My instinct this time of year, when I wake up to temperatures of 5 degrees Fahrenheit, is to curl up with the New Yorker on my iPad and the cat on my lap. Especially when Beijing’s dry air makes the skin itch no matter how much lotion you use and when pollution and cold make the eyes tear up the minute you step outdoors.
Today, though, Rachel convinced me to go ice-biking on Houhai Lake, and I’m glad I did. I went with the International Newcomers Network a year ago, and it seemed fitting that I should make this an annual jetlag-fighting strategy.
Challenge number one of course is getting anywhere in Beijing during morning rush hour. We decided to take a pedicab, one of those red chariots pulled by a motorized bike, outfitted for winter with a quilted red cover. This means we rode across town in a dark chamber, hearing only car horns blare as the driver wove in and out of traffic. At one point, he peeled back the quilt and asked us, by gesturing, whether we were going to slide on the lake. “Dui,” I answered, and he chuckled. (Crazy laowai, I could see him thinking).
I realized at some point that we could be going anywhere, but suddenly the driver pulled back the flap and there was Houhai, with its ice bikes and ice chairs, frozen solid.
We met up with a group of international women who were bundled for the cold, and got out on the ice. Few people were out on a Thursday morning, so Rachel and I raced at breakneck speed up and down the lake. She won the first race, and I got the second.
There was also a tall ice slide. Who can resist an ice slide, especially when there’s no line and the fee is 5 RMB – 80 cents? I sat clumsily down on a Styrofoam sled and went down in a teeth-jarring flash, squealing the whole way, to the amusement of Chinese onlookers. Maybe one doesn’t make that kind of noise in public? Didn’t care.
Chinese people tended to rent ice chairs, which seemed to be basic kitchen chairs fitted with runners. You sat and pushed yourself on poles across the ice, which meant that you couldn’t get up to any kind of satisfying speed. But most Chinese people seemed to use the chairs as photo-taking opportunities, taking shot after shot of their cherubs bundled up against the cold as they sat on the chairs.
It’s funny to think that just a few months ago I was dragon boating on this same lake, trying not to get any of the snot-green water in my mouth and desperately trying to keep up with the pace of the other rowers as onlookers shouted “Jai yo!” What a country.