Tuesday, 31 March 2015
Filming done, we were about to head for Pakistan via the Pamirs and the Karakorum Highway when we discovered that the chassis of the mini-bus that had been with us practically all the way during the 37-day film shoot was not high enough for the boulder-strewn roads of the Pamirs and the Karakorum. The only suitable vehicle was a 40-seater local bus. This is the conversation that ensued:
D(river): So, what time do you want me to come and pick you up tomorrow?
Me: Be here [to our hotel] at 5am.
D: Beijing time or Xinjiang time?
By now, a crowd had gathered round to watch, and pitch in with their opinions, which is a very common occurrence in China.
Me: What time do you work by?
I thought I was being flexible by going along with his choice of time system.
D: Beijing time or Xinjiang time?
Me: Whichever time you work by.
D: Beijing time or Xinjiang time?
The man obviously just wanted to be given an order, not the power to choose.
Me: What time do you have on your watch now?
Me: Well, just go by your watch and be here tomorrow at 5am on your watch.
I thought that was the perfect solution, since our watches were synchronised.
D: Beijing time or Xinjiang time?
In the end, I just gave up and decided for him, “Beijing time,” since that was the official time.
Now, 5am Beijing time would be, geographically speaking, 1am Xinjiang time. Presumably, the man needed to know so that he would go to bed by the Beijing time system, whereas he’d usually go by Xinjiang time in his daily routine, like those men eating noodles at 2.30am (Beijing time).
After a very long day on the road, with the lone star’s motorcycle suffering puncture after puncture after puncture, we arrived at our Dunhuang hotel at 2am instead of the scheduled 5pm (in time for dinner at 6.30pm). Once I’d registered our arrival, got ourselves allocated rooms, and helped move the 54 boxes of filming equipment, the crew sent me off for a crate of beer—always my second task once I’d done the hotel registration and seen the filming equipment safely ensconced in the rooms.
Where to get beer at 2.30am? The outskirts of Dunhang (in Xinjiang, S.W.China) had been in total darkness on our way in, with no street lights at all, so there couldn’t possibly be anywhere open. Even the hotel restaurant was closed.
Still, I ventured out into the unlit street, wondering where to start, when a young man just suddenly loomed out of the darkness on the pavement. Amazingly, when I asked him if there was a shop around where I could buy beer, he led me to one about 100 yards down the road! Even more amazingly, there were actually a few men slurping piping hot noodles! At 2.30am!
As soon as we entered, one of the noodle-eaters asked my young man what the time was. He asked, “Beijing time or Xinjiang time?”
It turned out that China only has one time zone. It does make things easier in one sense, with everyone having the same time reference, but considering its vast size, which must require three or four time zones, it’s a crazy system in a way. No wonder people were still eating noodles at 2.30am! Because Xinjiang time is really four hours behind Beijing, so it was still only 10.30pm for them.
Somehow, the locals just coped with it: by carrying Xinjiang time in their heads for things like eating and being out and about, it seems. I wonder how they manage to get enough sleep if they go by Beijing time for official business and Xinjiang time (four hours behind) for their social activities? I know that the Chinese have 2-hour lunch breaks, so maybe the Xinjiang people just have a longer siesta, so that they can still be slurping noodles at 2.30am?
Friday, 27 March 2015
I’d personally witnessed a massive traffic jam at the biggest roundabout in Taipei, when my bus was caught up in it for some three hours.
It was a huge roundabout, with the radial roads feeding into it being multiple-laned both sides. (You can google it under “biggest roundabout in Taipei” or “Ren’ai Road and Dunhua South Road roundabout in Taipei 台北仁愛路敦化南路圓環” and see the aerial view of this monstrosity for yourself.) In the middle of the roundabout was a grassed-over piece of land about the size of a football pitch, if not bigger, and planted in the centre, a raised lookout pavilion with a traffic policeman monitoring the situation.
The standard highway code rule about roundabouts is: traffic approaching a roundabout will slow down and only enter it if there’s enough room. Well, this is for most other countries, but as that journalist had discovered in his research (see blog entryTraffic around the world: Taiwan 1), Taiwan drivers go by their own instincts—one can’t even say “by their own rules” here, as it’s totally anarchic with them.
The drivers in the radial roads would squeeze in, even when the space in the roundabout was only big enough for the front half of the car, or maybe even just a bumper. In a way, I can see the thinking behind this: as the traffic was so dense, there would never come a time when the gap was big enough for the whole car to get in.
In the UK, if this happens, the driver in the roundabout would let the squeezer-in get in, by not moving forward. Taiwan drivers, however, are too pig-headed—with a strong element of face involved here, I suspect—to give way to the cheeky chappie who has the audacity to cut in, so the car already in the roundabout inched forward and totally trapped the squeezer-in’s car. However, what he didn’t seem to realise, until it was too late, was: with the nose of the squeezer-in’s car stuck between his car and the one in front of him, he himself couldn’t move forward either. A split second of yielding would’ve meant everyone being able to move, but these bloody-minded drivers seemed more intent on teaching the perpetrators a lesson, even to the extent of cutting off their own nose to spite their face.
Now, imagine this same scenario happening simultaneously at every single one of the radial road junctions, and you have a massive gridlock, with nobody able to move, literally, even an inch. This was what happened on the day my bus was stuck in the traffic for three hours.
Cars started to honk, drivers started to stick their heads out of their windows and shout, cursing, swearing and waving their fists.
The noise drew the attention of the traffic policeman in the pavilion to the stalemate. He looked around the full 360°, and saw that there was a gridlock at every single junction of the roundabout. He climbed down and walked all the way across his green island up to one of these stalemate sites, to assess at close quarters how much room there might be for manoeuvre, and who should move to allow whom to inch in or out. The policeman had to climb over bonnets in some places, so tightly packed together were some of the cars that he couldn’t even squeeze a leg in between car bumpers.
The policeman went round all the junctions, and when he’d found a less tight spot, he’d direct the inching, car by car, junction by junction, stretch by stretch of the roundabout. Sometimes, he had to walk back down a radial road to see if he could find a gap there, and if so—which could be a few cars away from the roundabout—he’d get the driver to inch back, then the one in front of him to inch back, and so on until he reached the squeezer-in at the roundabout, so that the squeezer-in could then inch back (out of the roundabout) and let the pig-headed driver move on. Sometimes, once he’d got the roundabout car in front of the squeezer-in to move forward, the policeman would let the squeezer-in get in fully.
Three hours later, my bus was able to move towards the roundabout. Still, the delay was worth it, as it provided an interesting experience witnessing at first hand what Taiwan drivers are like.
Monday, 23 March 2015
When I first arrived in Taipei, late December 1974, my local colleagues warned me to take extra care out on the roads. They said, “In other countries, as a car approaches a pedestrian crossing, it slows down. If there’s someone waiting to cross, it comes to a halt. In Taiwan, if the driver sees someone waiting to cross, he’ll speed up, especially if the person’s already started to cross.”
One of the three radio operator colleagues, Mr Tan, told me about a book by a journalist from Taiwan who’d done research on traffic issues around the world.
For noise pollution levels, the journalist ranked these regions in ascending order: Germany, Italy, India, Taiwan.
In another study, on parking in a parking lot, the journalist discovered: in most countries, people would drive in through the entrance, park in the middle, and leave the parking lot through the exit. In Taiwan, there’d be a cluster of cars around the entrance, and another cluster around the exit, with nothing in the middle, as everyone wants to be nearest the openings for a quick getaway.
On road accidents, the journalist had this to say: in America, other drivers would drive the victim(s) of a road accident to the nearest hospital. In Britain, people would phone for an ambulance and let them deal with it. In Taiwan, a crowd would gather around the injured party, and be heard to utter, “He looks so young!”, “Oh look, he’s bleeding!”, “That’s an expensive-looking shirt!”
(Reminds me of a similar joke, back in the 70s, about Hong Kong people injured in a car accident. The first thing the owner of an expensive car, say Mercedes Benz, would say would be, “My Mercedes! My Mercedes! Is it all right??” If a bystander pointed out that his arm was bleeding, he’d say, “My Rolex! My Rolex! It’s damaged!”)
I had been giving private tuition to a group of Indonesian students whose parents had sent them to Singapore for their education. They kept telling me I must go and visit their country, so during the end-of-year school holidays in December, that was what I did, staying with student Honi Handaya’s family.
On my second day, Honi took me out to explore Jakarta.
The driving was hair raising, to put it mildly, with smaller vehicles like motorcycles, bicycles and trishaws (called becak [pronounced beh-tjak], from the Fujianese dialect pronunciation of 馬車 / 马车 mǎchē / “horse vehicle”) weaving their suicidally fearless and reckless way in and out of the throng of buses and cars. Sitting in one of these becak, you are only at the level of the wheel of a bus, so it was very frightening to be about a hair’s breadth from these tons of metal thundering past. Also, the trishaw rider is behind the passenger, which means that the passenger doesn’t have the driver between him/her and the vehicle in front to take the impact of any collision.
After that leg-wobbling experience, I suggested we take the bus instead. Honi took me to where a cluster of people were standing by the road—that was the bus stop. No post, no board with bus numbers, let alone a board setting out the routes. Just a bunch of people to mark the spot. I asked Honi, “How do we know which bus is going where?” She said, “The conductor will announce the stops.”
Whenever a bus—unmarked on the front—arrived, the knot of people would surge forwards as it approached, looking expectantly and listening intently. The conductor would hang out of the door, shouting out all the names of the stops from that point on. Those who heard the name of their stop on the list would leap on; the rest would step back to wait for the next bus. And the whole process would repeat itself the next time a bus approached.
In the 22 March 2015 BBC Radio 4 programme On Your Farm—about a sheep farmer in the Shetlands*—the journalist commented to the farmer that the cost of transporting the sheep to markets anywhere must be very high, thus adding to the price of his sheep.
This reminds me of another Shetland sheep story reported in the newspaper some three decades or so ago. Because their farms were so remote, Shetland sheep farmers could get a discount on the ferry if they were transporting sheep. One (or more?) such farmer would take a sheep with him in the car when he went shopping in the nearest town on mainland Scotland so that he would qualify for the discount.
Around the same time that this story came out, or a bit earlier, shops in the UK were not allowed to open for business on a Sunday unless they were selling vegetables. A furniture store started selling carrots for something like £300/lb. (0.4536kg), giving away a “free” sofa with the carrots. (I’m not sure how long it took the authorities to catch up with them and close the loophole.)
*Shetland Islands |ˈSHetlənd| (also Shetland or the Shetlands )
a group of about 100 islands off the north coast of Scotland, northeast of the Orkneys, that constitute the administrative region of Shetland; pop. 21,800 (est. 2009); chief town, Lerwick. Together with the Orkney Islands, the Shetland Islands became a part of Scotland in 1472.
(UK, early 1980s)