Beijingle All the Way
by Fei Wu
Translated from the Chinese by Josh Pachter
* * *
From the fortieth floor, the city beyond the huge glass windows of my office lies shrouded in snow. Far beneath my feet, the taillights of the vehicles on the East Second Ring Road trace intricate red lines, like wounds in the night.
Today is my how-manyth consecutive day of working overtime, from early morning till ten p.m. or later. They say that Beijing’s white-collar workers devote plenty of time to earning their pay but have little time left over to spend it. As a drone in the new-media industry, I have to agree.
Our company moved to Yintai SOHO a year ago, and it’s the only new-media marketing agency here. Most companies would love to have their offices in Yintai SOHO, but the rent of eight yuan per square meter per day puts it out of their reach. To say it bluntly, the companies that can afford offices in this building are very rich. Those unable to pay the rent are quickly evicted. The chemical company next door, for example: Today is their last day in Yintai. I happen to know the founder, Zhao Jie, who graduated from Peking University two years ahead of me.
The day I began to work here, Zhao Jie welcomed me with a cup of tea at the open-air cafe on the roof, as if the world lay at our feet. Now, only one year later, we’ll be saying our goodbyes.
Commerce is a cruel realm, success its only king. . . .
* * *
Shortly after eleven o’clock, I leave the office, which is still brightly lit. As usual, I drive to a roadside kebab restaurant near the Dayangfang Bridge in the South Fifth Ring Road for a late-night snack. No matter how our circumstances change, we take comfort from the same few pleasures: food, wine, friends.
Driving through Beijing in the snow is dangerous business. According to the radio, there’ve already been several accidents on the ring roads tonight. I head south, keeping my speed below forty kilometers per hour. According to the traffic-information boards overhead, all seven rings are badly congested.
It’s almost midnight by the time I get to the kebab restaurant, an outdoor shack cobbled together from wooden poles and plastic sheets. A string of incandescent bulbs hanging from bare wires illuminates the place. Despite the heavy snow, there’s a happy vibe in the air: laughter, clinking bottles, the smells of cumin powder and cheap liquor.
Bo Sui, the forty-something owner, knows what I like to eat. “The usual?” he says from behind the grill, surrounded by sparks and smoke.
I nod and take a seat, listening to the hourly newscast on the radio and then the beginning of my favorite program.
“Welcome to the Flying Fish Show on FM 95.7! It’s Christmas Eve, so we’re sending out a ‘Jingle Bells’ greeting to all our friends out on the roads. Drive safely!”
The familiar American holiday song swells into the bitter night.
Bo and I both enjoy the Flying Fish Show. These days, radio isn’t as popular as it used to be, but the host who calls himself Mr. Fish still gets a fair number of people calling in to his live midnight broadcast.
Half an hour later, the kebab restaurant is almost empty. Bo turns over a piece of cardboard attached to the plastic-sheet entrance to read “Closed.” He comes over to my table and sits across from me, placing his portable radio between us. “Edelweiss,” from The Sound of Music, is playing, and its lovely melody blends with the sound of snow falling on the plastic ceiling, producing a very special effect.
“You know what music and snow have in common?” he asks.
I think for a while, but I have no answer to his question.
The song ends, and Mr. Fish takes a call from a listener, a taxi driver with an unusual passenger.
* * *
What follows is the story told by the cabbie, who identifies himself as “Old Warrior.”
On Christmas Eve, he had hoped to get home early to prepare a present for his daughter, but the tuition for her private primary school would soon be due, so he decided to work a few more hours.
Around ten-thirty p.m., his mobile phone rang: a passenger needed to be picked up at Yintai SOHO on the East Second Ring Road.
That catches my attention. What a coincidence, I think. That’s where I work! My interest piqued, I lean forward and listen.
Old Warrior’s passenger was going to Sakura Garden, a community only seven kilometers from Yintai SOHO. But the passenger asked Old Warrior to fill his tank before making the pickup. This was a puzzling request, since it would only be a twenty-minute drive in traffic, but Old Warrior stopped at the Sinopec on Xiushui North Street and pumped three hundred yuan of #92 gasoline.
Old Warrior knew Yintai SOHO well, and was familiar with the habits of the building’s white-collar workers, most of whom got off work between eight and ten in the evening.
He arrived at the pickup point on time, at eleven.
A man in a black trenchcoat stood beneath the glass overhang at the Yintai SOHO entrance. He seemed preoccupied and didn’t notice the cab’s arrival.
Old Warrior blinked his headlights, which caught his passenger’s attention.
The man carried a backpack and dragged a wheeled silver suitcase. Old Warrior got out and opened the trunk, but the passenger insisted on stowing the suitcase in the front seat.
When Old Warrior hoisted the bag, he found that it was unexpectedly heavy.
Back behind the wheel, Old Warrior suggested they take city streets, rather than the Third Ring Road. There would be more traffic lights that way, but, given the road conditions, it would probably be faster. No, the passenger said, he preferred the Ring Road.
As they were about to drive off, the passenger changed his mind. “Let’s go to Peking University,” he said.
“Ah? Not Sakura Garden?”
“Do as I tell you,” the passenger said. “And please turn off the heater: Your car is too hot.”
The passenger settled into the backseat and put on headphones, which told Old Warrior that the man didn’t want to be disturbed.
When the cab took the on-ramp onto the Third Ring, Old Warrior noticed that the passenger wasn’t buckled in. He pantomimed fastening a seat belt, but the passenger ignored him.
Old Warrior’s impression of his fare was getting worse.
The drive from Yintai SOHO to Peking University is eighteen kilometers, via the East Second Ring Road, the North Second Ring Road, and the North Fourth Ring Road. After forty minutes in the increasingly violent snowstorm, they pulled up at the university’s east gate.
Peking University is my alma mater. It seemed as if Old Warrior’s story had been custom written to intrigue me. From Bo’s radio, the account continues.
The guard shack at the gate was brightly lit, and the passenger declined to get out of the cab. Instead, he gazed silently at the snow outside the window.
Old Warrior waited patiently. At last the passenger instructed him to drive on to Yuyuantan Park. Old Warrior realized that it was shaping up to be a long night.
When I was a student at Peking University, I went to Yuyuantan Park every spring to admire the cherry blossoms. In those days, I liked nature very much. Oyama, Yoshino, Yae Red Branch, Edo—I knew all the varieties of cherry trees.
The distance between Peking University and Yuyuantan Park is about eleven kilometers, which took Old Warrior some forty minutes through the snow. The park was closed and deserted at this hour, and by now Old Warrior was feeling confused. Since the university campus is open around the clock, it had not seemed unusual to go there so late at night, but why would anyone want to go to a park that was already shut down for the night?
At the park entrance, the strange passenger remained seated. He stared out the window for a while, then leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes.
A few minutes later, he gave Old Warrior their next destination: Tanzhe Temple, in the western suburbs of Beijing. This immediately made Old Warrior nervous.
Tanzhe Temple is in the foothills of Tanzhe Mountain, in Mentougou District, the westernmost suburb of Beijing, more than thirty kilometers from the city center. It is where the old Beijingers go to pray for good luck and health. I’ve been to Tanzhe Temple twice myself, when I was pregnant with my son. At that time, my relationship with Qiu Jun was still very good, and the joyful anticipation of welcoming a new life into our family filled our hearts.
There are a lot of rules for those who drive night cabs. One is to avoid adult males who want to go to the outer suburbs. The reason is obvious: Such passengers sometimes turn out to be intent on robbery.
Old Warrior hesitated, but finally decided to do as his passenger had requested.
The man didn’t look like a violent type, and why would someone who worked at Yintai SOHO need to rob a lowly cab driver? Old Warrior had heard that people employed in that building made more money in an hour than a cabbie could earn in an entire month.
He checked his dashboard clock and saw that it was 12:30 a.m.
The road from the city to Tanzhesizhen is very good. Once you turn off National Highway 108 onto Lianshi Road, though, you begin to climb into the mountains, and Old Warrior almost lost control of his car more than once on the tight switchback turns, made more slippery than usual by the snow.
In his rearview mirror, Old Warrior saw the passenger repeatedly looking at his watch. It was an analog watch, obviously expensive.
There were almost no other cars on the road, and they came to the base of Tanzhe Mountain at 1:20 a.m. A blanket of fresh snow covered the road. Old Warrior could make out the irregular black-and-white pattern of the mountain’s slope through his windshield.
An LCD readout gave the temperature inside and outside the car in both Celsius and Fahrenheit: it was -17°C/ 1°F outside, 5°C/41°F on the inside.
“Are you cold?” asked Old Warrior. “Should I turn the heat back on?”
Old Warrior parked in the lot outside the temple. There was no one to be seen, no lights visible within the temple. For the first time since he had entered the cab, the passenger opened the back door and stepped out. He did not take his suitcase.
“He got out of the car?” exclaims Mr. Fish. “In minus-seventeen-degree weather?”
“Yes,” says Old Warrior. “He’s standing at the temple gate right now. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to call you. He hasn’t done anything exactly wrong, but his behavior has upset me!”
“Has he said where he wants to go next? It’s almost one-thirty in the morning! Is your daughter home alone?”
“Yeah.” Old Warrior’s voice trembles. “I don’t know what he’s thinking. Wait, he’s knocking on the gate!”
“On the gate?” asks Mr. Fish.
“Now he’s given up. He’s coming back! I have to go.”
“The roads are slick, Old Warrior, please drive carefully. It’s Christmas Eve: Be safe, and give my regards to your daughter.”
Mr. Fish breaks the connection and addresses his audience. “Well, folks, what an interesting story that was! I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything quite like it. We’re going to break for a commercial message, but don’t touch your dial: We’ll be right back!”
Copyright © 2019. Beijingle All the Way by Fei Wu