Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Rode my bike down to Nanluoguxiang yesterday, a seven-hundred-year-old area in the Dongcheng district. There are lots of coffee bars on that street, and the ride there is really nice on a beautiful autumn day. Autumn is the nicest time of the year in Beijing. The weather is moderate--not cold, not hot. And the old town area in Beijing is part of what makes this city so unique.

I have seen my share of big cities. Most of them in North America, of course. I have always said that Los Angeles is the easiest big city in the United States. Remember, I was a truck driver. In L.A., every state highway is a six-lane freeway. New York and Boston are the two worst. Very narrow streets. Those cities were developed in the days when a 27-foot pup was considered a big trailer. They were definitely not designed for guys like me coming in from the Dakota's with a 53 ft. trailer.

The worst thing about Chicago is the low overpasses. In America, the standard clearance for a truck is 13 feet, six inches. Freeways are guaranteed to accommodate at least that height. But there are lots of low underpasses in Chicago. When I was pulling a flatbed, it wasn't that bad as long as I was hauling steel or aluminum, because with a load of steel, you could have all of your weight limit used up by the time you get two feet off the deck. But when I was pulling a reefer, it was a different matter. I was heading into Chicago on the Ike or the Stevenson one time--can't remember which--when I saw a guy going the other way with the whole top of this trailer ripped off and dragging behind him. If the cops had seen him they would have shut him down. Don't know if he made it to the truck stop or not. A local driver once told me, "I know every overpass in this town; met a couple of them personally." He said there was one that was actually 9 feet.

You can tell that my observations of American cities are largely influence by how they are for a truck driver, because that is the vantage point from which I saw them. I've never driven a truck in Asia. Here I am more concerned about getting around. So I will compare Beijing and Tokyo.

The subway/metro train arrangement in the Tokyo metropolitan area (I am including not only Tokyo as a Metropolitan district or province, but also Yokohama, Kawasaki, etc.) is impressive. They always say that you should never take a taxi in Tokyo. But you don't have to. You can take a train anywhere. It's very convenient that way. But you can't take a bicycle anywhere. That's why I really like Beijing. If there's a place you want to go to, you can get on your bike and ride to it. It sorta makes Beijing feel like a small town. Mind you, I don't actually use a bike to go down to the south part of Beijing. But almost anywhere on the north side is well within range of a 45 min to one hour trip. If you look at Line 2 (blue circle) on a Beijing subway map, you will see that many of the names along that loop end with "men." Xizhimen, Andingmen, Dongzhimen, Chaoyangmen, Jianguomen, Chongwenmen, Qianmen, etc. "Men" is the Chinese word for "gate." So those stops are situated at the gates to the old city wall. Anything within that circle is "old town" Beijing, and it's really interesting. I've just never seen a big city like this. If you want to take a bus, you can. If you want to take a taxi, you can do that, too. Or you can take the subway to Jishuitan, and flag a bicycle rickshaw. Or, like me, you can just hop on your bike and ride down there. I live on the south side of Wudaokou, which is three stops up on the Line 13 light rail extension. Not that far, really. Throw a few books in your basket, and maybe a water bottle. Cycle down College Road to Xueyuan Nan Lu (College Road South) and head east until you get to the Deshengmen gate. After you negotiate past that monstrosity, head southeast to the old drum tower and then turn west to Nanluoguxiang. Make your way south on that narrow old Beijing street, and take a turn on one of the several hutongs that run perpendicular (see picture) to it. Get lost for awhile, then mosey on back and find a coffee bar in one of the ancient buildings along Nanluoguxiang and put your feet up.

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