Friday, July 30, 2010

Cab Driving in China 3

Chengdu, China

I went to see the Pandas yesterday in more or less their natural environment. (See below.)

On the whole, it was a great experience but it can't be denied that China tourists can be even worse than their American compatriots. One beautiful Chinese woman with a professional Nikon camera kept whistling at a sleeping panda in hopes that he'd awake and move so she could get a better picture.

I also don't understand what's going on with the zoo keepers. The Panda would probably be extinct without Chinese conservationists but I find this hard to match with the way they let these shy, individualistic animals be treated by the tourists. A couple of young pandas were trying to sleep in cages on the other side of a glass barrier from the tourists. Kids were screaming at the animals and slapping the glass, while the adults packed in to flash snapshots or videotape the pair.

One of the pandas kept walking to the other side of the cage where he'd desperately shake the bars to try and escape the din. Then he'd walk backwards (apparently he didn't want to look at the ugly faces or maybe he couldn't stand the camera flashes) and cuddle up with his friend or mate. Then he'd try to escape again. It'll be a miracle if these pandas don't grow up psychotic.

Shortly afterward, I got a lesson in how easy it is to become an ugly (and incredibly stupid) tourist.

There was a light rain falling and I used a New York technique to catch a cab. I flagged one down. As it stopped, a Chinese woman jumped in front of me, grabbed the front door and opened it. As she did so, I stepped inside giving her a big smile and saying "xie xie (thanks)."  I gave the driver my destination. He started off and flipped the meter on. It read 7Y (yuan 1/6.5th of a dollar) instead the usual 5Y. I angrily told him to stop and jumped out of the cab despite his protests (which I couldn't understand).

That was the "ugly." This is where the "incredibly stupid" comes in. I checked my pocket for my wallet and realized that I'd probably dropped it in the taxi when I stepped out. The dude that I'd insulted was slowly driving about a quarter block away - with all my identification cards and a clear justification for keeping them and my money. Carrying two cameras and an umbrella, I ran frantically after him. He stopped to pick up another fare. I broke into a clumsy sprint and yelled for the driver to stop. The cab pulled slowly away.

By now drenched, I slowly walked back and miraculously spotted my wallet laying in the street. I flagged another cab. He flipped on the meter. It read 7Y. A meter increase had just gone into effect.

The increase was a sizable one of about 20% and was done at exactly the right time - the height of the tourist season. It reminds me that I've forgotten to tell you a few things about China's taxi service. One of the more interesting facts is that cabs are allowed to charge a 1Y gasoline surcharge for every 3 km. This amounts to about a 10% to 12% increase per ride. The business is also highly regulated and cabs wait in hotel lines and airport or train lots just like they do here. The drivers are very professional and they all appear to know their cities very well.

And there is no tipping in China. My companion claims that it's illegal but she's a strict Confucianist with - what shall I call it? - a tight posterior. She claimed that I was "immoral" because I kept a magazine from our airplane. Naturally, I tip the drivers and they appear to like the custom.

Some of the drivers are protected by a small cage made up of aluminum bars separated so that nobody can attack the driver. The first time I saw such a cage, I thought, "Okay - it stops a knife attack. What about guns?" Then I realized - duh - that's not a problem here. Nobody has a gun in China except for the army. The police don't even carry them.

Obviously, if such protection is necessary, there must be a certain amount of crime. In certain parts of Beijing and Shanghai, I have seen a lot of beggars and poverty but I haven't seen anything like this in Chengdu. My friend, however, was very angry at me for getting into a car a few days earlier that wasn't a regulated taxi.

"They like to take stupid tourists like you and rob them."

"Hey," I told her, "I'm streetwise. I know who's dangerous and who's not."

"Huh!" She responded. "I'm surprised the nobody has killed you for such arrogance – not mention your big mouth."

Actually, so am I.

Ironically, I later got a taste of potential violence in a small resort city in the mountains, Xi Chang. It's a lovely place where you can actually see blue sky – a rarity in China.

Just after telling me that this was one of the safest towns in the country, my companion went off on business with a guide.  

A pretty and sexy woman was on a stage leading several other women in a dance that was part aerobics but exciting and exotic.

I took turns shooting video with one camera and still photos with another.

I looked over and saw an older man staring at me. I smiled. He did not smile back. I looked around and saw that I was being watched and closely surrounded by a dozen men who were all glaring at me without smiling.

I stepped out of their circle, walked up some steps and took some random crowd shots. I glanced at the photos and saw three or fours hostile young guys staring back at me in every picture. And why not? I was carrying about $2,000 worth of camera gear on me – a small fortune in that place.

The problem was that I couldn't leave because, although I speak a little Mandarin, I couldn't read the characters so I needed to stay or my friend wouldn't be able to find me.

A thin, wiry policeman come over and asked me to sit down with him on bench under a tree. I sat with him but more and more punks were surrounding us. I stood up and started walking to the spot where my friend said she'd meet me but the punks followed.

The policeman came up to me again told me that I should leave and go over to a hotel to wait. When I told him I couldn't, he took out a cigarette and smoked one with me. It was his way of telling the punks not to fuck with me.

I hadn't had a cigarette in over 20 years but I had a long, slow smoke with him. As we finished, my guide came over to get me.

I gratefully shook the policeman's hand and quickly left, taking back all the bad things I've ever said about cops as we strutted away from the park.


Panda shots and, no, I can't whistle. 

This a rare Red Panda. They are smaller and sleep all the time.

These are of the dancer and hostile stares in Xi Chang.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Cab Driving in China 2

 Chengdu, Sichuan China

Monday I went to the People's Park and, indeed, I've never seen any place more dedicated to ordinary people.

There were people skateboarding, break-dancing, playing ping-pong or putting on shows with giant yo-yos or elaborate kites. There were also 14 or 15 different musical groups singing, dancing or playing various instruments.

All of them were amateurs and most of them were retired men and women in their 50's and 60's. (Yes, I did use the words "retired" and "in their 50's or 60's") The quality varied but the performers all obviously practiced a lot and were very enthusiastic. Patriotic songs and dances from Mao's Long March were favorites - a possible response to the USA's brilliant war game (is Rumsfeld back in power?) maneuvers in the China Sea.

When I left the park, however, I couldn't get a cab. I spend over an hour and a half trying to flag one down but a hundred went by full. A guy on a motorcycle drove up and offered me a ride for three times the usual price. I turned him down and tried to get a cab for another half an hour before finally taking a ride in a regular sedan for twice the usual price. The dude didn't know exactly know how to get to my place so I got my money's worth with his round about route.

There was a line of about one hundred people waiting for cabs near my hotel. One of the few Americans I've seen, a middle-aged military type, was angrily trying to educate the local people in English as to how they should properly form a line. They ignored him of course. The Chinese know perfectly well how to form lines. They simply walk to the front. The lao wai (foreigner) finally stepped up and grabbed a taxi as a couple climbed out. A cop came over and send him back to the end of the line.

In short, it's a cab driver's paradise. About the only chance you have to get a taxi is when one drops. I don't know exactly what's going on but we had a real difficult time getting a hotel room in a city of 12 million people. Of course we are restricted to places that will accept lao wai - most hotels cater only to Chinese - and aren't Hiltons. Still, it's hard to know where all the gringos are. The army jerk is about the only other one I've seen. People turn around and stare at me as if they've never seen a Caucasian before.

My travelling companion has a different theory.

"They're looking at you because you're so ugly," she tells me.

"Then why are the young women flirting with me?"

"They want to marry you so that you'll take them to meiguo (beautiful country, America). As soon as they get their green card, they will give you too much sex. You will have a heart attack and you will die."

"Don't you think you're being too romantic?"

"I only tell the truth."

"Then again, that might not be too bad - the Irish call it the heavenly send off."

"You Irish! - You're nothing but a bunch of sex maniacs and drunks."

A possible over-simplification but there's little doubt that I'd be having more fun if my friend wasn't along. On the other hand, I'd be missing these unique insights into her native culture not to mention the culinary feasts she leads me to daily.

But, I digress.

It's hard to know how driving a cab here compares to driving in San Francisco.

Most of the drivers share long term leases with one other driver. They take turns driving 18 hour shifts every other day. That is, a driver will work 54 hours one week and 72 hours the next. They take home about 3,500 - 4,000 Yuan or 600 Dollars a month.

Most of the rides in Chengdu run about 10 Yuan. In Beijing, which is a huge city like L.A. or Houston, the average fare is more like 15 or 20 Y. The yuan is about 1/6.5th the value of the dollar. I think that the cost of living is probably consistent with the relative value of the Yuan to the dollar. Food is probably cheaper (except for fruit). At the tiny restaurants that are all over the place, you can get a breakfast of porridge, one egg and 6 dumpling for about 75 cents. You can also get a delicious dinner for two for about 3 dollars.

 Rent, on the other hand is expensive. In Beijing, housing costs relatively as much as it does in San Francisco. A driver probably pays about 200 or 300 dollars a month in rent. Of course I think there are fewer cowboy drivers in China than in SF. Most drivers here are family men and women, so there would be more than one person sharing the expenses.

This is a communist country that is supposed to give health benefits to everyone but that was in the old days. I don't think that it's too different from the US in this respect. Government workers have great benefits (especially teachers) but most other people are SOL.

Are Chinese cab drivers part of the new middle-class? I guess they are if we are. I don't think their life-style is too much different than that of the average driver in San Francisco - except most of them eat better tasting food.


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Cab Driving in China 1

Chengdu, China

I flagged a cab on the way back from the Internet Cafe yesterday. Most taxis here look like small, green Honda's from the late 80's - although most of them are fairly new. The driver was middle-aged and Turkish.

The cab was facing away from the street after I climbed in. The driver floored it and whipped a semi-U, careening toward the traffic just as a young couple stepped in front of us from behind a truck. The driver aimed at them and floored it again. Miraculously the agile pair managed to leap out of his way.

 I think I might have screamed. The driver looked at me, laughed and sped wildly down the street weaving his way between buses, cars, bikes and pedestrians. He looked at me again.

"Man mar zou" (go slowly and safely), I told him. We looked at each other and both laughed at the absurdity of my request. He drove faster and wilder.

 I decided to try and merge with the Dao. If I was going to go, I figured I might as well have the total experience.

"Kuide Kuide" (faster faster), I told him, "Kuide Kuide."

He looked at me, smiled with respect and gave me a thumbs up, the Chinese gesture for "ALL RIGHT!" I gave him a thumbs up back and we blitzed insanely though the traffic, laughing at death.

However, this was an atypical cab ride. In China, it's usually the driving conditions that are crazy - not the drivers. On the other hand, most drivers behave like schizophrenics.

On the freeways, they are model drivers, far superior to San Francisco drivers. Chinese drivers, especially taxi drivers, rarely tail-gate. The top speed is around 55 mph and there are signs on the freeways where the drivers can measure how far they are behind the car in front of them. The ideal is 200 meters at top speed. The percentage of drivers who maintain this distance is awesome. On the freeways, the driving is orderly as hell.

On city streets, chaos reigns.  In Beijing, there are usually 3 normal lanes, a transit lane to the right, a turn lane to the right of that and then a fenced barrier and a double lane for bikes, scooters and the like. The Chinese are pursuing the American Dream/Nightmare and bicycles are now outnumbered by mopeds and powered bikes by about 5 to 1. All this is very orderly - until you get to the intersections where as many as 5 of the lanes will make right turns at the same time, usually at red lights when the pedestrians have green lights and walk signs. In addition, half of the bike and scooter drivers also go straight from the right lanes.

There are several rules to determine driving behavior in these situations:

1. Pedestrians never, never have the right away.
2. Bigger vehicles have the right away over smaller vehicles.
3. All vehicles try to maintain their speed while making right turns on red.

 In Beijing, the intersections on the main streets are about half the size of a football field with long semi-circular curves. So picture that you are speeding around a corner and confront a wall of pedestrian walking across the street. What do you do?

The correct answer is that you honk your horn and speed up. These are not San Francisco pedestrians. They are intelligent, awake and alert. They gradually move from lane to lane until the traffic finally permits them to cross. In Beijing, pedestrians will sometimes form spontaneous blocks of 20 to 50 people and slowly take over an intersection, crossing whether the light is green or not. The cars will stop for these slowly moving hordes. It's clearly not much of crime to run down a single pedestrian but mass murder is apparently frowned upon.

And then there are the side streets and lanes where all the above vehicles and people converge. I have seen drivers from all four directions take left turns at the same time. The only rule there is guts. However, this is non-macho form of the game. Once a driver gets the edge on another, he or she is let in. I have yet to see any example of road rage except for the honking - which is more practical than anything else.

And, yes, the traffic is getting worse. In Beijing, during rush hour, the average speed is about 4 miles per hour. And, 1,000 new cars are being added every day.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Back From China & Symphony in Dolores Park

I clearly made a mistake when I left for China by not informing everyone that I was going. A few people wrote wondering what had happened, one of whom thought that the cops might have "disappeared" me for the article I wrote about them.

Fortunately, that wasn't the case. I simply was unable to access my blog in China (I found it in Chinese characters but not in English). I did write a follow up to my police article and four pieces about cab driving in China that I sent out as e-mails. I was unable to access my complete mailing list so I'm going to be putting these articles up as posts over the next few days.

These articles can be found below this one in the order that I wrote them.

On Sunday, I was welcomed back to town by the San Francisco Symphony who played Chavez and Dvorak (among other composers) in Dolores Park under the energetic direction of the up and coming young conductor, Alondra de la Parra. I don't think I've heard Dvorak's New World Symphony played with more feeling or enthusiasm.

A few thousand other people shared the experience.