Beijing tries to tame its wild taxis before '08 Olympics

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

On a hazy afternoon that threatens rain, my two companions and I hail a taxi. Our driver, Wang Yi, is friendly and professional.

He flips the fare meter and starts a small narrative as we make our way through the city's urban labyrinth.

But can this be Beijing? The NASCAR-esque maneuvers are missing - along with heart-stopping lane changes. Stranger still, our ride has no white-knuckle encounters with bicyclists trying to dash across the road.

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Instead Yi is calm and polite. "We are turning left, so please fasten your seat belt," he intones as if driving Miss Daisy.

Actually, Yi is not a real taxi driver - yet. For the next 40 days, he'll practice again and again, seven hours a day, six days a week at a taxi school here on the outskirts of Beijing. This is where etiquette and English collide with a no-holds-barred street culture that Chinese officials are determined to tame before the 2008 Olympics.

As the China Daily has noted, the quality of service at the Games will make a lasting impression, and that means doing more than "putting forward a bunch of beautiful young ladies in skin-tight cheongsam, wearing programmed smiles to greet guests at hotel entrances, as we often see in China." It also means not undoing years of urban reengineering in one harried cab ride.

Wong Yongxin is confident he can make a difference. "In 2008, conflict between the driver and passengers won't happen," says the president of the state-owned Training Center of the Beijing Beiqi Group Taxi Company. His tone suggests that this may have been a problem in the past. "China is a welcoming and polite country. Visitors won't have to worry."

But reeducating China's cabbies may prove as challenging as building the Great Wall.

The number of cars in Beijing has doubled in the past five years or so, meaning that taking to the streets can feel like going to war. Right-on-red morphs into right-whenever-I-feel-like-it. Horsepower rules. Pity the poor pedestrian who believes he has the right of way.

Even more challenging is figuring out where to go. Beijing is changing daily as it undergoes a massive face-lift. Only half the candidates here pass the licensing test on the first try. Geography is often the culprit.

But if Yi heeds the wisdom of his coach, Wu Jinchang, he could offer hope for reclaiming a city from traffic pandemonium.

The scrutiny is unrelenting. After reviewing some pointers from Mr. Wu, Yi starts up again. "Hello, where would you like to go?" he asks. "The Great Wall," Wu answers.

As we proceed through the course, Wang, who used to work as a private driver, gets tips on steering-wheel management. Then we're back at the start, where Wu finds only one flaw: Wang forgot to remind us to take our things.

In any city, driving taxis is a transient business, and Beijing is no exception: The city sees a turnover of some 10,000 to 15,000 drivers each year, according to Mr. Wong. But the school has no shortage of recruits, who typically cherish a hope of redirecting a life, collecting some extra cash - and getting to know foreigners in the time it takes to travel from the Forbidden City to the Summer Palace.

That is what impels them to give up five weeks - as well as $162 - for geography class, social-skills lessons, and, of course, English.

On the second floor of the small school, a dozen-plus students sit plugged into headphones, unraveling the mysteries of 100 phrases in the global lingua franca. Their teacher tries to keep them in line in a scene reminiscent of seventh-grade language lab.

"Don't forget," she says. The students repeat her words in a hesitant wave. "I need change," she says. "Chehnge," comes the reply. "No," she says. "Chaaaange."

As he takes a break, Lu Gang says a driver's schedule is appealing - that's why he's here. But he also has an eye on those five Olympic rings and the nobility of being what the school calls a "window" on this city of 15 million. "Taxi drivers can introduce Chinese culture and learn foreign cultures," he says brightly.

Tian Chuyan, a young mother taking the course rather than studying on her own, says she's sure she can figure it all out - from the requisite English to the tough geography. "I am very excited to become a driver," she says. And, she adds, "Rudeness won't happen in Beijing. Taxi driving is a service business, so we will keep people happy."

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