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Looking for Mao's China by bicycle

| Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2008

BEIJING -- As an out-of-towner on a bicycle, trying to fight four city buses for the same lane, my life flashed before me outside the gates of the Forbidden City. With Chinese subtitles.

But let's not get ahead of the story.

The idea Tuesday was to party like it was 1969. You might remember pictures from Peking back then. More people on bicycles than you could shake a red book of the thoughts of Chairman Mao at.

To relive the good old days, the solution seemed obvious. Commute from the Olympic media center to downtown on a bike. Twelve miles, door to Gate of Heavenly Purity.

One problem. They don't make morning rush hours like they used to back in Mao's salad days. According to the Olympic information desk, in 1978 there were 77,000 vehicles in Beijing. This year, there are three million.

So instead of the Cultural Revolution, we'd be getting southern California. But away we went anyway, a small gaggle of Americans. Besides, there was a story on the Olympic News Service about a grandmother who came on the back of a tricycle 1,440 miles from the Hunan province to see the badminton competition.

And even that wouldn't make it embarrassing if I chickened out, except she's 97.

My bicycle cost $40. One speed, and no foot brakes, but they threw in a bell.

Mile 1: Olympic flame burning on the left. And on the right -- whoooosh -- a guy blows past on a mini electrical scooter.

First impression: Many drivers consider red lights optional.

Mile 2: Take the bridge over the 4th Ring Road. You know you're in a city used to bicycles when there is a cement border on stairs to roll your wheels. An older guy in a white undershirt happens by, looks at the bicycle, mutters a couple things and laughs. I don't think he's impressed.

Mile 3: A three-wheeler goes by with a smiley face sticker on the back. Another corner, an older guy and probable veteran pedaler comes up and gets out his question in broken English. "What ... are ... you ... doing?"

If only we knew.

Mile 4: Back streets of Beijing. A woman is outside doing her laundry. Next to her, another woman has a mirror up on the outside wall. She is cutting people's hair. And near the barber's chair is a small stand with tires and chains and doo-dads with a sign in Chinese: "Fix Bikes."

How's business, I ask the repairman, now that Beijing has gone ga-ga over the motor car• "So-so." He fixes one of our brakes for 35 cents. As he does, 22 neighbors gather round to watch.

Mile 5: Nobody said anything about guards at street corners holding a red, yellow and green flag. They tell pedestrians and bicyclists when to cross. Except I don't notice and run my first stop flag. The lady acts like I rolled across her foot.

Mile 7: Downtown. There are two KFCs within two blocks. A place advertising foot massages. A 7-Eleven. An older woman on a bicycle wearing a shirt with the message, "I love Los Angeles."

The bicycles are four across on the narrow lane. I bump one, nearly hit a half dozen more. It's gridlock on the Jiaodaokou Nandajie.

Mile 8: On the left, St. Joseph's Catholic Church. A sign on the curb out front in English and Chinese: "No loitering. No spitting."

In the church courtyard, six women are doing a dance that includes something that looks like a paddle, each balancing a small ball. The Beijing answer to a bridge club. A man asks about my All-Star Game T-shirt and I tell him I got it at Yankee Stadium. He scoffs, "You're pulling my leg."

The old and new: Across the street from a church built in 1655 is a giant statue ... of Yao Ming.

Mile 9: Donghuamen Night Market on the right. Too bad this is morning. Otherwise we could stop for fried silk worm, sweet fungus, stir-fried pig liver, sea horse or scorpion.

Mile 10: A wide, teeming street with Tiananmen Square on the left and the Forbidden City on the right, and enough buses to transport half the Chinese army jostling for space with us. I back off, because if there is one thing 10 miles have taught me is that they haven't gotten the memo here yet about pedestrians and bicycles getting the right of way.

Mile 12: The Underground City is a series of deserted bombproof tunnels built in the late 1960s on the order of Chairman Mao, who figured nuclear war was coming with the Soviets or the Americans, or both.

The guidebooks say you can tour the ghostly place just south of Tiananmen Square, except nobody knows where it is. Not at the drug store, not the cop on the corner, nor a dozen people in the street. It is like going to Brooklyn and asking people directions to Ebbets Field.

Finally, we work our way down a narrow, quiet street, and suddenly there is a maroon door with a small, dilapidated sign that says, "Beijing Underground City."

But another sign says it is closed and "maybe it will open next year." Five people paid by the government to monitor the entrance. No Olympic visitors are getting in.

The caverns are part of yesterday, when the Beijing streets were full of bicycles and the leaders of an isolated country spoke of threats from the outside world. Now, there is not so much fear, and a McDonald's is a few blocks away. Plus lots more cars.

The commute goes just over two and a half hours, counting dancing ladies and brake job. Time to rejoin 2008. We take a van back to the press center.

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