For me, the best way to experience serendipity in Beijing is on a two-wheeler. So the first thing I do after I arrive and drop off my luggage is head with my helmet to a bicycle shop, where I can buy a shiny black Flying Pigeon with lock, bell and basket for around $60.
The thrill of navigating Beijing’s densely-populated streets and sidewalks on a bicylce—the polluted breezes caressing my face—gives me the same sense of accomplishment I get from beating out taxis when I drive in New York.
The bike enables me to go all over the city and stop if I want, say, to snap a picture of couples waltzing at 8:30 on a Saturday morning by the entrance to Longtanhu Park. Or get a shot of a cluster of old men schmoozing with one another by their birdcages, which they’ve hung on tree branches.
On my bike I can leave the bustling, gazillion-lane main drag to explore narrow hutongs where families live cramped in one-story houses behind courtyard walls. So many of these lanes have been demolished in the “concreting” of this out-of-control country, that pedaling along hutongs makes me feel as though I have recovered a smidgen of old China.
One afternoon on a recent trip to Beijing I biked south in search of a little shop I had heard about. As usual, this outing was more about the destination than the journey. I wove through a labyrinth of back streets I’d never seen, stopping at a tiny vegetable shop to buy for around 30 cents a bag full of cabbage, peppers, bok choy and onion for the stir fry my daughter (who lives in Beijing) and I planned to cook that evening.
I didn’t find the original shop I was seeking and as the evening sky darkened, I felt exhausted and realized I could never find my way back along the little lanes. Yet, the huge streets, wide as city blocks, are terrifying even just to walk across, especially at rush hour (except rush hour has the advantage that you can squish nicely in the middle of the mosh-pit-like crowd as they cross, but that’s hard to do with a bike).
So I approached a man in his pedicab. He had a warm craggy smile that revealed only a few teeth and he looked way older than my 91-year-old mom. While puffing on a cigarette, he said he could accommodate both me and my bike and that it would take a half hour to get back to my hotel.
As soon as we pulled away from the curb, my bike fell off the pedicab, so he secured it with rope, but it fell off again. Therefore, I had to hold tightly onto it as we bumped along, and it stuck out on the sides and at one point he scraped it against a wall, and bicycles and cars and motorbikes and busses were streaming all around us. I was freezing in the 20-something degree night, but my terror distracted me from the cold, especially when the old chap made a left turn with his wobbly pedicab cutting across what seemed like forty lanes of traffic. When at last we got close to the hotel, I asked–or rather pleaded–to disembark.
With an outstretched hand I took a picture of the two of us, arms slung around each other’s shoulders like we were posing for Facebook after our journey through a traffic-y version of the Arctic tundra. He then wrapped his big padded arms around me for a long hug and said zai jian, which is Mandarin for good-bye but literally it means see you again. I hope so.