Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Touching down in Beijing...

Well, I've been in Beijing for under 12 hours (and spent seven of those asleep) and there's already some culture shock going around in my head.

I think it first happened when I hit the seat of my taxi. Now, in Japan, I took quite a few taxis. With three or four of us traveling at a time, it was often cheaper and/or more convenient to hail a cab versus taking the subway. There, the cars glide up alongside the curb and the drivers pop open a side door for you (they open and close automatically). The seats are covered with soft, white, lace-like cloth that's invariably spotless and might even have been ironed that morning. Most cabbies there will wear a military style uniform or, at the very least, wear a jacket and tie. It's almost like taking a car service back in the States. Quite nice; I definitely got used to a superior level of service.

Let's just say that my first experience with a taxi in Beijing was the complete, utter opposite. If I had to describe it in one sentence, I'd say I was back in NYC all over again.

The cab itself was dinged up and old. There was a whitish cloth on the seats, but it was torn and spotted in places and I doubted it had ever been washed - nevermind ironed. My driver had no uniform, didn't help with the bags and I had to (gasp) open my own door. I tried to communicate the directions and handed him my address (written in Mandarin). In response, he just grunted and we sped off - hopefully in the right direction.

Almost as soon as we were in motion, the driver clicked on his radio and began barking Chinese into it. The only time he stopped doing that during the entire ride was when he switched to barking Chinese into his cell phone. Also, for our entire trip, he chain smoked. From my vantage point in the backseat, I could barely make out his silloutte in the smokey haze... I guess they were right about Beijing's pollution.

We sped through the streets, cutting people off - him yelling and me digging through the cushions for non-existent seatbelts. Finally, after him stopping to ask directions a couple times, we arrived at the right building - me shaken slightly, but in one piece overall. There, he uncermoniously handed me my backpack (upside down) and sped off, puffs of cigarette smoke coming from his windows.

I stood there on the sidewalk with my bags and watched him go.

I had arrived in Beijing.

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