Best way to see Beijing? From a motorcycle sidecar

Best way to see Beijing? From a motorcycle sidecar

China's classic mechanical brutes are available for a multi-sensory thrill ride through the capital
Beijing Sideways was launched in 2007 and offers tours in English, Spanish, French and Italian.

Bangkok has its tuk-tuk, New York its yellow cab, Berlin the two-stroke Trabant and London its Hackney carriage.

Could a single vehicle ever define Beijing?

Some would say the bicycle, but these days a black Audi with government plates might be a better choice.

But there's another machine staking an unlikely claim to Beijing’s most iconic road-user: the motorcycle sidecar.

They're spotted parked outside cafes and late-night Xinjiang eateries, or clanking through their gears along Beijing’s avenues and alleyways.

Loud, brutish and unmistakably retro, they’ve become a symbol of the city in recent years. 

A ride through the hutongs gives visitors a look at the Beijing of old. The recent surge in popularity is owed to tour company Beijing Sideways, set up by a group of expat and Chinese fans of the Chang Jiang 750, a military sidecar manufactured in China for decades before private vehicle ownership was permitted.

The company offers chauffeured tours through the city, as well as rides out to the Great Wall.

"Sidecars are not like traveling in a car; you can see, hear, feel and smell the landscape,” says Beijing Sideways founder Gael Thoreau, who started the company in 2007. 

He's right. Seconds into my two-hour city tour, the road is rushing by as we dart in and out of cycle routes and skip lanes to beat the traffic.

Low to the ground, exposed to the elements and with the field-gun rhythm of 30 horsepower at ear level, it’s a multi-sensory thrill.

More on CNN: 20 best Beijing restaurants

From 1930s Germany to modern Beijing

Beijing's sidecar story begins in 1930s Germany, where BMW developed a 750cc sidecar bike, the R71, with what was at the time the latest technology.

The machine found its way into the USSR, and by the early 1940s the Soviets were producing the virtually identical M-72 for military use.

In 2004, 317 Chinese-made sidecars were recognized by the Guinness Book of Records for pulling off the world's largest sidecar parade. With the 1945 defeat of Germany in World War II, the M-72 became obsolete.

But to the south, the USSR’s newly industrializing neighbor, China, was an eager adopter. 

With the acquisition of blueprints and tooling, it built its own version of the R71/M-72 design in the late Fifties, with the first Chang Jiang (Long River) 750s rolling off the production lines and into the ranks of the People’s Liberation Army a few years later.

Remarkably, this clone of a clone was manufactured in China right up to the 1990s, and continues to be assembled today using old stock by enthusiasts, leading some to claim the Chang Jiang 750 has the longest production run in motor vehicle history.

Today, China is the only country where 1930's-style sidecars are still in daily use -- by both Chinese and foreigners.

“We had our biggest year ever in 2012, especially for export to the States,” says American Jim Bryant, former race car driver and founder of Jimbo’s Classic Sidecars, one of the biggest CJ 750 dealers in Beijing.

“We now have Chinese customers, too, who wouldn’t have been seen dead on one 10 years ago.”

More on CNN: Insider guide: What to do in Beijing

'You have to be a mechanic to ride these'

To fans, the bike represents a living connection to the design and technology of a bygone age.

A technology, it has to be said, with a tendency to conk out when you least expect.

Our convoy shuddered to a halt at the foot of the twin-legged CCTV (China Central Television) Headquarters, Beijing’s most divisive piece of downtown architecture. 

"You have to be a mechanic to ride these," explains Sean, a former muscle car fitter from Canada and our Beijing Sideways tour leader for the day, as he tinkers with his bike.

"Sidecars are not like traveling in a car; you can see, hear, feel and smell the landscape,” says Beijing Sideways founder Gael Thoreau.

But sidecars venture where other cannot.
After a quick fix, we lurch across five lanes of traffic and into a side alley barely wider than the bike -- one of Beijing’s historic hutong. Dodging yapping dogs, ducking dripping clothes and jostling with bicycle carts, we twist and turn helter-skelter through the alleys. 

This is the Beijing of old. One of the few remaining hutong districts in the south of the city, it idles away its autumn days in suspended animation.

Several alleys are unpaved. Our bikes throw up dust that mingles in the atmosphere with the smell of baking nang breads and public toilets -- the smells of people and poverty.

On one lane the demarcation is stark: to our left, a line of crumbling, single-story abodes, a few dusty potted plants sitting on jagged window sills; to the right, the back wall of a new office block.

We pop out of the labyrinth, disoriented, back to neatly clipped modernity. On the final stretch we skirt the southern edge of Tiananmen Square, where snakes of red-capped tourists wait to shuffle past Mao Zedong in his mausoleum.

The experience of seeing all this from such an incongruous machine is somehow fitting. In a city that worships the new, where progress is turbo-charged and history can seem distant, it’s a loud and proud link to a rapidly vanishing past.

On October 19, Beijing Sideways will host the capital’s first sidecar race, the Beijing Time Chase, which will see as many as 50 sidecars hurtling through the city in a race against time to collect clues and uncover hidden traces of old Beijing.

Beijing Sideways offers two- or four-hour tours, the latter of which includes a trip to the Olympic Park area and lunch. There's also a full-day countryside tour to the Great Wall, while a Beijing-by-night tour is available on request. 

More on CNN: For Beijing's best food, hit the hutongs 

A food and travel specialist, Tom has munched his way through the capital’s best kaoyadian in search of the perfect Peking duck, journeyed along the former Silk Road to the distant sands of Kashgar, grappled a baby panda in Sichuan, and generally counted himself lucky for being witness to an era-defining period of Chinese history. He has written for The Guardian, Travel & Leisure, Fodor’s, Time Out and the South China Morning Postand blogs at

Read more about Tom O'Malley