“Do you see how backed up the traffic is outside?” Eighteen delegates and two guests peered dutifully out the tour bus window and nodded. “It wasn’t until 1997 that Beijing, a city with 22 million people, got its first one million cars. Then seven years later, in 2003, we reached 2 million. Four years later we reached three million. Then in just three years we reached four million and two years after that we reached five million cars. That is why we say we must adjust your schedule if there are traffic problems.”
Wen Tong, or “Wendy,” our People to People guide smiled liberally. Her name literally meant “warm sunshine.” She had already told us several jokes to help us relax and was now into the “overview of China” portion of her discussion. She talked into a microphone as the bus moved deftly around the cars, bicyclists and motor scooters.
“As the economy improves in China and the number of people grow, the number of private cars has become a problem. So, our president had the idea of only allowing twenty thousand new car licenses each month, beginning in January of this year.”
The bus driver had exited one of the main roads and was now navigating the craft across lanes of inner-city traffic. The scene reminded me of watching my children play video games. A hundred times I thought we would hear a crash as cars turned in front of the bus with only inches to spare, or cyclists wove in and around obstacles with amazing skill. One cyclist had a young look; her mauve bicycle was accented with stiletto heels, an iPod and trendy clothes. Another appeared to be a grandmother and a grandchild. A third was toting a 12-pack of toilet paper on the luggage bar behind his seat. A fourth had more baggage than I’ve ever seen balanced on one bicycle.
I glanced over a lane and studied the cars again. Where were the moderately priced automobiles? Although I spied a number of smaller, smart cars I couldn’t find one that appeared older. Most were high end. And many were very high end. The traffic jam was like a Mercedes Benz parade, with guest stars of BMW, Audi and special appearances by Volkswagon. I noticed the absence of incessant horn-honking and wondered if the New York City cab drivers needed a field trip to China in order to prove the seemingly impossible: crazy inner city traffic CAN happen without wearing your horn out.
The lack of parking places causes some drivers to park on the sidewalk. Cars in the valet line at the hotel entrance are parked almost bumper to bumper and are inched as close as possible to the point in the front circle drive where, if crossed, would impede the incoming buses from the ability to turn around. In other words, the cars are packed on the roads like sardines in a can.
True confession: I liked sardines packed in mustard sauce. I like to eat them on crackers, and I don’t even care that they’re “stinky food.” When the Ya-Ya Sisterhood movie came out about ten years ago, my friends and I actually had a “stinky food” appetizer session before departing for the show. Blue cheese, sardines, smoked oysters…it was quite the spread. I recall peeling the wrapper off the sardines, and seeing Chinese characters covering the back of the label.
I was beginning to think that the Chinese are experts at managing lots of things, or people, together within a minimum amount of space.
I glanced back at the bus driver. In my mind, I placed a sailor’s hat on his head, turned the steering wheel into a ship’s steering wheel, then relaxed back into my seat as we continued to ride the waves through the traffic toward our destination.