September 1, 2017
I lived in Beijing for five years before I thought to ride a bike. “There are nine million bicycles in Beijing,” the song says, and that’s not really true – it’s almost definitely more. Indeed, there are nine million cars these days, but there is still something so very Beijing about the bicycle.
The cold, smog, and effort kept me away, but the benefits are legion. You have Baidu Maps (no Google, because China), so there’s no chance of the cab driver getting lost; there’s no chance of getting price gouged by a rickshaw; and little chance of getting stuck in traffic.
As Beijing endures a bike-sharing frenzy, two wheels is one of the best ways to visit Beijing’s best sights – taking you places you can’t go otherwise.
Nanlouguxiang and the Hutongs
There’s a reason that hutong tours are guided. It’s extremely easy to get lost – actually, unless you’re a local, you’re guaranteed to get lost. Nanluoguxiang is a decent place to start as it provides a middle point between urban and hutong: shopping in the middle, culture to the sides.
Nanluoguxiang runs north and south from two major traffic arteries and in between is some of the best hutong riding to be found in the city, a mix of that famous gray of the hutong bricks and the shiny shopping of a high street. Yu’er hutong might be the most photogenic spot, a great place to get selfies for Weibo (no Instagram, because China).
If you’re the sort who enjoys a little tipple with your ride, hit up Great Leap Brewing – one of the finest craft breweries in the city and conveniently located in a hutong courtyard. Truth be told, you could probably spend a day grabbing a pint and winding through the hutongs and then returning for your next ad infinitum. Do not do that. I’m not sure if drinking and driving a bike is illegal, but I know the Beijing driving conventions. You will almost certainly die.
Head north to the traffic of Gulou East, and snigger at the tourists waving at cabs with abject futility, the fools, as you pedal west. Saunter as best you can on two wheels west to the Drum and Bell. Built in the reign of Kublai Khan in the 13th century, these ancient edifices dominated the skyline of the Beijing of old, and it still has a certain majesty to it, tucked as it is into this hipster hood.
Start southwest and cross the Yindingqiao Bridge for a peak at Beijing’s most famous lakes, Houhai and Qianghai. Here, park inclined riders can head north and hutong and market inclined bicyclists can head southwest. Nanguanfang Hutong is a favorite, and riders can continue southwest to the Lotus Market Marina, a great stopping area full of fine eateries and picturesque views of Qianhai to finish off the journey.
Forbidden City to Sanlitun
How you get your bike to the most famous site in the city is up to you: Fold it and carry it on a bus, throw it on a taxi, or just get a bike share, seeing as how you’re in Beijing. But, it’s best not to expect to rock up at Tiananmen Square and get the cabbie to pull over in a high-security area on the busiest central road in the city to let you take out your bike.
Get out at the corner of Xi’anmen Street and Fuyou Street and head east through the Northern Sea and Middle Sea, two large – surprising bucolic – lakes. Riders reaching the crowded Beichang Street will need to make a choice: east or south. East offers the famous view of the Forbidden City from Coal Hill in Jingshan Park. South and then east will take riders to perhaps the single most famous site in all of China: the Gates of Heavenly Peace on one side and Tiananmen Square on the other. There’s also some fairly nice dining nearby.
The southern route leads along the outside of the Forbidden City’s western moat and opens up onto Chang’an Avenue. This street is crowded. Really crowded.
This is a relatively a high security area. Remember how the media blows things out of proportion sometimes? This isn’t one of those times. Don’t cause any fuss around Tiananmen Square or the Forbidden City. Security here has no patience. But, you can take your pick of the sights, including Chairman Mao’s mausoleum (go early, or you won’t get in).
Keep heading east to the famous Wangfujing shopping street which used to have one of the most fun outdoor food markets in the world until the chengguan ruined it. Still, enjoy the oddly western scenery and overpay for a memory card.
Head north to Dongsi West Street and ride east. The rest of the ride is a long trek through modern Beijing – meaning high rises with higher rent. After the Second Ring Road, make your way to the busy Chaowai North Street and stay on the north side of the road (riding against traffic). You’ll pass the Beijing Blue Zoo and the impressive Beijing Worker’s Stadium – well worth a look. Head further north into the Worker’s Stadium North Road, and find somewhere to park. Your journey should be on foot from here.
Here, you will see The Village – perhaps the most famous shopping complex in China – filled with Chinese tourists taking selfies to post to WeChat (no Facebook, because China). Continue north to the Sanlitun bar street.
Considered the foreigner area of Beijing’s east, surrounded by plush embassies, this is the beautifully rotten core of drinking and vice right. There is really only one tourist attraction here: drinking. You’ll find hundreds of foreigners drinking, partying, and generally just making fools of themselves. Join in.
If you manage to get a late-night taxi on Sanlitun, all invariably crooks, you and your wallet will be reminded of why you biked.
Taken slowly, this will end up being an all-day (and night) trip, so plan accordingly.
Heaven, Sun, and Robot Pants
After the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven is probably one of the most popular tourist spots in Beijing. Built in the early 15th century, the Temple of Heaven takes up 2.73 square kilometers, and the temple is the site where the Son of Heaven (emperor) would offer sacrifices to heaven.
It’s arguably the best park in Beijing – though lacking the theme park rides of Chaoyang – and there is some excellent bird watching if you’re in the right season and the smog doesn’t blot out the sun.
It’s really quite a fascinating and deeply historical destination. You should Baidu it (no Google, because China).
Exit the south gate, but don’t go all the way to the Second Ring Road. Instead, take a leisurely ride along Yongdingmen East toward Longtan West Lake Park.
Now, Temple of Heaven doesn’t show up on many biking guides because it’s in South Beijing, and South Beijing is viewed as, well, kind of rubbish, so take in the water and peace of Longtan Park before the next leg.
On your way north, be sure to check out the Red Theater – and perhaps a kung fu show – and you’ll be going through residential district after residential district on your way to Jianguomen Inner Street. Here, head east on your way to the Temple of the Sun.
Here, that newness of the Asian powerhouse comes back alive: glass windows, tall towers, and traffic. After the Second Ring Road, head northeast to the Temple of the Sun.
The Temple of the Sun – and the Temple of the Moon in West Beijing – compliment the Temple of Heaven, but, really, they both pale in comparison. There’s nothing wrong with the Temple of the Sun, but after the Temple of Heaven, it’s a bit understated.
But, the park isn’t the reason for this route. It’s The Place. The place is a shopping haven in the center of Beijing’s financial powerhouse: fine dining, a fun atmosphere, oh yeah, and the world’s largest outdoor LCD TV screen. It is 250 meters by 30 meters. Yes, it’s more than two soccer fields of TV screen.
The last leg of this trip goes through nothing very special at all until we arrive at the CCTV Headquarters. Well, no one really calls it that. Some call it the CCTV building, others the “Legs,” but when I arrived in 2008, everyone just called them the “Robot Pants.”
For the perfect end to a very long ride through Beijing, head back the way you came, set down your bike in the city’s most expensive area, and ride up to Atmosphere Bar (reservation recommended) on the 80th floor of China’s tallest building, the China World Trade Center. From here, on a clear day, you can very nearly see back to the Temple of Heaven. And you can WeChat Moment (no Twitter, because China) that you have traveled from the dawn of the city under the Mongols to its rebirth in modern capitalism (sort of).
It’s a big ride, around 13 kilometers. Beijing may be a city designed for bikes, but it doesn’t always feel like it. It’s often smoggy, cold much of the year, and always a little bit dangerous. But, when you’re part of the pack, cycling through the crowds on a blue-sky day, it all feels worth it.
Oh, and invest in a VPN.