Tidewater Traveler March 2006:

Beijing Awakens


George Sellers

     It is 6:00 a.m., chilly and still quite dark. I have left the comfort of my very western-style hotel to walk along one of the avenues known as “Second Ring Road.” I am witnessing the awakening of the City of Beijing in the People’s Republic of China. The calendar indicates today to be the fifteenth day of February, yet some parts of my body are still convinced that it is around dinnertime on St. Valentine’s Day.
      I am still amazed that with such a brief (relatively) traverse, I find myself half a globe away from my Eastern Shore home, standing in the capital city of the world’s greatest Eastern Empire.
      In about the same number of hours that I would spend motoring to visit my grandson in Indianapolis; or, when viewed another way, in far less time than many of us have endured on the highway to Florida’s vacation kingdoms, I am here, experiencing the most populous republic on the face of the earth. This is a republic that is awakening, not only to this fresh February morning, but also awakening to the brightness of the Communist Party’s new policy of limited free enterprise. This is an unofficial, but real, policy that does not openly recognize Capitalism, but quietly allows the spirit of free enterprise to take root.
      Eleven million people and nine million bicycles in Beijing, so said the guide on the bus last night. One of those bicycles is lying on its side in the street just ahead; not hit, but brushed and tipped over by one of the articulated city buses that flows on an electric cable down the avenue.
      No apparent damage or injury; no overt emotion, yet this was no ordinary bicycle. Moments earlier, this pedal-driven “trike-pickup,” in its vertical position, had borne an eight-foot-tall bundle, a cargo that may well be the substance of a young man’s entrepreneurial spirit. No doubt he was pedaling toward one of the officially approved “free markets.” I considered helping him right his street craft, but reason outweighed compassion and I walked on.
       My attention to the tri-shaw upset prevents me from noticing that I am about to be engulfed by a sea of blue construction hard hats atop the heads of hundreds of workmen, all of whom seem about a half a foot shorter than I am. At our convergence, they turn like the motion of a sea wave and flow across the street. I join them for I have been wondering how best to move to the other side. Heavy traffic magically pauses for the army of blue hats and I am able to drift safely, but not inconspicuously, to the opposite sidewalk.
      I stand and watch as the group files into a construction site that occupies a four-square-block area; this is just one of the many massive construction projects evident in the city of Beijing at this time. According to government figures, in 1988 China had about 400 tourist hotels; today there are over 5,000 tourist hotels in China and construction of more continues at a frantic pace.
      Beijing streets are the busiest I have ever seen (Bangkok may be an exception). Cars, bikes, scooters, trucks and busses meld into a symphony of motion that is amazing to behold. Right-of-way rules seem totally different than here on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
      Witness attempting to venture onto US Route 50 or Maryland Route 404 during a summer weekend. Locals wait what seems eons for a break in the line of beach-seekers. Rare is the occasion when a sand-bound suburbanite lets up on the gas pedal to allow a native to join or cross the stream.
      In Beijing, there is a different traffic culture. It appears that travelers on main arteries expect entries from side roads, parking lots and alleys. Those attempting to enter the flow must have adopted an American sixties theme; the “just do it”; they pull out into high-speed traffic and go. Those in the mainstream back off just enough to let them enter. It is amazing to watch! Participating in this vehicular exchange, it is not uncommon for a tour bus driver to hit the brakes, shout an obscenity in Mandarin to be loosely interpreted by the guide as “Gee whiz!” or “Aw shucks!”
      A very courteous Maryland State Trooper once issued to me a “work order” for a faulty tail light on my pickup. Of course, I thanked him for pointing out my deficiency. The violation comes to mind as I observe city buses barreling through Beijing streets in the early morning darkness with no lights at all. Not just one bus – all of them!
      My lesson in traffic culture continues as I observe how locals cross the busy city streets. How about using a pedestrian crossing signal? A what?!? No, I learned that it works more like this – wave, smile, go! It’s not “Look left - right - left” as I learned in grade school; it is – wave, smile, go! And though I am not quite bold enough to try it, it really seems to work. It is like there is a traffic culture of yielding – yes, occasionally punctuated by a Mandarin “volley of expletives” but nonetheless yielding.
      Riding a tour bus through Beijing gives one a good seat for some most unusual entertainment. Consider the baboon moving furniture. I don’t know why. I don’t know how. But on the sidewalk there is a baboon carrying a chair over his head. I cannot determine if the baboon is supervised or if he is just another entrepreneur earning a Yuan (buck).
      Sidewalk barbershops are common. And when I say sidewalk, I really mean ON the sidewalk with the customer in a kitchen chair and the barber’s tools spread beside him on the concrete.
      I would love to read the journal of a resident of Beijing who travels to the Eastern Shore of Maryland to observe the oddities. I’m quite sure we have some!
      May all of your journeys by happy and safe!