MOTORING IN THE MIDDLE KINGDOM
Car Life in the New Beijing
This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!
Published on Wed, Jun 10, 2015
By: The LACar Editorial Staff
Story and pictures by Roy Nakano
If you’re old enough to remember the stark images of the People’s Republic of China from the days of ping-pong diplomacy, you’ll be forgiven if you don’t recognize the China of today. Beijing, in particular, is undergoing a transformation that is both rapid and dramatic. Alongside the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and the Summer Palace, you’ll see Christian Dior, Prada, Gucci, and numerous other brand names associated with the capitalist West. You’ll see gated communities not unlike those in Irvine, California. And in those gated communities, you’ll see makes like Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Cadillac and Buick (a very highly regarded car brand in China, by the way – see LA Car’s Battle Hymn of the Detroit Tiger). There’s even an occasional Tesla quietly cruising the streets and suburbs of Beijing.
Paint It Black
In contrast to the sea of white cars, white service vehicles, and white umbrellas of Tokyo (see LA Car's Driving On Tokyo Time - Car Life in the Shinjuku District), Beijing prefers black cars—especially black luxury cars. And there are plenty of luxury cars in Beijing—proportionately more, in fact, than in Southern California. But black seems to be the predominant color of choice for more proletariat cars as well—like Volkswagens. VWs are as plentiful as Toyota Camrys in California (the German car company got a jump start on sales in China over its competition).
Driving While Asian
Beijing may bear some responsibility for the stereotype of Asians being bad drivers. Traffic laws seem to exist for the purpose of being broken. If you’re pedestrian, it’s best not to insist on your right-of-way on the streets of Beijing. But while watching Beijing drivers can be frightening at times, I’d be hard pressed to say that the drivers are summarily bad. On the contrary, some of the maneuvers I’ve observed require a great deal of skill—we’re talking NASCAR-like skill. Beijing drivers are not bad drivers; they are highly skilled drivers—pushing the limits of speed, lane changing, passing and parking on city streets.
Beijing drivers also have a reputation for their liberal use of the car horn. I can confirm it to be true. However, use of the horn to express anger is really not all that common. What’s more common is to lightly tap the horn to warn others potential lane darters that you’re approaching. It’s sort of like having a lane departure warning system—only it’s other cars warning you in addition to your own car that’s doing the warning.
The Majesty and the History
It’s hard not to be awed by the majesty of Beijing. It’s not just the history, it’s the history-in-the-making. The ongoing transformation of the city is part of the spectacle of Beijing. The sound of construction is everywhere—from the populous Wangfujing to the outlying gated residential communities. And yet, turn the corner and there are symbols of a thousand years of history. And on the streets of Beijing are the young and old; not just business and government people, but young children and senior citizens flocking the ancient hutongs as well as the fancy new stores. It’s all part of the yin and yang that makes this city so fascinating.
As we depart for the airport, the hotel summons a black Audi A6 to take us there. A statue of Buddha sits on the driver’s dashboard. In stark contrast to everyone else on the roads, our driver obeys all speed limits, stops for all pedestrians, and makes prodigious use of turn signals. This time, the other drivers are honking at him as we cruised to the airport. After having gotten used to the driving norm in Beijing, I have to admit that it seems annoyingly slow.
Read LA Car’s Driving on Tokyo Time: Car Life in the Shinjuku District