Sunday, April 04, 2010

Never Tell Me the Odds

This afternoon I felt a little like I'd been dragged along with the Star Wars gang on Han Solo's mad dash through the asteroid field in The Empire Strikes Back.


Woke up this morning in Hong Kong. The sky was still right outta Neuromancer. Just brighter. Off to the airport for our second attempt to get on a flight to Beijing. The temperature was already 25 degrees by 6:30, with humidity around 90% - and that was inside the HK airport. Climbing the exterior boarding stairs to get on the plane, I looked out across the tarmac and caught the rumour of HK in the distance: mountains hiding behind mist and clouds and smog like postmodern myths. Skyscrapers peering around the corners of air pollution like stone giants playing hide & seek. Then into the air and off to Beijing.


We got into the hotel and phoned the tour guide - last night's flight fiasco had caused us to miss the first leg of the tour this morning. He said we'd missed the Forbidden City but said he could make arrangements for us to link up with the group at the zoo. Um. I'm sure the animals are nice and all, but you don't fly half way around the world to Beijing to not see the Forbidden City. We said we'd go there on our own this afternoon and catch up to the tour group later.


The Forbidden City is everything it's cracked up to be: mind-bogglingly huge yet exquisitely detailed. Even back alleys and servants' walkways are intricately carved and painted. It put me in mind of all of those Chinese kung-fu fantasy movies - Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hero or take your pick of any of dozens of others - except with about a bajillion tourists bumbling through.


But it was after a couple of hours when we had to call it quits and get back to the hotel that the Star Wars experience came into play. When you leave the Forbidden City, if you aren't with a tour group, you're in for quite the undertaking when it comes to finding transportation. Don't feel comfortable taking the bus system, then you're running the gauntlet of cabbies. Most of the ones that hang around don't actually know their way around town that well - if at all, and that includes a profound ignorance of where the major hotels are. There are some who are somewhat honest about this and will say they don't know where your lodgings are, then proceed to ignore you and look for another mark. Others will claim to know the way but do more guessing than navigating. And then there are the rare ones who actually have the map figured out. All of them will try to hose you on the price.


After several failed attempts to find someone who knew how to get to our hotel and who wasn't demanding an emperor's ransom for a flat fee for the trip, we finally found ourselves in one of Beijing's little suicide machines, er, motorized rickshaws: motorbikes configured as tricycles and outfitted with battered aluminum cabins. Luke's words from A New Hope came into my head as I piled in the passenger compartment after my wife: "What a piece of junk!" The driver was pretty proud of his ride though, and claimed he knew the way and could get us there quickly and for an acceptable price, but Han Solo he wasn't. Turns out he didn't have a clue about where to go (he had to stop and ask another rickshaw cabbie for directions) and when he eventually got us to the hotel, he tried to get more money out of us (and failed - we wouldn't budge on the fee). But the Empire flashback came hard after the New Hope memory did - when he first picked us up outside the Forbidden City, as soon as he hit the ignition it was the Falcon careening through the asteroid field. Bike lanes, car lanes, oncoming traffic lanes, all were fair game for this guy's top speed rush. I can't even begin to count the number of times he missed slamming into pedestrians, cyclists or other rickshaws by just centimetres, never mind the constant near-misses where we almost got crushed by buses like a beercan in the Death Star's trash compactor. The ride was fun (at times), frightening (always) and stank like low-quality diesel (I was coughing up the fumes for hours afterwards). I wouldn't go on one of those damn things again, but having done it once, I can say I've taken part in an authentic local experience.


Looking back on the rocket rickshaw trip though, I have a new-found sympathy for what Threepio had to put up with in 'Empire. All of his shouting and flapping away in the back of the cockpit, all of his attempts to reason with Han about choosing another course, it just doesn't seem so annoying anymore. Now, I kind of agree with him.


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