Beijing construction triptych #2: Guomao

First picture: Google satellite view of the I-10 / I-405 intersection on the west side of Los Angeles. This is where the Santa Monica freeway meets the San Diego freeway, an extremely busy piece of thoroughfare. The only airline flight I've ever missed in my life was because of a jam at this very intersection -- my mother was driving me to LAX for a flight back to college after my first year's Christmas break, and we sat for two hours on one of the connectors shown below. (Part #1 of the Beijing construction triptych here.)


Next picture: the Guomao intersection in Beijing, where Jianguo Lu meets the East Third Ring Road. Our apartment building is just off screen on the lower right corner of the picture; subway entrances are on the other three corners but not on ours:


From my point of view, main difference between these intersections: no sane person would try to cross I-10/I-405 on foot. But many tens of thousands of pedestrians, including me, have to cross the Guomao intersection every day.

As so often stated, and sincerely, I like most things about being in China and most of the Chinese people I've met. But I hate with a white-hot hatred the experience of being a pedestrian in China at big Indy-speedway type throughways like the Guomao crossing. As I confessed years ago, I have adapted fully to most aspects of the every-man-for-himself spirit of Chinese public life. I can line-cut with the best of them, and hip-check or elbow away anybody trying to line-cut on me. But there is no way I can fight out the equivalent of that behavior when the adversary is mechanized -- when buses roar full-tilt through red lights, knowing that at the last second their size and momentum will give them right of way and the pedestrians must scatter. Or when taxis drive the wrong way, when little vans shoot around at a 90-degree angle to the supposed flow of traffic, when a black Audi A8 (ie Big Shot's car) that once bumped my knee as it rolled through a red light while I was crossing on a green and then kept on pushing, etc.
So for 18 months now I have watched, with a mixture of hope. desperation, and impatience, as construction workers have hammered away on what will someday be a subway entrance on the last corner of the Guomao intersection -- our corner! When it finally opens up, I can go under these dozens of lanes of traffic, rather than fighting my way across them. Think how my overall outlook on Things Chinese will improve!

But it seems that time is not on my side. A door in the high construction wall that normally shields the construction site was open for a moment yesterday. I saw that the new subway entrance was close to operation -- but not quite close enough for my purposes (with less than a month to go on-scene in Beijing). Oh well.

One second after I shot this photo, the man in the red hard hat started running toward me while waving his arms and yelling at me to stop because no photos were allowed.

A grizzled foreigner in a business suit, carrying a briefcase in one hand and a camera in another - a strapping, irritated construction worker in pursuit.... It should have been no contest. But I darted into traffic, and he lost interest.

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Technology

From This Author

Just In