Day 2: Beijing Airport to Dongcheng , Welcome to China

Five soldiers march in single file.
Soldiers march on the forecourt at Beijing Airport.

It’s 6am when we reach China.

The terminal is bright and airy, and almost empty.

I find a spot off to the side of a wide walkway and empty the contents of my bike box onto the floor.

I’ve only assembled this bike once before, in my garage at Houghton Bay.

But it was a baptism by fire, and I’m fairly confident that I know what I’m doing now.

With the frame upright, I insert the Y-shaped front forks into the steerer tube at the front of the frame. Then I add a fat stack of spacers on top. The handlebars are a tight fit, so I bash them on with the long pedal wrench. Then the whole lot is secured with a stem cap and a long screw.

After sliding the seat post into place, I can flip the bike over. The wheels are fitted into the dropouts and the quick releases tightened. Then I flip the bike over again.

I adjust the seat to the appropriate riding height and tighten the seat post bolt. The tyres have been let down for the flight, so I re-inflate them using a dual-action hand pump. Then I screw the front light on to the front forks and plug it into the dynamo hub on the front wheel.

I set my brake levers to the correct angle and tighten them. The pedals are from my old mountain bike and I screw these into the cranks using the pedal wrench.

Just the pannier racks to go now. For some reason the screws are mostly short but sometimes longer. I take a stab and screw the rear rack on to the frame. Then I screw the faulty rear dynamo light on to the rear of the rack. I zip-tie the cable onto the rack and frame and trim the ends.

Last thing. I add the front rack. But after much fiddling and head scratching, I realise that I’ve installed the forks back-to-front!

And so. I unplug the front headlight and remove it from the front forks. Remove the steerer cap and the long screw, bash the handlebars off, then remove the spacers. Flip the forks around, add the spacers, bash the handlebars back on, add the stem cap, tighten the screw.

This time. I methodically attach the front rack. I hope that the remaining screws are the correct ones, that there are enough of them and that none are left over.

Nearly there! I mount the bike to give it a little test ride. Turning the handlebars almost results in a wipe out. I realise that I’ve forgotten to tighten the bolts on either side of the stem. Sorted.

Now to load the gear on. I velcro the feed bags on to the handlebars, one either side of the stem. Then mount the pannier bags on the frame, two on the rear, two on the front. I clip the tent on to the handlebars and thread the fiddly strap between the tent bag and the stem.

I attach the solar panel bag to the rear rack. It’s stuffed full of electronics. I realise that the cheap tie downs, which my dad persuaded me to buy, were cheap because they’re too short.

Finally I roll up the laundry bag and jam this into my frame bag. I clip my helmet to my backpack, put on my backpack – and we’re done.

The whole process takes me close to 3 hours. Thankfully the smooth jams from the airplane are also playing in the terminal, and I groove through the entire process.

During the assembly process, airport police check in on me regularly.

They wear red and white blinking lights. They look at my bike, then they look at me, the owner of the bike.

Perhaps they are waiting to see if the attachment of a rack or wheel will suddenly transform the bike into a Weapon of Mass Democracy. But they’re curious and non-threatening and it’s nice to have some company.

But there are also regular military patrols. I wondered if this level of military presence is normal, or whether I’ve walked into the middle of something serious.

There’s a train station attached to the terminal and blue skies peek seductively through the glass ceiling.

My token hostel booking is in the Dongcheng area. My bed is calling and I hope I can fast-track my journey into town by catching the Express Train.

But the friendly official by the ticket office informs me that the train is off-limits at the moment. It’s reserved for military personnel, who are converging on the terminal for a parade. Welcome to China, he says.

I ask the official if it would be worth watching the parade, by doing my binocular impression. But he shakes his head and I decide to give it a miss.

A couple of young female backpackers wander over and we chat. They’re friendly but can’t shine much light on the situation. When they ask the lady at the ticket office, she says that it’s ok for them to get on the train. So they ignore the official and go through the gate and are on their way.

I can’t get on to the airport Wi-Fi, but I sign up at a Boingo hotspot.

Apparently the parade is commemorating the 70th Anniversary of the War of Resistance against Japan and the war against Facism. It doesn’t mean anything to me and I wonder if it is just a propaganda tool. But I’m pretty keen to avoid conflict with the soldiers, so I retire to the seated areas to wait it out.

Spotting a small grocery store nearby, I commiserate with some Chongqing Strange-Taste Horsebeans and half a litre of Zaebringer Hefeweizen. As a Kiwi, it’s always a novelty to be able to drink in public, especially at breakfast time. Perhaps I just never grew up!

Despite the influx of troops, the terminal is mostly empty. I do a little people watching but soon get bored with it. I find myself staring at a huge pot in the center of the room and thinking of my ex, back in New Zealand. Then I start checking out all the pretty girls that are walking past. And then I realise that the beer is kicking in, and the jet lag.

I’m feeling pretty frustrated so I head back up to the train office.

It’s been an hour – surely the troop manoeuvres are finished by now? But the same man is still there and now he tells me that, no, I could never board that train with a bicycle.

Grrrr. The fun waiting game is over and I storm downstairs to find the road out of this of bureaucratic void.

But the people downstairs tell me that the road is an expressway and not suitable for bikes. I’d need to take a taxi into town. But my bike is too big for the small taxi cars, so I’d need to take a van.

There is only one van on the rank and the driver quotes me a whopping 280 Yuan (NZ $70). There goes the budget.

The drive to town takes some time.

Incomplete high rises are visible in the distance, and annoyingly there’s also a shoulder on our right, perfect for cycling along. I try to justify the price tag with the thought that my maps aren’t in order. I might have become lost along the way.

The van driver is friendly and we chat a little. Eventually he drops me on the side of the road near the gateway to the hutong. I struggle to reattach my panniers on the side of the busy road, while being watched by two policeman. I’m surprised when one of them comes over to help.

I get on and take my first pedal strokes on the fully loaded Troll. The alleyway is wide but thronged with tourists. I ride my wobbly bike very cautiously.

When I reach the hostel, it appears to be locked.

I sit under a leafy tree on the side of the road and wait patiently. I assume that this is just another test for tourists. There’s no point in stressing over it.

Some people sit nearby me, but they look Chinese. I wonder if they’re also waiting to get into the hostel. If they are, they’re as clueless as I am.

I decide to get something to eat so I go for a ride around the block. It’s an interesting way to view the hutong. Narrow alleyways connect the maze of shops and houses to the wide city streets surrounding the enclave.

Stopping at a fruit shop, I go in and pick out a weird, red, alien looking thing. I hope that it’s Durian. I also pick up some apples wrapped in protective plastic webbing. The fruit is really expensive and I note that the locals aren’t even coming inside, except to pay. They’re grabbing their fruit from the racks outside the shop.

When I bite into my apple, it is horrible. The extra packaging seems to be mostly for show.

When I return to the hostel it is still locked.

Luckily a French lady wanders over and shows me where the entrance is. It’s just around the corner.

The hostel staff are young and friendly and speak Mandarin and a little English. The hostel isn’t very big but they let me store my bicycle in the common room downstairs.

I eat the strange red fruit, which turns out to be Dragon fruit. Thankfully it is delicious. Then I retire to the dormitory for some much needed rest.

My room mates are Middle Eastern and English, well-travelled and confident. We relax and chat about New Zealand, inspiring each other with our past and future travel plans.