Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Apres Sarah, le Deluge

So my friend Sarah from Scripps came in for (of all things!) a climate meeting last week. We had a great time walking around Beijing the previous Sunday and even had time for a pedal-boat outing on one of my favorite ponds in the center of old Beijing.

Sarah was flying out Sunday morning at 1 AM and so I thought I would take her around town again. At around 10 AM, I headed to the Friendship hotel, and that's when the rain started. it was a mere shower when we headed to the subway station. I had other plans to go out of the city (Xiangshan,  Tanze Temple, ...), but decided, since the forecast was moderate rain during the day (with torrential downpour in the evening), we would be better off going to Yihe Yuan, i.e., the Summer Palace, whose northern entrance is next to a subway stop and conveniently on the same line that ran past the Friendship Hotel.


It was probably moderate rain when we got to the Summer Palace. There were still a lot of people going in and so we decided we would chance it. But instead of heading straight up the hill to see the temple (Foxiang Ge, or Buddha Fragrance Temple), I decided we should walk around and head straight to Kunming lake and the main part of the Summer Palace. The downpour continued as we walked on the northern part of the lake and along the famed long corridor/pavilion (hand painted). Still a lot of tourist groups walking in the rain, though just about everybody was waiting under cover (pavilions all around). There were stretches that the foot traffic was horrible.

Many tourists were taking the ferry in the Summer Palace (photo by Sarah)

Still we pressed on and made it to the 17-Arches Bridge and then over to see the little island on the other side. The rain was coming down with no sign of letting up. So we decided to leave, but heading back to the subway was not really an option. I didn't think going back and fighting tourist traffic was a good idea. So we headed out the new east entrance where I knew there was a bus terminal with multiple bus lines heading back into the city, some in the general direction of the Friendship Hotel.

At this point, it was raining heavily. The torrential rain in the original forecast was probably wrong by 6-8 hours. I think the city government started to ratchet up the storm warning, but Sarah & I, with only my dumb-phone, didn't have access to this information. Anyway, at the bus terminal, all 3 bus lines went past the Purple Bamboo Garden, which is reasonably close to the Friendship. Close to the northwest corner of the Purple Bamboo Garden, there was also a quiet restaurant (with decent Dongbei cuisine and free wifi) and so we got on the first bus that came.

The Purple Bamboo Garden is about half way between the edge of the old city and the Summer Palace and is along the water way that connects the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace. Supposedly the Empress Dowager would stop at the Purple Bamboo Garden, meditate at the Wanshou temple, before heading to the Summer Palace --- these trips were done entirely by boat.

The 374 bus followed the canals which ended at the southern corner of the Summer Palace and followed the water way to the Fourth Ring road. There the bus deviated from the water way and turned into the multitude of office and residential buildings within the Fourth Ring loop. Eventually,  the bus went past the water way again where the canal came out of the Purple Bamboo Garden, passed Wanshou Temple and then under the Third Ring road.

The snack stand across the street from the restaurant (photo by Sarah)

The 374 bus station at Wanshou temple was on the west (opposite) side of the Third Ring road. As Sarah and I walked over the canal, we were amazed by the flux of water and the waves that raged below. We had to take the overpass across the Third Ring, and past Wanshou temple to get to the restaurant. The small lane leading in was already partially flooded.

There was no one else at the restaurant. A waitress greeted us and sat us at the first table next to the window. (It happened to be where I sat the previous time.) I ordered an appetizer of garlic-ed eggplant and some scallion pancakes. Also ordered some bitter melon. Sarah wanted to try their Kung Pao Chicken and so we ordered it. During the brief respite between ordering and food showing up, I used my Kindle 3G to check if the (inbound) aircraft of her flight was on-time. The plane had already landed. We were amazed that Air France could afford to keep one of their planes at PEK from 3 PM to 1 AM. (Presumably, they got the 1 AM take-off slot at a good deal.)

During lunch, the rain seemed to have let up and so we relaxed and stayed perhaps longer than we should have. But at 4:30, the downpour was heavy again. At 5 PM, we thought that it was not letting up any time soon, and so we headed back to the Friendship for Sarah's luggage.

By the time we got out of the subway next to the Friendship Hotel, the torrential portion of the original forecast had started. Luckily it wasn't very windy yet. We started to think of the various options for Sarah to get to the airport. The road traffic already seemed horrible. I thought there would be flooding at various places in the city (underpasses of highways, etc.), and that even if we could hail a taxi, there's a chance that the driver would refuse to go, or the taxi would end up stuck in traffic somewhere.

So we debated the option of subway vs. airport express bus (the Friendship is a stop along bus line #4). The concierge at the Friendship was more than happy to call a taxi (though I doubt any would show up), and suggested the airport express bus as an alternative. In the end, we decided on the airport express bus as it was closer than the subway and it didn't require any transit changes (vs. 2 different subway lines and the airport express shuttle). The bus would follow the Third Ring road to the Airport Expressway and so, chances are, it would be okay. We walked indoors within the Friendship for as long as we could. Then we dashed the last 200 meters to the bus station. The bus came pretty quickly and I saw Sarah off safely. And then I headed to the subway to head home. This was at around 6:30 PM. Little did I know that I am about to head into some severe flooding.

The subway ride itself was fine. And then I exited to heavy rain and very rapid water flow along the Fourth Ring road. I took the overpass across the Fourth Ring and headed back to our apartment. On the north side of the Fourth Ring road, the water level was only up to the sidewalk and so I thought nothing of it. I rotated my backpack so that it hung in front of me to keep my Kindle dry and heading further north.

Then I saw a bunch of cars stopped way before the next traffic light. There were already a few abandon cars at the light. I kept walking. The water level on the sidewalk kept rising and rising as I walked. It was already knee deep when I got to the light (and the last intersection before our apartment). I turned the corner and realized I had no idea how deep the water was. It was not quite car handle level at street level and I was still on the sidewalk. It was the last 200 meters and I could see un-submerged sidewalk about 50 meters away. Besides, it was still pouring and the water level was still rising. So I had to press on.

Luckily the deepest portion was only mid-thigh level and eventually I made it through to the lane leading to our apartment complex. There a passenger was helping a taxi driver to push the stalled cab off to the side. There was no security at the gate, which was left open. As I walked on the grounds, I saw the drain covers repeatedly tossed upwards by the water backing up.

I put everything in the wash and then took a long shower. Multiple text messages showed up while I was showering. Many friends who went out to the mountains had to abandon their cars and find a village to stay at. My wife made it safely to her mother's at around the same time I made it back to the apartment. The flooding there wasn't nearly as severe. I told her that she should just spend the night. There wouldn't be any taxis or busses, in any case.

The rain kept pouring and pouring. From our 11th floor apt, I saw more and more abandoned cars. Each of them making boat waves before going in too deep. And yet they kept driving in ...

At around 10 PM, the rained started to let up a bit and the water level started to subside. Finally at around 11 PM, I could see the wheels on some of the abandoned cars, as the last buses with the previously stranded passengers started to finish their routes and to head to their respective bus terminals.

Some numbers:

·         37 71 deaths (1 struck by lightning)

·         Estimated 20 million USD in damages, not counting the

·         5 million damaged cars

·         An average of 17 cm rain fall within beijing city

·         3 underpasses had water levels > 2 meters

On the bright side, Beijing's main reservoir (Miyun reservoir) added > 28 million cubic meters of water on Saturday. Equivalent in volume to 14 times that of Kunming lake (Summer Palace).

P.S. Sarah's bus got to the airport without a hitch. Her Air France flight was on time, but because of a mis-parked aircraft, the actual take-off was an hour late.


Madeleine Rothberg said...

Holy wow! Glad to hear that all the main characters are safe.

dudeFromYemen said...

NYC and Philly were hit with crazy storms as well. Kind of wierd I guess...

Vik said...

Wow, that was one bad storm and flood! Even worse than our hurricane Irene last year. Glad you all were unscathed! Great post.