Beijing and further afield

Friday, Nov 28, 2008 at 18:43

takenbyaliens (Life Member)

My Life in a Taxi…..

I have often thought how much of my recent life has been spent in a taxi somewhere. It seems that I have spent too much time with crazy drivers in all parts of the World. I often feel that if I am going to get killed when I am away it won’t be through some violent act but by irtue of a mad taxi driver ( except of course the gun at my head in the main street of Honiara! ). Is there some ‘crazy test’ that taxi drivers have to sit before they get a licence? Actually, I wonder how many of them really have one!

Take Beijing drivers. I admit that there is no way that I would drive a car in Beijing. The traffic is chaotic. 3.5 million cars…aren’t we glad that the other 12 or so million do not have cars! So here are the road rules listed below:

Okay there you have them and here is a guide to their interpretation.

• Everything depends on getting there ( wherever that may be ) in front of the other guys.
• You are allowed to speed. Formula 1 has secret shoppers to find out the next generation of drivers…it could be you!
• Lanes are only a guideline and markings are only on the road to provide jobs for many otherwise unemployed people.
• The road is as wide as the number of lanes that can be created.
• A red light means someone has to stop but not you.
• Pedestrians are a challenge to your driving skills…like moving cones around which you zigzag.
• Bicycles ( the song says 9 million ) are able to go anywhere at any time.
• The bigger you are ( eg bus or truck ) means you can do anything more times.
• If you are smaller than the above, playing chicken is fun, especially using the passenger side of the vehicle as the point of first impact.
• A nose in front gives you right of way over the guy in the car next door.
• It is not always necessary to drive on the correct side of the road as other drivers know that what you are doing they will also do at sometime.
• The most important part of a car is the horn which means it must be sounded frequently to warn other drivers who are also using their horn to warn other drivers who are……
• Emergency lanes are for when you are late for an appointment or a meal.
• Smart guys get their cars fitted with flashing lights and the special government official horn. This creates a path for you in peak hour traffic.
• Real government officials ignore all of these guidelines and do what they want, when they want.

With these rules in mind, the everyday Beijing taxi driver sets out daily to earn his crust ( or his congee ). Drivers undertake ‘Creative route planning to increase your takings 101’ and learn how to

• do the ‘figure of 8’ ( up the main road, turn left one block, then right one block, then right again back across the main road, turn left one block then left and then back to the main road turning right to continue the journey ). This is used when the trip is to be a long one as it increases the distance able to be charged at the premium rate.
• misinterpret the address ( ‘I thought you said Xiaoqing not Shaoqing…ah so sorry, another 20 minutes.’ )
• create constructive short cuts (‘This ring road really is the quickest. Coming in from the west is better than the east. We will be there in another 20 minutes.’ )
• overcharge using hand signals only ( similar to Auslan! ) Waving hands at the meter in a crossing motion means that the meter is wrong but the driver has only just discovered this now.

Shanghai taxi drivers are more creative due to high demand at certain times of the day. The meter becomes decoration and a ‘negotiated over a barrel’ fare comes into operation. A receipt ( usually non specific from best cousin’s restaurant ) is also at a negotiated separate price upon arrival at the destination.

One can spend an inordinate amount of time in a taxi in China. I once spent a total of
4 ¼ hours in one day transversing Shanghai. One begins to gauge how long the journey will take. ‘Close’ or ‘nearby’ means 20 minutes, ‘20 minutes’ really means 40 minutes, ‘quite a way’ means at least an hour. The ‘heavy traffic’ warning can see the 40 minutes extend to close on 90. A single meeting therefore can occupy many hours when the travel time is factored in and non peak hours are between about 1100 - 1230.

Beijing taxi fares have seen an increase over the past year or so. Once there were two classes of taxis…1.20 yuan/klm and 1.60 yuan/klm. With the renewal of the taxi fleet there is now only a 2 yuan/klm class even though some of the taxis are still the old 1.2 variety. These have ‘kiwi air conditioning’ ( open the window ) and can be a tad warm in summer! Mind you the 2 yuan versions that all have air usually don’t have it on as the driver is cutting costs. He will also fail to understand your frantic signals of heat exhaustion and not turn it on! One of the side effects of this price rise has been a decline in the number of ‘local’ cab users. This has been further exacerbated by the government dropping ( yes, dropping ) the prices for bus and train travel by as much as 60% so as to make it attractive for local people to use public transport as opposed to private cars. However taxis are, for the visitor, the most cost effective means of transportation as negotiating the public transport system with no knowledge of the language would be virtually impossible.

At the moment I am somewhere over eastern Europe on the way to London. My neighbour is Islamic and works in London for an Islamic bank based in Bahrain. For those who do not know how Islamic banking works here is a short explanation. The Koran forbids usury ( the payment or receipt of interest ) and so the system is based on profit sharing. The bank is your partner and pays you part of the profit generated by the money. If you have borrowed the money the profit is used to pay off the capital, if you lend the money the profit is your shared return with the bank. Islamic banking is built on a far higher risk platform than western banking and encourages partnerships as opposed to the remora relationship of the other system we all know and love ( hate ). This of course was an initial and an ongoing dichotomy between Judaism and Islam. We have had an interesting discussion and I was invited to have Imsak with him, which I feel is an honour as I am not Islamic. ( Imsak is the start of the fast for the day during Ramadan. It occurs approximately 2 - 3 hours before dawn. Its calculation depends on both longitude and latitude and when in transit is sometimes difficult to determine. Thus dispensation is given to travellers to either not observe Imsak entirely or to observe to the best of their ability…which is what we have done this morning. Imsak was estimated at 0235 since we are landing at 0550 and it has been calculated from that point….an early breakfast indeed! )

I will land in London and transit to Belfast arriving there at 1035 for a midday presentation at a school and a parent presentation at night. A nice way to end a ‘day’ that started in Beijing 31 hours ago and still has around 19 hours to go! I will admit to 5 hours sleep!
According to modern astronomers, space is finite..a very comforting thought particularly for people who can never remember where they left things
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