4 Reasons Why Cycling in Beijing Is Way Nicer Than You Think

cyclingridinbeijingannahartleywrites.jpg

Published on theBeijinger.com, January 12th, 2019

I love cycling. It’s fun. It’s good exercise. Second only to walking, it’s the best way to get to know the geography of a city and – depending where you’re going – it’s often faster than public transport or taxi. But most important of all, it’s empowering.

Whether Beijing is the first foreign city you've lived in, or your tenth, you can probably appreciate how disempowering the process of moving somewhere new can be. As a newcomer like me, it’s so easy to feel like things are just happening to you: you’re getting lost. You’re getting ignored. You’re getting shouted at. You’re unable to exercise much choice about what to eat or drink or even breathe. Loss of agency like this is mostly temporary, but it can seriously affect your mood and outlook.

Yet cycling is a powerful way to, ahem, get back in the saddle – the second rubber meets road you're in control, an active participant in the game of city living.

I've been getting around on two wheels for years now, so no matter how many well-intentioned friends and family flapped their hands and wailed about how dangerous and terrifying it would be, I never considered not getting a bike and cycling in Beijing. What I didn’t expect was how enjoyable it would prove.

Here’s why:

The infrastructure is great

Compared to many Western cities, the bike lanes in Beijing are gigantic (Chang'an Avenue, anyone?), and in great condition. Wide bike lanes mean easy overtaking, which is essential if you want to keep both the Lycra set and 80-year-old cyclists happy. Narrow bike lanes on the other hand cause bottlenecking, which in turn puts pressure on people to ride fast, causing an unreasonable and potentially dangerous situation. Wide lanes also solve the problem of bike lanes being obstructed by the delivery trucks, scooters, and cars, hazard-lights merrily blinking, an irritating but unavoidable fact of cycling the world over. 

The geography is in your favor

This is an obvious one: Beijing is as flat as a pancake. Whether you're riding with a zillion gears, an Ofo, or on a fixie, you're unlikely to break a sweat while riding around, unless you actually want to.

History provides a strong tailwind

Unlike in the West, as recently as ten or 15 years ago, cycling was pretty much the only way to get around in Beijing. Everybody rode. Everywhere. While this may no longer be the case, there are still far more cyclists in Beijing than Paris, and there is a historical and cultural acceptance of cycling as a normal thing to do. Furthermore, compared to every other place I've cycled, drivers here have a much lower sense of entitlement to the road. Truly. 

Culture flows into everything

Is it the result of growing up with over a billion other people? The need to endlessly navigate around each other in confined spaces? Or is it the impact of 'face' which prevents petty outbursts of dissatisfaction? I don't know. I just know that Beijingers move around public spaces in a surprisingly easygoing way. Road rules are mostly guidelines, and despite the frequent cutting-off and pulling-into-busy-traffic-without-even-pretending-to-look, most of the time people adjust to accommodate one another without a word. Don't believe me? Ride the wrong way up a bike lane in Beijing and see what happens (nothing). Now try that again in London, New York, or Paris. Shannon Bufton from bicycle shop Serk relates this to a phenomena he calls "negotiated flow," explaining, "when you come to an intersection, everything slows down because [road users] don’t know who should be first since there is no steadfast rule ... you look everyone in the eye, and then you personally negotiate the space, which makes it very, very safe." The added benefit of this system is, in his view, "if something goes wrong, by the time you’ve slowed down to that speed, it’s just not dangerous at all."

In the West, personal space is sacrosanct and people are less willing to adjust their trajectories. The upshot is that if you're alert and sensitive to your surroundings, riding in Beijing can be a relatively harmonious experience. 

Posing in Sanlitun with my second-hand “disco bike”.

Posing in Sanlitun with my second-hand “disco bike”.


Tips and Tricks for staying safe on Beijing streets

  • Never wear headphones and ride: you need to hear what's going on around you.

  • Expect the unexpected. People will cut in front of you, step out randomly into the street, and stop abruptly. Be ready, and go with the flow.

  • Be aware of the “turning right is at all times allowed rule” and always watch out for rogue cars when approaching junctions.

  • Invest in a good anti-pollution mask for bad air days (but don't forget that even on a bad day, it's still healthier to cycle).

  • Deck your bike with some bright LED front and rear lights for night riding, and if you're feeling extra jazzy, wear a reflective vest.

  • Wear a helmet. Seriously.

Disclaimer
I am an experienced urban cyclist, so my standard for what is “normal,” "scary," or "unacceptable" may be different to others just starting out. Saying that, we should all learn sometime, and despite the perceived chaos Beijing makes for a great city to adopt a set of wheels. Now strap on your helmet and get exploring!



Go on, keep reading, I’ve got heaps of stuff to distract you. 
Click here to read more of my travel and adventure experiences.

How To Live Like A Parisian, No Matter What Neighborhood You’re In

How To Live Like A Parisian, No Matter What Neighborhood You’re In

Articles about how to dress like/talk like/date like a Parisian are a dime-a-dozen, and mostly complete BS, so I was hesitant to take on this subject. Instead of listing what colors to wear and how to get that sexy french girl tousled hair that everybody seems to want, I’ve just described how I actually lived, when I was in Paris. Enjoy!

Read More

Travels in the Loire: Visiting Le Château de Chambord

Travels in the Loire: Visiting Le Château de Chambord

Our target for the weekend is Château de Chambord. As the most famous and prominent castle  in the region, can get very busy in the summer months, but after driving through the thickly wooded  domain that surrounds it (and signs alerting us to wild boar and deer that roam about) we find it half-empty in the cold and crisp early December air. 

Read More

The Ultimate Paris Marathon Spectator Guide

The Ultimate Paris Marathon Spectator Guide

Watching the Paris Marathon isn't easy, even for a local. I was rushed, unprepared and even had to take a cab at one point. *shame*

Yet loads of people come to Paris from out of town to watch, so with this in mind, I've designed the perfect user-friendly Ultimate Paris Marathon Spectator Route. 

Read More

Exploring Chartres: a Cathedral-sized adventure in the Eure-et-Loire

Exploring Chartres: a Cathedral-sized adventure in the Eure-et-Loire

Chartres is about 80km south-west of Paris, 1h20 by train. Perfect for a day visit, visitors go to see the UNESCO World Heritage listed Notre Dame de Chartres, arguably the most beautiful Gothic cathedral in France.

Back in May 2015, I spent a day in this beautiful little town with my Dad and his wife. Being the deadline-oriented, timely writer I am, I’ve let nothing get between me and this post.

Read More

What Lies Beneath: Exploring the illegal Catacombes of Paris

What Lies Beneath: Exploring the illegal Catacombes of Paris

There’s a world you don’t see. Under your feet. A dark, wet, scurrying world. A muddy, candle-lit, labyrinthine world. Of immeasurable interconnected tunnels, dislodged boulders, vaulting galleries. Private dens, stone-carved temples and sprayed artworks. A world of pit-pat drips and natural springs, sagging electrical wires and bones.

A burrowing, endless honeycomb of a world under the huge, light, airy city you walk through every day. And one evening, this girl fell down the rabbit hole.

Read More

Hey You! Yes You: meet Ellen, who has been up the Eiffel Tower over 700 times

Hey You! Yes You: meet Ellen, who has been up the Eiffel Tower over 700 times

Welcome to "Hey You! Yes You", a new series in which I'll introduce you to a new marvelous person that I have encountered here on Earth,  each with their own interesting story. 

For the first ever post of I have chosen a friend of mine here in Paris, Ellen. Ellen is a seriously talented musician and singer, who has just finished recording a to-be-named new album.  

By regularly coaxes the magic of unicorns out of her voice and into our ears on the Paris music scene. By day she works in one of the most beautiful places on earth: The Eiffel Tower. As a tour guide, and has been up the Tower more than a hundred times. Like, way more.

I thought it would be fun to ask her a few questions about what that is like. 

Read More

Adventures in the South of France: Exploring the 'perched village' of Lacoste

Adventures in the South of France: Exploring the 'perched village' of Lacoste

Provence has got to be one of the most adorable regions in France.

A land of lavender, vineyards, fruit trees, gently rolling hills and the occasional limestone range... Of ancient village centres, narrow cobblestone streets and carved stone fountains... The true paysage, the authentic rural heart of France which has remained unchanged throughout the centuries in its deeply significant traditions and unrelenting adorableness.

Did I mention lavender? 

If I'm honest, the self-conscious provincialism can wear pretty thin, especially in the bigger towns where vendors cackle with delight at the commencement of the tourist season, and even on brand new buildings the paint is artfully weather-worn.

Read More

Artistic Licence: A Luxurious Weekend In The South Of France

Artistic Licence: A Luxurious Weekend In The South Of France

Yves Saint Laurent, Brigitte Bardot, Pablo Picasso, Bernard Buffet…

Wait who? Although his name is little known today, Bernard Buffet was once one of France’s most wealthy and successful artists, critically acclaimed at home and abroad.

So what happened? Due perhaps to his fame and the resentment and jealousy of Picasso, Buffet suffered from a severe critical backlash in the 1960’s. Although he remained well-loved among the “ordinary people”, the art world firmly turned its back on him, right up until his death in 1999. Now more than 15 years later, there is proof that the world is re-discovering Buffet, and liking what it sees. 

Read More

French Kiss: Popping The Cork On The Champagne Region of France

French Kiss: Popping The Cork On The Champagne Region of France

It was Rob Lowe who first introduced me to champagne, way back in the early 90’s. “Actually all champagne is French; it's named after the region. Otherwise it's sparkling white wine,” he smiled knowingly at me as the character Benjamin Kane in Wayne’s World. This guy clearly knew the good things in life, and the allure and prestige of the exotic French drink stayed with me. Since moving to France in 2011, I have certainly quaffed large quantities of the bubbly stuff, but I’ll admit that my knowledge of it has not vastly increased. I knew that it was an appellation d’origine contrôlée product, which means only sparkling white produced within a very strictly defined area could legally be called “champagne”, and that it was good for spraying on your teammates when you had won a Formula One Grand Prix, but that was about it. So you can understand my excitement when almost 20 years after my Wayne’s World initiation, I found myself whizzing on a high speed train towards Rheims, the capital of the Champagne-Ardenne region.

Read More

The Sea, The Sea

The Sea, The Sea

We looked at each other and cracked up laughing.

"Well who the hell else would be picking up big huge rocks and walking 'round with them?" Teddy Rux demanded in mock consternation, slapping the top of the undulating, salty water to emphasise her point.

The Sydney twang had reached us at the same moment as we saw them, two young Adonises waist deep in the water, passing a very large rock back and forth for no discernible reason.

The rock-bearers drifted closer, unaware that I was fluent in their particular dialect.

Read More