Having lived for 17 years, on and off, in Beijing, are there still new ways to explore Beijing? Yes, one of them is from the sidecar of a vintage motorbike.
At a charity ball in the end of last year, I won a voucher for a two hour motorbike ride for two people provided by Beijing Sideways. Since I thought I know Beijing pretty well, I saved the opportunity for my younger daughter Kirsty and my adopted French mother Keta when she visited last month. When Keta returned from the joyride, she threw herself in front of me and kowtowed deeply, which would have satisfied Emperor Qianlong. “Incredible, incredible!” she raved. “Absolutely our best experience in China!” Even Kirsty, who looks at the world with her very critical teenager eye, said how much she enjoyed it. Then her sister May felt she missed out.
So yesterday I booked the German driver Chris for a two hour ride for May and myself. He is actually a journalist and does this on the side as a hobby.
Sunday was one of the rare glorious, blue-skyed sunny day here. At appointed time, Chris turned out outside our house in Jiuxianqiao with his Changjiang 750 which he fondly calls Mony. She is a beauty. In military green, Changjiang (as in Yangtzi River) is a copy of Soviet made M72, which is an imitation of the German R 71, built for military transport during the World War 2.
“This motorbike got soul,” explained Chris after we got talking. “It has an old fashioned charm that the modern designs lack.” He described the vehicle ‘like a girlfriend who needs care and attention’. So he always makes sure every parts works and Mony rarely disappoints him.
With huge excitement, May and I hopped on. As Mony hurtled down the street, our spirits flied up to the heaven. As you can imagine, we attracted lots of stares. “Wasai (Wow)!” people exclaimed, often pointing at us.
The route was well designed. From Jiuxianqiao, we headed towards CBD where we appreciated some extremely modern buildings, China’s manifesto to modernity. Soon, after a sharp turn east, we charged towards the new CCTV tower, commonly known among the locals as the ‘big trousers’. At first, we could only see one leg of the trousers. Then as we drove closer to the East Third Ring Road, the other leg emerged, magnificently.
At one corner diagonal from the tower, Chris made the first stop (there are usually three or four stops during the trip) so that we could take photographs. Also it was an excellent spot to appreciate the unusual structure and its height – at 234 meter. Chris explained the background of this building, one of the most modern in the capital, if not in the whole China. Designed by Rem Koohaas and Ole Scheeren, it was completed in 2008, in time for the Olympic Game. I felt very lucky to have Chris as our driver. Having worked and lived in China for six years, he is knowledgeable about Beijing and he seems to be someone who takes an interest and effort to learn about China’s history and culture.
Next, he drove towards some old hutong areas in southern part of the city, via the ancient Observatory in Jianguomen and the imposing Dongbianmen tower, part of the old city wall, around the corner from the Observatory. It was such fun to zigzag through the maze of hutong, the narrow alleys that frame the traditional courtyard houses. Here, hawkers sold vegetables and fruit, kids played, while their grandmas chopped vegetables on the stone steps outside their house and their grandpas played Chinese chess under elm trees. It felt far more alive and human here than those concentric freeways circling the capital. When one corner of the street was blocked by a rubbish cart, Chris just turned towards another hutong – all the lanes are somehow connected.
I’ve travelled in Beijing in all sorts of transports. And the sidecar seems to be the best option in this congested city. Since it got a powerful engine – it can ran at 90 km/h, Chris drove on the main roads; when it became jammed, he went for the bicycle lane – it is a bike after all.
For me, the highlight of the ride was the Egg, the National Center for Performance Art. One minute we were bearing down along the road just west of Tiananmen, Chris made a turn and I realized that we were on the back of the Egg. He rode onto the pavement and passed two uniformed guards who stood awestruck but didn’t say or do anything. In a second, we were confronted by the beautiful iconic building. The metal roof gleamed in the afternoon sun and the water in the pond surrounding the Egg glistered like fish scale. And there was hardly anyone around. I’ve been to the Egg many times and always love it. But it never seemed so beautiful.
The highlight for May was to sit in the backseat, viewing the city from this vintage point and letting her long brown hair flying in the air.
For most tourists, Houhai area is the favorite as it is an open poetic area surrounded by some old hutong.
So in two hours – usually more than two hours as Chris is always generous with his time – you pack in the old and the new, the modern and the traditional, and some of the highlights of Beijing. And you have the thrill of travelling in a fast sidecar which surely gives a great sense of freedom and a healthy sense of superiority.
For those with curious and adventurous mind, check out: www.beijingsideways.com