a day of public transport

September 29th, 2007

So I guess I could do a Micah Sittig and focus on public transport… but I really don’t go out that much anymore. My life generally revolves around this apartment, the office and classrooms at BeiGongDa, and the local market. But just for this post…

So getting off the train at Dawang Lu and walking up the stairs to the station lobby, my eye was caught by a huge poster of a person swimming with a whale shark and the words “Well, where the bloody hell are you?” That’s right, Australia’s latest tourist-attracting advertising campaign has made it into the Beijing subway. Then out of curiosity, I looked to see how the slogan had been translated. “嘿,你怎么还没æ?¥äº†ï¼Ÿ” it said. Not exactly a translation, more of a paraphrase, but I guess “嘿,你他妈的在哪?” would be considered a bit too much. I mean, that kind of language is only considered harmonious by hard-bitten veteran Beijing cabbies. Pretty cool posters, though.

Then lzh decided we need to put money on our public transport IC swipe cards, took my card and some money, and disappeared off to the other end of the lobby. She was gone quite some time, so I went looking for her and found her in a stupid huge queue waiting to get to the one and only counter where you can put money on the IC cards. Yep, Beijing’s subway still has a long way to go before it can claim to have any kind of public service, although it is slowly improving. Next to the stupid huge queue were two wooden crates clearly marked “Automatic Added Value Machine”- but in English only. The Chinese text only mentioned the name of the company, but didn’t mention what was inside. Language issues aside- Does this mean we’ll soon be able to use the machine to put money on our public transport IC cards? If so, then cool. At the very least, the stupid huge queue at the only counter where you can put money on your card at busy stations like Dawang Lu will at least become two half stupid huge queues in front of the machine, and, assuming the keep a machine at one of the ticket selling counters, maybe three third stupid huge queues. And at less busy stations, life could become very convenient indeed.

And then next to these crates was a poster advertising souvenirs for the opening of Line 5. Unfortunately, even though it said the souvenirs could be bought on the afternoon of the day Line 5 opens, it didn’t say what day Line 5 would be opening.

And then on the way from Bawangfen south we found ourselves on a bus that was in desperate need of maintenance driven by somebody in desperate need of driving lessons. Thanks to the traffic lights at Baiziwan, we found ourselves stopped on the uphill run from the cutting under the rail line between Dongjiao Market and Baiziwan. Shouldn’t be a problem, most of Beijing’s drivers, especially the professionals, can manage a hill start as easy as that. Not our driver. Sure, the machinery wasn’t helping, but still, when you stall on a hillstart, the general response is to turn the engine back on and shove your foot down much harder on the gas, leaving your foot down hard until you’ve got yourself properly under way. It may not be the best method, but it seems to be what most people do (at least, what most manual drivers do; I have no idea how you’d handle an auto under such circumstances, but if you’re driving an auto, you fully deserve to get stuck in exactly that spot we were stuck in), and it usually works. Not our driver. She’d restart the engine, and try again, putting only as much gas on as if we were on dead flat or a downhill slope. Then she’d try again, rev it up real high, then when she was ready to try and take off, drop the revs back down to where they were stalling. Eventually she figured out she had to keep the gas on hard if we were going to get anywhere.

And when we finally got up the slope and onto the more or less downhill run from Baiziwan to BeiGongDa, she just flat refused to try any gear higher than second, revving the engine up really, really high to get up to something approaching a normal urban road speed.

So although Beijing’s public transport situation is reasonably good and constantly improving, there are obviously still a few problems to be ironed out, and some of those problems involve things like maintenance, human resources and training.

But I have to say that in one respect I was quite impressed with the subway staff when I was waiting for lzh to put money on our cards at the Dawang Lu station. At first I just stood overlooking the entrance to the platform at the end of the lobby closest to our bus stop, thinking she’d be back in a few minutes. With nothing else to do, and having already looked at the posters for Australia, I watched the people coming and going from the platform. A middle-aged man dressed in peasant-just-arrived-in-the-city clothes, meaning a very cheap but clean suit, and looking a bit not-quite-all-there got himself stuck at the top of the stairs and was talking something over with the aunties who check tickets and make sure you swipe your card properly. I couldn’t hear what they were talking about, but after a couple of minutes one of the aunties looked down at the platform and yelled out for a security guard, yelling until she finally got the guards’ attention and convinced one of them to come upstairs (which didn’t take long- never mess with a Chinese aunty, no matter she’s an aunty by blood or just because she looks to be a generation older than you). I thought, this is odd. But she quickly spoke to the security guard, and he led this man off in my direction, and it became clear: There was nothing wrong with the man’s brain, sanity or intellectual capacity. He was blind- something I couldn’t see from a distance, but which became obvious as he was led closer- and in need of a toilet he had no way of seeing or otherwise finding. Why was such a small thing so impressive? Well, the Beijing subway staff always struck me as the coldest, least helpful and rudest of all Beijing’s workers, and based on my previous experience of Beijing subway staff, I would’ve expected the aunties to (literally) point this poor guy in some random direction with some very curt and not entirely polite instructions and leave it at that, and yet here they were going out of there way to help some random stranger in a spot of bother.

Strange, but true: It’s those little incidents that keep my faith in humanity going.

And I just saw an ad on BTV 2 showing how dutiful and harmonious Beijng’s police are.

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