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LAST WORD:Frustration and Fun on China's Public Transportation
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Frustration and Fun on China's Public Transportation

By Tracy Hall

BT 201502 04 Last word imageOne of best but sometimes most frustrating things about living in China are its public transportation systems. Although the volume of people and the language barrier can make travel here a challenge, this country has to be admired for managing to build efficient and affordable. The country's high-speed rail networks are certainly one of its greatest assets. If you are going from Tianjin to Beijing or vice-versa it takes longer to buy a ticket then mess around finding the right gate than it does to travel between the two cities. Even more paradoxical is the fact that buying a medium-sized cup of cappuccino and a tuna sandwich from the central station's Starbucks costs more than a first-class train ticket from here to the capital.

Similarly when you are travelling around China by plane, it is easy to procure cheap tickets and get from A to B quickly. In fact it is often more financially viable to catch a plane than any other mode of transport. The only problem is that you will almost always be sat on the plane for an extended period of time waiting to take off. A couple of years ago I boarded a flight from Tianjin to Hohhot that was scheduled to take just over an hour from terminal to terminal. My plane was stuck on the tarmac waiting for approval from air traffic control for over two hours. It seems that the air over these major cities is more congested than the roads. If only they could implement a Beijing-style lottery system with aircraft like they have with cars!

The subway systems in most cities are also great value for commuters but it is definitely not as entertaining as taking a taxi. During rush hours the inner-city roads in China are the closest thing to complete anarchy you'll find anywhere in the world. Traffic lights, pedestrian crossings and even a legal requirement to drive on a certain side of the road are all arbitrarily ignored by a significant portion of the country's drivers. Chinese taxi drivers in particularly are known for being maverick motorists. Every now and then you will come across a cabby who treats your journey like a Formula One Grand Prix qualifying lap. In addition to the adrenaline rush, taking a taxi is a great opportunity to practice your Chinese. Over the years I have had all kinds of weird and wonderful conversation with the drivers. Some of them have made my cry with laughter, whereas others bombarded me with questions about my home country. Every now and then you will get a taxi driver who asked you to hang out with them or teach them English but unlike their counterparts in other Asian countries they are very unlikely to try scamming you.

BT 201502 02 Last word img 8911The buses here are an underrated way to travel around. Paying around 2 CNY to travel 10 kilometres or more is a fun experience in itself. Some buses in Beijing still only cost a single yuan. By comparison that makes bus travel in China about fifteen times cheaper than it is in the UK, where all transportation costs are astronomical. Like the subway trains they are so packed out that they make unopened sardine tins look spacious. Wherever you are going there tends to be plenty of them as well. Unlike most Western bus drivers who are known for being strict on stopping, Chinese bus drivers often take special requests from passengers. If you ask them nicely they might drop you off at the exact spot you are going to, even if it is 200 metres before the bus stop. They may also turn a blind eye when you depart through the wrong door to save you walking 15 feet down the bus to the official exit. But what makes bus journeys extra special in China extra special is the in-house entertainment systems. Sometimes you are treated to pop music, others it is classical Chinese tunes. The inbuilt TVs show a variety of programmes, ranging from local news reports to sporting highlights. Usually you will see a game of football or some obscure Olympic field event being played. On one early morning bus to Aocheng the passengers, many of which were school children, we treated to some UFC cage fighting. When I see cage fighting, it wasn't just two men in a cage wrestling on the floor; it was one of those 'top ten most gruesome knockouts of the year' collections. If that kind of thing had been shown on a public bus in my home country there would undoubtedly have been lawsuits launched by angry parents. To my surprise though, everyone from the kids to the grannies were really getting right into it. I suppose there's nothing quite like watching a few kicks to skull and elbows to face to get you revved up for work or school.

BT 201502 01 Last word hlAs one would expect when thousands of people are packed together in a confined space after a hard day's work, disorderly behaviour sometimes ensues. Fights are common but extreme violence is rare. In five years of taking Chinese public transport on an almost daily basis I have seen a few squabbles but very few of them turned physical confrontations. The vast majority of times a pushy passenger will overstep the mark and will be drawn into a verbal slanging match. Fortunately on those occasions when fights did erupt they were more like Jerry Springer Show-esque slapping contests than bloody bare-knuckle brawls. During one evening bus ride in Tianjin a drunken twenty-something man and his even more inebriated girlfriend got into a marathon shouting match with an elderly lady. It was unclear to me how it got started but when the young couple began hurling mother-related profanities at the older woman it became apparent that this was turning into something more serious. Several insults later and armed with a bunch of fresh flowers, the older woman decided to lash out at the young couple. She proceeded to smack them both over the head with her 'weapon', leaving me and the other passengers bemused and the entire bus covered in rose petals.

It is worth mentioning as a tip to newcomers that public transport is a great place to watch social interactions and cultural dynamics play out. It is always nice to see so many younger passengers offering their seat for the older generations. Generally those more able to stand up for the duration of the trip will do so if it means that senior citizens or the injured can rest their legs. However, not everyone conforms to this moral code of conducted. There is always the young man or woman who is too busy enjoying an afternoon nap to care about making sure elderly passengers have a seat. This kind of blatant disregard will almost certainly earn them a round of muttered insults but it can sometimes escalate. There was recently a case in Baoding where an elderly couple got off the bus and stood in front of it for several hours to express their anger at younger passengers hogging the seats. Whilst it wouldn't have been great for those people on the bus who were on their way to work, you have to admire the tenacity of these senior citizens for taking a stand against the spoiled youngsters.

Public transport might not be everybody's preference. It can be frustrating, especially when it is freezing cold and you are waiting 20 minutes for a bus to show up. At least in China getting around this way is extremely cheap, fairly efficient, reasonably comfortable and a tonne of fun. I for one would find it hard to go back to the bad old days of spending ridiculous amounts of money to fill up the diesel tank and drive myself to work with only a boring radio broadcast for company.


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