After the weekend and a flight day to Beijing, here's the story of Ranger's first day on the Chinese mainland.
Since I live near Seattle, home of Starbucks, it goes without saying that I like a good cup of coffee first thing in the morning. The hotel-room coffee in Hong Kong hadn't been too bad, so when I got up this morning, I plugged in the room's electric water pot before getting into the shower. As it turns out, in-the-room coffee -- at least in this particular corner of China -- comes in a small plasticene packet provided by the Nescafe company. From the picture on the front of the packet, I'm reasonably sure it contains coffee, although I'm not sure I could convince a jury from anywhere in the Northwest of that fact. I decided it was just another example that proved, without a doubt, that I'm nowhere near Kansas anymore.
Cup in hand, I slid back the rice-paper window curtains to see what was happening out my 9th floor window at the Beijing Hilton. A distant panorama of the city's skyline was illuminated by the glow of the rising sun, which was hidden behind one of the buildings on the left. Nearer to me was a view of the 6-lane interstate we'd arrived on the night before, which, at this time of day, was jam-packed with cars traveling in both directions on their morning commute. What really grabbed my attention, however, were all the bicycles. The near side service road was jammed, crammed, and inundated with bicyclists.
The riders wore a wide spectrum of clothing. Although some were in plain drab outfits that, even from a distance, looked handmade, many were dressed in suits and ties. The part I found most amazing was that they were peddling by at a clip of over 100 bikes per minute. Later in the day, I would learn there are over 10 million people in China whose principal form of transportation is the bicycle, and that most of them use their bikes as work transportation. Average commute, I'm told, is about 15-to-20 minutes.
I sat down at the desk in my room to catch up on some email, and to savor my cup of 'almost' coffee. Not five minutes later, I glanced back out the window to see, of all things, a street sweeper going by! It was traveling from my left to right, sweeping the edge of the far freeway lane. My first thought was to wish I'd looked up a few moments sooner, so I could have grabbed my camera and gotten a picture of it. Then, I thought, why not try to see if I still can?! I called down to the concierge desk to request a taxi, and was told there should be one outside the front door. Hastily slipping on some shoes, I grabbed my belt pouch, where I keep my camera and money, and dashed to the elevator.
Outside the hotel's revolving door, I was seemingly in luck. There, indeed, was a cab waiting at the curb with the door open and the driver inside. I slid into the front passenger seat, which, to my surprise, caused the driver to unleash a veritable barrage of rapid-fire Chinese in my direction. Figuring that he must not like passengers in the front, I quickly exited and got into the back, motioning that I wanted to go out the driveway and then head left on the freeway. His response was to increase both the speed and intensity of the Mandarin he was speaking. Clearly, it seemed to be the start of a bad communication morning.
Since it was obvious we were going nowhere fast, I decided to enlist the help of the English-speaking concierge. Concerned about the amount of time that had already elapsed, I ran back to where he was standing, at the front door, and told him I needed him to tell the taxi driver where I wanted to go. For good measure, I threw in some details about what, exactly, I wanted to see. Although he had no problem understanding my desired driving directions, it was clear he didn't believe the part about me wanting to pursue some kind of a machine that was sweeping the streets. "You mean someone with a broom?" he asked politely. "I think there is too much traffic on the highway for someone to do that right now."
"No," I reiterated, "I'm talking about a machine on a truck that sweeps the streets."
I could see that this piqued his interest, because he turned to look in the direction of the jam-packed highway. "I am so sorry, but I don't see something like that," he said politely, not willing to imply, in any way, that an American guest of the Beijing Hilton might be bonkers.
"It's not there now," I answered as patiently as I could, "The sweeping machine went by my room window about 6 or 7 minutes ago."
"Oh," he answered helpfully. "Sounds like you missed it."
Still determined, I asked him again if he would tell the driver of the next available taxi, in their native Mandarin language, that I wanted to go left on the freeway and would want him to slow down when we got to the machine with the flashing lights. Although without a doubt extremely skeptical, his Hilton training held true. As the concierge did as I had asked, I jumped into the back seat of the taxi and away we went, through the line of bicycles and squeezing ourselves into the nearest lane on the freeway.
We'd gone perhaps 3 or 4 miles, and I was starting to become somewhat skeptical myself, when we crested a rise and saw the welcome sight of yellow flashing lights on the road shoulder in the distance. No doubt about it, there was the sweeper! I tapped the driver on the shoulder, then opened and closed my fists, synchronizing my hand motions with the flashing lights in the distance. He understood. Motioning that I wanted him to make his way into the far right lane, I helpfully stuck my white arm and face out the right side rear window. This unusual sight was enough to get the typically aggressive Beijing drivers to let us move over in time for me to take a picture of the rear of the sweeper as we closed in on it.
The good news was that we'd actually caught up with the sweeper. The bad was that all I could see was the back and, as we drove past -- so close I could have touched the hopper -- we were much too close for a photo. As the sweeper started to recede into the rearview, I thought what the heck, and motioned for the driver to pull over to the shoulder. His eyes told me he thought I was crazy, but pull over he did, at which point -- to his complete consternation -- I jumped out of the car and ran back down the road to wait for the sweeper to catch up with us. By this point, the eyes of the approaching sweeper operator were on the largish side, too, as he saw me standing in his path waving a camera.
I had no idea if the sweeper driver would stop, so, trusting that the commuters would realize there would be mounds of paperwork if they ran over a foreigner, I stepped out into the near lane of traffic. This offered me just enough room to take a picture of the side of the oncoming sweeper. Amazingly, no one even honked their horn at me, even though frequent honking seems to be a natural part of driving in this country.
The sweeper had now reached the parked taxi. To the relief of my driver, who was by now standing next to his cab so he could see what was going to happen next, the sweeper operator steered to the left and went around us. The taxicab driver and I looked at each other and grinned, knowing we'd gotten away with something, unscathed. We both jumped back into our respective seats and off we went. Next stop, a Hilton buffet breakfast in China.
All in all, I thought it to be an excellent omen. Now we would be able to provide our WorldSweeper.com readers with an actual sweeper story, complete with pictures, on the day we're scheduled to tour the Beijing area's exotic Great Wall and Forbidden City attractions. What a welcome to China!
Tomorrow, Dr. Anchi Wu, our liaison, is taking us two-and-a-half hours outside Beijing to see the Chinese versions of Schwarze A4000s and A7000s in action. Sure sounds like fun to me.