Adventures of Life in Beijing

 

Three months ago if you had told me  that I would ride a bike through the streets of Beijing, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, during lunch hour traffic I would’ve wondered what was in those dumplings you had for breakfast.

That is exactly what I did last Wednesday. I just received approval for my Mo Bike App (all foreigners are required to undergo ID verification which includes submitting a passport). Mo Bike is the world’s largest bike share company, with over 10 million bikes available for rent in China.

The technology is simply: scan the QR code with your phone to unlock the bike, hop on and ride. When you’re finished, locking the bike ends the rental time. It costs roughly 15 cents per hour, about the price of a small pork-stuffed bun.

I had signed up for the bike share app just to have another means of transportation. Traffic is so bad here hopping on a pay-per-use bike is often faster than driving or taking the subway. It’s a favorite solution for many Beijingers, which is one reason they are so fit.

The app shows the location of the closest bike, but there’s never a shortage.

 

You are never more than a few steps away from a share bike in Beijing.

 

So last Wednesday I wanted to visit my friend Liana who lives just over three miles away as the crow flies. Driving can take 30 minutes, 40 with the subway. Three miles on a bike? Less than 20 minutes.

How hard can that be, you ask? Well, if you live in a country where cars seemingly have the right away over pedestrians and traffic lights are viewed as purely decorative akin to twinkling Christmas lights, then it’s a little intimidating. Factor in honking, public spitting, sharing the road with 1,000 distracted commuters and stealth  scooters that zip up from behind and it becomes downright frightening.

But they say that fear releases the same endorphins as exercise and chocolate, two of my favorite things, so I was willing to give it a try. I pushed thoughts of death out of my mind, swallowed the last of my coffee and headed out the door.

Finding a stash of bikes was easy, but I took my time selecting one. After all, this bright orange baby was the only thing separating me from the pavement. I squeezed the brakes, inspected the tires and checked the seat height. That’s one thing that’s easy here, my petite stature is the norm so no problems reaching for the pedals.

 

 

Now let me tell you, these are not the Maseratis of the cycling world. They’re more like Ram trucks, tough and built to last. I choose my bike and plop my purse in the basket, looking down at the handlebars and wondering if I could use them like a big horn sheep to fend off my enemies.

I say a quick prayer and pedal off. Between the weight in the front basket (and I’m not about to jettison the Brie or the baguette I’m carrying) and the loose steering, I’m weaving dangerously through traffic  like a five-year-old who just got his training wheels off.

Within a few blocks I get the hang of it. I’m giddy with excitement. I can’t believe I’m actually doing this.

Then I hear “click clack, click clack” and I think the chain is about to fall off. The crowd is too thick to pull over, so I tuck in behind a lady on a scooter. I figure my chances of survival are better in the middle of the pack. That’s what animals do right? It’s the weaker ones on the outside that go down.

I make it to the first traffic light and glance up at my protector. That’s when I noticed the lady on the scooter whom I’ve been following has a baby across her lap. The little fuzzy headed guy is fast asleep, clutching the orange and green pillow held in place by his mom’s legs.

 

 

At this point I stop feeling guilty about not wearing a helmet. The light changes to green and I  start up again, past the baby killer. The bike stops making strange noises, so I start to breath again. People randomly dart across the street, cars park in the bike lane, scooters whiz by, startling me. Crossing through intersections is like playing a game of chicken. I try to avoid eye contact with motorists, thinking if I don’t acknowledge them, they won’t expect me to yield.

I grip the handle bars and stay focused. I pass the American Embassy and nod at the guards. Isn’t there a law that says if I crash and die here they’ll have to scrape me off the pavement and notify my next of kin?

I leave the tree-lined embassy street and turn right. I hit the 2nd Ring Road and traffic gets thicker. Soon I come to a steep overpass that takes me across the motorway. The great thing about these bikes is you can ditch them anywhere.

 

Tired of riding? Just drop the bike.

 

So I leave the bike and walk over the pedestrian bridge to the other side.

 

 

I pick up another bike and set off, failing to notice that the left brake lever is broken. Well, I’m only going about 5 miles an hour and I have a bell I can use if anything threatens to cross my path so I continue on.

Since I moved to China I’ve developed a heightened sense of peripheral vision, because even stepping off the curb to cross street requires prolific head-swiveling to avoid being struck by moving objects.

I scan the horizon as I ride, wishing I were a chameleon. Did you know they can move their eyes independently? Apparently they can watch for pray and predators at the same time.  Then I could have one eye focused on my route and another watching my surroundings. I could also blend in with the crowd, which I’d love to do at times.

But I’m not a chameleon so I do the best I can to keep an eye out for danger. I’m going west on Jinbao street, heading straight toward the Forbidden City.  It gets more crowded as I hit the tourist area, so I fake confidence and edge myself into the pack of cyclists again. Any sign of weakness and I’ll be picked off by a motorist turning across my path. I have a new found respect for herd animals.

I try to relax but then as soon as I let my guard down I hear that noise. That ever present throat clearing sound that is always followed by voluminous spitting.  The wind is in my favor and I don’t get hit by the stream of phlegm produced by a restaurant delivery guy sailing past me on a scooter.

Finally I see the sign on the side of my friends apartment building in the distance,  beckoning me to safety. Is this how the immigrants felt when they saw the Statue of Liberty welcoming them to New York Harbor?

I arrive safely, feeling triumphant. By conquering my fear I’ve gained a little bit more freedom to travel around. It’s just one more step to fitting in. I want to be part of the action here, not just look at it from my window.  I want to collect memories that involve all of my senses, like feeling the wind in my hair as I cycle toward the heart of Beijing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments (17):

  1. Paula

    September 23, 2019 at 8:40 am

    Kirsten, This was terrific. Your adventures
    get better and better. We are at Helaines
    after a terrific visit to Puglia. Keep
    exploring.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 23, 2019 at 9:44 am

      Thanks Paula, I’m glad to hear you are still exploring too:) I thought of Paul when I was writing – I know he likes to bike too. Thanks for not lecturing me about the lack of helmet.😂

      Reply
  2. Jeannie

    September 23, 2019 at 11:47 am

    Glad to hear your bike ride ended safely. You are an excellent writer and I am sure you you are back in the US in a few years when you read this you will be amazed at all you have accomplished during your time in China. You are brave!!!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 23, 2019 at 10:15 pm

      Thanks Jeannie, yes it will be fun to look back and laugh. Everything at home will seem so easy!

      Reply
  3. Kristin

    September 23, 2019 at 2:13 pm

    Love reading these and am always so impressed by your gumption. You never cease to amaze. Missing you!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 23, 2019 at 10:13 pm

      Thank you! Miss you too!

      Reply
  4. Holly McCall

    September 23, 2019 at 3:03 pm

    This is great!!!! I feel like I rode that bike with you, and I’m now a little worn out. Haha

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 23, 2019 at 10:12 pm

      Haha! Why don’t you come over and give it a try?

      Reply
  5. Tina Miller

    September 23, 2019 at 5:06 pm

    I love reading your stories of adventures. I can just imagine seeing you riding right past me!!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 23, 2019 at 10:14 pm

      Thanks Tina, it’s fun to be able to share my stories. Even on a bad day I think “oh this will make a great blog post.”

      Reply
  6. Yvonne

    September 23, 2019 at 8:39 pm

    Kirsten – I read your blogs while holding my breath!!! Never quite sure if the chain is going to break or the spit is going to hit you in the face!!! So proud of you deciding to venture out, conquer your fears and find the humor in it all!! sending you a hug from Orlando!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 23, 2019 at 10:11 pm

      Aw, thanks Yvonne. I know the love and prayers from home are sustaining us! Miss you all but getting plugged into BSF here and some charity work.

      Reply
  7. Heather WINTERS

    September 24, 2019 at 1:24 pm

    Hi Kirsten! Just wanted you to know how much I enjoy your blog! So well written and very descriptive! Keep the stories coming!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 24, 2019 at 9:45 pm

      Hi Heather – thank you so much! I’m glad you are enjoying it. I’m trying to boost my following so feel free to share or subscribe. Hope all is well!

      Reply
  8. Teri

    September 25, 2019 at 12:56 am

    You. Go. Girl. Thank you for sharing, Kirsten. Missing you in our carpool.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 25, 2019 at 10:45 am

      Thanks Teri- miss you guys too!

      Reply
  9. Ruth Meyer

    September 28, 2019 at 4:06 pm

    Dear Kirsten.
    You are so brave and so very good to share all your experiences with all your friends and family. We are thinking of you and your family and I send a special greting to the 29th September – congratulations on your anniversary . Lots of greetings to Mike and the boys and a special to you from Denmark. Moster Ruth

    Reply

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Strange but True

We’re not in Kansas anymore. Just about everyday I see something in Beijing that surprises or shocks me. Some things make me laugh; others just make me shake my head in disbelief. Here’s just a sample of a few of the strange things I’ve noticed around town.

 

Dogs Wear Shoes.

 

And cute little t-shirts.

Sometimes they get really decked out.

And if there’s a special event coming up, they can even take their owners to a  shop that sells haute couture for pooches.

 

Don’t forget the jewelry. Yes, these outfits are for the dogs. I didn’t check the price.


Hot is Cool.

From drinking hot water to layering on sweaters in mid-summer, Beijingers like things steamy.

 

At first I thought I was just suffering through hot flashes, but my expat friends are constantly fanning themselves as well. Maybe my internal thermometer speaks a different language, because I can feel perfectly comfortable in short sleeves and get tskd by a jacket-wearing local for being under dressed. I’ve had people in the elevator comment on my capris when it dipped below 60 degrees.

Last winter we didn’t have to turn on our heat because our neighbors kept their places toasty enough to permeate ours. There’s even a Chinese word –  pa leng – that means “fear of the cold.”


Gloves aren’t just for winter.

If you can’t pick it up with chopsticks, you’d better put on your gloves.

 

Bring on the tacos!

Pizza, wings and other hand-held food come with disposable plastic gloves so you don’t have to gasp touch the food with your naked hands. With the shortage of soap (and sometimes water) in public restrooms, it’s probably not such a bad idea.


Skin care is a big deal.

From whitening creams to foot masks, there’s a poultice or potion to firm, lighten or moisture just about any body part. Porcelain white, smooth skin is the goal here, and it’s a multi-billion dollar industry.

 

One of dozens of skin whitening products on display at the drug store.

Beijingers hide from the sun under parasols, arm sleeves or whatever item they might be carrying (I’ve seen laptops, jackets and squares of cardboard) as they hurry down the street to reach the shade.

You can even whiten your skin at the beach!

Traditionally, dark skin was a sign of an outdoor laborer’s heavy toil and lifestyle of poverty; thus fair skin reflected wealth and status.

There’s so much more I could tell you so stay tuned for another “strange but true” post in the future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Return to Jellyfish Lake


DAY TWO 

If you missed my last post on the obstacles we faced yesterday on the way to scuba lessons, you can catch up here: Jellyfish Lake

Hoping to avoid being detained by police again, I printed out a copy of the paperwork we filled out yesterday. On the train to Zhuozhou, I silently rehearse my lines in Chinese. “We came here yesterday and registered. We’re back again today.”

“Maybe we’ll get the same guy as yesterday and he’ll let us through,” Daniel says as we get off the train.

Walking toward the exit, we are confronted with three security guards and four guys wearing neon Traffic Control vests. We’re outnumbered and get immediately pulled over to the side.

“Who are you meeting? What’s her name What’s her phone number?  Where are you going?” Officer #232 asks. This takes about 45 minutes. So much for a faster exit today.

“Can we go now? What else do you need?

“Please wait, another officer will come soon.”

“How much longer?”

“Twenty minutes.”

“Twenty minutes? It’s been almost an hour!”

“He’s eating his breakfast first and then he’ll come.”

Unbelievable.

Officer #232 paces in circles and wipes his brow. He really wants to be done with us but doesn’t want the responsibility of letting us go. He looks so uncomfortable we almost feel sorry for him.

“Can we go? Our friends are waiting,” we try again.

Officer #232 hands me the papers and points to the locked exit door.

“Show it to him,” he says.

We knock to get the guard’s attention, pressing our faces to the glass like puppies at the pet store pleading for freedom.

“Mom don’t stop – keep going!” Daniel urges when the door opens.

“Aren’t we supposed to show him our papers?” I ask the boys.

“I’m pretty sure they aren’t going to come after us and tackle us. Just go,” Timothy says.

Our instructors Chris and Lexie meet us in the parking lot. The good news is Chris isn’t hungover today.

“Maybe next time you should try driving. There’s so much traffic they don’t stop everyone,” Lexie says. “It should be much faster.”

She tells us that the police grilled her on the phone while we were waiting in the station. Her relationship with three foreigners was causing suspicion from the authorities.

We agree to arrange a car for tomorrow, hoping to avoid another  encounter with the police.

The boys master their scuba skills successfully, and Chris and Lexie drive us to the train station. We’re hungry, but the pork bun shop is closed. We pass a vendor selling chicken feet from a roadside cart and produce vendors displaying their goods on the ground. It’s grittier than Beijing.

“Do you eat lu rou huo shao?” Lexie asks. Donkey Meat? We love it.

“It’s amazing we’ve never gotten food poisoning here,” Timothy says, digging into a hot flaky roll stuffed with donkey meat. The car smells like peppers and cumin.

There’s a local idiom here that “in Heaven there is dragon meat, on earth there is donkey meat.” Finally, something likable about Zhuozhou.

 

Grilled donkey meat and peppers stuffed in a bun, sometimes called a Chinese burger.

 

We pass security quickly after pointing to the clock and speaking urgently about our train departing soon.

At dinner time, Mike asks about our day.

“There was really nothing fun about swimming in a trash filled lake. I just want to get certified,” Timothy says in a voice that conveys truth, not complaint.

Being grilled by the police over the last two days takes an emotional toll. No one wants to go back, but we need to finish before school starts. We take a week off and then schedule the last two classes.

DAY THREE

We’ve arranged for our driver Chen to take us, hoping driving across the provincial border will be easier than travelling by train. Success! We didn’t get stopped at all.

That was such a good decision, I thought, as we wrapped up the scuba lesson and hit the road by 2:30. So far, the trip was uneventful. No police checks, paparazzi or dead fish floating in the lake.

Then we hit the first police check point. We get pulled over, Chen hands over our passports and gets out of the car to talk with the guards. A few minutes later an officer gets into our car (without Chen) and starts driving. We’re on a road trip with no passports and a Chinese cop behind the wheel. Before my heart rate hits dangerously high, the officer pulls into a parking lot behind the police station.

After about 20 minutes of questioning, we’re on our way. We pass checkpoint number two, leaving Zhuozhou without incident. We cross the bridge to checkpoint three, which is the border into Beijing.

We roll up to the guard and as soon as he sees us in the car he motions for us to park and get out. We hand over the passports and the questions start again.

“Where are you from? When did you arrive in China? Where’s your virus test? Where’s your proof of quarantine? Who is your community leader?” The officer asks in Chinese, thumbing through our passports.

Chen patiently answers for us as we stand on the side of the road. The officer isn’t satisfied and disappears inside the building with our passports. We wait as a steady stream of traffic rolls by. From tattooed truckers to old ladies hauling peanuts to market, their eyes rest heavily on us. If we were still in Florida I’d wish for a sinkhole to swallow us up.

Chen brings us some water from the car. If I’m going to be an object of shame at a Chinese border crossing, I can’t think of anyone better to have at my side. With a fuzzy brush cut and a face like a teddy bear, Chen is kind and gentle, providing the comfort we need.

“How much longer?” Timothy asks.

“I think I heard someone say 20 minutes, or maybe he said he’s been working here 20 years, or that we’ll be waiting 20 years, I’m not sure,” I answer.

It’s been almost an hour when we see a police car pull up, lights flashing.

“Maybe they’re just starting their shift,” Daniel says. “Or they’re coming to take us away.”

I take a mental inventory of the snacks and toilet paper in my purse as three soldiers walk up behind the police car and toward us.

“Maybe they requested back up,” Daniel say. We laugh a little, but there’s tension, realizing the situation is completely out of our control.  The police car and soldiers continue past and we relax a little bit.

“What can they possibly be doing inside?” I wonder out loud.

“Maybe he’s waiting for his boss to finish his plate of dumplings before he approves our paperwork,” Timothy says.

After about an hour and a half an officer comes out and unceremoniously hands back our passports.

What we had hoped would be an easier trip than going by train had turned into a 4-hour car journey that tested the depths of our patience and strength of my bladder.

DAY FOUR

I get up early and bake blueberry muffins. If we spend hours at the border or get thrown in jail at least we won’t be hungry.

We set off with Chen and arrive quickly in Zhuozhou. The only obstacle in our path this time was a herd of sheep.

 

Traffic jam on the way to scuba class.

 

We arrive a little early, hoping we can finish and head home before Friday traffic gets too bad.

“Maybe we can hide in the back of the van,” Daniel says. “Except they probably have infrared sensors and they’d find us.”

The boys grab their wet suits from the equipment room head down to the lake.

It rained last night, raising the water level and gathering more debris into the lake.

“Well. There’s a couch to sit on with your feet in the water, kind of like New Symrna,” Mike says, when I text him a picture.

 

The only thing missing is a fruity drink with a little umbrella.

 

I find a patch of shade and watch the boys disappear into the lake, leaving a trail of air bubbles. Local kids  play in the water, eating watermelon and tossing the rinds. A toddler comes with his dad, looking to catch some fish in his small net.

The boys finish their skills and make their way to the beach, greeted by a golden retriever who’s gone for a dip to escape the summer heat.

“Congratulations to our open water divers,” Lexie says, snapping photos of the boys she will use to make their official PADI certificates.

“Don’t worry,” she says. “I will beautify the pictures first – make your eyes bigger, make your skin whiter.”

I think of the rows of skin whitening products for sale in the grocery store. Maybe everything here would be easier if our skin were just a little bit whiter and we didn’t look so foreign. I look at my handsome blond boys with a hint of color on their skin from a day at the lake and think they look perfect.