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By John Locke - Posted on 14 August 2000

BeijingScriptThe taxi pulled alongside an older man on his bicycle, and then suddenly veered right into his path. The bicyclist nonchalantly squeezed his brakes and veered out of the way, with millimeters to spare.

"I'm not riding my bicycle here!" said Jill from the back seat of the taxi. This was only the fourth bicyclist to get nearly plastered to the side of the taxi.

The next day found us weaving through the Beijing bike lanes on our mountain bikes. Traffic lights are merely guidelines, unless there's a policeman directing traffic. To make a left turn, cars veer across the road wherever they fit, blocking oncoming traffic which must slam on their brakes. At each corner, bicycles and pedestrians accumulate until they have enough mass to make the drivers of the largest trucks give pause, and then all move into the intersection as if they were one of the taxis or other vehicles slipping through the chaos.

As a westerner, the trick was to let a Chinese rider run interference--use them as a buffer between the cars and us. With fingers on our brakes and eyes in our rear view mirrors, we were more than prepared for the experience, weaving, dodging, stopping, starting, and flowing with the hundreds of bicycles all around. "Okay," said Jill. "This is kind of fun, in a twisted way."

Bicycles in Beijing Riding a bicycle in Beijing is not for the fainthearted. But it's the best way to get around the pancake-flat city. A curbed row of trees separates the traffic lanes from the bicycle lane on most major thoroughfares. Bicycle doctors repair flats and busted chains at nearly every corner. At every building, rows of parked bicycles occupy empty parts of the sidewalk.

As much as I enjoy history and the stories of local people, I hate tours and tourist attractions. While in Beijing, we had to check out Tiananmen Square, of course. We walked through the courtyard in front of the Forbidden Palace, and along the moat outside--but we didn't actually take the time to go in, saving it for the end of the trip. Instead, we rode our bicycles through the alleys and highways, weaving through run down neighborhoods and apartment blocks, market areas, parks, and high-tech shopping districts. We marvelled at the vegetable stands near the cell-phone store. Everywhere, men huddled around Chinese chessboards or Mah Jongg games.Fishing in the park

West of the Forbidden Palace a strip of park surrounds a couple of lakes. We pushed our bikes past fishermen, swimmers, and gamers, and sat down on a bench to find ourselves on the map. A sixty-ish woman was doing her Tai Chi next to us. Two older men played Chinese Chess under the tree. After a few minutes, the woman finished and came over to talk with us.

"Where are you from," she asked in halting English. "Forgive my... uh, my English isn't very good." And then she proceeded to tell us she had learned English over 50 years ago, but didn't speak it for some 30 years. Now her daughter lives in Baltimore.

"Take good care of lawn" Eventually we found our way to the Beijing Zoo. Star attraction: the Giant Pandas. Chinese zoos appear similar to American zoos, though there was a lot of construction going on here. The biggest difference was the behavior of the guests. At the grizzly bear exhibit, all but one of the bears were gathered beneath a crowd of people who tossed peanuts, sunflower seeds, and other assorted goodies down to the waiting bears. They stood, they caught morsels, they rolled on the ground, acting more like the family dog begging and doing tricks for treats.

Panda in Beijing zoo The polar bears looked quite uncomfortable. Their pool was filthy. So were their hides. The largest bear chased the smaller one in and out of the pool, around the pillar, all over the pen. Not a happy day in Polar Bear land.

The Pandas seemed to have it a little better. Perhaps it was the extra 10 Yuan each visitor had to pay to see them. They happily munched on grass shoots, rolled around in their yard, posed for the many clicking cameras.

Elsewhere in the zoo, kids drove little round bumper boats.

More to come...