Renting a car in China is different

April 29, 2010 at 2:45 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

FOR my road trip, I rented a Chinese-made Jeep Cherokee from a Beijing company called Capital Motors. It was a new industry; even five years earlier, almost nobody would have thought of renting a car for a weekend trip. But now the business had started to develop, and my local Capital Motors branch had a fleet of about 50 vehicles, mostly Chinese-made Volkswagen Santanas and Jettas.

They are small sedans, built on the same basic model as the VW Fox that was once sold in the US. At Capital Motors, I often rented Jettas for weekend trips, and there was an elaborate ritual to these transactions. First, I paid my $US25 ($41) a day and filled out a mountain of paperwork.

Next, the head mechanic opened the trunk to prove there was a spare tyre and a jack. Finally we toured the Jetta’s exterior, recording dents and scratches on a diagram that represented the shape of a car. This often took a while; Beijing traffic is not gentle, and it was my responsibility to sketch every door ding and bumper dent. After we documented the prenuptial damage, the mechanic turned the ignition and showed me the gas gauge. Sometimes it was half full; sometimes there was a quarter tank. Occasionally he studied it and announced: “Three-eighths.”

It was my responsibility to return the car with exactly the same amount of fuel. Week to week, it was never the same, and one day I decided to make my own contribution to the fledgling industry.

“You know,” I said, “you should rent out all the cars with a full tank, and then require the customer to bring it back full. That’s how rental companies do it in America. It’s much simpler.”

“That would never work here,” said Mr Wang , who usually handled my paperwork. He was the friendliest of the three men who sat in the Capital Motors front office, where they smoked cigarettes as if it were a competition. Behind their veil of smoke, a company evaluation sign hung on the wall:

Customer Satisfaction Rating: 90 per cent
Efficiency Rating: 97 per cent
Appropriate Service Diction
Rating: 98 per cent
Service Attitude Rating:99 per cent

“That might work in America, but it wouldn’t work here,” Mr Wang continued. “People in China would return the car empty.”

“Then you charge them a lot extra to refill it,” I explained. “Make it a standard rule. Charge extra if people don’t obey and they’ll learn to follow it.”

“Chinese people would never do that!”

“I’m sure they would,” I said.

“You don’t understand Chinese people!” Mr Wang said, laughing, and the other men nodded their heads in agreement.

As a foreigner, I often heard that, and it had a way of ending discussion. The Chinese people had invented the compass, paper, the printing press, gunpowder, the seismograph, the crossbow and the umbrella. They had sailed to Africa in the 15th century; they had constructed the Great Wall. Over the past decade they had built their economy at a rate never before seen in the developing world.

They could return a rental car with exactly three-eighths of a tank of gas, but filling it was apparently beyond the realm of cultural possibility. We had a couple more conversations about this, but finally I dropped the subject. It was impossible to argue with somebody as friendly as Mr Wang.

He seemed especially cheerful whenever I returned a freshly damaged car. In the US, I had never had an accident, but Beijing was a different story. When I first came to the capital and walked around, I was impressed by the physicality of pedestrians. I was constantly getting bumped and pushed. In a city of 13 million you learn to expect contact, and after I got my licence I realised that driving works the same way.

The first couple of times I dented a Jetta, I felt terrible; after the fourth or fifth time, it became routine. I bumped other cars; other cars bumped me. If there was a dent, we settled it in the street, the way everybody does in China.

Once, a driver backed into my rental car near the Lama Temple in downtown Beijing. I got out to inspect the dent; the other motorist, by way of introduction, immediately said, “One hundred yuan.” It was the equivalent of about $US12, which was generally the starting point for a mid-size Beijing dent. When this offer was relayed by telephone to Mr Wang, his response was also immediate: “Ask for 200.”

I bargained for five minutes, until the other driver finally agreed to 150. Mr Wang was satisfied; he knew you never get what you ask for. And every accident had a silver lining: dents were good business. There wasn’t any paperwork for these exchanges, and I suspected that the desk men at Capital Motors sometimes kept the cash.

Another time I hit a dog while driving in the countryside north of Beijing. The animal darted out from behind a house and lunged at the front of my Jetta; I swerved, but it was too late. That was a common problem; Chinese dogs, like everybody else in the country, weren’t quite accustomed to having automobiles around. When I returned the car, Mr Wang seemed pleased to see that the plastic cover for the right signal light had been smashed. He asked me what I had hit.

“A dog,” I said.

“The dog didn’t have a problem, did it?”

“The dog had a problem,” I said. “It died.”

Mr Wang’s smile got bigger. “Did you eat it?”

“It wasn’t that kind of dog,” I said. “It was one of those tiny little dogs.”

“Well, sometimes if a driver hits a big dog,” Mr Wang said, “he just throws it in the trunk, takes it home and cooks it.”

I couldn’t tell if he was joking; he was a dog owner, but in China that doesn’t necessarily involve dietary restrictions. He charged me 12 bucks for the light cover, the same price as a midsize dent.

They never asked where I was taking the Jeep Cherokee. The rental contract specifically forbade drivers from leaving the Beijing region, but I decided to ignore this rule; they wouldn’t figure it out until I returned the Jeep with a loaded odometer. In China, much of life involves skirting regulations, and one of the basic truths is that forgiveness comes easier than permission.

The Jeep was the biggest vehicle on the lot, a Cherokee 7250, and they gave me a special price of $US30 a day. It was white, with purple detailing along the sides; the doors were decorated with the English words “City Special”. The name was accurate — the thing would be worthless in rough terrain, because it was strictly rear-wheel drive. I figured that if I got stuck in the Gobi or ran into other problems, I’d have to rely on the assistance of other drivers.

And some of the questions I had seen on the written Chinese driver’s exam weren’t exactly reassuring: No 344: “If you see an accident and the people need help, you should a) continue driving; b) stop, do what you can to help and contact the police; c) stop, see if the people offer a reward, and then help.”

At any rate, if things got bad in the west I could always call Mr Zhang, the feng shui master. On his business card he offered to “tow cars and trucks” — service No 22, listed between “collecting bones” and “playing horns and drums”.

Original story here

THE NEWS

Woman bites man after being called fat’: “Police say a 24-year-old Nebraska man is missing a chunk of his right ear that was bitten off by a woman who didn’t like being called “fat”. Police spokeswoman Katie Flood said officers were called to a Nebraska hospital around 3.25am local time yesterday to talk to the injured man. He told them that he’d been bitten at a party. Ms Flood said officers later learned that the injured man and two others had been arguing with other people at the birthday party. Ms Flood says the man told 21-year-old Anna Godfrey that she was fat. Officers said Ms Godfrey then tackled the man and took a bite. Ms Flood said the ear chunk was not found. Ms Godfrey was arrested on suspicion of felony assault and remained in custody yesterday.”

Gay dwarf activist killed by New York taxi: “A dwarf activist for gay rights and issues affecting the disabled was hit and killed by a taxi as he left a community board meeting on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The New York Post said Harry Wieder, 57, walked with crutches and was leaving a community board meeting last night when he crossed in the middle of the block and was hit by a yellow taxi cab. “We had all just left the (board) meeting and his car was parked across the street. It was laborious for him to walk. For him to walk to the corner and cross the street would have been extremely difficult. He was crossing the street in the middle of the block,” said district manager Susan Stetzer. “The cab driver was very distraught.” Mr Wieder was rushed to Bellevue Hospital where he was pronounced dead.”

Russian model accused of being Kremlin secret agent: “A Russian amateur model has been accused of being a secret agent for the Kremlin, allegedly luring government critics with the promise of sex and drugs. Ekaterina “Katya” Gerasimova, 19, has been described as a modern-day Mata Hari after reportedly luring at least six of Vladimir Putin’s detractors into embarrassing sex “honeytraps” or online stings aimed at destroying their reputations, The Daily Mail said. Radio journalist Viktor Shenderovich, 52, who is married with a daughter, has admitted cheating on his wife, but blasted the secret services for setting him up, the paper said. He said: “I did have Katya – without much pleasure though, as she was as boring as your whole dull Gestapo.”

Indonesia: 28 detained in beach “gigolo” raid: “Police on Indonesia’s resort island of Bali detained 28 people this week in a crackdown on ‘beach gigolos,’ who scout for foreign female tourists, officials said on Tuesday. The raids began on Monday after the release of a trailer for a documentary on Bali’s ‘Kuta cowboys,’ the muscular and tanned Kuta beach surfers who develop short-term romantic relationships with foreign women in return for gifts. ‘Cowboys in Paradise’ follows the trials and tribulations of several beach boys, their families and their female patrons. The documentary’s Singapore-based director, Amit Virmani, said he found the arrests deplorable. ‘A witch hunt for men with tanned and muscular bodies on the beach is the last thing anybody wants,’ he said.”

Indian holy man claims he ate, drank nothing for 70 years: Scientists are studying an 82-year-old man who claims he has not had any food or drink for 70 years. Prahlad Jani’s claims are being put to the test at a hospital in Ahmedabad, where he is being closely monitored and studied by India’s Defence Research Development Organisation, which believes he may have a quality which could help save lives, The Telegraph reports. He has so far spent six days without food or water under the strict observation of doctors who say his body is yet to show any signs of hunger or dehydration. Mr Jani is regarded as a “breatharian” who can live a “spiritual life-force” alone. He believes he is sustained by the “elixir” of a goddess.”

And don’t forget to catch up with all the Strange Justice before you go.

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