Here's how you get around Beijing.
First you go to the hotel front desk, which will be staffed by 17 people. This is one of the nice things about China: There are always plenty of people around to help. For example: In some men's rooms, there are attendants whose sole function, as far as I can tell, is to direct you to the urinals. You walk in, and there's a guy, and he makes this gesture toward the urinals, which are roughly two feet away, his point being, ''Here are the urinals.'' And no, you do not tip him.
But getting back to the topic: When you get to the hotel front desk, the 17 people gather around and frown thoughtfully while you tell them where you want to go. Usually they have never heard of it. So they talk among themselves, make some phone calls, talk some more. You of course understand none of this conversation, because you are a clueless western idiot.
Finally the hotel staff reaches a consensus on where you want to go. One of them writes some Chinese characters on a card and gives it to you. Clutching this card, you go outside and get a taxi. You hand the card to the driver, who frowns at it with an expression that says, ''What the heck is THIS?'' He says something to you in Chinese, and you make a ''Beats me!'' face. He shrugs, puts the taxi in gear and starts moving.
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Now you are in Beijing traffic, which is like an exciting video game with the bonus element of potential death. You have fast-moving cars, trucks and buses; you have a wide variety of mutant two-and-three-wheeled motorbike-contraptions putting along at minus two miles per hour; you have many bicycles, sometimes with an entire family on the one bicycle, dad pedaling, mom balanced behind him, holding a baby; and you have the occasional pushcart, stacked high with what appears to be trash. All of these vehicles are competing for the same packed road space, and nobody ever yields to anybody. Left turns routinely produce dramatic oncoming-bus moments that cause you to very nearly void your clueless western bladder.
Sometimes your driver will gesture at another vehicle, then turn to you and say something in Chinese, which you interpret to mean, ''Can you BELIEVE these morons?'' You answer ''Ha ha!,'' meaning it in the sense of ''Please resume watching the road.''
I've found the taxi drivers to be friendly, although usually they speak very little English. Here's a transcript of the longest conversation I've had with a driver:
DRIVER: Michael Jordan! Number One!
ME: Well, he . . .
ME: Yes. Shaq.
ME: Yao Ming?
DRIVER: Yao Ming! China!
Anyway, finally, after many minutes of highway excitement, your driver pulls over to the side, and lo and behold, you are not at your destination. Your driver takes your hotel card and gets out of the taxi. He shows the card to another Chinese person, and it is clear, from that person's reaction, that he or she has never heard of your destination and is quite confident that neither has anybody else in China. There is a long, animated discussion. Your driver gets back into the taxi. He drives some more, stops, shows your card to more people. They are all baffled. It is the most mysterious card they have ever seen. It might not even be in Chinese.
Finally, when you are starting to believe that the hotel staff, as a prank, wrote down an address in Mongolia, you somehow arrive at your destination. You and the driver exchange noises of congratulation. Then you look at the taxi meter, and after some calculating, you realize that your bill for this entire trip -- one of the most intense and exciting journeys of your life -- is $2.40. You pay the driver, adding a tip of around 50 cents, because you have learned that if you try to give him more, he will give it back. You feel a bond with this man. You trust him totally. You're pretty sure that if the hotel staff had written ''The Moon'' on your card, he'd have found a way to get you there.
And as you watch him drive away, you feel pretty darned good about yourself, too. You're a world traveler, an explorer in the mold of Columbus, who crossed the Atlantic Ocean with nothing to guide him but a little hotel card that said ''America.''
Yes, by God, you have reached your destination. There is only one problem.
Somehow, you will have to get back.
©2008 Dave Barry
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