Traffic and Weather

Location: Seattle
Music playing: Frank Sinatra with the Tommy Dorsey Orchesrta

I was reading somewhere the other day that people who read blogs expect frequent updates, or they lose interest. I guess if that’s true, I’m doomed for the lonely world of vanity bloggers – people who throw their words off into the electronic ether for anyone to see when in fact no one is paying attention. I suppose I can handle that. I’m not egotistical enough to think my random typing is actually important in the grand scheme of things. Which means that at the most fundamental level, I must be writing more for myself than for my readers. But this is probably true of most writing, especially blogs.

Be that as it may, let me catch the ether up on recent happenings.

Last Saturday, I made a relatively spur-of-the-moment trip back to Seattle. This time I flew Air Canada via Vancouver, which is by far the next best thing to a direct flight. At this time, there are no direct flights between Seattle and Beijing. Vancouver is the nearest connecting city; other options include San Francisco (which I’ve used on my previous trips), Tokyo, Seoul, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Detroit, and so on. The US cities all involve increased travel times due to the backtracking. It’s about 11 hours from Beijing to Vancouver, then a half hour from there to Seattle. As an added bonus, you can go through US Customs at the airport in Vancouver, making the arrival in Seattle essentially a domestic flight, and a breeze.

Since I was not going directly to the US, nor on a US carrier, I didn’t have to go through the full security screen that American flights have. No removing of shoes, though the laptop has to come out of the bag, and they only allow small containers of liquids, which have to be in zip-lock bags.

The plane was delayed leaving Beijing due to congestion on the runways. I guess there were more planes departing than there were runways to accommodate them. I’m no expert on air traffic control, but it seems like all the flights are scheduled in advance, and they know the carrying capacity of the facility, so they ought to be able to plan things out to avoid such delays. But the departure time of a flight, even under the best of circumstances, is an approximate thing, depending as it does on such variables as passengers, luggage trucks, equipment checks, and so on. We sat on the tarmac long enough that I was afraid I would miss my connection in Vancouver.

It was probably the smoothest long-distance flight I’ve yet experienced, with not a single bit of turbulence. The plane was not very new, and lacked the fancy seatback entertainment I had on the Northwest flight to Tokyo. They had a projection screen at the front of each section and overhead aisle monitors halfway back, which makes it very difficult to watch a movie. I was sort of amused by the technology they used. The chief steward opened an overhead luggage bin which contained two VCRs and a control box, popped in a tape, and pressed a button. When each feature was over, he’d either flip the switch to the other VCR or pop in a new tape. You could see a tangle of wires behind the components in the bin. Don’t see that much these days. I spent all my time with my Zen and a book, and didn’t watch Freedom Writers, Night in the Museum, and whatever else it was that they showed.

If anyone’s interested, I was reading Shadow’s End by Sheri Tepper and listening to an all Wang Fei (AKA Faye Wong) playlist. I’ll write a whole journal entry dedicated to Ms Wang sometime in the future. As I listened, I was making a special effort to mark each tune with a star rating in the player, since I have a ton of songs, and like some of them a whole lot more than others.

Air Canada’s food was edible, above average for the airline food I’ve had, and the other notable factor in the trip was the fact that the seat was much less comfortable than average for a jumbo jet. From all appearances, it had padding in the right places, but the reality belied the appearance. For all my contortions, I never found a comfortable position. I caught a few z’s, more than I usually manage on flights, but that’s probably more because of the amount of red wine I had before, during, and after dinner. I read an article recently that drinking red wine and taking a nap on a plane is a good way to avoid jet lag. Worth a try, I figured, so I gave it a go. Much better wine than they serve on Air China, that’s for sure.

We landed in Vancouver more than an hour late, leaving me dangerously close to the departure time for my flight to Seattle. Luckily customs was quite quick. As you leave the gate, they have a sign for connecting flights to the US. You fill out the entry card, which is pretty basic for US citizens, and hand it to the officer. He asked a couple of supplementary questions, then waved me through. I picked up my checked bag from the carousel, then went through the usual American security screen – shoes, liquids, laptop and so on.

I did manage to get to my next gate in time, where I found that my flight was delayed a little bit. The men’s room was closed for maintenance, so I didn’t get to take much advantage of my time. When I handed over my boarding pass, I was told that since my previous flight was delayed, they had figured I wouldn’t make this on, and they had taken me off the list. But it wasn’t booked full, so they put me back on. Short flight on small prop plane, much noise, no point trying to listen to music.

At SeaTac International Airport, D and her mother met me. We headed for downtown and had dinner at the Pan Africa for a taste of something they don’t have in Beijing.

So far I’ve done OK with the time zone adjustment. I stopped in at the TM Seattle office on Monday and talked with a few people there, and I’ve been doing some work remotely from home.

I’ve got appointments set up to meet with various friends and family during my stay in Seattle. My return flight is on Thursday morning 31 May.

Many people who know me are aware that I’m not fond of hot weather. It’s nice to escape to Seattle, where it is cool (though wet) from the temperatures we were having in Beijing. I know Beijing summers are notoriously sweltering, and the conditions we’ve had so far are pretty mild compared to what we can look forward to, so maybe I should try to tell myself it wasn’t so bad.

I notice another contrast between the two cities, which is traffic. Seattleites (including me) are always complaining about how bad the traffic is here. And it is, for a city its size. Given the population, things should move better. And the condition of the streets is generally quite bad, with potholes everywhere.

Beijing, on the other hand, has many fewer cars per capita, though a lot more capitas, and thus more cars. The streets are almost always near capacity, and given the large numbers of bicycles and pedestrians, getting around can be pretty slow. You would expect that the chaotic nature of Beijing traffic would result in less efficiency, but in my observation, the craziness somehow results in pretty decent movement. People are always running lights, making “illegal” turns, cutting off other drivers, and slipping by with the thinnest of margins. But it seems to work, and there are remarkably few accidents. I’ve only seen a handful of incidents in six months. And it’s not because the Chinese are better drivers. Not that I’d recommend the Beijing style for Seattle. I think it works only because everyone is used to it, and everyone does the same things. I’ve seen the tie-up that can be caused by non-native drivers trying to get by in an unfamiliar situation.

Seattle has a population just over a half million people, with about three million in the greater metropolitan area. Beijing has an official population of about 15 million if you include the surrounding areas that are part of the administrative municipality, with a few more million unaccounted for (migrant construction workers and the like). That’s more than twice the entire state of Washington, all in one city, the area of which is a little smaller than the Seattle metro region. Obviously that leads to greater population density. The sidewalks in Seattle, even at rush hour, seem very roomy compared to those in Beijing at almost any time from early in the morning to late at night. One factor that lessens traffic in Beijing is one that I’ve mentioned before: large trucks are not allowed on the roads during the daytime hours.


  1. For what it's worth, I check in to your ramblings every week day because I have found them most interesting. Thanks for keeping them going.

  2. Ditto on the last comment. I share them with my coworkers and all have found the perspective of an American in China pretty insightful....as well as a few laughs about Chinese labeling :)

  3. By the way, jts, your prize for discovering literary references is on the way. Hope you like it.

  4. Sorry we missed you on your visit. We have moved into our new house and wish we had a shower. Maybe we will be all set up next time you are in the states. Glad the Vancouver flight worked out okay--it's not a bad airport if you are just passing through. Ridiculously hard to get to if you are local.

    I read too many Sheri Tepper books in a row and found them remarkably similar.