Monday, October 25, 2010

Impressions of China, Part 1 of 4

Monday night, October 11th, 11:00 PM, after 30 hours of travel, we arrived home from our two-week visit to China. It wasn’t a vacation, it was an adventure. We explored the Forbidden City, climbed the Great Wall, conquered the Shanghai Expo, climbed a mountain (well, half-way), communed with 800 tigers, smelled different smells, ate different food, risked our lives taking taxis and risked our lives again crossing streets. Oh, and we saw a lot of people who didn’t look or talk like us. Here are some things I noticed.


We didn’t drive in China, but we took twenty or thirty cab rides. The challenge for me is that these were small vehicles. My feet fit into the back seat floor well like tight fitting shoes. This made getting in and out of cabs interesting – not quick or pretty.

Speaking of tight fits, we were driven to the tiger park by our hosts at the university. Mr. Yang was certain that his car would fit six. It was a small Chinese-brand SUV (a Great Wall). I was in the front seat and four women were in the back. Let me just say that Mr.Yang didn’t factor in the greater foundation of wisdom of the mature American woman in his occupancy calculations. Four women were wedged into the back seat like my shoes in the cab, but only by alternating two sitting on the seat edge.

The rules of driving in China are that there are no rules. Driving in China means blow your horn constantly, don’t worry about lane markings, stop lights, intersections, pedestrians or other vehicles (including bicycles, scooters, jitneys or fire engines). Never make eye contact with anyone. Driving on sidewalks is fine. If there are four lanes marked, that means six or seven “columns” of vehicles, if you define columns as twisting, weaving, snake-like processions. An exit ramp for a freeway can also be an entrance ramp if you want it to be.

Think about that guy here who weaves in and out of traffic on a busy highway using cars like flags on a down-hill ski course. Now slow down traffic to a couple of miles per hour on a congested (super saturated) highway with everyone using everybody else as flags to mark weaving points and you come close to the picture. Too many cars, too much construction and too many people crossing willy-nilly.

You would think that cars would look like they have all been in demolition derbies, but they don’t. And you would think there would be tremendous road rage, but there isn’t. There must be something outside the normal sensory world to make it all work (if you can call the horrendous grid-lock working).

And how do you cross a street? Don’t! If you must cross, locate an international crossing guard (a local citizen), as my daughter says, and stay as close to him or her as you can as you cross. NEVER play chicken with a driver. You will lose. NEVER assume the driver will stop. He won’t. I saw the fear in the eyes of a local Harbin pedestrian trying to cross the road in front of our (for once) speeding cab. He tried to cross but ultimately retreated, eyes as big as saucers, as our cab barreled through the intersection, speed and direction unabated.

All in all driving in China was a hair-raising experience (unfortunately for me, not literally). You have to trust that your driver wants to survive as much as you do – kind of like when you get on an airplane. I know that I was happy after our last cab drive that we were done with that part of the adventure and had survived.

The irony in all of this is that centrally controlled China looks like anarchy on pavement, while the land of the free looks regimented. I will never complain (well at least for a few weeks) about a good old USA rush hour traffic jam, where everybody just waits patiently in line for things to move.