Day 3: Beijing , First things first

An A5 printout of common Chinese phrases.
Language essentials.

I wake up early, to my second day in China.

I check that my bike is still where I left it. It is, but it has a flat tyre, already.

I take the wheel up to the roof, to find and repair the leak. There are plenty of tables and chairs up here and I wonder why this nice spot is not more popular. But after only a few minutes, I think I know why. It’s The Smog.

It’s odd, you can’t really see it, but it’s everywhere. It takes the edge off the blue sky and feels like a slightly oppressive shroud. It feels like staying inside might be the healthier option, but I’ve got things to do.

I’m in Beijing, after all, the capital of the PRC.

I guess I should be doing the tourist sights, maybe Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall at least.

But no, my itinerary is currently jam-packed – with stressing out. My brand new bike is sitting downstairs and I didn’t come all this way just to be a camera-toting tourist. Tour planning comes first.

That means sorting things out, while I’m in a tourist-friendly, English-speaking city.

Except that it isn’t, really. I mean it’s friendly, but it’s very much Chinese first and tourism second. And the super friendly hostel staff know it. They hand me an A5 print-out of Mandarin essentials. It’s clear that I’m supposed to learn these, if I want to get anything done here.

The first thing I absolutely must get done, is to buy a local SIM card.

I’m currently using my New Zealand SIM card and *Spark’*s international data packages. These are obviously targeted at suckers and completely unsustainable. Think 49 NZD for 1GB of Zone 6 data, valid for a mere 7 days. Yikes.

The hostel staff graciously translate China Mobile into Chinese for me – “Doe Zhong Yeah”. I find the shop just down the alleyway. Pulling my iPhone out, I try to negotiate a card with the young salesman, but I’m getting nowhere.

I persuade one of the hostel staff to come back with me. The two speak briefly and it sounds like we’re getting somewhere. In broken English, I’m told that this is absolutely possible – if I have a Chinese ID card. Well, no, I’m a tourist, obviously. What about a New Zealand passport? Sorry, no China ID, no SIM card.


The two talk some more. Then my translator says that it might be possible, if I go into one of the bigger China Mobile stores. This is just a small branch and they don’t usually sign up new customers.

I wander around the hutong. It’s a strange mix.

There’s a subway station at the entrance which might explain the crowds of people. They spill out into the main drag, full of shops and shoppers.

In contrast, the streets off to the side are unusually quiet and orderly. But every now and then I spy a busy parallel alleyway bursting with local life.

I head back to the hostel for some lunch and to research my train to Manzhouli, on the Chinese-Russian border.

I pre-booked my ticket in New Zealand, to support my application for a dual-entry visa. Now I just need to collect my ticket and find out if the train will take my bike. The ticket agency was efficient, but can neither confirm nor deny whether my bike is covered too. It doesn’t inspire confidence and it weighs heavily on my mind.

China Highlights can buy your train tickets, but cannot handle bike consignment on a train, nor do we know whether a train has a luggage carriage..

I explain my situation to the hostel staff and they oblige with a handwritten note for the station ticket office. In amongst the sea of Chinese characters, I recognise only my train number and its departure time.

Over lunch, I chat to a couple of young girls in the cafeteria. They initially seem enthusiastic to talk to an English speaker, but soon tire and go to sleep, right in front of me. Was it something I said?

I head into town to try and find the elusive China Mobile, that will actually sell me a SIM card.

Outside the pedestrianised hutong, there are roads and wide footpaths. A lot of people seem to ride here, with bicycles parked up for miles.

I try several shops, but each tells me to go to the next one. I realise that it’s not going to happen and that I am effectively disabled, Internet-Mobility Impaired, in this country.

I’m thinking about the pollution again and pop into a minimart to see what is available.

The smog masks look more reminiscent of Melrose Place than Mad Max, and I decide that my image is more important, right now.

There are some strange items on the shelves and I’m surprised that dairy products have such VIP status here. I guess I won’t be having milk and cookies for supper.

On the way home, I walk past what looks like a bookshop and decide to look for a map.

I don’t actually need any maps of China, until I exit Outer Mongolia in a few months time. But when I do, I’ll be out in the sticks. I’m not expecting there to be much of anything up by the border, let alone a Whitcoulls.

I find a small selection of road maps, but they’re all in Chinese. After much debating I decide to get an A3 China Road Atlas, with an index. It’s bulky and heavy and I’m already stressing out about the amount of stuff I’m carrying. But it comes down to what’s essential, and at the moment everything seems to be, including this. I also think it’s the one that other cyclists have used, and that seems important too.

And then something else. At the back of the shop, an artisan sells craft items including blank notebooks. I pick one up and turn it over in my hands. With its dark blue cover and old-fashioned binding, it’s way too authentic to pass up.

As I go to leave, it starts bucketing down. The storekeeper provides paper bags for my purchases, but I wait for the worst to pass. Random passersby crowd into the shop and the staff have to close the doors to stop the ensuing flood.