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Beijing Public Enemy #1

14 Jul

I think Rob Ford, Toronto’s new, car-loving mayor, would love Beijing.

(By the way, you may be wondering what I am suddenly doing in Beijing? Since my last post, I’ve become gainfully employed. Admittedly, there has been a writing hiatus, however I’m happy to be getting into the swing of things, as I feel more productive when I’m busy! It’s an international sales role with a great education company that helps international students gain entry US and Canadian high schools, and my territory is Europe and China – hence, on the second day of the job, I was on a plane to China.)

Anyway, In Beijing, Rob Ford’s dreaded war on the car has never been considered.  Beijing is an astonishing city; but its vast avenues and city blocks on a gargantuan scale were designed to be dominated by cars.

Massive avenues of Beijing

Looking at a map, walking seems like a feasible option, until you realize that the scale of this massive, sprawling city is beyond imagination.  It’s almost embarrassing that night after night, I’d go out for a stroll to experience local neighbourhoods, and end in agony, stranded between subways lines and limping home on my shoes inappropriate for an unintended 3 hour walk (and sweltering temperatures).

Oh, why don’t I catch a taxi, you ask?

A: It’s impossible to find an empty one.
B: Beijing taxi drivers make me insane.

I love the people of China – beyond my dear Chinese friends, I have so often been touched by the kindness of Chinese strangers.  But Beijing taxi drivers are the bane of my traveling world.  I’ve had Beijing taxi drivers who have been dangerously drunk, who have fallen asleep on the highway, and who’ve had a hissy fit when they can’t find my destination…it’s true, I’ve had some very pleasant ones too, in particular the one who just dropped me off at the airport, but it’s so frustrating just to find an available taxi, and I think the drivers know it’s a seller’s market.

Friday night, I was meeting 2 friends living in Beijing for dinner at a restaurant in a hutong, one of Beijing’s atmospheric old neighbourhoods. The adventure began when I asked the concierge to help me write down the address of Susu, a new Vietnamese restaurant with a hutong courtyard patio.

There was a disorganized and annoyed queue of people waiting in line for a taxi.  Empty taxis trickled in at a discouraging pace.  Finally it’s just me…and my taxi finally appears after 30 minutes. He drives up, examines my destination, gives a fluttery, disgusted wave of his hand, then drives away in an outrage.  It’s a disconcertingly diva-like move for such a rough character, but I’ve seen it before in Beijing.  Translation: “your destination is too inaccessible/too difficult/too hard to find – in short, you are too “ma fan” (too much of a pain in the ass) for me to contemplate permitting in my taxi.”


Over I walked to the nearby Silk Market, as I thought that there might be taxis waiting outside this tourist trap.  And there were, accustomed to overcharging tourists who’ve just grossly overpaid for a counterfeit Gucci tote.  The first offered the appalling price of 150 yuan, about 10 times more what the meter fare would be.  I refused, making a big fuss (when you are bargaining, it’s the one time you can reasonably make a fuss in China). Another driver offered to take me and use the meter.  Super!  Only when I got in the car he changed his mind, and decided that 100 yuan would actually be a fair price.  Later, I discovered that gouging is illegal for Beijing taxis, and infractions are punished.  Beijing travel tip: If you threaten to call the Beijing Taxi Protection Bureau, they will instantly recapitulate and turn on the meter.  Unfortunately I didn’t know that at the time.

Jumping out of the taxi, I was somehow able to catch one passing by.  By this time, I was 40 minutes late for dinner and unable to get my iphone working to call my friends.  But now that I was on my way, I hoped I would arrive before long.

Hutong life

Many hutongs are narrow pedestrian-only laneways, so I wasn’t entirely surprised when my taxi stopped and indicated that the restaurant was just a walk down the alley.  But walking away, the taxi gone, I slowly realized my destination was nowhere to be found.

But true travel adventures are created in moments like these. From one moment, where I was stressed to be late, anxious to be completely lost, and hot and sweaty…everything changes.

I asked someone for help, and a little community gathered around to assist me.  At least 4 people were in animated conversation, with one of them on his cell calling a friend for additional support.  Finally it was determined where my destination was, and that it was too far & convoluted for me to walk.  So, the cell phone guy called upon his son (employee?) to stop BBQing meat at a little restaurant and to carry me on the back of his scooter.  I looked at scooter-guy, looked down at my sandals and wrap dress, and laughed.  Why not?  Suddenly all the frustration and annoyance washed away, and I was touched by this group of people who cared so much that I was lost.

As we arrived on the back of my new Chinese friend’s scooter (Susu is so hidden that frankly I still would not have been able to find if I were standing in front of it), my dinner friend was standing outside to get better reception on her cell phone.  She was talking to my hotel, anxious over the fact that the concierge was telling her he had given directions to a woman to that restaurant over an hour ago, and no one had seen me since.

But all was well and I thanked my scooter-saviour as he sped off.  We had a great dinner, and I learned that my expat friends bought bikes so that they never have to depend on Beijing taxis; even riding in the dead of Beijing’s freezing winters.  And so, to illustrate a point, after dinner, we sped off for a nightcap, with me perched sidesaddle once again, this time on the back of a bicycle.

Dramatic recreation of sidesaddle travel through Beijing

My friends love seeing Beijing by bike, and it’s a great way to experience its local neighbourhoods behind the gleaming rows of skyscrapers.  They tell me that cars respect bicycles here and the dedicated and often separate bikes lanes make them feel safe cycling through the city.

Bike lanes in Beijing

Something that they don’t feel comfortable doing in Toronto, by the way.

Maybe Rob Ford wouldn’t care for Beijing so much after all…