<A> Getting Around is Half the Fun

Written by Apr 26, 2005 11:04
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Traffic Jammin'

Getting around in China can be its own adventure. In the small city of Taian (home of Tai Shan, one of China's most famous and sacred mountains) the traffic is a very bizarre thing indeed. There is a rush of carts, bikes, cars, trucks, buses, motorcyles, boom boom che and pedestrains all about. The streets are like spaghetti in motion with things going every which way. It is not uncommon for vehicles to travel in the on-coming traffic lane for a time if it helps them get where they are going or lets them weave past someone else. I have seen a taxi travel for half a block or more against the traffic, vehicles parting before it like cresting waves, until it finally merges with traffic going its way. Turns through the on-coming traffic lane are not done at a right angle, but rather as a more leisurely glide into traffic as the vehicle eases into the turn.

You may think that walking offers you a safer option; but you are by no means out of the way of cars on the sidewalk. Driving on sidewalks is not unheard of, especially by taxis and boom boom che. And there is not always room to walk on the sidewalk either as sidewalks are a common place for both bicycles and motorcycles to park. This may or may not leave room for you to walk.

When walking, crossing a street is often done in halves, with you crossing one direction of traffic to the center and then waiting for an opening in traffic going the other way. Waiting while vehicles zip by front and back, the wind of their passage is a reminder that life is a tenuous thing and metal is much harder than flesh. You try not to think about the drivers who might right now be zigging into or zagging out of the on-coming traffic lane. An opening comes and the second half of your crossing is made in haste, just in case. You always check both ways before crossing a street, no matter which way traffic is supposed to be going.

If all of this sounds crazy I assure that it is, but surprisingly, it also seems to work. Everyone is expecting everyone else to be driving this way. They all make allowances, and look out for crazy things. Nobody assumes that other drivers will be following the 'rules of the road'. In fact I am not sure if any rules are assumed at all.

Along with being ready for other drivers to behave erratically, drivers use their horns all of the time. It is sort of like making an announcement. '(Beep) I'm coming through, (beep) time to move, (beep) time to stop. (beep)'. The drivers can be so intent on honking their horns it feels as if that action must be central to the functioning of the car. I have wondered at times how many beeps you get to the litre or, if it is the other way around, how far a dozen beeps will power a car.

People (drivers and pedestrians) seem pretty calm most of the time too. I haven't seen anything like road rage here. Even with all of the jockeying and weaving, the jumble of traffic and pedestrians, folks rarely get worked up at each other. This calm seems in direct contrast to the seeming chaos of the movements.

It takes some getting used to, this Chinese traffic, but the organic feel of it is quite nice. Initially, I thought that driving, or even crossing the street, took a special type of courage. Now I think that everyone just sort of goes with the flow and is used to the way things work. And they do seem to work, quite well I might add.

Passing the Persistence Test

Getting around within a city is one thing, getting between cities is another adventure altogether. Sometimes just buying the tickets is a journey in and of itself.

Getting train tickets from Taian to Guangzhou was an... interesting, experience. In Taian you cannot buy train tickets more than 5 days in advance (why this is I do not know), so a friend and I went to the train station Monday afternoon to get train tickets for a Friday night sleeper car to Guangzhou. When we got to the front of the line they told us there were no sleepers, either soft or hard, available. So we asked about Saturday or Sunday, or sometime in the future. Their answer made it sound like there not only weren't any sleepers now, but that there wouldn't be any sleepers in future - ever.

Several helpful Chinese bystanders who spoke some English took us in hand and talked to the clerks for us. Eventually we were told to return the next morning to buy tickets for Saturday night. So off we went, returning bright and early Tuesday morning.

There were much longer lines on Tuesday, but eventually we got to the front and were told there were no sleeper tickets. We were persistent and asked again, pushing the schedule we had printed off of a web page through the plastic mouse hole between us and the clerk and repeating 'Guangzhou, Saturday'. Then she told us to come back on Saturday morning. No way, we said. We had visions of ending up with standing room only in the luggage car. The clerk shuffled our ticket issue off to someone else behind her while she looked after other customers at our wicket. We stood firmly in place, still at the front but off to one side. There were a few more interchanges with us standing resolutely in place and the clerk telling us they didn't have what we wanted.

Then, as if we had passed some secret persistence test, the tickets appeared, soft sleepers (the best accommodations) for Saturday night. Money changed hands and we were happy foreigners.

It is hard to know how much of this is due to language issues and how much to the bureaucratic culture. Do clerks just always say no first because it is less work for them if a person leaves? Does the clerk not know that something is available and as we push her more she asks others who know more than her? Is it part of their training that they must make foreigners (or maybe everyone) wait at least 30 minutes for any class of ticket above a hard seat (a hidden tax on luxury)? I will probably never know.

 More Tai'an Travel Reviews
1. unforgettable in TAI'AN RICHARDEHURLEY Nov 2, 2004 03:11
Comments (2)


Sep 11, 2005 11:23 Reply


Hi Ruth,
Enjoyed your discription of both the traffic and the ticket office. Couldn't have put it better myself and hard for others to believe unless they also are fortunate to have had a similar experience, now available almost anywhere in China!!!!!!!


May 14, 2005 11:11 Reply

POOK said:

Ruth how long were you in Taian?Our group stayed 15 days,and I remember the horn honking,but I had no trouble crossing the streets,just the stop in the middle was required.Is the park close to the Custom's Center and government buildings finished yet?What did you do in Taian?The walk up Mt Tai will always stay in my memory.

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