiding the day time opting to spend most of my waking and productive hours at night. It’s also been getting warmer and warmer, to the point of almost 80 degrees, and that’s just too hot for me to do anything physical in! So it’s been much nicer to bike at night. We’re talking warm summer nights here, the kind where it’s cool but not cold in that special refreshing kind of way. The city also quiets an awful lot in the middle of the night. Probably to save electricity and such but most of the lights are off, even some of the street lights. That makes it a little weird to bike in actually as at times it gets really dark, but it also means the streets are for the most part empty. Obviously, it’s not totally clear; you still have the cars, the people, and the little rickshaw type bikes roaming around. And, though this isn’t really a negative because everyone hates construction during the day, but the crews are out in mass and so are the street cleaners. So this means you need to avoid massive cranes and bulldozers tearing up half the street as well as big tankers literally washing down the street whether or not you’re on it; it’s really one of those “everyone for themselves” kind of philosophies as far as navigating the street goes in China. But um, what was the point? Ah, that biking at night is wonderful in this city and everyone should try it!

So let’s talk about my route. First, a picture of it:

I almost made it all the way around 2nd Ring Road

It’s pretty convenient to have such a ring that goes around the city. Even though it’s a highway, there’s always a road that parallels it for people to get on and off and onto the intersecting roads. On the North and West side, it’s a literal highway so the parallel road is on the ground below it and flat. On the East side, it’s kind of a “low-way” of sorts and the road I was on is above it. On this side there are also these massive roundabouts to help people get on and off and over the highway road. Pretty harrowing to navigate across actually because you can’t quite tell if the cars are coming towards you or still going to circle around. But this also means they’re convenient in a way because there are no traffic lights to have to wait and stop at, and it’s pretty; the side road I was on had a dedicated bike lane that was surrounded by trees; idealic really. The West side was easier to bike because there are no roundabouts, but that means there are lights, so it was less scenic to look at. Since the side road parallels the highway though it also means that at times I couldn’t quite tell if I was on the bike lane, the side road, or the highway itself. They all sort of blend in together, especially at the corners of the 2nd Ring Road. Very difficult to get around actually because that’s also where lots of roads all intersect together because there are these diagonal roads that let those cars on the 2nd Ring Road head out towards the other numbered Ring Roads. But um…yeah, short answer, not that easy to get around. But still lots of fun! It’s like biking in New York City; exciting in that way that you really shouldn’t find that exciting because it’s due to the adrenaline that comes from that hint of danger and having to keep on your toes.

So the sun rises really early here! It was getting bright right at around 4:30am. I don’t ever remember the sun rising that early before back in the States. I wasn’t expecting it, nor was I planning it, but when I set out and realized the skies lightening I thought to myself “how neat, it’s going to be really beautiful soon.” And it definitely was, and by the time I was about finished with my bike it was full on bright, but still peaceful in that nice way, with birds chirping and such, but it was definitely getting more and more crowded on the roads, in a noticeable way. I wonder next time just how much later I can actually consider still biking outside because I think lots of people start their commutes early in this city. I had also biked some of this route before, or at least close in the vicinity of it, but that had been in the proper night and not this half dawn time; everything looked different in the subtle light.

It is definitely weird though some of the people that are still out in the middle of the night. There were couples walking hand in hand, old men walking their dogs, lots of workers, people picking up trash on little orange bicycles, construction workers digging up trees and planting new ones that looked oddly like palm trees (can you imagine palm trees in China?!), tired men biking on their way home presumably, girls walking arm in arm also, coming from or going to I don’t know where, and then, of course, me. :)

There was also a huge crowd of people gathering at TianAnMen Square, in front of the Forbidden City. I started noticing quite a bit away that there were people walking towards the center of the city, and there were huge spotlights on also making it bright as day just up ahead, and as I approached at first I thought it was a tour group or something, but then not seeing the telltale orange colored caps or flags, and the fact that they were all waiting there plus the large numbers of military officers standing at attention, I realized it must have been the flag raising ceremony, which I had never actually seen before myself. I was tempted to pull over and join in the festivities, but it sufficed to just tuck a mental note away to come back some later time and see the event as this time I was out for the biking.

I also think this city just can’t decide what temperature it wants to be. As I rode, I distinctively noticed different strata of temperatures that I was riding through. First it would be cool and refreshing, an almost kind of misty feel, then it would be muggy and humid, much hotter than before, almost suffocating in its pervasiveness and density, then just kind of, normal, like what one would expect for a warm summer night, then just completely and utterly wet (though this was probably due to the street cleaners) and you can feel the water drops on your face, and every now and then there’s be the overwhelming scent of cooking food from who knows where because it hits when biking along some random part of street where there’s not a restaurant in sight and even if there were they wouldn’t be open anyway. It makes me wonder if there’s some massive underground ventilation type system (there probably is at least in part due to the subway system) that just vents out at intervals and changes the air around it.

All in all, it was a great experience, and I fully intend to do it again. I think the next time I’ll do a proper circle all the way around 2nd Ring Road; that should let me get in a full 25km and I am such a fan of proper whole numbers. It also shouldn’t take that much longer or be that much more difficult. Speaking of which, it wasn’t actually that difficult of a ride to do. I wasn’t going that fast, and I’m not entirely sure I could have gone much faster, and I never got too tired or anything and am not that tired now either. The only thing is that after the first hour or so it really started to hurt a bit sitting on that tiny little seat. And I’ve noticed a stiffness in my right knee that sort of comes and goes; I hope that’s not indicative of some bigger problem. I’ll see if it bothers me more in some greater way and then maybe get it checked on some how. So next time, the full way around, and maybe with a better bike; I have a sneaky suspicion that my current bicycle may be on its last leg as far as long distances biking goes and I really, really, really don’t want to have it break down on me in some major way, especially in the middle of the night, at some far distance from my home.

It was so relaxing, so refreshing; I don’t know what was going through my mind; I wasn’t consciously aware of any deep or insightful or meaningful thoughts. What I was aware of though was a kind of wild eyed wonder and amazement that overtook me for the city at night, at how quiet it all was, at the massive buildings all empty and dark; I couldn’t stop looking around, and all I could hear was the sound of the bicycle gears churning, the friction of the wheels on the ground, its deep bass rhythm vibrating through my legs as I rode, a cool breeze against my face. Quite fantastic really.

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emily | May 9th, 2010 

I really liked reading this! I know you intended a lot of it to be really factual but it reads very poetically as well. The atmosphere you describe kind of reminds me of our time at Roosevelt Island – the wonder of a new place on a warm summer night!

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