IN A CITY of 10 million people, there are perhaps 5 million bicycles. The wide streets are marked with cycle lanes, but the sheer volume of two-wheeled traffic makes it impossible to stick to them. Instead, you allow yourself to be swept along by the crowd, taking up the full width of the road until the horn of an approaching bus or car warns everybody to move over to the right amid a barrage of crunches and curses.

You compete for space with tricycle carts transporting anything from pianos to three-piece suites (complete with lounging passenger) perched on the back. At junctions you rarely stop, but learn to take part in the skilful game of weaving to right and left of traffic as you cross. Pedestrians step into the road ahead of you without warning; the only answer is to swerve, since to brake will only cause a pile-up behind. Everything operates on the basis of the survival of the fittest. After half an hour you are high with excitement and living on your nerves.

I hired a bicycle from the blue hut opposite the Friendship Store in the tourist shopping quarter and ventured out into Peking. It was winter and mounds of cabbages lay on street corners gathering snow. Young women in ex-army greatcoats and with dark green caps muffling their ears huddled together for warmth as the flakes fell around their roadside yoghurt stalls.

I cycled through the narrow lanes, or hutongs. Smoke belched from the chimneys on the grey tiled roofs. In these traditional Peking homes, privacy is an illusion. Several families live around the same courtyard, their front doors no more than a few feet apart. Neighbourhood Communist Party officials keep a close watch on every aspect of their lives - and on any foreigners who pause for more than a moment to take a photograph. The families share communal outdoor lavatories and a tap for washing. Their windows are covered with soot from coal-burning stoves. Only the strings of garlic hanging on the outer walls and the potted plants in the courtyards add a touch of soul to the dismal grey scene.

I came to a lively free market. Peasants had set up pavement stalls selling eggs and vegetables, live chickens and fish, home-made noodles and a dozen varieties of beancurd. Everything was sold from the back of the tricycle on which it had arrived. Muslim men from China's remote Central Asian provinces were grilling kebabs over charcoal, while local women stuffed pancakes with fried dough and chilli sauce on griddles built into the back of their tricycle carts. A lone donkey stood, tethered to a lamp-post, staring at the scene of noise, colour and confusion. A decade earlier, such a scene could not have existed. Private enterprise is only just returning to China.

I continued to the main railway station, where I parked my bike with a thousand others beside some railings. An old lady in a blue cotton suit gave me a ticket and asked for a mao - about 1p - to keep an eye on the bike.

Thousands of people were camped on the station concourse, sitting, miserable and dirty, on old sacks or rolled-up bundles of bedding. They had arrived in the capital from their village homes, looking for streets paved with the gold of the new private enterprises. They were treated as illegal immigrants and told to return; but they had no work to return to. So they sat outside the station through the freezing nights, waiting for potential employers in search of cheap labour for building sites. In the face of such misery, I felt nervous about the money-belt beneath my trousers and hurried away.

I collected my bike and pedalled along the Avenue of Eternal Peace to Tiananmen Square. This hallowed ground is the one place in Peking where you cannot ride a bike. Chairman Mao stared down from his giant portrait above the entrance to the Forbidden City, surveying the crowds who milled around the 100-acre square.

There was little sign that this had been the centre of the world's attention for a few days in 1989. Even in winter it had a party atmosphere. The steps leading up to the Monument to the People's Heroes, which became the rebel headquarters, were thronged with honeymoon couples and ice-cream sellers and photographers' stalls and children flying kites.

And at the far south of the square, almost directly in line with Mao's gaze, the world's largest Kentucky Fried Chicken was doing finger-lickin' trade. At least 100 bicycles were parked outside its doors.

It was rush hour when I returned. Policemen in white suits stood on traffic islands attempting to control the undisciplined two-wheeled traffic. Parents rode their children home from nursery school on specially adapted tricycles: a small hut on the back, with a viewing window, was just large enough to take the single child which was all the parents were allowed. I passed plodding horsecarts and was passed by shiny black limousines with frosted and curtained windows, behind which the new elite sheltered from those they are paid to serve.

But everyone else around me was travelling by pedal power. There were bicycles made for two, and others made for one but seating a second passenger side-saddle on the rear luggage rack. A few even supported an entire 'model family' - father, mother, one child and one bicycle - perched treacherously on a single vehicle. There were bicycles with chickens strapped to the handlebars. There were tricycles carrying bicycles, and there were pedal-rickshaw drivers taking tired executives home from work. There were buses, trams and taxis, too, but they looked strangely out of place. Despite other, more profound changes, Peking remains the city of the bicycle.

Further information: Regent Holidays (0272 211711) has return fares from London to Peking from pounds 530 to pounds 640 with Air China, from pounds 580 with Aeroflot, and from pounds 680 with Finnair, all requiring a minimum stay of a Saturday night, and usually a maximum stay of one year. The company has accommodation-inclusive packages from pounds 767 for nine nights. Cycles can be taken free, provided they do not exceed the weight allowance and are properly prepared: check with the airline for further information.

(Photographs omitted)