Day 4: Beijing , Biking Beijing

A slit in a gate reveals a pile of old bicycles.
Where old bikes go to die.

I ride over to the train station first thing.

My ticket says that I’m leaving from Beijing. But I soon discover that there are no less than three railway stations here. Beijing Station, Beijing South Station and Beijing West Station. As I have no clue which it is, I decide to start with plain old Beijing station.

I’m afraid of riding the wobbly, loaded Troll in the heavy traffic. But I needn’t be. Cyclists rule the road here, and once I get into the flow it’s a beautiful thing. The flow is effortless, like a slowly breaking wave. It has the energy of the people and it stops the other traffic dead in its tracks.

Biking here is fantastic and I wish I’d ridden around town yesterday. It would be great to ride home as well, but let’s see what happens at the station. If I can find the station. This would definitely be easier on the subway!

The streets around the station are busy and intimidating.

The forecourt of the station is equally busy. It is filled with people. They are hauling suitcases and backpacks, and many look lost or agitated. Guard towers loom above the crowds and the uniformed guards look like they mean business. I want to take a photo of them but decide that I’d better not.

The front of the station is peppered with ticket windows. I’m here to pick up the ticket I bought online in New Zealand. But the signs all look similar and I’m not sure which lines are people waiting to buy and which ones are people waiting to collect.

I lock my bike up near the Luggage and Parcel Consignment Hall. It looks ominous. I’m still hoping that I can take my bike on the train with me tomorrow.

I pick a window and a line, and wait. After waiting a while I decide to check with a young policeman. Despite looking quite scary he is happy to help and sends me to the ticket office at the far end of the building. When I get there I see the huge ‘Ticket Office’ sign above the giant archway.

I pass through a security check, still wondering if I’m going the right way. Inside, I see many ticket booths. There is no-one at the sole English speaking counter. But I ask and, after a short wait, a man comes over. His English is not particularly good, but I have the handwritten note and I collect my ticket.

But he says that my bike is not allowed on this train and will have to travel separately. He sends me back down to the other end of the building.

I head back to the Luggage and Parcel Consignment Hall.

There are some other bike tourists waiting there. They’re French, disabled and riding recumbents. Their gear looks new and expensive. They complain that if they knew this would take so long, they wouldn’t have come via Beijing. Or something to that effect.

I wander around looking lost and the man at the first window waves me over. I show him my ticket and the handwritten note. He gives me a form and points out the parts to fill in. I do this and wonder if I have the right information in the right boxes. Then I’m sent over to the other window, to pay the weight surcharge.

They ask if the bags are mine too. I say yes, and so I must go to the man at the door and pay him 30 Yuan for a box. Then we squeeze everything that will fit into it. I’ll carry the rest with me on the train.

Then it’s back to the weighing window. Bike and box weigh a combined 55kg, with a total charge of CNY 323.40 (NZD 80.83). This is over half of the cost of my USD 89 train ticket.

The railway official slaps CRE (China Railway Express) stickers on my shiny new frame. Then the baggage handlers take my bike into the storeroom. I have a receipt but I’m not sure when the bike is being transported. I only hope that I see it again!

They tell me that the bike will arrive in 3-5 days. I kick myself for not coming to the station earlier and hope that Manzhouli is amazing. I’m impatient to get into Russia and start riding.

I catch the tube back to the hostel, or at least towards the hostel.

It’s a bit tricky to find my station, given that I’ve been travelling on foot and by bike so far.

On the train, I’m impressed by futuristic advertisements, projected on the tunnel walls. Mostly these are ignored by the locals, who sleep or stare at their phones.

I alight at the wrong station, or perhaps it is the wrong exit of the right station. A semi-toothless old man finds me staring at a subway map and asks me something. He’s either trying to help or telling me that I’m completely lost. I shake my head and he chuckles and wanders off.

Eventually I find my way back to the hutong.

I go on a tiki tour of the back streets, photographing as many bikes as possible.

While researching my trip, I’d been torn between buying an old-fashioned 26″ mountain bike, or a newer 29er. The guys in the bike shop had told me that I was wasting my time riding on smaller wheels. But most of the bike tourist blogs recommended 26″ wheels, for ease of repair.

I am happy to find that none of the Chinese bikes are 29ers.

I pass a restaurant, empty except for a table of men who have eaten and are now drinking big bottles of beer.

It looks like they’re closing up, but the woman asks me what I want. I can’t read the menu so she begrudgingly decides for me. It is spicy black noodles, simultaneously exotic and plain.

The drinking men eye me up suspiciously and I assume that tourists don’t usually make it down this end of town.

On the way home I wander through narrow alleys where people sell food and home staples. I’m glad that there are real people living here and it’s not just some kind of gentrified tourist shopping mall.

Back at the hostel, I get chatting to a tourist couple.

She is Rienke, Dutch, and he is English. They tell me that they have everything in common and never bothered with the dating part. They’ve been travelling for some time and are planning to settle down soon.

They give me an expensive beer and I talk excitedly about my trip. I say that I’m cycling through Russia, Mongolia, China, maybe Hong Kong, and then maybe Europe! Rienke tells me that I could possibly stay with her mother in Holland and gives me her email address. Cool!

Then they ask how long I’ve been travelling for. When I tell them that it’s been 4 days, their enthusiasm quickly evaporates. They’re still nice, but it’s obvious that they just don’t take me seriously anymore.

As I slip into bed, my roommates discuss some delicious Peking duck that they walked miles for, in the rain. I’m starting to feel FOMO, but I’m leaving tomorrow. The duck will just have to wait.