Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Taxi Stories

(originally published on Murder Is Everywhere)

When I go to China, I can always count on a couple of good taxi driver stories. Okay, I realize that taxi driver stories are kind of a cliche, but hey, Thomas Friedman has made a pundit fortune on them, so why not me?

Here's my first of the trip...

Story #1. BEIJING.

I needed to take a cab to get to the Beijing South Railway Station for a high-speed train to Shanghai. It's a long drive at best, in the far south of the city. Traffic across Beijing is generally pretty horrible (why I almost always opt for a subway), but I was leaving about noon for a 2:30 train, and I figured that time of day, it wouldn't be bad.


"Do you mind if I go a different way?" the cab driver asked me, meaning, not the typical direct route. "It's longer, but we'll get there faster."

Fine by me, I told him. You know better than I do.

I put him to be in his early forties, short, buzzed hair with only a little gray, tanned skin just starting to weather. We got to talking.

"You know what the problem with new Beijingers is?"

"You mean, waidiren?" People not born in Beijing. Migrants.

"Yes, waidiren. They aren't friendly. They don't really care about Beijing."

By this, I assumed that he had been born in Beijing, but I asked him anyway.

Yes, he was a Beijinger, he told me. Born and raised there. I've always enjoyed talking to Beijingers, because I was first in Beijing so long ago that I have some understanding of how drastically the city has changed. So we tend to have some things in common in spite of our differences, a memory of the city that the great majority of Chinese don't share.

We talked about a lot of things, some of them pretty typical: Are you married? Do you have children?

No, I told him.

"But why?" he asked me. "It's good to be married. My laobanr—" —basically, my old lady, my wife—"she is my best friend."

I gave him the usual answer. Life circumstances. You never know how things will work out. And so on. We talked more about family, about children, about age. About China versus America. The usual stuff.

"You know what the one of China's biggest problems is?" he said at one point. "Too many people."

This too is something that I've heard from a lot of taxi drivers. And no wonder. They're out there every day, trying to make a living driving through congested, smog-choked cities, where traffic laws tend to be more traffic suggestions, where there are just too many people in too many cars, and they aren't paid very much to do it.

You'll hear a lot of complaints from foreigners about Chinese taxi drivers, how they aren't friendly, how they'll rip you off, and I've had some of those experiences, but I've had more positive interactions than negative. This driver really knew his stuff. Suddenly we swooped onto a ramp that curved to the right, and there it was: the Beijing South Railway Station.

 "Bucuo!" I told him, impressed. "Really fast."

He grinned back. A guy who liked doing a good job.

Greetings from Beijing….

(originally published on Murder Is Everywhere)

I just got to Beijing last night after a long plane ride next to an adorable toddler…who unfortunately spent about half the flight wailing inconsolably. I'm on a train to Shanghai tomorrow, so my posting window is narrow and my energy is low—this will of necessity be short.

The Beijing air today was "very unhealthy" according to my handy iPhone app. Yeah, there's an app for that. "Protection is recommended." I did buy a mask before I left the US, but I haven't worn it yet. I'm saving it for "Hazardous" air, which is occurring with alarming frequency these days.

In spite of the bad air, I took a long walk around Gulou/Houhai, up Andingmen and then over to Yonghegong. These are the neighborhoods where I usually stay when I come here. They are some of the last old hutong neighborhoods in Beijing, and every time I come, I wonder what old landmark will be gone this time.

The city planners (I use that term loosely) here deemed most of these old neighborhoods unsightly, impractical, unprofitable—not modern enough for China's capital. Most have been replaced by anonymous high-rises and malls. In some, the old buildings were replaced with brand new "historic reproductions" -- not actual siheyuan (courtyard buildings) but an incredible simulation! Inevitably the new versions house trendy upscale stores, Starbucks and the like. It's true that a lot of the hutong areas were rundown slums and probably not practical to refurbish, but they were also living, breathing neighborhoods.

The Gulou area in particular has a lot of character. Gulou itself, the Drum Tower, is one of my favorite landmarks in all of Beijing, and the area around the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower is full of life: Small shops, bars, restaurants, markets, boutique hotels in old siheyuan. Locals come out after the tourist crowds have gone and walk their dogs in the plaza separating the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower. Old men gather around chessboards, sitting on small stools, and play games I can't identify. Hawkers ride their bike carts around, calling out their services.

(yes, there are hipsters, too. This is near Yonghegong, the Lama Temple. Click to embiggen)

For the last few years, the "planners" have wanted to "improve" Gulou. For a while the idea was to knock most of the hutongs down, rebuild them and add a shopping center and a "Time Museum." That got shut down, but some new plan is in the works. I don't know what it is. I'm not sure who does know.  Whole areas have been flattened, surrounded by steel construction fences, battered blue panels that travel from demolition site to demolition site. Some of it is for a new subway line. The rest of it? Time will tell I guess. Right now the plaza between the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower is fenced off. The locals sit on their stools next to the battered blue panels, playing their card and board games.

My favorite coffee shop is still there, at least. Last year, the fuwuyuan told me, her eyes tearing, that they would be gone in five months. A different worker was there today. She said they had at least five months, because construction there "is very complicated." Maybe they will get to stay. She doesn't know. It's not up to them.

Meanwhile, I'm trying to figure out who this guy is…