Sunday, August 3, 2008

Pre-Olympic Traffic Conditions and the Meaning of Life

Yesterday we went to see if we could get into the second dress rehearsal of the opening ceremony for the 29th Olympiad here in Beijing. For me it was also an opportunity to try out the new No. 10 and no. 8 subway lines. We got on the No. 13 light rail at Wudaokou, and went one stop to transfer to the 10 line at Zhichunlu. Then in about 10 minutes we were at Bei tucheng lu, the transfer point for the 8 line, the one that goes into Olympic Park. Up to that point, around 4pm on a Saturday afternoon, there were relatively few people in that part of the subway system. At the transfer point, though, there were suddenly a lot more, and dozens of police and staff ushering passengers through the turnstiles. Apparently, though Bei tucheng lu is called a "transfer station," you still had to exit the station, walk over a block outdoors, and reenter the station for the 8 line.

Crowds thickened somewhat at the gate to the security checkpoint to enter the 8 line, which at present is a short line of only 4 stops running north and south through the Olympic Sports Center and Olympic Park. The security check was designed for very high volume, with at least 20 lanes, and though there were plenty of people already filing in, the lines were not long. Unfortunately for us it was at this lane entrance that we discovered the dress rehearsal was not open to the public, but only to holders of complimentary tickets that had been distributed somehow to thousands of local residents. Many of those who approached the entrance were turned away like us, apparently also under the impression that they could somehow get in.

Seeing that we were in (albeit lengthy) walking distance of Olympic Park, because we had not approached the area before, and many people were flowing in that direction, we decided to go that way to see what we could see. We began from the subway stop, which is situated roughly at the southwest corner of the Olympic Sports Center (formerly known as Yayun cun or the Asian Games Village), we traced a route past the west gate of the Center toward the southern end of Olympic Park, and then to the right across to the Olympic Sports Center's north gate, just across the 4th ring road from the National Stadium or "Bird's Nest" where the opening ceremony would be held. Many onlookers were milling about on this last stretch because of the excellent view of the Bird's Nest and Water Cube. We saw about a dozen camera tripods lined up in a row at a particularly good spot for photos. Just beyond them, the Olympic Sports Center's North Gate was showing some vehicular activity, and the gate attendants seemed a little tense and hard at work managing the traffic flow. We decided that we had walked far enough and saw a number of taxis coming by (to our great relief), but it seemed not an easy place for them to stop. We were able to flag one down, though, and hopped in right away.

The sun had thankfully not been beating down on us during our stroll, but it was still a hot day, and thus a great relief to get into the air conditioned taxi. Immediately after we announced our destination (which was in the opposite direction), the typically loquacious Beijing cabbie explained to us that because of traffic restrictions we would not be allowed to make a normally legal U-turn at the next overpass, but would have to circle around to the south and back west. 

It was during this drive that we first saw the extent of the security and martial-law like traffic controls. Our driver twice encountered impasses where we should have been able to circle back, and as we rounded the Sports Center, we now saw that police patrolmen were lining the streets in the area in most places only 2-3 meters apart. It gave new meaning to the phrase "the police were everywhere." Every intersection had several police and other security vehicles parked and running with lights flashing, and had traffic police directing traffic along detours around roadblocks. It may have been special deployment due to the dress rehearsal and multiple scheduled fireworks displays, but it was fully six days before the Olympics. Here also was the first heavy traffic we had seen on this Saturday outing (it was now nearly 5pm), but as soon as we got west of the Olympic area, there was once again hardly anyone on the road.

After dinner we set out again by car to the National Center for the Performing Arts to see a performance by a Greek modern dance company. We did not have tickets, but thought we would take our chances since there are so many cultural events going on. Also, since the traffic had been so light slightly earlier, we thought the same would be the case on our route from Haidian towards Tian'anmen Square. Indeed, there was little traffic, but what we had not anticipated was a veritable police gauntlet along Chang'an Avenue from Fuxingmen all the way to Tian'anmen: police cars shuttled quickly to and fro, while traffic police had taken over every major intersection. Then at one intersection, just west of Zhongnanhai, we stopped at a red light that seemed to take forever. Eventually it became clear that the light was under special control: a cordon including a tourist bus, several black Audi sedans and surly SUVs with flashing lights  (perhaps IOC members on their way to dinner after a reception at Zhongnanhai?) sped southward into the intersection and turned west, unimpeded due to the controls.

The light changed, but security did not slacken as we approached Tian'anmen. In fact as we made the right off Chang'an Avenue to go to the National Grand Theater West Gate, we looked ahead at Tian'anmen square and it seemed there were more red and blue flashing lights ahead than anything else. And on leaving the theater at about 8:30pm, we encountered a sea of people flowing southward away from Tian'anmen: there had been a fireworks display simultaneous to the one at the climax of the opening ceremony rehearsal at the National Stadium.

Now the traffic was heavy. As we made our way home along the south 2nd Ring and then to the north, it was very slow, and mostly single file due to the special Olympic Lane--the lane only specially permitted vehicles related to the Olympics can use along the left side of most of Beijing's major arteries, from 6am to midnight every day. Though generally empty, much to the frustration of the drivers inching along the other lines, every minute or two a police or military car, a black Audi, or an escorted tourist bus would speed past us on it, even after 9pm. Although I once or twice succumbed to the temptation to use The Lane to make some additional progress, I was impressed by the docility of virtually all of the thousands of other drivers (overwhelmingly taxis, who tend to be skittish about regulations anyway), inching along the thoroughfares. 

To help reduce traffic pressure and pollution during the Olympics, Beijing initiated a 2-month restriction on private automobile traffic, disallowing vehicles with non-Beijing license plates, and allowing Beijing drivers to hit the road only on alternate days, based on whether the last digit of their license plate number is odd or even. I heard they are considering an additional restriction, by which on top of all this, cars whose license plates begin with a certain digit will barred from the roads on designated days, regardless of whether their last digit is odd or even. In my observation on many outings since the restrictions went into effect, these regulations are not being strictly enforced, but public adherence to them is phenomenal: apart from a few cars using The Lane, I have only seen one or two cases of cars apparently driving in violation of the rules. Perhaps this shows a high level of Olympic public spirit among Beijing drivers; perhaps it stems in part from a cultural (Confucian? Socialist?) tendency to fall in line with authority dating back to an earlier time. But it also might be an indication of how optional driving is to a large portion of Beijing's residents.

Back up to 7:30 pm. We arrived at the National Center for the Performing Arts just in time to find out that there were no longer tickets available for the dance performance. Since we were there, we also inquired about tickets for a Royal Danish Ballet performance more than a week from now (thus in the middle of the Olympic games) and were told the the ticket office (we have yet to confirm) that there were no tickets for that either. So apart from the observations I had been able to make about transportation conditions in Beijing, we seemed to have made the trip downtown for nothing.

But there was this man at the theater. He had also come for tickets to the same performance as we had. While we were ascertaining whether there was some way to get in, he volunteered a considerable amount of information in English, largely to the effect that if we waited a little while, we might be able to buy unclaimed tickets at an inflated price, but would have to wait until the intermission to enter, and the show was reportedly only 50 minutes in duration. He was waiting to do the same. Then he asked me whether I understood what he was saying (I think he thought I was Greek, and perhaps could not understand his English very well), to which I answered affirmatively while Lan explained that I speak Chinese as well. 

He was very embarrassed and showered me with unearned praise for my Chinese ability, then entered into a lengthy discourse that turned out to be a kind of performance in its own right, that made the fortuitous trip seem worthwhile after all. This man, whom I'll call Mr. Cui, was a graduate of the Central Conservatory of Music, a classical vocalist (bass), born and raised in Beijing, and currently rehearsing with the touring company of a major Broadway show. He explained that he tried to catch as many foreign performing arts performances as he could so as to develop his own skills as a performer. This was not only his job, I began to realize, or even just a career path, but a vocation in the fullest sense of the word. He discovered his vocal ability as a boy and took every opportunity to develop it and, due to favorable circumstances, was often able to perform and demonstrate his abilities. This trajectory through his formative years led Mr. Cui to realize the significance of cultural expression in modern social life, especially in China where society is modernizing so rapidly and singlemindedly drive toward wealth and superficial pleasures, that humanity and meaning are threatened in a way that would never have happened in the China of his youth. A fascinating implication of this is that Mr. Cui's youth, dominated by a socialist atmosphere only beginning to be flavored by the winds of reform and opening, actually (or perhaps not surprisingly) inculcated humanist values in him. I say perhaps not surprisingly because sometimes it seems in retrospect that socialist culture in China was less inhumane than the market driven economy. 

I asked Mr. Cui for his phone number and he said he would not be comfortable calling me out of the blue, and also afraid that I would only offer him the post-industrial mantra "Sorry, I'm busy these days!" I said he could give me his email address, but he said he is generally opposed to technologically mediated communication. I laughed and said "Isn't the phone technology?" "Yes, of course, but maybe I'm strange, or out of step with the times, but I only like face to face interaction, just sitting with friends even if just only over some coffee or tea for a half an hour or so, and discussing some interesting topics. If you can't have contact like that, what is the use of even having someone's contact information?" I'm not sure whether Mr. Cui is really out of step with the times, but he struck me as having a very ancient yet very refreshing zest for the meaningful moments in life: during our conversation he quickly rattled off an assortment of childhood and youthful memories that made him nostalgic for pre-global-bustle Beijing.

Earlier in the conversation I had asked Cui whether we weren't keeping him from the dance performance. He said, "I'll skip it, it's much nicer to talk with you!" I did not take this as flattery, but rather considered how much more I, too, appreciated hearing what Mr. Cui had to say, than simply heading straight back into the abnormally tense traffic flow back home.