A full 20 minutes after I called ahead to Joel asking when we would arrive at our restaurant for dinner, we finally arrived and locked up our bikes. "One block away?" I asked incredulously.
Joel laughed, explaining that a Beijing block was the space between one main artery to another. We could have biked for a long while without ever making it "around the block." A full three weeks into my alleged one-week stay in Beijing, I was having trouble deciding when to leave the city. I had adjusted to the easy ebb and flow of biking around the city. Bikes rule Beijing's roads the way cats rule its many hutongs: cars cede to you seamlessly, and while they are frustrated, jam packed and immobile, you stream by, buoyed by constant movement. During the day, clouds of bicycles wait at the lights for the perfect moment to sneak across the intersection before the light has turned. At night, biking around Beijing became otherworldly - a soft October mist descended upon the city, shrouding the horizon in white fuzzy light and the noisy boulevards were almost empty. Whizzing by buildings and alleyways, my breath fogging up the chilly night air and heartbeat pounding in my ears, was one of the many highlights of my time in Beijing. To let the city (and its grime and and mist and smog) seep deep into your bloodstream necessarily requires you to bike around incessantly until the chaos and noise and intersection of millions of lives starts to make some sense, which is exactly what I did.
When I planned my tentative itinerary, previous RTW travelers always asked me where the "vacation in the vacation" would be. While I'm certainly not leading the hard life, nonstop movement and adjustment and dirty, crazy sleeping conditions to tend to take their toll, and travelers do tend to burn out if they keep moving without respite. My unexpected 3 week stay in China's capital was the perfect time to unwind, eat astoundingly well (with the extra pounds to prove it!) and meet a slew of fantastic, multifaceted people. I had initially planned on a 5 day stay, but 5 days bled into a week and then two and finally I forced myself to leave to meet my friend Jared before my visa ran out. Falling under Beijing's spell seems par for the course: when asked when they had arrived in the city, most expats answered "well, I visited here 3 years ago and haven't left since."
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