Tuesday, Aug. 19
Taxicab confessions at the Olympics
BEIJING -- Although bus lines shuttle journalists between the Main Press Center (MPC), our hotels and the competition venues, to venture outside the Olympic bubble, it usually becomes necessary to take a cab.
I haven't tested the claim that local cabdrivers have learned English, since I've been trying to practice my Mandarin, but I have found most cabbies to be genial and eager to make a good impression on their foreign fares. On more than one occasion I've been asked by an anxious driver what my colleagues think of their fair city.
I'm going to turn the question around. Here's what I think of my Beijing taxi experience:
The Good: SI writer-reporter David Epstein and I found ourselves near Tiananmen Square in the center of town around 1 a.m. one night after reporting a late-breaking story. We hailed a cab and gave the driver the name of our hotel, about half an hour to the northwest. I noticed our driver wince, so I asked him what was wrong.
He apologetically replied that he was getting ready to go home after a 12-hour-plus-long shift, and he lived in a suburb far south of Beijing. Guessing he didn't expect we needed to go far, I told him it would be fine if he dropped us off somewhere nearby where we could easily find another taxi.
He agreed and even turned off his meter. He ended up driving us another 10 minutes for free, occasionally getting out and chasing down cabs on foot to try to secure us another ride. When he finally found a taker, I tried to pay him for taking us part of the way home, but he refused.
"When you come home [we had chatted about my family roots]," he said, "we've gotta take care of you."
The Bad: Nothing too bad. The first time I came to China, six years ago, lane lines were merely decorative paintings on the road. The city has gotten much stricter about speed limits, putting an end to most white-knuckled rides. Some drivers have the radio on in the car, but I have yet to find one talking on the phone, unlike New York City cab drivers. The one time a cabbie was marginally rude to us (giving a slightly sarcastic retort when we asked if we could exceed the four-passenger maximum), he was roundly chastised by SI interpreter and Beijing native Jingwen Wang and, chagrined, took 20 percent off our fare.
The Ugly: Once again, Epstein and me on the outskirts of town in the middle of the night after covering a basketball game and eating a late-late dinner near the stadium in west Beijing. After trying out some chicken feet shaokao (barbecue on skewers), we hailed a cab and began the 45-minute journey home on the deserted highway.
It was close to 3 a.m. and we were drowsy from the greasy food, but we were jolted awake several times during the ride by our lurching vehicle.
"Geez, this guy really can't drive stick," I remarked to Epstein.
I don't like being confrontational, so instead of speaking up I usually just try to give people a Look. Except I couldn't catch the cabbie's eyes in the rearview mirror. Because they were closed.
For some reason, neither Epstein and I had the presence of mind to say something to our driver at that point; so for the rest of the ride we nervously sat in the backseat and watched our lives flash before our eyes as our driver weaved toward the guardrails.
Somehow we made it home in one piece. I can only hope the same for Sleepy, our cabbie. -- Rebecca Sun
Monday, Aug. 18
China's Rucker Park gets the best of SI writers
BEIJING -- If you want to understand the fervor for hoops in China, one option is to attend an Olympic basketball game. Or you can do what SI's Alexander Wolff and I did on Monday: Make a pilgrimage to the Dongdan pickup basketball courts in central Beijing, just a few blocks east of Tiananmen Square.
For just 15 yuan (a little more than two bucks), you can run for as long as you want in Beijing's answer to Rucker Park: five pristine two-color courts featuring goals with square glass backboards and breakaway rims. Unlike the Rucker there's no emcee (not yet, at least), but there is a thriving hoops culture that includes plenty of NBA jerseys, ankle-breaking guards and a few guys with serious hops (though, regrettably, no Mandarin trash-talk).
Ten half-court games were being played by the time we arrived, so Alex and I called "next" at one of the 3-on-3 games and picked up a teammate in Bing, a student from Nanjing who's attending school in the Netherlands. It didn't take long to realize that Bing from Nanjing had some game, as did most of our Chinese opponents, who were dressed in everything from Gilbert Arenas and Kobe Bryant jerseys to LeBron James and Michael Jordan t-shirts. (Surprisingly, I didn't see any Yao Ming or Yi Jianlian togs.)
Pickup basketball in China has a few odd customs: players don't check the ball before starting play, and after the ball goes out of bounds the action resumes from the baseline, not the top of the key. For some reason games were also played to four. ("When in Rome..." Alex said.)
Otherwise we might as well have been playing in Manhattan. One short kid in checkerboard Vans started taking us apart on the dribble to the point that I dubbed him "Little Iverson." And though I was able to use my long arms for a couple blocked shots, the guy I was guarding hit a few buckets in my face with textbook jump-shot form.
Thanks to some timely outside shooting by Alex and Bing from Nanjing (and one dynamite half-hook by yours truly) we kept the court for four games. But eventually Alex and I showed our lack of conditioning and wilted in the noontime sun.
At least that's my excuse for getting smoked in the last game. No lie: these guys can play.