20 Sep 2012

Another Bike in Beijing / Finding Face in China’s Hutongs

‘FATALATIES not bad this month,’ remarks 28 years-old, Yves du Parc, expat owner of Beijing Sideways, as he fires up motorcycle number A7241. Black, battered, but robust, it is one of a fleet of Chang Jiang 750s which has, on occasion, risen to 90. The model, first built for the Chinese military, is a regular rover on the city’s byways and backstreets: faster, shinier and less shimmy than the city’s estimated nine million pedal bikes – and soldered to a sidecar.
We prowl from the couth Opposite House hotel amid the new gloss of the international Sanlitun district. Although the speedometer gave up miles ago, Parc promises not to exceed 40km/h in the city and, when zipping guests along the motorway to hike a lesser trod pave of the Great Wall, 60km/h. However, taking advantage of Beijing’s lax laws towards helmet wearing, the rush of air lends a greater gist of speed while allowing unhindered contact with the sights and scents unravelling around us. Laid out in the sidecar, I certainly feel more exposed than in the hotel’s metallic Masserati, which met me at the airport just hours before.
Parc established the firm five years ago. Although he first became a motorbike fanatic without his parents’ consent, it was his family who approved of the unique way to see China’s second largest city. In this time, Parc has seen whole districts, like this, develop, and taken some interesting passengers on the tour, including Carrie Fisher of Star Wars fame, finance bosses and football players. Another driver wears a devil-horned helmet. We slow to gawp through the clammy mist at the state TV tower, known by locals as ‘the pair of pants.’ Beside it, a Mandarin Oriental was once poised to open, although, due to unbridled, illegal fireworks detonated during the Chinese New Year celebrations in 2009, the fortunately almost entirely unoccupied structure was engulfed in flames in minutes. Next, we stop at the opera house (or ‘bird's egg’) which Parc proudly informs is the work of ‘French architect, Paul Andreu’ (Parc hails from Opera in Paris).
We also cruise past calm Tianammen Square so quickly that I miss it as fast as the government censored internet in mainland China misses certain searches involving that string. In tune with the Opposite House’s contrary philosophy, a visit there would be for independent discovery, because we are more interested in cruising the web of crazed alleys (‘hutongs’).
‘Are cycle lanes legal?’ I politely ask Parc as we veer into one, before mounting the pavement. ‘We can use them,’ he enigmatically replies, before responding to the ‘Hello!’ from the Chinese person we’ve just beeped out of our way. Although the bike is a shape shifter, I am not, and so slightly cringe.
Suddenly we’re embedded in my first hutong. Here, a child, unfazed, does his homework on a stool in the narrow ‘street’, while an elderly lady can scarcely be bothered to remove her toes from our impending wheels. Paltry poultry strays into a corner – tonight’s dinner, perhaps? Chinese play Chinese chess and Mahjong solitaire, which, I am told, can prove so addictive, that some parents ban their children from indulging in it. The fabric of some houses are, says Parc, is partly made from ‘recycling’ the old city walls.
‘From one street to another, you can go back 50 years,’ says Parc (although if often feels like more). One well-fed chap, top off in the heat, gesticulates with the Victory sign while an immaculate young woman emerges a rather rudimentary dwelling. Parc knows one resident who saved up to send his daughter to America to study. And, in turn, that daughter may well have sacrificed a fulsome diet to save for a face-gaining Luis Vuitton handbag...
‘The hutongs may be gone in 10 years,’ says Parc, nudging a fruit cart out of his way with plimsole-d foot. In Xicheng District, for example, nearly a quarter of Hutongs have disappeared since the second world war. A few moments later, we’re in the 800 metre long South Luogu Lane, a gentrified hutong, renovated, repaved, re-branded and fashionable. Rubbish goes into bins, wildlife is absent, and tourists take pictures of us. A little further on, plumbed into the pavement is a static gym for elderly exercisers. I take the opportunity to swap position from sidecar to pillion; the vantage is better. But after a pothole, Parc ventures, ‘are you still here?’ 
We escalate to what feels like considerable speed on a strait. Under a spaghetti junction are sellers of brightly-coloured blankets, real plants but fake paintings of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. Our final destination is the art district, past the old opium street, where a mass of lanterns hanging outside restaurants and intoxicating aromas of unctuous Peking duck prevail rather than the drug’s sweet smoke. Old weapons factories have been rehabilitated to show powerful art. Near 798 is the Three Shadows photography centre, designed by Ai Wei Wei, currently showing the extremely touching life to death story of the family of Japanese photographer, Nobuyoshi Araki.
‘We made it alive,’ shouts Parc, removing vintage Raybans. We have covered almost 40kms in two hours. Perhaps impressed by my white knuckle grip and looking for recruits, Parc takes a moment to tell me about ‘Team Beijing’, his forthcoming motorcycle mission to London which he expects to realise in four and a half months. But, senses awoken and stomach shaken, it is first time to savour that famous duck...
Two hours sidecar tour from 1400RMB for two/two hours - a ‘sideways’ experience offered to guests of the boutique, five-star, art hotel, The Opposite House. Rates at Opposite House hotel from CNY2,300 for a ‘Studio 45’: +8610 6417 6688/reservations@theoppositehouse.com/www.theoppositehouse.com Cathay Pacific flies four times daily (Heathrow-Hong Kong) from £749 economy (£3,219 business); interconnecting flights to 140 destinations (40/China) www.cathaypacific.co.uk
First published: Brummell