Thursday, December 15, 2005

Dangerous Streets

When we were little kids we were taught how to cross the street:

Look right, look left, look right again. If it's all clear, walk straight across. Walk, don't run.

Well, I would spend my whole life on this side of the street if I tried to do that here. Of course, here we have to look left first - but also check to the right for vehicles going the "wrong" way. (I forgot the other day and blithely stepped into the path of a stealth scooter which swerved around me, almost onto the correct side of the street.) But also it's extremely rare for any street to ever be clear enough to walk straight across. It's still true that it's not a good idea to run. "Don't run, and don't stop," is good advice.

Some of our Chinese friends find it amusing that we always try to cross the street where there is a crosswalk. I'm told that it was only last September or so that it became law in China that drivers must not run into pedestrians on crosswalks. Not that they have to stop at a crosswalk if there are pedestrians crossing! Oh, no! Honk, swerve around them (but don't stop), threaten (by surging at them), flash your headlights at them in warning, but don't run them down.

Maybe they forgot to tell everyone the new law. But when all else fails there is a very general rule that everyone understands quite well: "Anything goes as long as you don't bump into anything."

When I travel to an out-lying district to teach on-site lessons to employees of a French company, they send a driver to pick me up from the office. This man has driving skills which I admire immensely. He arrives outside our office at the worst possible time, just when the two schools - a primary school next to our office and a high school opposite the office - are discharging their pupils. It is a scene of utter chaos.

Parents (and grand-parents) and excited children are streaming along and across the road in all directions, carrying school-bags and boarding all manner of vehicles - cars, vans, public buses, taxis, bikes, trikes, scooters, motor-bikes - eager to get home out of the cold wind. Vehicles are parked, and double or triple parked all over the place, some are trying to back out or do u-turns, while a flotilla of large public buses have stopped out in the middle of the road-way because the bus-stop is full of children and adults who are flooding out onto the road, pushing and shoving to be first onto the bus. There is a lot of honking - apparently without it no one would know where anyone else was - and an amazing amount of patience.

When things reach a stale-mate and no one can move at all for a few minutes, until traffic lights further down the street change maybe, the drivers just sit and honk or flash their lights and the pedestrians and two-wheelers continue to weave their way through the mess. The weird thing is that no one gets angry - no shouting, no waving of fists - as there would be for sure overseas.

In the middle of all this my big black car arrives, on the other side of the road facing the wrong way. He gently u-turns through all the mayhem, and stops at the kerb-side. He greets me and helps me do up my seat-belt , and then we inch our way through the madding crowd. After the first couple of streets in the city centre things open up a bit, he takes his right hand off the horn, and picks up the pace. He drives aggressively - no waiting around unnecessarily - and skilfully. He seems to know just how fast he can drive head-on at an obstacle, (other vehicle, pedestrian, red traffic light) so that he barely needs to change gears as he flits past. He plays a nice Chinese music CD as we travel, and ... I am learning to relax and trust his judgement.

This week Peter was not so lucky. He takes a taxi to an off-site class, and he had a taxi-driver who obviously didn't hear about the pedestrian crossing law. He ran smack-bang into the side of a chap riding his electric bike across a zebra crossing. Naturally it can be pretty serious for a tax-driver if he is involved in an accident, it could cost him his licence and his livelihood.

The taxi-driver jumped out (leaving the meter running) picked the guy up, and pulled up his trouser leg and shirt in the raw wind to examine his injuries. There was a lot of discussion going on, and a crowd gathered to watch the show - much more entertaining than TV! The driver rushed back to the vehicle and dragged out a packet of cigarettes and tried desperately to get the man to have one - but he just batted them away. Then he got more generous and started trying to tuck a hundred yuan bill into the man's clothing, but he continued to wave him off. This was worth much more than a cigarette, or even a hundred bucks! In the end the driver weakened, and gave him three hundred bills and some smaller notes - probably all he had - and the matter was settled.

It was hard for Peter to know what to do in this situation - should he jump out into the cold and hail another taxi, then he would have to pay the initial 8 yuan all over again. As it was a trip to work, he needed a taxi receipt to claim the fare back anyway. Finally the driver got back in the cab and drove him to his destination, and proceeded to charge him the full fare that was on the meter, despite the twenty-minute interlude at the crosswalk. Of course, the taxi-driver was feeling aggressive and very stressed, and when your Chinese vocabulary is limited to about ten stuttering phrases, it usually seems best just to give in and pay.

The taxi driver was very lucky that the police didn't show up of course. A friend of ours recently had a similar experience of being in a taxi that hit a cyclist, but on this occasion the police turned up and had to be paid too.

Stay on the path

So I have learnt to cross the street - lane by lane - even by myself. And I am even learning to be safe on the footpath. This is where bikes - and often cars too - are parked, so there is still a good chance of being run over.

Last week we saw the police "cleaning up" the city centre - strictly speaking motor-bikes are not allowed in the CBD - so the they were picking up parked motor-bikes and loading them onto the back of a truck to cart them away. How frustrating would that be? It's hard enough to find a parking spot for your vehicle without the hassle of having it carted away while you are busy.

It can be hard for the street-sellers too - those wonderful little people who deliver such cheap delicious treats to the side-walk - the police were carting them away too. Presumably there is some sort of payment they should make, or a licence they should buy. Or they just shouldn't park so much in the way. These people are always extremely mobile, ready to up-anchor and flit away at a moment's notice, but still a lot of them got caught.

Meat-on-a-stick is always great, they have little barbecues on wheels - you can just see the man on the left is fanning his fire. And then there is the fruit-on-a-stick - coated in a crackly caramel toffee, and often wrapped in edible rice-paper as well.

Sometimes there are the most amazing smells. Often there are people selling "stinky tofu" - fried fermented bean-curd - which has a strong burning toilet-related smell. They say if you can get past the smell it's delicious, but I haven't been game yet.

In the cinemas in Oz the advertising time often starts with "Can you smell the popcorn?..." I, for one, have always loved the smell of the popcorn in the movie theatre, though I'm not that interested in eating it.

Well that is nothing in comparison to the popcorn they sell on the streets. The delectable aroma grabs you as you come around a corner, and there she is, a lady with a tiny tricycle cart and a pressure-cooker on the back. She adds sugar and butter and flavours of your choice to the mix, and out comes the most delicious, crisp, fresh, irresistible popcorn ever. For three yuan she will hand you a large plastic shopping-bag full of it, and you set off with intentions to share it with all your friends and relations. But by the time you tie up the handles to board the bus as it arrives, you notice you have absent-mindedly already munched your way through half of it ...

Looking Up

My husband says I have a tendancy to fall in holes - well, I did once when we were walking on the beach and I disappeared into a hole and he had gone a few metres before he missed me ... but that's another story. Public health and safety have a whole different meaning here in China, and it really is each indiviual's responsibility to make sure they don't step into that unguarded open manhole, or trip over that welding mesh sticking out of the concrete, or stumble on uneven pavers. But in between steps, when I am sure it is safe, I like to look up from time to time too.

I am amazed when I am at my kitchen window in our apartment how few people coming down the drive ever glance up - not me, I always stare up at all the windows that have lights on and wonder who lives there and what their lives are like.

Quite apart from the wild beauty of Chinese electrical wiring, there are so many interesting things to see - plants, roof-top gardens, interesting architectural add-ons, and occasionally someone on the roof cleaning up and about to drop a piece of masonry or something ...

Here are some men demolishing a building in the city centre. Some of the work is done by a large machine with a jack-hammer fitting. But most, it seems, is actually done like this by little men with hammers and the like. On the ground an army of trike-rider men are sitting in their tiny trailers on pieces of cardboard or whatever they can find to make it more comfortable - talking, playing cards, waiting for there to be enough rubble for them to cart some away.

Down the bottom of the photo there is some woven bamboo. This is very thoughtfully there for my protection, because this is one of the main city thoroughfare walking alley-ways.

So it's good to be a little aware of what is going on over your head, as long as you watch your step, and look out for vehicles at the same time.

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