Even though simple things like grocery shopping were genuinely exciting for us, we were also anxious to see some of the famous sites of Beijing. Given the huge scope of the city, we soon realized we would only have time to explore a fraction of it in the coming week. It was time to prioritize, especially because we needed to dedicate about half our time to taking care of business we didn't get done before leaving the States. A few days were spent researching our options for visiting Tibet (required to be pre-planned and approved by Chinese government control), journaling, blogging, and other miscellaneous "life stuff."
Our first sightseeing day was dedicated to taking in the Summer Palace, along with literally 40,000ish other visitors, mostly Chinese. This wonderland of ornately decorated temples, residences, and courtyards was a great introduction to the Ming dynasty era, as was the Temple of Heaven that we visited on another day. We were shut out of the Drum and Bell Towers since they were closed for renovation, but truly enjoyed the haven of peacefulness of the Lama Temple, which according to Lonely Planet is the most renowned Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of Tibet.
I have to admit that I had a few butterflies in my stomach that first sightseeing morning when we negotiated our bicycles into the cramped elevator, not realizing in the moment that the ridiculously fast-closing door would actually be the most challenging part of cycling that day. (In subsequent trips, I got good at aggressively hip-checking the door long enough to wheel our bikes in!) Once on street level, what we witnessed, and then participated in, was a state of no-rules driving, biking, walking, and occasional rollerblading. A Chinese tour guide nailed it when he said, "Traffic signals are just a suggestion. This is China!" We did the ol' follow-a-local routine through intimidating intersections, and learned the importance of balancing caution with confidence. When making a move, one has to do it decisively as any hesitation will just result in confusing those around you, which is far more dangerous than simply keeping narrow margins of space in the miraculously harmonious flow of various forms of propulsion.
From our daily excursions, we have made a couple of conclusions about cycling in the world's second largest city. First, when there are no (enforced) rules, you can't get mad at other people for breaking them. Things that would result in outright road rage in the US were just taken in calm stride here in Beijing. No one got outwardly angry at me if I cut in front of them, so likewise I did not react if I had to slam on the brakes and swerve when someone darted out in front of me. Secondly, while the infrastructure is in place to make Beijing an orderly city to cycle in, such as a plentitude of designated separated bike lanes, the reality is that a bike lane is never really just a bike lane. It is also a parking lane, a double-parking lane, a place to sell fruit, a place to unload a pile of bricks, a place to smoke a cigarette, a place to talk on your cell phone, and a place to throw your litter. So we decided that all these obstacles make for a real-life video game. In fact, you can even watch us "play" in the video at the end of this blog.
Of course, if you know us at all, you won't be surprised to hear that several of our bike trips were destined for breweries. We were, however, pleasantly surprised with the extent of the craft beer scene, having arrived expecting to find no more variety than Tsingtao-type "refreshing" lagers. Several of the taprooms we visited are located in "the hutong," our favorite element of Beijing. Hutong are traditional courtyard homes that predate the literal rise of mega-apartment complexes beginning thirty or so years ago with the "opening up" of China. A single hutong seems to be designated by the common alleyway of the homes' entrances, so many uniquely named hutong can be found in a small area, which made tracking down the breweries an adventure in and of itself.
Many hutong have already been destroyed to make way for Beijing's modernization, and surely many more will be, especially as younger generations prefer not to live in such a highly communal situation, and by that I mean a public bathroom outside the home with often times no stalls between the squat-hole style toilet. At the same time, certain hutong have become trendy spots for cafes and bars, others have commercialized into boutique shopping pedestrian streets. The local government has recognized the tourism value of hutong and responded with targeted "restoration" efforts, which really entails knocking them down and rebuilding in a similar style, but inevitably losing character in their newness. As a visitor passing through, it is easy cling to the preservation opinion, but as a resident of Beijing, I can see how the future of the hutong is much more complex, both literally and figuratively grey.
Anyhow, once successfully located, we first sampled a quality flight at Great Leap Brewing, founded in 2010 and claiming to be the first in Beijing's craft beer revolution. GLB is proud of sourcing most of the beers' ingredients locally, which, assuming their name references Mao's campaign "The Great Leap Forward," is just a little ironic to be associated with a period of anti-agrarian industrialization that resulted in the Great Chinese Famine. Well, cheers to that…or not.
The door to the cleverly-named Slow Boat Brewery's taproom was like a true speakeasy, with a three-inch wide sticker as its only external advertising. When we inquired about the hidden nature of the jovial taproom on the inside, an ex-pat co-owner with a Chinese wife as a business partner explained that in Chinese custom, it is rude to flaunt a business that is doing well, especially as the only one in a very quiet hutong. We had a tasty IPA that was on a special deal as part of an IPA festival week, which we appreciated in particular since Beijing's trendy craft beer at $7-9 per pint does not mesh well with our long term travel budget.
We were excited to try craft beer from a nanobrewery owned by a local rather than ex-pats, until we did. While it seems like the Lark Brewpub has potential, the taps they actually had hooked up had some distinctive "beginner homebrew" off-flavors. So over to my personal favorite Jing A Brewing Company in Sanlitun, the embassy district and haven of ex-pats, to finish off the beer tour of Beijing.
Our arrival in Beijing coincided with a good air-quality window that made our bicycle-based explorations much more enjoyable and healthy. Only when the pollution settled back in did we fully realize how unusually beautiful our introduction to China had been. We opted to ride the subway on the bad days, or even just the not-so-great days. We were amazed that it took almost as long to ride the subway as it did to cycle to many places, and that we could ride as a far as we wanted for 2 RMB (about 33 cents).
Our longest subway ride was our last day on our own in Beijing before beginning the Global Explorers trip. We rode for an hour and a half to the far outskirts of the city to visit an energetic guy named Shao Ming. He is a fellow cycle tourer, and after trips across China and regions of the US, came back to Beijing and started a touring bicycle brand called Boskey. His tiny apartment is also his bicycle building shop along with his business partners. We connected with him through a network with the unfortunate name of Warm Showers, where folks with an interest in cycle touring can host or meet up with bicycle travelers. A few days earlier, we also went out to dinner with another friendly Beijinger named Victor who gave us valuable advice about cycling across China from his own personal experience.
With ten days to "figure out" China to our credit, we then headed to the airport to greet a group of high school students from Coliseum College Prep in Oakland, along with two of their principals, and still to our great relief a local Beijing guide from Chinatour.com.