Wrong Way Eddie in Nanchang

Nanchang traffic

I forced myself to keep my eyes closed. If I looked, it would be too scary, kind of like riding in the front car of the roller coaster at Magic Mountain. Better to keep my eyes screwed shut, experience the ride with my other senses, and then open them only when I knew I was stationary again. However, I wasn’t at an amusement park. I was in the front seat, passenger side, of a taxi in Nanchang, China.

Nanchang traffic
Traffic in Nanchang, China

Most drivers in China are fairly new drivers. The car culture has taken off there only in the past ten years. Some new drivers buy taxis and go into business for themselves. I didn’t know how long this taxi driver had been driving, but he drove like it was a contact sport.

He would pass on the right. He would go between two lanes of traffic, squeezing his car in the slot, so close that I could stick my arm out the window and shake hands with the neighboring driver. He constantly tailgated the car in front of him, slamming his brakes as necessary. Traffic lights and signs were merely suggestions.

We were staying near the city center of Nanchang at the Galactic Peace International Hotel. It was the newest hotel in the city of 5 million people. But the reason I chose that hotel was because of the name. Galactic Peace! Yes, I am for it. I want peace in the galaxies. The Emperor hatching the crazy plot with the Trade Federation to wipe out the Naboo, the clone army, figuring out who is the Padwan learner to whom, I am just tired of it. Let’s all have Galactic Peace.

The Galactic Peace International Hotel was on north side of a divided three lane highway about two miles east of the main square of Nanchang. To go the main square to shop (we just had to see the giant new Walmart!), we’d catch a taxi at the hotel entrance and take a right. No problem. When we were done shopping, eating, and sight-seeing, we would catch another taxi and come back. We had a business card with the name of the hotel, address, and a map to the hotel. Because we didn’t speak Mandarin, we would give this to the driver so he would know where to take us.

I knew we were getting close to the hotel. We had been in the taxi a few minutes already. I sneaked a peak with one eye. I could see it up ahead, since it was the tallest building on the left side of the road.

At that moment the taxi suddenly lurched to the left in a tire skidding 90 degree turn. My body was flung to the door panel on my right. Immediately the driver spun the wheel the other way and we flipped 90 degrees to the right. My eyes were wide open now. We had crossed through a gap in the median of the highway and were now going the wrong way down the highway!

I could see the hotel entrance about 200 yards ahead on the left. I could also see a line of traffic coming straight at us about 300 yards ahead.

The driver punched the accelerator and veered from right to left as he crossed the three lanes going 60 mph. The oncoming traffic was rapidly approaching, with horns blaring from every car. Just as the lead oncoming car got within 30 yards of us, we reached the hotel entrance. The driver braked hard and cranked the wheel. We skidded left into the hotel parking lot as the traffic rushed past.

The driver was as calm as a cucumber. His face revealed nothing. I paid him and we got out of the taxi.

The hotel concierge happened to be standing outside having a smoke. He spoke a little English. I asked him if he had seen what had just happened. He smiled and explained that the legal and safe way to get to the hotel from the city center was to go past the hotel for several miles on the highway and make several turns in order to get back on the highway going the right direction in front of the hotel. That takes too long, so taxi drivers take the short cut.

We made that drive five times during our short stay in Nanchang. We had different taxi drivers every time. There wasn’t always approaching traffic. But every time I closed my eyes.

Smog and traffic in China
Scooters are the way to beat the traffic

Pirate Taxi in Beijing

Chairman Mao directs Beijing traffic

We stumbled through the door of the arrivals terminal in Beijing, looking for a ride to the city center.  I knew I had to find an ATM to get some yuan before getting a taxi.  No sooner had we got through the door than a polite, enthusiastic man in a dark cab driver uniform approached us.

“Taxi for you, come this way now!” he said.

“Cool it buddy, I need to find an ATM.”

Oops, I think that was a mistake, because he now thought it was his mission in life to lead us to the ATM.

“Yes, sir. I help you sir, ATM right this way!”

“Hey, I can find it myself” I said as we walked away.

Chairman Mao directs Beijing traffic
Chairman Mao directs Beijing traffic

It had been a tough 15 hour flight from San Francisco.  Every seat on the plane seemed to be filled with Chinese grandmothers, and they all brought home-cooked meals in leaky Tupperware, the smells suffocating me as I tried in vain to sleep.  I can never sleep on the plane, and am usually completely wiped out after a long trans-oceanic flight.  To pass the time I watch movie after movie on the tiny screen in the seatback in front of me until my eyeballs turn to moldy jello and my brain goes completely numb.

When fully alert, I am normally careful in dealing with touts who are trying to sell me something in airports.  This time I was not on my game.

We found the ATM, got some cash, and walked to the outer doors of the airport.  Our friend was back at my side.

“My car, right here.  Good ride.  What hotel?”

“Alright, you got me buddy.  Let’s load and go.”

He grabbed our bags and stowed them in the trunk.  We sunk into the back seat like marathon runners who couldn’t make it to the last mile.  As I put my head back on the head rest, the car pulled away and joined the mass of honking geese fleeing the airport road.

A few minutes down the freeway, I became alert enough to notice that there was no meter on the dash.

“Hey Lisa. Did you happen to notice anything about the car when we got in?”

Lisa was half asleep.  I don’t think she noticed anything about the car.  She just got in it because I lead her to it.

“You know, I don’t think there was a taxi light or sign on the top of the car, like on the other taxis we are seeing on the road.”

The man looked like a taxi driver.  He acted like a taxi driver.  He even drove like a taxi driver.  But I don’t think this is a taxi.

Paranoia set in.  I started fearing for my life.  It was late at night on the outer ring freeway of Beijing.  I had no idea where we were, or which direction was the right one for where we had to go.  He could be driving us to some deserted warehouse where we would be robbed, stripped, and left for dead to be eaten by communist pandas.  Do they eat meat? I’m not sure, hopefully they only eat eucalyptus leaves.

He kept driving and we kept worrying about what was going to happen.  It seemed like we drove for two hours, from one freeway to another and back again.  In time, I could see that we were entering Beijing.

Suddenly he pulled over next to a large dark building.

“Hotel. Fifty yuan!”

I didn’t see any hotel.  How could this be the hotel?  It looked like an office building. Then I noticed the sign of our hotel on the corner.  We were in the right spot, but he wouldn’t pull into the front circle of the hotel because of his dubious status.  Maybe they arrest pirate taxi drivers in this country and send them to the re-education camp.

We got out, collected our luggage, and paid the guy.  I don’t know what the proper fare is from the airport to Beijing, but it seemed ok, and he did get us there in one piece.

As we walked away I wondered if this was the future of China.  No more crowds of bicycles racing down the streets in the socialistic paradise, people too poor to buy cars.  Instead, mobile hustlers of the new car culture, looking to make a quick buck off the flood of western visitors to the Middle Kingdom.