There are nine million bicycles in Beijing
That’s a fact,
It’s a thing we can’t deny
Like the fact that I will love you till I die.
Katie Melua’s haunting and lovely song claims the there are nine million bicycles in Beijing; which may or may not be a fact, but given that there are over twenty one million people living here, it’s no stretch at all to think that there could well be more than that number of bikes. It makes sense too, as the majority of people couldn’t afford cars and I just wouldn’t want to think of how polluted Beijing would be if they could!
I arrived late at night and went straight to my favourite hotel but upon waking, I noticed that it was a lovely clear Sunday morning, with the air unencumbered by the previous weeks pollution. I got up early and as part of my ongoing rehab/drinkers guilt removal program, I took myself out for a short limp. It was shaping up to be a glorious day and the power station that looms over the hotel was like a sleeping dragon, no steam, smoke or soot to be seen at all. In the 1970’s there was little pollution because people all rode bicycles. The bike lanes were three cars wide and the model to strive for back then was the flying pigeon. Here it is, in all it’s glory!
The iconic ‘flying pigeon’ bicycle – I want one!
There were a number of years where bikes were commonplace in the country and even though China makes 800, 000 flying pigeons a year, the waiting list used to be as long as 8 months! It wasn’t long however, until
cars and scooters took over, but now petrol scooters have largely been banned in many of the cities because of the pollution and in their stead are now once again, millions of bicycles. This time, all for rent.
Renting a bike is cheap and convenient and users can users simply download an app on their smartphone, which then allows them to locate bikes and unlock them by scanning a QR code and getting a PIN for the lock. Rental is somewhere between 15 cents and 1 dollar and there are a couple of major players – Mobike and OfO. The problem with the various services (for everyone else) is that you don’t have to ‘dock’ them formally at the end of your ride like the blue bikes in Melbourne, you can just dismount and leave them wherever you like and this causes major congestion at junctions, barriers and stairs; so much so that sometimes it can be quite difficult and frustrating negotiating your way around them. So much so, that on my morning amble (yes P, I am using my cane), I stumbled over an abandoned yellow OfO bike and instantly christened them the “Ohh f**k Off!!!” bikes…
The not nearly so attractive “OfO” cycle – as usual seen in a mixed herd
On this particular trip to China I had a side mission, one which I chose to accept. It was a task given to me by Mrs. Jerry who had asked me to take part of her ‘flat Stanley’ project away with me and photograph them in prominent places. I had never heard of flat Stanley, but as it turns out, flat Stanley is a character in a children’s book, written by Jeff Brown, who starts out as a normal boy and is squashed flat in an accident and gets into all sorts of adventures, that only a boy who is inches thick could get into. Mrs. Jerry’s class had all cut out pictures of flat Stanley, coloured them in, laminated them and after sticking a picture of themselves on the back, sent them out all over the World. Last week I took a picture of him in Singapore, outside of Raffles and this week, in China. Next week, he’ll be in London.
Raffles and Tianjin – the lad gets around, but he’s brought his crap photographer mate with him…
I spent a few days in a city called Tianjin, which is around three hours drive south east of Beijing, but I didn’t drive, I took the bullet train, which reduced the trip to a very respectable 35 minutes. This time, the same as the last, I stayed at the St. Regis, which is on the river Haihe.
The St Regis and its Dragons gate
It is a spectacular looking hotel, resembling a huge square doughnut. This design originated from Fung Shui design principles and the large void in the middle was to avoid frustrating the local dragon who wanted to fly down from the nearest peak to drink or bathe in the river or ocean. There are several large buildings on the hillside in the Repulse bay area of Hong Kong with ‘dragon’s gates’ as part of their design and whilst the design of the St Regis is more likely to have been an architectural conceit, it’s a nice nod to ‘old’ China and Fung Shui. If you are travelling down to Tianjin at any point, you might also like to know that between 6pm and 7.30pm, there is an absolutely free ‘happy hour and a half’ and you can sit and enjoy sundowners with this view. I have enjoyed several pints of G&T here, I think.
The river Haihe, all lit up like Las Vegas
I also discovered a popular hobby for the elderly folk who live near the river. As with a lot of old people, they tend to get up very early and take themselves for a walk, with or without a tiny dog.
The sun rising over the Haihe
Some like to fish in the river Haihe and others like to paint graffiti on the flagstones. They aren’t your traditional vandals however, as they just use river water and a large calligraphy brush. I say they ‘just’ use river water as having looked at the murky liquid, I suspect that there are numerous biologicals in there as well… And to think, people actually swim in it and eat the fish from it. They probably glow in the dark afterwards. The geriatric artists spend hours ‘painting’ Chinese characters onto the black granite pavers as a means of keeping their minds active and getting outdoors. It looks great and as it is usually patriotic slogans they are writing, it doesn’t upset anyone.
Sneaky revolutionaries painting with disappearing ink
A long drive back to Beijing with colleagues later and I’m back in my favourite hotel. In a days time, I’m off to London, but first, I need to catch up on some sleep.