A Multimode Adventure in China
7am in Beijing, it’s a clear chilly morning and I’ve been travelling for16 hours. My body clock thinks it’s 11pm. I could stay in the airport for 3 hours and take a local flight to my destination in Shenyang 430 miles to the north-east but when planning the trip I decided that a 20 mile bike ride and a train to Shenyang would probably be better for my general wellbeing.
Terminal 3 at Beijing Capital Airport is a stunning piece of award winning Grand Architecture with a swirl of multi-level expressways to match. Not friendly for cycling but thanks to Google maps and a trawl through online photos from architectural journals, advertising and people’s snapshots from seeing off auntie, I have a plan. Here’s my route in Google Maps.
Down to the ground level where the shuttle bus services pick up passengers. Unpack my Brompton and re-organise my luggage, ride gently across the polished marble and on to the roadway. Curving to the left it merges with streams of fast traffic from the top deck departures, the main car park, and the underground taxi rank but just before it gets exciting there is a slip road off to the right.
Coast down there and you are in the local road system on a broad straight highway with light traffic and a wide cycle lane at each side. There’s a big secure cycle parking compound for airport employees and a steady trickle of bicycles, electric scooters and cargo trikes.
It’s 20 miles to the city centre and while there are a couple of rough spots it is possible to cycle the whole way on local roads, generally with wide separate cycle lanes and lots of other people doing the same. Part of the route is on older 2-lane roads which were probably fine before the airport was extended but are now struggling with the rush hour traffic. But there is generally at least a footpath you can use in the busiest parts, plenty of other cyclists who seem to cope without any stress and once you get into the more built-up parts of the city there is always a bike lane that’s generally as wide as the ones for cars and trucks. I found my Mirrycle mirror very useful as I could keep my eye on the waves of traffic coming up behind from traffic lights, nip on to the sidewalk if it was looking heavy, and back on the road for a faster smoother ride when it quietened down.
The local style of road use is quite informal, so don’t be surprised if a taxi decides to take a short cut down the bike lane but it isn’t like Britain where cyclists are generally invisible. Nobody does anything sudden or unpredictable so good road sense and watching how other cyclists behave will get you by.
Half way to town I stop to pick up my train tickets from local colleagues who have bought them in advance for me. The Chinese train system handles a huge number of passengers but demand always exceeds supply so you have to book in advance and you have to buy your ticket from the station you depart from.
Update, July 2011. On my next trip the rules had changed and foreigners have to buy their tickets in person. To save time I took the shuttle bus to Beijing Station (very cheap but a struggle up the steep steps with my bike and bags) and stood in line for a ticket. It was around 10:30 am and the next available seat was around 4pm so that was a pain but I had a nice ride through the backstreets and sat in a park to read)
It’s a big office block which I have not visited before so I decided to fold the bike, although it’s much easier to let it carry my two heavy bags. However there is a smartly dressed young doorman who is intrigued by the Brompton and insists on carrying it for me, even taking me by the goods lift as there’s a bit of a crowd at the passenger lifts. That’s a general reaction in China, people know bikes and quickly recognise that the Brompton is unusual and love it when they see it folded so small. A security guard at Shenyang station held up his hand to stop me as I came through the ticket barrier and I thought “here we go,” but he just wanted to give me a thumbs up for having a bike.
The second stage of the ride is more urban along a dual carriageway road. It goes through a couple of big flyover type junctions but there is always a cycle track such as the separate brick track above. When stopped at a junction along this section I had quite a surprise. Urban cyclists in China tend to wear normal clothes and ride functional bikes, often old and rusty. But out of the blue here were two guys in full western-style sporting cycling gear, including helmets, riding a very sharp road bike and a bright red Dahon
Probably the scariest part, for a newcomer to the city, is the big roundabout over the Inner ring road but having navigated a few of those on a previous trip I felt quite relaxed as I threaded my way through the traffic, which is rarely aggressive or unpredictable.
There’s a quieter road parallel to the ring road heading towards the railway station but it’s all glittering high rise offices and apartments. Then not far from the station, as central as it gets in this sprawling metropolis, you take a right turn and back 50 years into a traditional ‘hutong’ with a narrow lane threading between tiny shops, homes and factories, glimpses of courtyards and alleys on either side. This where real life goes on for ordinary people who are not chasing the profits from factories selling cheap gadgets or the booming construction industry.
Outside the station the crowds are quite oppressive, with huge numbers milling around being marshalled into groups. But it wasn’t too difficult to make my way to the main entrance where I had to fold the bike to feed it and my bags through a security X-ray. Once inside it was quiet and calm in the great entrance hall. I had some time so I re-assembled the Brompton and wheeled it to a cafe where I was served the best meal of the trip, spicy beef and rice with salad and lemon tea.
The trick to navigating a big Chinese station is to know your train number, printed on your ticket, in my case it was D9, the ‘D’ indicates that it’s a modern high speed train like the one below. Each waiting room had a list of trains by the entrance and luckily my train went from Platform 1 so no need to climb the steps over the bridge.
The huge waiting room was full of people and baggage so when a team of smartly uniformed young women arrived to check the tickets I hung back and waited for the crush to die down. Eventually I boarded coach 9 of the 16 car express to find that a man had decided to sit in the large luggage rack just inside the entrance to the”soft class” coach. As there was plenty of space I left the Brompton in the corridor and took my other bags to my seat where there was plenty of room in the overhead racks. Later on I went back and found that the man had been moved and my bike placed in the rack which would accommodate several folded Bromptons.
Shenyang is very different from Beijing, grittier, less shiny. It’s a city of 8 million people and most of them seemed to be coming and going from the huge railway station. I threaded my way through the crowds to the road, along the busy cycle track and after a short distance turned right into a backstreet that took me all the way to my hotel, a mile or so away. Once again Google Maps and the satellite view had given me enough information to plot a route. The only incident was when a huge shiny Range Rover coming the other way suddenly swung out across the road in front of me and roared past another car, pulling in front of it forcing it to stop. The Range Rover driver leaped out shouting.
Whether it was road rage, a Mafia dispute or he was just catching up with his mum to say she’d left her shopping behind was difficult to say but there was a strong whiff of aggression about the affair, even discounting the fact that Chinese conversations often sound argumentative. I decided I didn’t want to stay and watch the outcome.
My hotel was 5 miles from the University where I was working for three days. On the first day I allowed my hosts to collect me by car (they were very anxious about me cycling from the station) but after that I cycled. The route was along a big main road, almost dead straight but as usual there was a wide cycle lane and plenty of other cyclists to keep me company. When the road vaulted over a big junction the bicycles went underneath through a peaceful network of small roads lined with bookstalls taking advantage of the shelter from the flyovers above. Practical work bikes and trikes were everywhere, the road maintenance crews had bright yellow cargo trikes and this food stall was parked outside the university gate.
When we went to visit a new building under construction my Brompton made the acquaintance of another trike belonging to a scrap metal scavenger.
Finally I returned to Beijing, with a colleague, by sleeper train, in preference to flying and staying in an airport hotel. Shenyang North station was huge and confusing because it’s being rebuilt, but the main confusion was our driver from the university, who had been told to ensure we caught the train but actually we would have done much better making our own way as he seemed totally unable to cope with the unexpected “under construction” chaos, quite familiar to us Brits.
While he was running round in a panic trying to find somebody who knew what to do, we checked the train number on our tickets and followed the signs, no problem despite the almost total lack of non-Chinese signage. It was all actually very well organised despite the need to walk a long way round to reach the temporary waiting room. In Britain a waiting room is where you go if you have time to kill. In China it’s the place you wait in before the ticket barrier opens. Once you know that it’s quite straightforward, and you can always show your ticket to somebody if you are lost. Next time I’ll insist on cycling to the station on my own.
The “soft class” sleeper was smart and new but not soft – the bed was very hard and I didn’t sleep much at all. Also the new coach may have been poorly built since it seemed to vibrate with an unpleasant and really unnecessary buzz, a railway coach with no engine under the floor should be pretty quiet. China may be making great strides but some basic lessons of industrial quality, second nature in Japan, have yet to be learned. The big positive was a reasonable amount of luggage space and the Brompton fitted easily under the lower bunk.
All in all a good experience, showing that multi-mode travel in China is very possible and the cities are still basically cycle-friendly if you take a little trouble to learn how it all works (see my post on cycling in Hangzhou) and use your observation.