Monday, April 21, 2008

Rain stops play (again)

This weekend, a British theatre company, TNT, was in town performing Hamlet in Peking University (yes, it's one of the few institutions to retain the old Wade-Giles romanization - probably only because they can't be bothered to replace the dozens of signs and crests dotted all over the campus, all over the city).

As I moped a few weeks ago, there's very little worthwhile theatre here (in English or any other language). I don't think there's been any Shakespeare in all the time I've been here (apart from a couple of am-dram productions). So, I was mad keen to go (the more so as I had unaccountably overlooked their first run here a month ago). I had even prevailed upon The Choirboy to go with me (he's a very cultured fellow, under the louche exterior; certain other people I canvassed proved disappointingly uncultured).

Yesterday it rained. All day, without let-up. PKU is a long way away to the north-west. Trying to get there in such weather conditions was an unappealing prospect. The thought of trying to get back again afterwards was horrendous. Our good intentions wilted as the relentless downpour continued through the afternoon.

As I think I have probably mentioned before, Beijing tends to grind to a halt in the rain. The storm drains are completely inadequate (checking on my street as I came home last night, I discovered that there's only an outlet about once every 150 yards!), and instantly become clogged with litter, bits of tree, and builder's sand (ubiquitous at the moment) - so, the city floods after even a mild shower. Yesterday was not mild: we probably exceeded the average monthly rainfall in 24 hours (and April is usually one of the rainiest months). It was hard to go anywhere, even on foot, as there were mini-lakes - 3 or 4 inches of standing water - on every street and alley.

Moreover, it can be next to impossible to get a cab in such conditions. People who'd normally walk or bicycle all try to take public transport instead, so the buses and subway trains become impossibly crowded. Thus, all the people who'd normally take public transport try to take taxis instead. And most of the taxis retire from service. Really. I know this is a common problem in any city in the world, but it is 10 times worse in Beijing. This may be partly due to swingeing new regulations on taxi cleanliness the city has introduced in recent years: drivers can be heavily fined for having a dirty car, and so often prefer not to drive when conditions are too wet or muddy (it seems these rules may only apply - or only be enforced - in the city centre; a couple of times, when taking a cab back from the University district, I have had drivers pull over to a roadside maintenance shop for a couple of minutes to sponge down their hubcaps before they will dare to venture inside the 3rd Ringroad). I suspect that the abysmal driving standards here are even more to blame: the likelihood of traffic accidents becomes intolerably high when the roads are slippery, and many drivers choose not to run the risk (although what in fact tends to happen is that everyone drives so over-cautiously that the traffic moves at a crawl: on a rainy day a couple of weeks ago, it took me 50 minutes to cover a journey that usually takes 20, and the traffic was very light!).

I suppose we are spoiled rather: there is such an abundance of of cabs in this city that you rarely have to wait more than a few seconds to catch one - anywhere, at any time of the day or night. But when it's raining (or snowing), your confidence dwindles that you will ever catch one at all. The Choirboy was eventually persuaded to come out for dinner and a few drinks with me; it took him over 30 minutes to get a cab; in the circumstances, he was quite lucky.

Of course, we had long since had to give up on Hamlet. I cannot reproach myself too much for this decision: the long trek to the north was really not viable in these conditions. I do blame myself for leaving it until the last night of the run to try to see the play. I do blame myself for missing the first run. I do lament that we probably shan't see another professional production of the Bard here for another 5 or 10 years. Bugger! Bloody rain!

A couple of weeks ago, my cultural ambitions were defeated by the good weather; yesterday, by the bad weather. I just can't win.

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