Odd Observations

Why is it that in Asia, presumably the home of great tea drinkers, restaurants and stores proudly advertise that they serve and sell Lipton’s tea? In the US, Lipton’s tea is synonymous with mediocrity.

Traffic in most of China and all of Vietnam is anarchic. The road is shared by pedestrians, hand drawn carts, bicycles, motorbikes, cars, trucks, and buses. The major rule of the road seems to be that you yield to vehicles that are bigger than you. A sop to smaller vehicles is that if the smaller vehicle is moving at constant speed in a constant direction, larger vehicles are expected to solve the equations of motion and steer in such a way to avoid crushing the smaller vehicle. This is also the rule for pedestrians crossing the road. You move at a steady speed, careful not to change course or speed in response to the traffic and the vehicular traffic will steer in front of you or behind you to avoid hitting you. As a driver, you use all the road, both sides almost without prejudice. When you need to stop, you just stop. When you need to turn left, you turn left. When you need to do a U turn, you do a U turn. All of these actions are taken independent of what the other traffic is doing or any signage. Here is a trick I learned from our Shanghai driver as we traveled from Shanghai to Suzhou on a brand new, four lane, limited access highway with relatively light traffic. The driver mostly drove in the left most lane at the highest speed traffic would allow. When he approached an interchange, he moved to the right lane, then he moved to the exit lane, then, just before the exit lane actually exited, he attempted to swoop back to the left most lane. He never succeeded, of course, because actions like this, combined with traffic entering and leaving the highway, created a traffic jam at every interchange no matter how light the traffic. It is insane and means that there is no highway in China or Vietnam that averages more than about 30 mph.

Many travellers are familiar with the problem of taking a taxi in a country where you do not speak the local language. Hotels have a cure for this. If you ask at the hotel desk, they will give you a card with the address of the hotel and a map showing the location of the hotel printed on it in the local language. We tested this out in Beijing. Our guide and driver left us off at the theater where we watched a splendid performance of Chinese acrobats. After the show, we confidently walked out to the street to hail a cab. As you might expect when a performance lets out, there were many patrons in need of a cab. As I had learned was necessary in China anytime one had to wait one’s turn, I had to be pretty aggressive to get us a cab, finely barely edging out a young Chinese woman who glared at me when I used my longer legs to get to a cab first. She had given up the natural advantage of her youth by wearing high heels, an extremely common choice in both China and Vietnam. Kris and I climbed in the car, handed our card to the driver, and discovered the fly in the ointment. Not only do the cab drivers in Beijing not speak English, they can’t read Chinese! And even if they did, the streets in Beijing are like the streets in Galway, Ireland: they change names virtually every block. Thus, it is impossible for any cab driver to be expected to know how to find any given place in a city of 17 million people just from the address, even if he could read Chinese. Meekly, we turned the cab over to the now smug faced young woman. It took us hailing five more cabs until we found one who could read the map and who took us back to our hotel. Browsing the Lonely Planet several days later, we learned the fool-proof method is to carry a cell phone, call the hotel, and hand the cell phone over to the driver and let the hotel staff instruct the driver how to get to the hotel. On a related matter, we saw no evidence that GPS has any presence yet in China or Vietnam. Since the signals are surely available, I suspect the issue is getting maps that can correctly locate a given street address.

Tim

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3 Comments

  1. Kara LaSota said,

    September 23, 2008 at 5:08 pm

    Perilous roads & getting lost:

    India is much the same way — a completely different set of unwritten (and still incomprehensible to me) rules of the road (and the numbers of random animals from pigs, to Brahma bulls made it even more chaotic). I solved the problem there by taking advice from my students and hiring a car and driver through my hotel. It generally cost $10-$15/day (depending on how far out I needed to go). The driver would wait and watch for me to come out of anyplace he took me (they were without exception, men) & get me back to my hotel or where ever I needed to go next. Although I had to get used to it, the drivers were very solicitous & actualy made me feel a lot safer in a country where women don’t travel much alone. It’s actually fairly common for middle to upper class families to have drivers as part of the retinue of servants, so I was getting a small slice of the way locals actually live.

  2. Tim said,

    September 24, 2008 at 4:24 am

    Actually I think there is one more unwritten law that works to the benefit of the smaller vehicle/pedestrian: If you actually hit someone or cause actual damage to another vehicle, the resulting paperwork will cost you at least a day of your life or more depending on the damage.

    We agree that a car and driver is the easiest and safest way to get around, but we have become somewhat tired of riding around in the back seat all the time after doing it for nearly a month. Another advantage of having a car and driver is that you are not accosted by every cyclo driver in the city who is sure that, despite seeing you say “no” to the last ten cyclo drivers in line, you will want want him to save you from walking any further.

    Tim

  3. Kris said,

    September 24, 2008 at 6:08 am

    Hello, fellow chaotians! I feel oddly triumphant to have survived multiple road crossings today, one of which succeeded only because Tim was in the lead and I managed not to trip. It is a new sensory challenge to watch my feet–all paving uneven–and the traffic and see the sights at the same time. Just hanging out in a foreign city is good people watching, and I enjoyed walking through a big nearby market this morning. At the same market, you could buy embroidered tablecloths, cigarette lighters with communist insignia on them, or recently gutted eels and frogs!!! The herbs and fruits and vegetables were gorgeous although we arrived after the morning shopping rush. The flowers were also lovely, in marvelous arrangements. Now it is nice to sit down for a while and watch a heavy rain pound the window, and the park across the way.


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