FROM A TO B
There are four ways we get around Dalian: trolley, bus, taxi, and on foot. From our apartment to our school, we take the trolley. From our apartment to downtown, we take a bus. If we buy something very large at the store or come home too late, we take a taxi. And we go by foot for all the small distances in between, although this way is the most likely to result in death because we are contending with the former three modes of transportation.
Our typical journey to school begins with our walking down the 96 steps between our apartment and the road. Once on our street, we dodge mopeds, bicycles, taxis and delivery trucks to traverse the short distance to the main road. Lucky for us, the 202 trolley stop is right where our street meets the main road. The trolley comes about every 5 minutes or less, so we have a short wait. The trolley is only two cars long, and is always driven by a woman. When it pulls into our stop, we and all the other people rush to the nearest door, and enter. At each door, there is a woman operating the opening and closing of the doors, shouting at people, and making sure everyone pays. It costs 1 yuan (about 12 cents) and at each of the doors, there is a box where you put your money, or alternatively a place where you scan your card. It is usually crowded, even at 7:30am on a Sunday morning. There are a few seats, but most of the people are standing. On a few occasions, I have seen a young person give up their seat for an older person.
For the first three stops, the trolley runs on separate tracks that are parallel to the road. However, many small roads cross the tracks, and since people here are undeterred by the thought of a large train coming at them, the trolley often brakes to barely avoid hitting bicycles and cars that pull right in front of it. Because the train is often so crowded that I cannot even reach a bar to hold on to, these lurching rides become a form of urban surfing. After the third stop, the train tracks are no longer separated from the main road with all the busses and cars. We get off at the fourth stop, and since the tracks go down the middle of the road, we are quite literally let out into the middle of traffic. When we go home after work, we have to go back out into the middle of traffic to get on the trolley. Because our school is in a central part of town, there are many people who get on the trolley at this stop. Once the trolley is seen coming, all the people go into the middle of the street to wait for it, blocking traffic. On several occasions, the trolley could not get to us because the crowd of people had blocked the traffic in both lanes. The situation could only be resolved through persistent honking by every vehicle involved.
We’ve developed a strategy for not dying here. We always cross the road with other people, preferably small children since the drivers might be a little more hesitant to run over a child. Cross-walks here are well marked, but most people ignore them. People are not afraid to cross the road through oncoming traffic, and similarly, cars making a right-hand turn are not afraid to drive through a busy cross-walk. Another hazard is that cars drive on the sidewalk, because the sidewalk also serves as a parking lot. Since so few people have cars, there are not big parking lots. Instead, cars just park and drive on the side walk around the building.
Busses are pretty similar to our trolley, except more lurching and a bit more confusing. The busses are all clearly marked with numbers, but we cannot read the signs telling us where it stops. So we’ve developed a system of number matching. I wrote down all the numbers of buses that stop in front of our street, then if we are out somewhere, we can just find a bus with one of those numbers and it will take us home. There are so many busses here, but we pretty much go north-south on our trolley, and east-west on the busses which connect our end of town with downtown.
Many foreigners complain about the way people push on the public transportation and seem incapable of making a line. But we don’t mind so much. You know what they say, if you can’t beat them, join them. So now Zac and I push and shove our way on and off busses with the best of them. It’s really a method of survival because otherwise you will never get on or off a bus here. Usually, you enter a bus at the front and the exit door is near the rear, so each stop, you make your way closer to the exit door, as more people get on. By the time the bus gets to your stop, you should be close to the door and able to squirm your way off.
Taxis are the luxurious way to travel. All the taxis are metered, and they start at 8 yuan (about 1 dollar) when you get in. It stays at that price for a long time, so that if you are only going a short distance, it is not very expensive. In Namibia, taxis charged a flat fee per person, so the driver tried to cram many people into the car. They don’t do that here, since the fee is the same regardless of how many people are in the taxi. We can appreciate this system now. We’ve only taken taxis a couple of times, mostly when we first moved in and bought a few big things for our apartment that we didn’t think we could squeeze onto the trolley. Because we cannot speak functional Chinese, we have our address written down in Chinese characters. We just show this paper to the driver and he knows where to go. This is our safety net because if we ever get too lost, we can just get in taxi and let the driver find our house. In fact, when we first moved into our apartment, we went into town to buy some groceries, and on our way back, we got off at the wrong trolley stop and couldn’t remember where we lived. So we showed that paper to people on the street and they pointed us in the right direction.
We have also been fortunate enough to ride in a few of our students cars. The driving here is crazy, but at least they drive slow. For example, when Sunny drives us home from school, he will pull his car out into oncoming traffic. Most of us would probably wait until there is a gap in traffic. But not here. They just nose their car out farther and farther until the other cars have to swerve to avoid a collision, then they pull all the way out. They don’t like to yield. On the big roads, cars will often pass a bus by driving into oncoming traffic. And somehow this works. This sort of driving would lead to all sorts of accidents in the states, but because people here expect it and are prepared for it, it doesn’t seem to cause many problems.