Yves du Parc, Vice President and General Manager of Beijing Sideways, sized my helmet and adjusted my lap belt in the side car of his “Chang Jiang,” literally "The long River" motor bike. He then took my photo, hopped onto his seat, turned the ignition key, and we were off. Although I had traveled through Beijing many times in the back seat of a taxi, this was a new experience, in-fact my first ever motorcycle experience!
I was thrilled to feel the wind on my face, as we zipped through Beijing's new Central Business District or “CBD” and I got up close to the phenomenal new skyscrapers. I snapped photos of The Park Hyatt tower, the Jianwai Soho Center, and the copper-colored Reignwood Building connected to the Fairmont Hotel by its distinctive “Sky Bridge.” I marveled at the Prospect Center one of Beijing’s new “green” buildings and The Place retail complex with its 820 ft long by 98 ft wide LED “Skyscreen” that is suspended from six stories (80 feet).
We whisked past the CWTC and the CWTC3: the China World Trade Center, the tallest building in China, and I was blown away by Reem Koolhaas’ CCTV building, a non-traditional arch-like tower with the nick name “Boxer Shorts”. I shot blurry, moving photographs of the SOHO Guanghua, intriguing with its white panels sloping at various angles and circular windows sitting next to other colorful circular panels, all enhanced by street level semi-circular entrances and doorways. Speaking loudly over the street noise, Yves explained how SOHO stands for “Small Office Home Office,” and Guanghua Lu is the area’s major east-west thoroughfare.
Our tour continued past the Ancient Ming Dynasty Observatory (circa 1442), now called the Ancient Astronomical Instruments Display Hall, situated at the southeast corner of Beijing's Jianguomen Bridge and on to the hutong alleyways of the ChongWenMen district, named for the gate that was once part of Beijing's city wall but was torn down in the 1960’s to make room for the Second Ring Road. We drove through the Gulou hutongs in the area of the Drum and Bell towers -- one of the oldest monuments in Beijing, as well as the most famous hutong, NanluoGuzinag, but we also explored GeiluoGuxiang, Fangijia hutong, and Dongsi liutiao.
Inside the hutongs it was crowded; so we slowly motored through a food market hidden on Liuxie Street, a few hundred yards south of Tiananmen Square. It was an up-close and personal experience to watch old men playing Mahjong or checkers; kids tossing balls, eating ice cream from street vendors, or riding around in toy tractors; and old men and women just strolling around in their pajamas, since to them, the street was their front yard.
Following the hutongs, we drove to a Pearl Market called Hongqiao. We parked the motor bike and hopped off. Inside, we meandered our way through the stalls with vendors shouting great deals to me in broken English. We ignored their pleas and continued via escalator to the third floor, where discount pearls and pearl jewelry are sold. We proceeded onward to a back corner stairway, and headed up one more level, where only the finest pearl jewelry was for sale. We turned right and snuck through a small entrance providing direct access to a “secret” roof-top terrace/garden. Here was a glorious, private, panoramic view of Beijing, with the CBD in the distance to the west and a clear view of the main tower of the 600 year-old Temple of Heaven to the east. We could also see the south Chinese Gate of Tiananmen Square.
I thought the secret roof-top garden was the conclusion of the tour, but I was wrong. After this short break, we took a lovely ride along the Houhai Lakes, a leafy, once-Bohemian neighborhood, now lined with chic and trendy bars, boutiques, restaurants, and tourist pedi-cabs and continued on to the Beijing Opera House, affectionately called “The Big Egg.” This 130,000 square-feet, ultra-modern elliptical dome of titanium and glass, that seats 5,452 people in three halls was completed in 2007 in time for the Olympics. Lit at night, it provides a dramatic contrast to the nearby 1959 formal Soviet-style Great Hall of the People, where legislative and ceremonial activities are held.
This would have been a perfect place to end the tour, but not really. In his Frenchman gentlemanly fashion, Yves returned me by side-car to the front of my hotel. What a splendid, personal, two-hour overview of Beijing!
More information: Beijing Sideways: http://www.beijingsideways.com/
April 24, 2014