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BEIJING

Most tourists have little time to explore Beijing. They are bussed around the city in organised groups. The pace is hectic. The Forbidden City in the morning, then back to the hotel for lunch. Some free time for shopping in Wangfujin, then a visit to Chinese Opera in the evening - and they never get to stay to the end. The guide is bored, the tourists uncomprehending, and there is no resistance to the suggestion they skip the last act. Then they are off. Next stop Xian and the Terracotta Army. Tourists see only a passing glimpse of Beijing, mainly through the window of a coach.

Fortunately, as a student, I had the time to explore Beijing. In the 1980s few Europeans used public transport, so I and a fellow student who shared my enthusiasm for exploration were an unusual sight in Beijing as we got to know the city. An activity not without its embarassments - it's difficult to know what to do when in a crowded trolleycar a woman stands up so that the foreign visitor can have a seat. Polite refusals got us nowhere. Once up, she was going to stay up, and that seat would be unused unless one of us sat down.

I had uneasy recollections of the same thing happening when travelling by train in Franco's Spain - only there no one had stood up to give me a seat voluntary but had been ejected by the Guardia Civil.

Fortunately the Chinese students at Renmin and Beijing Universities had no such inhibitions, and late at night at the Zoo terminus there was no quarter given to anybody as they piled on to the last trolleybus to the university area in Hai Dian.

We soon had aquired rented bicycles, and with the flat terrain of Beijing, this gave us a freedom to explore areas that were difficult to get at by public transport. We explored the Hutongs, the ancient Beijing working class district with mud-built houses. visited the Bei Ta, the White Pagoda buried in a suburb with its magnificent friezed roof like a Cantonese peasant hat. And on several Sundays cycled the few miles to laze away the afternoon at the Summer Palace. Beijing by bicycle is a most relaxing experience. Or it was in the 1980s.