27 July 2007

Chinese Traffic and Food

Traffic in China is something else. Besides the immense number of people in the streets in cars, on bicycles, on scooters, in rickshaws, or on foot, the way they interact is positively fascinating.

Pedestrians hold much of the power...when they're in a group. It doesn't matter if the red stop symbol is illuminated or if the crossing guard is squealing his/her whistle louder than a semi truck. If a group of pedestrians wants to cross the street, good luck stopping them. Drivers are reckless, but they aren't going to run over an entire crowd of people. I took advantage of being outside the jurisdiction of the Seattle Police and joined the jay-walking crowd as often as safely possible.

Then there are bicycles, scooters, and rickshaws. As a lone pedestrian, you have to watch out for traffic in the bike lane just like you would cars because they will not stop for one or two people. They will obey the traffic lights only when convenient and do as they please the rest of the time. Doing as they please may also include driving against traffic. When we took a tour of the hutongs (small neighborhoods) of Beijing, our rickshaw driver did this, and I thought my life was going to be abruptly ended. Scooters are particularly dangerous because they're not always in the bike lane...or even on the road. The sidewalk seemed to be perfectly acceptable if the road and bike lane were too busy. Incredible.

Vehicular travel is probably the most dangerous, however. Seat belts are rarely worn, and I don't recall seeing a single child or infant car seat. Just as with pushing and shoving on the sidewalk, there is no common courtesy or right of way on the roadway. I saw at least three accidents where one car went into another lane and right into the side of an unyielding vehicle. It was not uncommon to see five vehicles (cars, trucks, vans, buses, etc.) attempting to fit across three lanes of road. Though terrifying, I grew accustomed to riding amongst the craziness.

I wish I had good news to report in the food department. The food I had in Beijing was dire - really, truly terrible. One night, we tried hot pot (a pot of boiling broth/oil that is used to cook the raw food you order with it). It was okay, but not enough to make up for the rest of Beijing's disappointment. In Chengdu, I had kung pao chicken at every opportunity.

The experience of eating in a Chinese restaurant as a foreigner was interesting. We'd walk in and ask if there was a menu in English. If not, that was the end. If so, we'd sit down. There would be one page of English menu to replace the 20-page Chinese menu. The menu items would be very simple descriptions like "chicken with cashews." (It's not kung pao chicken outside Sichuan...don't be fooled like I was several times.) There is one menu issued per table, regardless of the number of people sitting at the table. All the while, the wait staff is standing over your shoulder waiting for your order. Once you give them your order, you will only see them again when your food comes out and when you flag them down and beg for the check. When you request the check, the wait staff tells you the total and waits there until receiving the money. The itemized bill may or may not be given to you after your change is returned.

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