There are nine million bicycles in Beijing

I foolishly got hooked on Katie Melua‘s excellent album Piece by Piece just before going away on my round-the-world trip. Foolishly, I say, because when I got to Beijing I couldn’t stop thinking about the song about nine million bicycles (extract here).

Still, it’s better than the time a few years ago when Rose and I watched The Sound of Music just before visiting Austria. It’s embarrassing to realise you’ve been wandering around a shop humming to yourself about edelweiss or lonely goatherds…

There’s a whole range of transport options in Beijing other than just bicycles, though. In fact, I can’t remember ever seeing such a variety of vehicles anywhere else. Here are a couple I quite liked:

Beijing three-wheeler

Beijing three-wheeler

At one point we even overtook a tree going down the highway at speed…

Travelling tree

I think there was a vehicle under there somewhere.

I really stopped in Beijing to visit some long-lost friends, rather than because I’d ever had a great yearning to see the place. But I found myself enjoying it greatly. There are some downsides – the air pollution, combined with the dust that comes in off the desert, is pretty appalling, and best illustrated by this photo of my friends’ muddy windscreen:

Post-rain windscreen

This was the view after a rain shower had passed over the stationary car. The car had been nice and clean beforehand.

Another downside, for those not used to them, are the Chinese lavatory facilities. In some spots, the Tourist Board has started indicating their suitability for visitors with a star-rating system.

A 4-star loo

Even four stars doesn’t guarantee you’ll get a seat!

But, these things aside, it’s a fascinating place.

I visited the Temple of Heaven and admired the trees in the surrounding park.

twisted tree

I visited Tianamen Square and the Forbidden City, where it’s apparently good luck to rub the brass studs on the enormous doors.

Forbidden City door

Young volunteers within the walls tell you how privileged they feel to be able to work there, and how they hope you’ll come back, and bring your friends, and see the Olympics. Their upcoming hosting of the games is hugely important to China. Personally, I have minimal interest in the Olympics, and some mild objection to the fact that my taxes are going to fund London’s decision to embrace the huge financial loss which hosting them always entails for the country concerned. But here the symbolic importance is huge and all around the city you see evidence of how things are being prepared, built, tidied up, covered up, so that the city will look presentable for the foreign visitors and the TV cameras.

I think the high point for me (in more ways than one) was the Great Wall. I had expected to be impressed by the scale, but I hadn’t expected it to be so beautiful. It was a bright, clear (and very hot) day, and we took a cable-car up to the wall, then walked along it as it snaked along the mountain ridges through the lush vegetation.

Great Wall of China

How dull it would have been if it had been straight and flat! That’s probably what the Romans would have done.

Great Wall tower

There was relief from the heat inside the towers.

Great Wall tower

And some opportunities to gather extra material for my collection of notices from around the world.

Notice at the Great Wall

The food was superb, my friends James and Annabelle were great hosts, the prices were just unbelievable and the people were friendly.

Pity about the government.

And now I’m back in Cambridge, and it’s cold and rainy. Which, after the dust and mid-30s temperatures of Beijing, is actually rather nice.

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1 Comment

Hi Quentin! This was an interesting outcome for me, as I did a quick Google search for a song I’d heard and LOVED,…(9 million bicycles in Beijing) and came across your great photos. What a treat to find such a personal and insightful view of China. I had to laugh at the sign at The Great Wall that mentioned frolicking, and violent pashing???!!! Hysterical! Anyhow, I enjoyed your photos and now I know the name of the album the song came from, I’m off to buy it. I hope the rest of the songs are as awesome as that one! Love it. Cheers & hooroo from Louise (Australia…NOT Austria…No lonely goatherds here!! :o)

Hi Louise –

I’m glad you liked it! Not sure if you saw that I’d had my first experience of Australia, just before Beijing…

Anyway, you won’t be disappointed with the album, I don’t think… Hope you enjoy it!

All the best,

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