The fine art of staying in the saddle


The first-time visitor to Beijing arrives with dozens of questions: what to do, where to go, how to behave, what to eat, etc. If you are heading for China, here are some answers which you might find useful.

The first question is when to go. If you are there now, you have picked the wrong time. Spring and autumn are ideal but winter is cold and windy and summer is hot and the air can get very polluted. Come in summer and you will get an answer to another question - why do Chinese people spit? It is because they have to. You, too, can join the hawking masses after a few days breathing in Beijing's toxic air.

Spitting causes some foreigners to stare at Chinese, who of course stare at all foreigners, except in the Friendship Store where they ignore them. Why do they do it? You, too, would stare if you lived in a world of thin people and suddenly encountered a 220-stone, pink-faced tourist in T-shirt and shorts.

Some tourists ask resident expatriates if they can make themselves inconspicuous by wearing sunglasses to hide their round eyes. It doesn't work, I'm afraid. We're not called "big-nose" for nothing.

Some visitors want to know if it is OK to put on sunglasses and a hat and take a bicycle to go sightseeing. My answer to that is: Yes, you can, and no, you mustn't - ride and sightsee at the same time, that is. Riding a bicycle is a serious business in China and if you take your eyes off the road to even glance at a pagoda you are doomed. After the first foray by bicycle, visitors invariably ask: why do Chinese bicycle riders sail straight towards other road users? It's all to do with nature abhorring a vacuum.

Road-users in Beijing follow the principle that if you make eye contact with another road-user, you cede the right to the space you are both moving to fill. Does this not lead to collisions? Not often, because nobody ever rushes, but if it does and you are not looking at the person you collide with, it is not your fault and you don't lose face.

Just what is face? Face is ego or self-respect, and is very important to give to other people. Essentially it means that if you are knocked off your bicycle, you apologise to the other person if you don't want a screaming match.

Another thing which mystifies some foreigners is the way Chinese people smile when they see someone having an accident. It shouldn't. Think of Charlie Chaplin and banana-skins.

So where, people ask, should one go when in Beijing, and how? If you are on a tour you will be taken by guides to the usual places - Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace. Otherwise, taxis in Beijing are cheap and plentiful, though tiny. Cycling is actually great fun.

My tips: take the chairlift up the Fragrant Hills for a transcendental experience, and visit the Temple of Heaven Park for its outdoor curio market. And, of course, go to the Great Wall, which is worth seeing and worth going to see. Arrive early if you are planning to visit the nearest stretch of wall at Badaling. By midday, it's hardly visible under the mass of tourists. Better to go to the Great Wall at Mutianyu (but don't tell anyone this). And definitely visit the Silk Market for Beijing's best bargains.

How does one bargain in Chinese? The traders all know English numbers. And never pay the asking price. Say "pianyi yidiar" which means "A little cheaper" as often as you can, then walk away in disgust before being coaxed back with a low price. While bargaining, watch your money and passport in the crowded alleyways.

Isn't Beijing safe then? Indeed it is. Foreigners of either sex can wander alone, even in the evenings, without feeling physically threatened. Petty theft is the worst you will encounter, or begging mothers who get their children to tug at your clothes. Keep small change to hand.

What about Chinese food in China? There are some Chinese restaurants, if you can find them among the MacDonalds, TGI Fridays, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dunkin' Donuts, San Francisco Brewing Company, Hard Rock Cafe, Hof Brauhaus, Trattoria la Gondola and other foreign eating places. Actually, Beijing is great value for eating out in the thousands of local - that is, Chinese - restaurants. If the menu is not bilingual, bring a guide book with restaurant words written in Chinese and point to what you want. The chef will make it for you. Peking duck, mandarin fish, scallops, eel, eggplant and Chinese cabbage are recommended. If adventurous, try one of the restaurants serving snake - such as Shao E Zi where you can select your very own reptile from those writhing in a cage.

And finally, in answer to many visitors who ask where else might one go to see the real Beijingers? Try any public park such as Ritan or Temple of Heaven just before dawn, when millions of people turn out for an hour or so, doing the waltz and foxtrot as well as Qi Gong and other more traditional exercises. It's quite the rage and you can join in. Watch where you are going, however. Walking backwards has become popular as a form of working out. Apply the same principles as for cycling. Avoid eye contact and move out of the way.