Friday, April 18, 2008

Pedestrians Beware! On Driving In China

Pedestrians Beware! Should be a sign posted every ten meters in China. From the hamlets to the major metropolis, a person on foot is about as safe as a quail during hunting season.

China has many advantages over other countries when it comes to transportation. A train ride taking over fifty-hours from one part of the country to another costs about $50. A ten-hour bus ride between cities might cost $5. The local citizens benefit from these subsidized forms of travel. Tourists pay a higher rate.

Streets and roads in the cities are wide, well paved, and well-thought out. Intersections have traffic lights. During rush-hour traffic cops in white helmets stand around directing traffic. What is unusual in Chinese cities is traffic lanes for bicycles and slower-moving motorbikes. These lanes are usually separated from the main traffic flow by a low cement barrier. Crosswalks are clearly marked with white stripes.

That’s the infrastructure. Throw into the mix the jillions of vehicles and pedestrians, mix them up together, and you get a jumble of cars, trucks, bikes, and people all competing for the same space. An intersection becomes an exercise in grim, teeth-clenched determination. Once the light turns green, or even before it does, traffic hits the center of the intersection from every direction like a fullback hitting the line. Then it is usually the biggest that wins. A Mack Truck wins over a bus, a bus over a pick-up truck, a van over a car, a motorbike wins over a bicycle, and pedestrians are simply a nuisance that better be light on their feet or have good health insurance.

Crossing the street on foot in any Chinese city one has to look all ways simultaneously, because traffic obeys no laws once the light turns green. Any path which leads across the intersection is fair, even if it means crossing over into the on-coming traffic, going into the bike lane, or sometimes even on the sidewalks. Driving in China makes the car chases in Hollywood movies look tame.

A passenger car sees a hole in the traffic and swerves left into the intersection like a halfback carrying the ball on Monday Night Football. From the other direction a young woman on a bicycle may be pedaling across the street on the wide white pedestrian crossing lines. The car races towards her, nearly clipping her wheel. The woman would have been under the car had she not stopped, putting down her foot on the pavement, grimacing in resignation that she’d lost the contest.

But she doesn’t yell. One doesn’t see angry fist shaking wild eyed angry drivers or pedestrians yelling. But one does hear a lot of horns. Chinese drivers love their horns, or bells, in the case of bicycles, or buzzers, in the case of motor scooters. Although some motor scooters have replaced with buzzers with car horns, one suspects in order to be taken more seriously.

The Chinese blow their horns as they drive, sometimes when no one is within hundreds of yards of them.. One observer said they use the horns to save wear and tear on their brakes, but that couldn’t be true, because Chinese drivers play chicken every second they’re behind the wheel.
A good driver in China is one who can bull through a traffic jam, ignoring any on-coming traffic, bicycles, or pedestrians, who better move aside or get hit. And sometimes they do get hit. Once in a while one sees two cars blocking traffic, the drivers examining the damage. If an ambulance wanted to wend its way through the traffic, the sick person would die before reaching the hospital, even if it was only a block away.

Some of the intra-city roads were fantastic, six-lane super-highways and toll roads that stretched flat and endlessly into the horizon. Others were trips into Dante’s inferno. The “National Highway” between Quilin and Yangshu was a disaster waiting to happen. Although it was a toll-road, it was only two-lanes, one in either direction, not that that mattered because drivers used either side depending on circumstances. Both lanes thought were with potholes or had sections missing asphalt. To make matters worse the road wended itself through towns and villages busy with markets, causing the traffic to slow to a crawl in front of a vegetable stand because a clot of shoppers had spilled over onto the road.

The distance between Quilin and Yangshu was only about 80 kilometers, but took over two-hours of bone jarring nerve-rattling travel. As on all roads in China, from city streets to super-highways, chicken is the name of the game, and manual dexterity a necessity. If possible, that means if no cement barrier exists, the driver feels free to cross a solid white line as if it wasn’t there, or swerve onto the shoulder, even if it is on the on-coming traffic side of the road And the two-lane country roads were the rule in China not the exception. And all were clogged with everything from foot traffic, bikes, buffalo, to slow-moving trucks.

The Chinese version of a farm truck only ran at about twenty KPH (about 15 MPH). This was a vehicle whose drive-train was a strong belt running from the motor to a big front wheel; behind it a cart steered with a rod, like a rudder on a sailboat. Sometimes the cart was enclosed. Sometimes a traveler would see the same motor and wheels out in the fields with a plow attached to it. After a while one understood those signs on European and US highways forbidding certain vehicles from the roads, and setting a minimum speed-limit.

The way the drivers overcame these obstacles was to drive around them, preferably at high speed, and with the utmost discomfort to the passenger. If a passenger didn’t have complete faith in the driver then heart attacks and strokes would be commonplace. The drivers all knew the rules of the game. A taxi or limo or van driver spent his waking moments sitting around eating and smoking and waiting in the parking lot for the tourists to see the sights or behind the wheel.. Once on the road these pleasant mild-mannered men and women become road racers zipping around a truck, racing to fill a gap to the next slow-moving vehicle, slamming on the brakes, peeking around to see how close the next car was, and speeding into the next gap. This went on for the entire trip, except for stops at putrid, hold your nose, toilets..

The fact that roads had white lines, solid or broken, didn’t matter a whit. Neither did the shoulders. Where ever the driver could aim his vehicle to keep it moving was open game. Any lesser-included, smaller trucks, bikes, pedestrians, had better scatter. And what was amazing was everyone knew these were the rules, and accepted them.

On the highways the police drive late-model Toyotas, and were occasionally seen giving out traffic tickets. More often they stood around looking at an overloaded truck that overturned when the driver misjudged a pothole. One Chinese observer said that the recent bad winter had created sever problems in China which filtered down to the roads.

Snow had closed roads, and jammed up railroad lines. Coal and other supplies were stuck back in their loading docks. When the snow melted the government gave the nod and trucks were encouraged to overload their cargo beds to take up the slack in supplies needed in the cities.

It was not unusual to see trucks so heavily loaded their springs were useless, and the beds nearly resting on the wheels, the load piled four feet above the bed. These top-heavy vehicles didn’t make turns well, and easily tipped over.

The country roads further exacerbated this phenomenon. Some provinces were wealthy, had industry that paid taxes, and allowed for good roads. Others were poorer, in a money crunch. Those were the provinces that had roads with potholes the size of craters caused by a falling meteor. Those were the provinces where the overloaded trucks could be found on their sides like beached whales.

The road from Lijian back to Changdu (or Chungking, one forgets,) ran through towns and villages, and was wide enough for four lanes, but there wasn’t enough asphalt down on it to paint a white separation line. The top layer of ashpalt had disintegrated, and what was left was mounds of black tar and gravel near deep gouges on the ground. A vehicle literally had to swerve horizontally from one side of the wide road to the other to avoid these craters. Some of the overloaded trucks didn’t make the turns and toppled over. That’s when one saw the police, standing around, staring at the truck.

When the driver of one taxi was asked why on the way to Lijian, a jumping off point for the ride up to Mt Emei 10,000 feet in the air, one was told that the super-highway was longer, and only used one –way; the pot-holed cratered road was used on the way back. And even more astounding was both were toll roads that charged the same fees.

Okay, so you’re going to avoid all of these things, and rent a car, drive sanely, brave the elements, be an adventurer.. Forget it. The signs, when there are signs, are in Chinese. Some are in English, but only near the major cities and major airports. So you may be able to get out of Beijing, but then you could wind up in Tibet before you realized you’d taken a wrong turn. And these days you don’t want to wind up in Tibet.. Asking directions won’t help, either because most Chinese people’s English vocabulary ends with “Hello.”

Of course the signs weren’t always intelligible, either. One sign wired to a railing at the side of a steep cliff said, “No Falling Allowed.”

So, I guess you’ve figured that riding on the roads in China is not for the faint-hearted nervous passenger, or a back seat driver. Those folks best to stick to big busses, trains and planes. Or, take a lot of tranquilizers.