The wheels on the bus

27 October 2007

In my last entry about my Beijing trip, I wrote about getting off the train and taking a bus across town to the bus stop closest to our hotel and then walking to the hotel.  By the time everyone had freshened up, it was time to go to dinner.  Our Beijing hostess and her husband were treating our group to Beijing Hotpot at a restaurant near their home.  I definitely will write about the hotpot, but first . . . how did we get there?!!  The bus of course!  So we returned to the bus stop and took the appropriate bus to the stop closest to the restaurant.  Riding the bus was a major part of my week with my Chinese friends.  I think it merits an entry in and of itself. 

The buses in Beijing cost 1 RMB, unless the bus has a number over 100.  Buses with the numbers over 100 travel longer distances and the fare is adjusted according to distance traveled.  Thus, for those buses you swipe your mass transit card twice, once when entering and once when leaving.  The fare for the maximum distance seems to be about 3.5 RMB.  Compare this to a taxi fare of, say, 60 RMB to get from one side of the city to another, and it’s obvious why most ordinary people rely on public transportation. 
In Guangzhou, passengers enter buses at the front and exit from the rear.  Beijing is different.  Passengers enter through both front and rear doors.  Each bus has not only a driver, but an additional employee who rides in the back.  This person takes money and issues receipts for tickets, monitoring as people enter to see who uses their transit card to pay and who has not, as well as keeps order on the bus.  People seem very honest about paying.  They swipe their cards or else seek out the monitor to pay and get a receipt from her.  And when people didn’t pay, well, the bystanders around them made sure the monitor knew it! 
In general, people actually seemed fairly friendly and conversational on the bus, sometimes striking up conversations with each other or helping each other.  There is a massive TV campaign in Beijing right now to encourage this sort of friendliness.  The TV ads show people needing various kinds of assistance — a man whose trolley is too heavy for him to push, a woman who drops her bag, an elderly person who needs help crossing the street — and then show a scene of some kind person coming to their aid.  The person who is helped gushes with gratitude and the person who rendered the aid feels so good about their good deed that they are smiling and obviously happy as they resume their business.  The commercials sport an Olympics logo at the end.  As if to say, "Remember, we’re getting ready for the Olympics, be sure to help strangers and make them have a nice experience."  Exactly. 
But mass transportation in Beijing seems to me to be nowhere ready for the Olympics.  The City of Atlanta used the Olympics as an excuse to extend MARTA (mass transit) to then outer-limits of the city.  Beijing would be wise to improve greatly its public transportation infrastructure!  It seems to me that this particular infrastructure is already taxed to the limit.  Indeed, this is one place where the distinction between the "haves" and the "have nots" in China comes to light.  Just as in Guangzhou, buses (overcrowded past the point of believing) ride in special bus lanes and carry millions of commuters each day.  In other lanes, private cars and taxis ride past with one or two, fortunate people in them. 
In Guangzhou, with car and driver provided by my husband’s company, I am often one of those fortunate ones in the private car.  I do take the bus, almost daily.  But I also have the luxury of choosing when and where.  I am able to opt out of public transportation whenever it seems too inconvenient or crowded.  Millions of others don’t have that choice, and now I was one of them. 
On one day, it took us about three and a half hours to get to the Great Wall at Ba Da Ling using public transportation.  We rode about two hours on two connecting city buses to the long distance bus terminal, and then took a coach to Ba Da Ling.  One member of our party wanted to go to Si Ma Tai, the spot where I had been before, but there was no public transportation available to that location.  No wonder, then, that the the Great Wall at Badaling was so crowded while there were so few people at Simatai.   As I stood in the aisle and held on to the too-high handrail during the majority of the portion of the bus ride inside the city, the bus lanes were crowded with buses filled to the brim.  While the car traffic lanes were also crowded, they were moving much faster than the bus lanes.  I thought of the writings of theologians Stanley Hauerwas and Willimon in their book The Truth About God:  The Ten Commandments in Christian Life.  Hauerwas, fundamentally, argues that any action we take in society to segregate ourselves from those less fortunate contributes to social injustice.  By removing ourselves to suburbs, for example, we make it easier to classify other people as "other," as being different from ourselves, their problems irrelevant to our own, and therefore outside our realm of responsibility.  If I don’t have to experience personally the problems of the inner city, then why should I do anything about it?  Hauerwas thinks that if we refused to allow ourselves to succumb to the temptation to remove ourselves from the problem, then we would be more keenly aware of social injustice and demand that it be fixed. 
I observed a similar phenomenon happen at my children’s elementary school!  The school children’s lunch was awful, but the teacher’s line had delicious, well prepared and healthy food on it as well as a nice salad bar.  When I asked about getting a better, more healthy menu, the teachers and school administration brushed me off, saying the children wouldn’t eat healthy food.  I know my own children would have preferred to eat off the teacher’s line any day, but they weren’t allowed to!  I thought that if teachers were required to eat the same menu as the children, then with all their collective intelligence the administration, teachers, and cafeteria staff would have found a way to make the food not only healthier but also more tasty and palatable!  Similarly, I think that if big bosses and leaders had to ride public transportation, there not only would be a lot less traffic congestion but that mass transit would be a lot better. Beijing is no exception.  But hey, look at it this way.  Mass transit in any Chinese city is a long sight better than any public transportation I’ve ever experienced in the USA.  And that’s coming from someone who has made an effort to try in the U.S., without much success. 
In Beijing, unlike Guangzhou, the lines to wait for the buses are very orderly.  Each Beijing bus stop has a special bus policeman in an orange uniform, who enforces the rule of standing in line for the bus.  Each bus has a designated spot to stop at.  When the bus policeman sees the bus approaching, she or he uses an orange flag to signal to the bus driver the location of the line for that bus.  The number is also painted on the sidewalk.  So, for example, if a particular bus stop has ten buses that stop there, each bus number will have its own designated spot.  This is in sharp (and favorable) contrast to Guangzhou, where ten buses can all be lined up at once and it can even be impossible to read the numbers of the buses, and one can never be completely assured of the spot where one’s bus will stop. 
Although loading was orderly, there were times during Beijing rush hour when the buses would become so packed with people that it seemed to me that it would be impossible to fit any more people on the bus.  The bus monitor inside the bus would shout, "move on back! move on back!" (in Chinese of course), and she would enforce that by pointing to certain people and telling them to move back even if they were reluctant to give up their little spot.  I particularly noticed this one time when a very petite woman couldn’t reach the upper handrail (about six feet high) that hung from the bus ceiling.  Because of her short stature, she could only grab onto a vertical pole or onto one of the handgrips that is on the back of every seat.  The bus monitor made her move back to a spot where there was no pole or seat grip, forcing her to stand among the crowd of people without benefit of anything she could hold onto to brace herself.  Since I was much taller, I swapped places with the woman so she could have a grip, since I could use the high grip. 
Another time, during the week, I took photos of what I "thought" was a crowded bus.  I thought to myself, "this bus must have 200 people on it!"  I started to try and count the people, but I counted ten people just standing beside the bus driver and on the entrance step, not counting where the seats started.  I gave up, deciding it would be impossible for me to count accurately when people were so jammed in, and also not wanting to spend the mental energy to form an accurate estimate.  Perhaps there were already 300 people on the bus!  To my amazement, more and more people kept getting on the bus.  After it was so crowded I thought no more would fit, there may have been another 50 people added.  We were all squeezed in like sardines jammed in a can!  My friends and I all took great care to make sure we all fit on the same bus.  If we couldn’t all get on the bus, we would wait for the next bus.  Only one time, half of us got on one bus and half got on the next.  We used cell phones to keep in communication and make sure everyone got off at the correct stop. 
I learned some of the tricks to navigating on a bus when it’s this crowded.  The first challenge is to get on the bus in the first place.  If you can get both feet on the platform to enter the bus, you will fit in the bus somehow.  Remember the days of jumping on the twirling merry go round on the elementary school play yard?  It’s something like that.  You grab hold with your arms to keep from falling off and shove up onto the bus step.  One time when it was so crowded I was having trouble getting up to that place, a guy behind me seemed to say in perfect English, "just shove on in!" but I wasn’t quite sure if that’s truly what he said.  (That’s because during the entire week of riding the bus in Beijing, I only saw one other foreigner on a public bus in Beijing.  While this may have been a function of the areas of the city I was riding in, or the generally crowded conditions of the buses, I’ll just say that I was not expecting to hear anything spoken in English, and he said nothing else in English!)  In the end, as people moved on into the bus, making room with the help of the bus monitor, I got on the bus and so did the guy behind me!  But nobody else fit.   
Once inside the bus, the next trick is, indeed, to move on back.  Because that’s where the seats are.  As people leave, those seats open up.  If one stands in just the right place, she can be the first to grab a seat as it is vacated!  I found myself looking people over and trying to size up if they seemed to be a long distance or short distance rider.  Once, I asked someone.  Over time, it’s simply a matter of statistical probability.  The longer the ride, the more likely it is that one can snag a seat.  I also saw many instances of people giving up their seats for elderly, infirm, or parents traveling with small children.  If an elderly person gets on a bus and really wants a seat, all he has to do is find some able bodied young person, look at them and nod, and the young person will give up their seat for them. 
My Chinese traveling companions were very solicitous to do all they could to ensure my comfort on the bus.  When one of them would snag a seat, she would call me over to it.  I tried not to take advantage of this generosity too much, after all they were tired too!  I got fairly good at getting seats for myself in the grand shuffle.  I got especially good, for a beginner, at figuring out which seats might come vacant soon and stationing myself at the ready to jump in the seat when it was vacated!  As I got better at this during the week, I occasionally was able to offer one of my friends a seat in the same way that they had offered me one.  When the bus was crowded, it could feel particularly claustrophobic as one approached the stop where one must exit.  It was a wise move to begin moving through the mass of bodies toward the exit well ahead of the actual stopping place, and people would make way for exiting passengers as best they could. 
My public transportation for the entire week, including my trip out to the BaDaLing section of the Great Wall, cost 60 RMB.  This is in contrast to the transportation splurge of a taxi ride when I took my heavy suitcase and two shopping bags from my hotel to the train station on my last day in Beijing.  That one taxi ride cost 45 RMB. 
A last note is that the bus stop names are not written even in Pinyin.  In order to know what bus connects where, one must have a knowledge of the Chinese characters for that bus stop, or one must have language skill to be able to ask a bystander in Chinese which bus to take.  Moreover, it’s still a tad bit shocking to me, but one must also be aware that sometimes ordinary Chinese are only aware of what they need to be aware of in their surroundings.  By this I mean, that an ordinary person may be unaware of what is just beyond them on the next block, if that person has no reason to ever walk by that city block. 
Case in point.  On my last day, I went to Tian Tan (Temple of Heaven) by myself.  I knew what bus numbers to take and what bus stops I needed, and I had these written for me in Chinese characters.  My bus departed from Tian Tan Dong (Temple of Heaven East), but when I exited from the east gate of Tian Tan I didn’t know exactly where the bus stop was.  Should I turn right out of the gate, or left?  I asked some public workers who were cleaning the street where it was, and they didn’t know, so they summoned a security guard.  He thought perhaps I should turn left.  But at about that time, I spotted a bus stop just a bit further down to the right, so I went to see if I could find my bus number there.  I didn’t see my bus number anywhere in the signs on the stop, and I didn’t see the bus policeman in her uniform, so I asked some men who were waiting for a bus, showing them my paper with the bus number and name of the stop.  They said they thought the bus stop I needed was on the north side of the park.  As I headed that way, I was stopped by one woman who had overheard my conversation.  She showed me the spot, at that very same bus stop, where I was supposed to stand.  I was, indeed, at Tian Tan Dong.  Somehow, six other Chinese people in that same location had failed to notice that bus #36 stopped there or failed to know the name of that bus stop.  It turned out that my bus did go around the north side of the park.  As we drove by the north side of the park, and I saw where the men had been directing me,  I was grateful that the woman had stopped me and spared me from what would have been a veeeery long walk! 
Then, when we arrived at my correct bus stop where I knew I needed to disembark, I had a momentary hesitation about whether it was, indeed the correct stop.  I had memorized the characters for Guang Ming Da Zhao, but these characters seemed different.  By the time I got up my courage to ask the girl standing next to me, the bus was moving again already.  In response to my question, she replied, "Zhaole!"  (We passed it!)  Fortunately the next step was only about a block and a half past where I had needed to get off.  Not too much of a walk, but I didn’t tell any of my Chinese friends about that small mistake!  They were all very proud of me that I was able to navigate so well by myself, and I didn’t want to burst my own bubble!   
So in summary, while public transportation in Beijing is cost effective and relatively efficient (good bus connections are available to go everywhere), I don’t actually recommend it for the unitiated or faint of heart!

1 Comment

Filed under Travel

One response to “The wheels on the bus

  1. Keith and Julie

    Dear Zan,
    I love reading your blog.  It is a wonderful tool and way of capturing your time in China.  I\’m sure your girls will cherish your site for years to come!
    Have you read the book "3 cups of tea"?  You remind me of the hero in that story, getting out to meet the "real" people in these foreign societies!
    Take care!!!

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