A BRIEF SOJOURN IN BEIJING: EPISODE 2
We weren’t even outside the Capital Airport before we fell into the grip of Beijing’s insane traffic chaos.
A friend had picked us up in her SUV because our caravan of luggage was too large for any mortal taxi — four bags, 50 pounds each, filled with larder (mammoth bags of Costco candy and other heavy-weight items) from the U.S. — so heavy that I threw my bag out lugging them off the baggage carousel.
We were in an express exit line called ETC. In the crowded parking lot, no car had given quarter, no right-of-way was relinquished, in the mad rush to escape, to where I hadn’t a clue.
Suddenly, the female ETC attendant stepped out of her booth and walked alongside the line, urging all dozen cars to move back: Some thoughtless, or conniving, driver had tried to pass through the fast lane without a decal, and that was not about to happen, not on her watch.
Still, nobody moved.
The cars in back would give no room, so we were stuck in the middle, as cash customers scurried past to toll booths on either side of us. Horns blared. Then one big SUV made a move for it, turning and darting into the next line, cutting off the guy in front of him.
Others followed. It was like the snarling wild eyed wrecking-crew in those Mad Max films, unwashed and unhinged, hellbent on making a gas station in the desert.
All that was missing was that goggled doofus in the whirly-bird helicopter.
I sat back and closed my eyes. My back hurt.
China’s capital city is a world of historical wonders, leafy parks and great restaurants. The sun shines here, I’m told.
The other day, some news outlet reported that, due to the recently Northern California fires, San Francisco’s air-quality was the worst in the world, worse than even here, in Beijing, where people normally breathe some of the dirtiest air on the planet.
But I’ve lived in San Francisco, and I don’t care if the entire west was in flames, the air-quality could never be as bad as this descent into hell.
On this night, the scene outside Beijing’s airport played out like some post-apocalyptic, Blade-Runner glimpse into the grimmest of futures.
Dusk had descended as our plane touched down, so the hourlong ride to my in-law’s place was cast in darkness. Along the freeway, weeping willows drooped as though defeated by the human onslaught, their leaves coated with carbon monoxide.
You could actually see the hovering smog. Even at night.
My wife, one of Beijing’s many pollution-deniers, used to look out the window on a day like this and observe, “It’s foggy out today.”
“Honey,” I’d say. “You lived in San Francisco. That ain’t fog.”
A year or so ago, I’d made a proposition to relocate to Beijing: We could help care for my wife’s aging parents, I reasoned. She could start a business. I could write.
For the longest time, she refused to commit to the move, so I prepared a power-point presentation of our finances, detailing how we could pay for costly health insurance and still have money on which to live.
The big day of my presentation finally came. I’d been a bit nervous and practiced my delivery in front of the mirror.
It was a Saturday morning: We’d finished our coffee; the breakfast dishes had been put away, and I began with what I considered was one of the most important presentations of my life.
My wife listened intently, like a Fortune 500 board president hearing out some new Madison Avenue ad pitch.
When I was done, she paused in thought.
Then she waved her hand with the finality of the Empress Dowager, China’s last female ruler: No, she decreed. We weren’t moving to Beijing. The winters too cold, the air too polluted.
We’d have to settle for shorter trips here. Like this one.
There in the back of the SUV after our arrival in Beijing, my mind wandered as my wife and our friend caught up on gossip and goings-on in a fast-paced Mandarin. The city’s traffic hell, our host said, had gotten worse, if one could believe it.
Here it was a Sunday night, and it was still gridlock. Cars jockeyed between lanes without signaling. Others raced up alongside on the shoulder, creating their own fast lane. All the windows were tinted, so no faces were visible, nothing but the glow of their smartphones.
Our host stayed on her lane, laughing lightly at my wife’s stories, concentrating on life and not traffic.
Zen-like. The way it has to be to keep your sanity here, I guess.
I was there in the back, like an overgrown child without a car seat, or some bandana-wearing Golden Retriever, my inability to speak or fully comprehend Mandarin preventing me from following the adult decisions being made up front.
But I knew this: My back screeched. I’d been up 24 hours and was in need of a long, smog-less, traffic-free slumber.
The next night, we had plans to have dinner with an old friend. A city cop, a chain-smoker with a deep throaty laugh. We’d brought him a carton of hard-boxed Marlboros.
I was ready for a cumin lamb on-a-stick at some neighborhood dive, washed down with many beers and toasts of Baijui, the white Chinese fireball liquor.
I couldn’t wait. My stomach growled.
I was back.