Friday, March 2, 2012

Zen and the Art of Transportation

There are advantages to taking a cab around Beijing. And living where we live, I’ve noticed that there are cabs lined up just outside our apartment gate most of the time. It’s hard to resist a waiting cab when the weather is nasty and it’s just sitting there with the little red light on, signaling – taunting almost – that the driver is free.

So I rationalize that taking a cab helps me get my internal GPS in place, especially when I bring along my iPad and I follow along with the little blue dot. The dot will very reliably show you just where the car is going and it will reaffirm your faith in the honesty of Beijing taxi drivers. 

Of course, you still have to deal with the possibility of death. For instance Beijing drivers seem to have their own version of “priorite a droit.” I’ll never forget learning that the heart-stopping way in Brussels when cars would just careen out of a side street like they were coming from the biggest highway in Belgium. Here, there seems to be an unspoken understanding that drivers turning right at an intersection don’t feel they have to slow down or yield to pedestrians or bikes. They have priorite. I’ve never actually been in a cab that’s hit a person, but I have been in ones that have been a hair’s breadth away from some.

So there are advantages to taking the subway. Taking it on a Friday in particular can be fascinating. Migrant workers jam the cars on Line 1 with overstuffed duffle bags, wearing dusty coats and looking at their surroundings with the ruddy faces of farmers that make them look like extras in “The Good Earth,” or like living models for posters from the Cultural Revolution. I'd take a picture of one of these fellows, but they're already staring at me, the foreigner.

Also fascinating is what is listed on the sign for exits. Exit B on Line 1’s Dawanglu station, for instance, helpfully advertises a pole-dancing school alongside the banks and office buildings. On Line 2, I can always remind myself which exit I want at the Dongsishitao station: I look for the listing that puts the two-story McDonalds on Gongti Bei Lu right on top.

The subway, in fact, captures the contractory elements that make up China today: people one generation from farmers in Mao jackets walk past a listing for a pole-dancing school. It doesn’t get much curioser than that.

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