Friday, June 15, 2007

Forbidden Transport

Today was for the children, and the child in all of the rest of us. We visited Happy Valley in Beijing. At first, I wasn't very hopeful that it would turn out to be fun. In the first place, we hopped onto a taxi that charged us the un-metered fare of RMB80 - about S$16 - way above the type of rates that I am used to when I traveled in Shanghai in December last year and March/April this. This in spite of the fact that it was clearly a taxi.

But he was willing to fit the five of us in his cab in a single trip. We didn't want to kick up a fuss, so we went along with the proposition. The trip was pretty smooth and uneventful. We reach our destination in about 10-15 minutes. The return journey proved to be very different. It was late - about 7.30pm - and we had just walked out of the shopping mall just across the road from the Happy Valley Amusement Park with loads of stuff we purchased earlier at Happy Valley and Tesco Supermarket. We were again propositioned for transportation. In Singapore, this activity is called touting. It can be quite irritating, but sometimes useful. I looked out on the roads and didn't see any available taxis cruising around. So we asked for the price and he quoted RMB60. That's RMB20 less than when we came, so we agreed to take his car. It wasn't even a taxi, just a small private car. It was quite a squeeze for four people in the back seat. I sat in the front - the privilege of having the biggest frame size of the group.

For much of the journey, the driver did not switch on his air-con. I thought it was ok as the roads were relatively free of traffic and we were moving along. He only switched it on when we entered the part of the city with more traffic lights and vehicles. The strange thing was - he asked us while driving if our destination was the ??? building. My wife instantly recognised that Chinese name and we said yes. Funny that he didn't asked if our destination was the Howard Johnson Paragon Hotel. I just didn't want him to drop us off at the shopping mall where we would have to lug our shopping across to the Hotel. For S$12 taxi service in Beijing, we deserved more. In the event, when we reach our destination, I unwittingly directed the driver onto the road just in front of our Hotel, albeit on the other side of the road. He would turn in to the Hotel, but I wasn't prepared to argue. I paid him with a 10 dollar and 50 dollar RMB notes, but he returned the 50 to me because it was torn at one corner. So I exchanged it with another.

At about that moment, I head commotion outside the cab. Some official had come by to check on us and the driver. They began to question my companions - where we were from, what we were doing, whether we called for the transportation, or was offered the ride, and if so, how much we paid for driver. For the un-initiated, this look pretty scary - to be stopped in the night by somebody in some official uniform and assisted by a plainclothes person. But the uniformed person assured us that if we were offered the transportation service, it wasn't allowed. He then asked for my ID, which I duly obliged. Then he ticked off a list of questions on his 'form' and recorded my answers, including my HP number, address - the Hotel just across the street, etc. Finally he asked me to sign on the completed form. Mindful of not putting my signature on any document, particularly a document which I couldn't make out in the dark of the night, I didn't an initial, but the official requested that I write my Chinese name. He did seem honest about the whole thing, so I obliged. He also asked me to write on his pad that I had received the RMB60 back from the car driver, which I did through my companions.

Throughout the whole incident, the official seemed sincere, he didn't take about money from us - in fact he 'gave' us a free ride, he wasn't threatening and explained his motives reasonably clearly to us. On my part, we cooperated with him, though I gave him the wrong HP number, not deliberately - I was just confused at that time to think clearly. But there was only one of the number number which was wrong. Somehow, I just didn't want correct my unintentional error.

That done, we crossed the road back to our Hotel. We didn't know what happened to the driver. I was told that he was questioned, but whether he was arrested, fined, or whatever, I don't know, though I would have liked to know. I am surprised by the active enforcement action regarding the illegal hiring of transportation in Beijing. I was glad that I didn't engage any transportation for our 'forays' to our destinations. So far, we have either taken the subway, metered taxis from the Airport, and the public bus. The only exception was our journey to Happy Valley.

We speculated that this enforcement action was to clean up the unlicensed transportation racket ahead of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Certainly, the Central Government does not want to hear complaints of unlicensed activities during the Olympics - that will be akin to the Government of the People's Republic of China losing face over its inability to govern and control illegal activities.

Whatever the reason, we got a free 'taxi' ride and we weren't in any trouble anyway. We probably would have incurred RMB60 in 2 'legal' taxis - one taxi could seat at most 4 passengers - so the money wasn't an issue as far as we were concerned. Call it a bonus, though it is at the expense of this illegal operator. I suppose he has earned enough from his 'premium' fares in his previous trouble-free runs that a RMB60 loss is not that big a deal. The only problem is his trouble with the law. One thing that still troubles me is that the arresting officers didn't wear uniforms that read "Gong An" - China's police. I noticed this when the officer was taking down my statement.

I only hope that my records are not abused. Somehow, I don't think it will. Much as we hear about widespread corruption in China, I must congratulate the Beijing Municipal Authorities on their active engagement in making sure that tourists do not get the short end of a deal.

Long Live the PRC!

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