Monday, December 1, 2008

The Golden Chariot of Qufu

I feel that it is safe to say that, for all of us here in Qufu, our daily routines have become, well, routine. We know what to expect. We know what our students get excited for, and that their blood pressures seemingly spike 15 points at the mere utterance of the word "exam." We know that we all need to get more exercise, and that sometimes it's just not in the cards. Okay so usually it's not in the cards (although we're doing better). My point being, we have become quite comfortable with our daily lives; China is no longer a strange and foreign land - at least Qufu isn't, and this means that I know, in general, what to expect during a given week.

I may or may not have mentioned this before, but my typical weekly schedule has come to include a once-a-week trip across town to Qushida (where Lucy and Eliza work), to "tutor" two groups of middle-school and high-school aged Korean exchange students. While this weekly occurrence may or may not be an eventful one (read: the students recently started using the electric heaters in the rooms to try and set the hand outs I gave them on fire...), it has caused me to become extremely familiar with what I consider to be the most important asset of Qufu: the bus.

Enter the #5. This modern marvel of public transportation, while not being the quickest way around town, is by far the preferred method of transportation between the hours of wake up o'clock and 6:00 pm. The bus may not be direct, and it may be a rough ride at times (this is usually because of rough roads), but it is always entertaining. Okay let me re-phrase: somewhere between entertaining and dear-god-I-might-pee-myself-terrifying, but lets be honest, sometimes that is a very blurry line.

The #5 is perfect for the college student (or foreign laoshi, depending on who you are...). It costs only a single yuan (roughly 14 cents) and, at one end, starts at the Qufu train station just past Xintan college, and runs all the way across town to Qushida. Along the way it passes the the Bank of China, two very large shopping centers, the center of the city (where you can find shopping, food, and the Confucius Temple), the bus station, a cool park, and my personal favorite, a clothing store named "Romanticbeaut" (photo pending). What else could a person need?

One reason the bus is usually entertaining is because of the people we sometimes encounter there. The weekend before last I met Lucy at Silver Plaza (the bigger of the two big shopping centers) on a pleasant Sunday afternoon. Now, the bus is easy enough to catch as long as you flag it down, but it is important to notice when it is coming so that you can step out into the street and let the driver know you want to get on (you can do this just about anywhere along the streets the bus runs, bus stops optional), and usually we are on top of this - particularly because the bus ALWAYS stops at Xintan, but also we tend to keep an eye out. Well, on this particular afternoon I was finishing up sending a massive text message (thanks to a recently acquired cell phone), and failed to see the bus until it was whizzing past me. Not wishing to wait another 15 minutes I chased the big-twinkie-of-a-bus down. This was, apparently, the funniest thing since sliced bread to two women riding the bus, as immediately after boarding they proceeded to laugh and attempt to speak to me in loud Chinese. Once they realized (or at least I think they realized, but I'm not really sure) that I could not understand them, they simply started speaking slower... One would say something, enunciating every syllable, the other would laugh, I'd ignore them, the cycle would repeat. They got off the bus before me luckily - however when I returned to Xintan going the other direction, they passed me again (shouting loudly of course) in another bus. Ahh Qufu.

There is also always a decent "hair-affair" on the bus, or a person with a ridiculous and/or amazing hair cut. They love the wild hair here. Recently there was a guy with an MP3 player BLASTING some hilarious Chinese pop/slow dance song. Good times.

A couple of weeks ago Olivia, Karrin and myself headed over to Qushida for a nice dinner with Eliza and Lucy, only to find ourselves stuck at a four way intersection just down the road for literally 10-15 minutes. There wasn't an accident and the road wasn't closed. Rather, there were simply too many vehicles/people, and no one was paying any mind to the traffic lights, let alone the 8 police officers standing helplessly in the middle of it all, angrily blowing their whistles and waving their arms as if to put on the illusion of actually having control of the intersection. Cars and buses were forcing their nose only inches from the vehicle in front of them and would creep inch by inch as soon as they possibly could, ensuring that there was no space for anyone else to nudge in (which they would have, given the opportunity). This of course was converging on the intersection from 4 directions, rendering it impossible for any one set of vehicles to move at all. Pedestrians, seeing the chaos, and being unable to use any form of a sidewalk because there were too many cars, simply decided to walk right through the middle of the intersection, only compounding the already hilarious jigsaw puzzle of vehicles which existed. One bus driver was agitated enough to nudge a man on a bicycle who attempted to get between his bus and the car in front of him. Add to the image in your mind the donkey who was, in a futile attempt to clear the intersection by its owner, headbutting a bus, and you might start to get an idea of why the #5 can be so much fun.

My absolute favorite part about the bus, and the reason I think it always proves to be entertaining/terrifying, is because of the traffic patterns in Qufu, and the complete familiarity of the streets that only comes from driving a bus up and down the same roads day in and day out. You can tell that these drivers are totally on auto pilot. That is all well and good - I like a confident, experienced driver. It does mean, however, that sometimes they tend to drive a little too fast for the traffic patterns, and thus it gets a little scary, as we are constantly afraid that the bus is going to get into an accident. for example, lets consider the following picture:

As you can see, the lane is quite crowded - there really isn't anywhere for a large bus to go - or is there? Hmm, there seems to be some space on the left... well why not?! WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG? The driver of course, seeing the open lane will immediately shoot for it, resulting in a scenario, while not taken on the same bus ride, similar to this:

Yes, that is a mother and her small child darting across going the other direction, while the bus careens toward the woman on the cart with the yellow cover and the mini truck. Good times had by all. Lanes in general just don't seem to have much meaning, even when turning corners, as witnessed by this particular picture:

look closely - that is actually the lane boundary for the left side of the road. Yes, the driver did in fact turn directly into oncoming traffic. I must say however, it is not entirely the bus drivers' fault that they drive so insanely. For one, this is simply the norm over here. Roads are pretty much every man for themselves. This of course, means for pedestrians too, as is witnessed here:

I took this picture from the inside of the bus. Right next to the door (it was really crowded). The woman is simply casually walking her bike down the middle of the street as if no one else existed. Now, this doesn't necessarily pose a problem - if a moving vehicle sees another person ahead walking down the middle of the street it is typically easy to slow down and avoid. I've noticed one problem in particular as to why this usually can't happen as it should, and that is that people don't travel in straight lines. ever. In fact, bicycles, electric bikes, three wheeled carts, and people all tend to take a route closely resembling the red line below:

While this happens, a car may come careening down the road in the opposite direction, in a pattern similar to the one shown in purple:

Seemingly at the same time, and from the depths of no where, a dog/car/donkey/bike/pedestrian/chicken will decide they need to cross the road, as illustrated by the teal line:

Casually, all three sentient beings will seemingly pass through the highlighted space at the same time:Miraculously, all parties involved emerge completely unscathed. We can use these diagrams to answer the question, "why did the dog/car/donkey/bike/pedestrian/chicken cross the road?" Simply put, to deny the laws of physics.

As you can very well see, the bus here in Qufu is not only a fantastic way to get around town, it is also cool because it simply does not obey the laws of physics. This may not be all of the fun stories and events we have encountered on the number 5 this year so far, but I'll do my best to update the blog with any further hilarious encounters/pictures of donkeys head-butting buses.


olivia said...

i love your traffic schemes... i laughed out loud :]

bici said...

Just finished reading a bio of Joseph Needham, British diplomat and historian of China's long scientific and inventive genius. But your description of the defiance of the laws of physics are proof - as Needham would agree - that the Chinese know a lot more about science than the West realizes! ;)

Class of '70

Karrin said...

ahahhaha. brilliant. simply brilliant.

where the hell do you find the time to do this???