It was about 5:45 a.m. on a blustery Saturday morning in Tiananmen Square. Seven friends and myself decided to bike halfway across the city from Tsinghua University in Haidian District to Tiananmen Square, in the center of Beijing (approximately 17 km), to see the daily ceremony of guards raising China's national flag together with the sun.
Tired and with sleep still in our eyes, we jostled among the crowds of tour groups to catch a glimpse of the action while the speakers around us blared the Chinese national anthem. As I looked around the tour groups and, of course, to Portrait of Chairman Mao, overlooking to the scene he sees everyday, I couldn't help but feel like a true blue Beijinger.
The road to naive nativeness hasn't exactly been the smoothest, and to be honest, I still can't understand half of what taxi drivers say (and vice versa), but this for me felt like a real, hard-earned Beijing moment.
This initially crazy idea began with my friend Dan. This was also what the mother of my other friend Patrick told him not to do, "Don't take your bike outside the university! It's dangerous!"
"But we'd have to get up at like 3 a.m. for that," I whined.
"No," Dan said, with conviction. "It can be done."
And that was that.
We left Tsinghua that morning at 4 a.m. with a couple of no-shows and unanswered wake-up calls. Already a little behind schedule, we headed toward the university's west gate. Little did we know an accident would strike before we got there.
As we rode along, chattering in disbelief that we were up at 4 a.m. to cycle to see a flag, the bicycle gods claimed their first victim. Justin's pedal fell off his bike. Patrick tried to salvage the situation but once the bike gods make up their minds about something, there's rarely any turning back.
"Go on without me, guys," Justin said. "Don't worry; I'll do it some other time. And its better it happened here anyway, rather than somewhere in the middle."
We all murmured in sad agreement as Justin started walking his bike back to the dorms.
And then there were seven.
We sped toward the west gate when Dan got a phone call—it was Jason—apparently he and Sam made a deal to wake each other up. While the plan didn't really go well, we'd only gone a little way so we knew there was still hope for Jason.
After about 45 minutes of cycling, we stopped for snacks and power drinks and Jason eventually caught up, making our headcount eight again.
We made sure we were going the right direction with a map check, and soon, we found ourselves in Beijing's pitch black streets. It seemed the streetlights go off at about 5 a.m., so that left us with another 45 minutes of cycling in darkness. A couple of potholes, close calls with buses, taxis and random middle-aged and older women wandering around for morning exercises at 5 a.m. later, we found ourselves on the wrong side of Chang'an Avenue, making a break for the Tiananmen Square.
A few minutes to spare, we parked our bikes and saw a few hundred people likewise waiting for this daily ceremony—all mostly part of tour groups. Despite having to share this moment with overeager tourists, we made camp in front of Tiananmen and watched and waited as the sky slowly grew brighter and guards began filing onto the square.
Sleepy but fulfilled, we just enjoyed another typical day in Beijing.
We all watched as the Chinese flag rose with the sun and the guards slowly filed back into their respective stations. Locals started bringing out their kites to fly while we wandered around the square, enjoying our success with images of coffee, breakfast and the ride back wafting in and out of our thoughts.
The author is a Canadian living in Beijing