Shanghai Dispatch: Cabbing Fever

Today, a friendly older gentleman named Liu seduced us into having a traditional Chinese Tea Ceremony at the tea house he worked for. Once we had ascertained we weren’t in for a traditional tourist screwing and agreed on a price of 60 RNB ($9) for the endeavor, we accompanied him to his third floor tea house in the Yu Gardens – a 16th century must-see landmark that sadly features a 20th century Starbucks.
The Chinese Tea Ceremony is a centuries-old tradition involving a cute woman in classic dress – with what appears to be an obsessive compulsive disorder in that there is a great deal of cup washing, cup turning, tea pouring and calculated sipping. You drink with your left hand, making sure to finish your small cup after three sips. No more, no less. You sample several teas and if you keep drinking, they’ll keep pouring.
During our tea time Liu gave us a lesson in tea and Chinese culture, hindered only by the fact he’s 60 and just picked up English eight years ago. Nevertheless, his English was 75% understandable with effort and we learned many things. For one, jasmine tea keeps women pimple-free and looking good. Black tea suits a smoker’s breath. The Yu Gardens Starbucks was “small rice among big rice” (not good). Most interesting among his factoids was that green tea improves vision and alertness. He told us taxi drivers here carry a thermos of it which is something I’ve seen myself. I have no doubt at all about the magical properties of green tea, because its ability to improve the vision and alertness of Shanghai’s taxi drivers explains why everyone here isn’t dead.
At the very least, to take a taxi in Shanghai is to put your fate in the hands of a man who does not speak your language and will not drop you off where you had intended. At the worst, it’s Death Cab 2006. They put New York cabbies to shame.
I had anticipated a society fearful of authority and as such wholly afraid to break laws or incur the wrath of police by say, running over someone. I was wrong. Every taxi ride is an opportunity for your own near death experience, or someone else’s. For an average of $3 you can be subjected to the derring-do and disregard for casualties that now makes sense in a country of 1.3 billion. It seems to be a form of population control.
Shanghai’s roads are crowded, to say the least, the city’s population being twice the size of New York. That, plus the fact that sidewalks here are for storage, vending, cooking or bike parking means that humanity is out in force, and quite often in the middle of the street. Bicycles give pedestrians wind-burn only to by cut off by scooters weaving through cars jamming their brakes in front of buses being overtaken by taxis.
That said, the taxi is a cheap and a terribly efficient way to get around this fantastic city – a very unique, beautiful place which is more high-tech than I’d ever imagined.
Except for taxis.
There seems to be no system for determining when a taxi is available. If there’s some kind of light or indicator, I’ve yet to see it. You wave at all of them and hope one stops. If you’ve had the foresight to have someone write down your directions in Chinese you present them to the driver. Then the party starts.
If you have a moment take in the taxi rules, one of which states: “Schizophrenic or drunkard without guardian is forbidden to take the taxi.” Pity the guardian-less crazy drunk. He’s not going home.
Or, more likely, he’s the guy who just somehow squeezed his cycle through the six inches between your cab and a truck so he can run a red light and dodge cross-traffic.
Thanks to their green tea-enhanced focus and alertness, cab drivers here are able to stop their vehicles within millimeters of other vehicles, people, bicycles or scooters. They can weave and cut off with laser precision. They can accurately gauge the distance between themselves and everything on the road, making sure to get as close as possible to it without their atoms colliding. It is a miracle. An exciting, wide-eyed, armrest-clenching miracle.
There is much honking of horns. Horns here say I’m going to hit you, You’re going to hit me, We’re going to hit each other, I almost hit you, You almost hit me, We almost hit each other and the most common: I have a horn.
At no time at all have I experienced anger on part of any party. Nearly killing someone is as casual an affair as nearly being killed. There has been no exchange of words. No gestures. Nothing. Just acceleration, braking, honking.
At some point your journey comes to an end. So far, it hasn’t ended where it was supposed to, but that could change. Usually though the car stops and the driver gestures toward something in the distance. The confused party in the back says “Are you sure? Is that right?” At some point they give up, pay the driver (tipping optional, unusual) and walk to their actual final destination with a story to tell and a new appreciation for life.