Monday, November 7, 2011

Hailing a Cab in Beijing

Coming off the adrenaline high that is my firm's annual meeting, I had a few extra hours on a Saturday morning in Beijing and decided to jump in a cab at my hotel and run up to T Square, as it's known among the well-traveled in Asia.  "Tiananmen Square," the cabbie sang, mocking my American accent, as we drove up the freeway to the infamous spot, across from the Forbidden City and smack in the middle of Beijing, a metropolis with a population of 23 million souls and almost 5 million cars.

I noticed him regarding me in his rearview mirror, seemingly interested in a woman, or at least a Western woman, in a taxi by herself. "Square, no stop," he said knowingly.  In fact the Forbidden City, which is immediately across the boulevard and almost eight million square feet in size, means that there are no cross streets for at least twenty blocks, so I ended up jumping out once we hit gridlock in front of the iconic portrait Mao had installed when he became the boss of everybody. 

People were out in droves, shopping and enjoying the weekend morning.  I'd been in the area the night before, after a group dinner, where I'd ended up with a few others led by a worldly colleague in a little bar owned by a German expat.  It had been dark and quiet and gated off for the most part, but now in daylight it was loud and filled with the smell of cigarettes and the frequent whiff of sewage, though the streets were quite clean.  I walked past the landmarks and into my previously unexplored territory. 

Even though I am a small person with straight dark hair, I still got plenty of stares.  People were buying roasted chestnuts and some sort of pastry.  Justin Bieber sang in a tinny voice over the din of the crowd and the hawkers of cheap silk scarves.  I felt completely, utterly foreign.  It wasn't like being in Paris or New York, where I'd felt a hick but had toyed, even on my first visits, with the idea of living there.  Not for a moment in China did I feel like I might belong.

The air quality in Beijing is appalling.  At one point shortly after my exit from the cab, I felt breathless and didn't know why, until I considered that the sun never really seemed to be properly out.  As I'd spend at least three hours walking that day--though I didn't know it yet--I wonder now what damage is done to the local citizens. 

I headed to the Forbidden City and was amazed at the quiet and the birdsong.  It was enormous, beautiful, and had the faded beauty of a national treasure built in 1420, not that I'd seen many of them. The spitting hoards (the Chinese do this almost constantly, perhaps because of the air quality or lack thereof) congregate near the main buildings, and the enormous pond and beautiful landscaping do not appear to be of interest to most.  I loved it and would have stayed all afternoon and looked at the beautiful gates and sat in the quiet, but had to get back to the meeting.

So back I headed to the Square, figuring I'd have the same ten-minute, 20-Yuan trip back.  I walked for about six blocks and found a bunch of cabs congregated on a side street.  I walked over to one, who looked at my taxi card with my hotel name on it, and typed 80 on his mobile screen.  How do you say go to hell in Chinese? I thought.  I've been around and refuse to get ripped off.

A good 45 minutes later I was on a side-street of questionable repute (to me) and asking a very young man in a valet uniform to hail me a car.  I'd waved at a number of drivers on a major throughfare and those few without occupants just shook their heads at me and I realized I wouldn't get anywhere on my own.  But this fellow flagged one down in less than two minutes.  With relief I got in the car and showed the cabbie my taxicard.  He looked at me helplessly and threw up his hands.  No idea.

We had not a word in common. I was in the middle of a city I knew not at all, and he was stuck with an idiot passenger who didn't know how to dial the hotel from her US phone. In silence, we sat for a minute, then he pointed at the hotel number again. Susan, I admonished my middle-aged self, you're not in Manhattan, sister.  And you may finally have bitten off more than you can chew.  I looked down at my ring with my children's names engraved on it and wondered what they'd make of my predicament. Luckily midday traffic had kicked in, so I had some time before he threw me back out on the street.

The freeway through the middle of Beijing, China

Once I remembered to breathe, it occurred to me I wasn't working without a net.  In a controlled state of panic, I pulled up my Blackberry and sent a colleague an email, to which she responded: "Don't freak out.  Standing next to someone who works with us and is Chinese." A call, with what felt like an endless ping across satellites from my Dallas number to her Chicago phone, finally hooked everyone up.  After the discussion, I looked at the man who held my immediate fate in his hands and asked if things were OK. He shrugged and nodded, then laughed with great relish at my obvious relief.  At some point during what turned out to be a 40-minute drive and 60 Yuan, he turned off the ignition in the midst of a complete and apparently common stop, and hurled a great spitball out the window. 

The world, as I have often commented, is not Disneyland. Maybe I wasn't in any real peril--the driver's laugh suggested hey, we would have found it eventually--but this experience gave me a jolt. In the middle of my fifth decade with not a little bit of travel behind me, I foolishly assumed I knew what I was doing, and might have found myself in a predicament had I not had someone to call. A little scary, to be sure.  But the worst trips make the best stories. Can't wait to get to Paris again.

1 comment:

  1. Hailing a cab is really not an easy task. And in my opinion, the experience is even harder in other countries. Thankfully, this day ended well with the help of your friend. And I agree; the worst trips not only make for the best story, but can also teach us a wonderful lesson. At least now you know what to do when you have another trip abroad. Cheers!

    Grady Mann @ Downtown Yellow Taxi