You think traffic is bad in your town?

On the subject of China, we tend to get inundated with statistics: the biggest this, the most that, and so on. I heard the other day that in Beijing alone, a thousand new cars are on the streets every day. That kind of growth on top of a population of 16 million and a bunch of cars already out there leads to some pretty nasty traffic. Today was the worst day I’ve seen yet. I think a substantial fraction of the next two years of my life will be spent sitting in taxis that are not moving.

As an American, I’m used to very rigid traffic flow. Cars stay in their lanes, pedestrians stay on the sidewalks, and there aren’t really that many bicycles. Pedestrians have the right of way, and there are thousands of rules which are actually enforced. In Beijing, traffic rules are only guidelines. And cars have the right of way over pedestrians and bicycles. Maybe it’s due to the construction, but you see many streets wide enough for six cars abreast each way with no lanes painted at all. There’s usually a fence down the center separating the two directions of flow, but when there isn’t, it seems to be a matter of which driver has the most guts that decides who drives where. When the street is crammed, cars drive on the sidewalks, or park there if it suits them. A police car with flashing lights gets no special treatment either. We have a joke here: the green walking person on the pedestrian crossing light doesn’t mean WALK, it means GOOD LUCK.

It’s ironic that a country viewed from the outside as being populated with conformists with a strict government should have such extreme freedom, whereas the US, a country of individualists who celebrate personal freedom, has rigid rules.

Just an observation.

I’ve seen a few accidents, including a little Nissan that caught the front end of a bus, but surprisingly few considering the chaos. All in all, it works amazingly well. Construction is the wild card in the system.

Picking up where I left off last time…

When I got home from work yesterday, I took a little while to rest in my room and caught up on email, then packed up the camera and went out to wander the neighborhood. The sidewalks (and streets and so on) were crowded with people and bicycles and cars going every which way. I just walked around feeling like a nerdy kid. I went into the Wonderful Digital Jungle, which in addition to a bunch of booths selling just about any kind of electronic gear you can imagine, contains several restaurants and a big supermarket. After that, I was tired, so I just hit the hotel’s BBQ buffet, where you pick out your ingredients and a guy cooks them for you, more or less like the Mongolian places we have in the US. With some different ingredients, of course.

And it was my best night yet for sleeping, straight through from 11 to 6:30, with only brief interruptions. I don’t know if I’m actually adjusting yet, or was just exhausted.

Today was another long day, and it’s not over yet. I had a conference call with people back in the States at 7, which I took in my hotel room. The car was scheduled to pick us up at 8 – there are three of us now staying at the Kuntai – so I had very little time to get ready, and I had to dress nicer than usual. We were going to the press conference to announce officially that Ticketmaster is the exclusive provider of ticketing services to the 2008 Olympic Games. There were press cameras everywhere, and I suppose I’ll be visible on Chinese TV in the background of shots. Since every speech had to be done in two languages, it seemed to take forever. Then we had to pose for pictures.

Then upstairs to the office and a bit of work. For lunch we went back to the same place we ate on Tuesday. I’ve been accused of writing mostly about the non-Chinese food I’ve had (pizza, KFC), but I promise, I have been eating Chinese as well. We like this place a lot. I don’t know what it’s called, but the food is good and it’s quite inexpensive. Six of us ate well on 77RMB (around $10). There was a great chicken-peanut dish with hot peppers in it (basically kung pao chicken), a broccoli dish, one with pork (I think) and some sort of green vegetable, and two different kinds of fried rice. Then back to the office for more work, until a little after five, then hop in the van for a few minutes at home (or hotel) until dinner at 7:30 at a place called the Green T. House, which is supposed to be really good. I’ll keep you posted.

And it’s about time for me to leave for dinner.


The Green T. House is a very interesting place. It’s a combination art gallery (more to the modern side than Rembrandt) and restaurant. The sign outside is a long piece of etched glass vertical along the entrance, and the door is painted pure white and is ten feet wide and around twenty feet high. You push on it and it swings away from you, revealing a curtained entry way. It’s in a large space with very high ceilings, and all the walls are painted white. They have projectors and multicolored lights that move around onto different walls. The chairs are all works of art too. At our table, most of them had backs about eight feet high, in an sinuous shape, which is interesting looking but awkward to hang a coat on. At one end of the table was a very strange couch of an asymmetrical curvy shape.

The cocktail menu was etched onto a piece of glass, and the food menu was a bound book of 50 or more pages done in a combination of Chinese calligraphy and English writing, and instead of simple descriptions of the dishes, there are poetic phrases. “The fish swims in a stream of light” and so on. Several of the group had been there before and took care of the ordering. I started off the evening with a Green T. Martini, which came in a large fluted glass; the olives were threaded onto a long thin bamboo leaf. For utensils we had really long chopsticks, about 14 inches or more of dark wood. I will try to do justice to the presentations.

  1. Walnuts and gorgonzola on a wafer of Asian pear, served on a platter featuring a live goldfish swimming in a large wine glass.
  2. Wonton dumplings spaced around a black slate slab with small bowls of dipping sauce.
  3. Scallops encrusted with something crunchy, a dab of wasabi on top, and a puff of slivered seaweed (I think that’s what it was).
  4. Hollowed half tomatoes stuffed with shrimp and kernels of corn in a creamy sauce.
  5. Thin asparagus spears cut in half and arranged with the tips lined up in a square on top of the stems, which were lined up at a 90° angle, topped with a light sauce and raspberries.
  6. Small barbequed ribs in criss-cross pattern with puffs of slivered carrot on top.
  7. Roast duck in a fancy presentation (this is Beijing after all).
  8. Little bits of meat (consensus was lamb) in a dark sauce.
  9. Pancakes of dough cut into curves and arranged with drops of sauce.
  10. Cylinders of seasoned ground beef wrapped around some kind of green vegetable, arranged standing vertically in a diagonal line across a large platter.
  11. It seems like there was another “entrée” kind of dish.
  12. A large round platter with balls of ice on top of dry ice, so fog rolled off of it. Balls of green ice cream (not sure what flavor) dotted the mound, along with a bunch of grapes and a sprig of some plant kind of like holly only the leaves weren’t spiky.
  13. A long thin platter with little triangles of really intense chocolate.
  14. A large round bowl with fog rolling off it so thick you couldn’t tell at first what it was. In the center was a small bowl of incredible chocolate mousse.

Out of solidarity with JW’s wife K, I opted for the white wine instead of my more usual red. It was probably the best pinot gris I’ve ever had. I don’t remember the winery, but it was Alsatian.

Well, now that everyone reading is convinced that I’m a hoity-toity cuisinary snob, I’ll wrap up. Tomorrow is my first day of tourist-type activities. JW, KW and I are going up to Badaling to see the Great Wall.

An unusual construction site.

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