Mammoth was glowing in his assessment of Beijing motoring but I have had different experiences driving all over the country. Written a few years back and more recent trips indicate car ownership has quadrupled.
A vehicle was organised for me by Jason Li, the NRMA manager in China, to survey the 1907 car race route from Beijing to Mongolian border. Gao was a delightful young fellow supplementing his income as a car club break-down mechanic by “guiding me. His English was only slightly better then my Chinese but a great few days was had by the two of us.
Gao is not the worst driver I have ever been with but he was certainly well through the qualifying rounds. I doubt he has ever been out of Beijing and he certainly had not driven on a dirt road before.
My suspicions were first aroused 15 minutes after departure while driving along the freeway leading out of Beijing. We slowly began a graceful sweep right across three lanes. Not seeing any traffic to pass in front of us I thought Gao was positioning to exit. My theory proved to be correct, he was preparing to exit but via the wall! I hate to be a back seat driver but I thought in the circumstances it may be justified. I reached over and grabbed the wheel to make a minor course adjustment before thumping him on the shoulder to awaken him from his slumber.
Gao had been trained by the Beijing Training Academy and had been examined (as had every other Beijing driver) to confirm without question that there was absolutely no trace of situational awareness or anticipation in his list of driving skills.
Beijing actually has a bad wrap from people who have never driven in the great cities of the world. The traffic can only be described as light for a city of such size. I am sure it is also the slowest in the world – 60-80 kph on freeways and less on other roads. There is none of the maniacal, horn blowing insanity of Cairo or Karachi or a city sinking under the sheer volume of cars like Bangkok.
Chinese drivers are cautious drivers and certainly not aggressive. The main problem is they drive as though they are the only ones on the road. This is where Beijing’s fabled traffic jams come from. They are not traffic jams at all but tailbacks, as the British say, from small log jams!
At any intersection one may observe the problem. Milling around on the footpath are the pedestrians, schooling for safety like sardines about to cross a shark infested channel. At each corner there is a brown uniformed “conductor” equipped with a whistle, loud speaker and a red flag. The whistles are going continuously interspersed with instructions on the loud speakers which were all Chinese to me. Meanwhile the red flag is waving in all manner of individual moves according to the energy and ingenuity of the waver.
When the starter’s gun goes, amazingly indicated by a green “walk” signal, the school swarms into the channel, totally ignoring any whimsical directions the brown clad conductors feel compelled to issue.
Meanwhile the green light has also released the sharks travelling in the same direction as the sardines. This is fine until one wished to turn right. He may of course freely do so as he is the only vehicle on the road. Totally oblivious to the fact there is a stream of sardines flowing across his path he sticks his snout into the flow. When it becomes obvious there are objects brushing up against his car he comes to a halt half on the pedestrian crossing with his tail blocking the traffic lane.
The pedestrians also oblivious to the fact there may be a car turning, come to a sudden stop. Such is the press from the mass behind the numerous people are introduced to gay society or suffer unwanted pregnancies, as the case may be, as a result of their unobservant leaders’ abrupt halt.
By this time a second car wishing to turn right has seen a space outside the first stalled vehicle so he comes around and sticks his snout into the stream as well. We now have two cars with their tails out in the traffic lane unable to complete the turn.
Despite the frenzied whistle blowing the flag waving (and a red Don’t Walk sign) the flow is still trickling in front of the stuck cars when the opposition team begin their charge from the other direction. It takes little imagination to envisage a repeat performance from the other crew and within seconds cars are pouring into the blocked intersection – because they are the only car on the road.
A couple of light changes and the entire intersection is geometrically packed with cars. Any space between them is filled with pedestrians battling their way by any means to the other side. Adding to the gaiety of the occasion, the brown conductors are blowing whistles and waving flags in an insane frenzy while being completely ignored by all and sundry.
Meanwhile the tail back is 3 kms long. Not a traffic jam but a log jam.
But I digress. After his quick power nap, Gao masterfully took us out of Beijing. A task even I could perform because the freeway signs are in English and Chinese.
The road became a simple two lane affair crammed with trucks. Passing manoeuvres ranged from outrageous to ingenious. Gao’s technique was one I had witnessed often in Indonesia. We would be slogging along in third gear behind a slow moving truck. Seeing an opportunity for a quick pass, he would pull out and immediately select top gear. As the car staggered to maintain momentum in the face of oncoming traffic, I casually asked “What the hell are you doing?” The reply was “Because we must pass quickly, top gear is faster than third.”
We slowly came into more remote areas. I had already discovered the Beijing Driving Academy graduation exam precluded any skill or indeed, understanding, of map reading. Along the main roads I managed OK with the Chinese map but when we got into the back blocks, my efforts trying to match the Chinese characters on the map to hand painted signs had their limitations.
As a result, Goa got away from me a couple of times. It was only the sun shining in my eyes instead of the back of my neck which alerted me to a recent navigational disaster. I managed to speed up the process by allowing Gao to make the decision without any input from me then selecting the exact opposite course of action to that he proposed. The sun-in-the-face correction system was only employed once after this.
When we came off the bitumen it was onto a total outback dirt track without any nice gravel road transition. It was obvious Gao had never driven on dirt in his life. After a couple of attempts to launch us into orbit and some strongly worded admonishment she slowed down.
Once again the Beijing licence test came into play. “There will be no knowledge of where the car’s wheels are nor will there be any attempt to learn.”
I must admit I am being a little harsh because after two hours on the dirt, I noticed twice, within a single ten minute period, Gao stayed on the wheel tracks for distances approaching 50 metres at a time. He did even better on the freeway on the way home when he regularly stayed entirely within our lane for distances as much as 200 metres at a stretch.
The country was very barren and featureless and we lost the track completely a couple of times. I had Gao drive in a big circle to find it again. It was -23 degrees outside and the white knuckles and heavy breathing told me that Death had a firm grip on Gao’s shoulder. This bloody Australian had him stumbling through the shrubbery on this frozen wasteland and he would never see his family again.
When I finally found the track again the release of tension was audible. Gao looked at me with such loving affection for saving his life it would have earned him a punch in the nose in other circumstances.
The track improved towards the end and smoothed to a relatively flat surface. We came around a corner and there were some light corrugations and as we hit them. Gao slammed on the brakes and started looking around the car. I did not say anything, so he gently started off again and at about 10 kph the car got into perfect resonance with the corrugations, nearly shaking our teeth out. Once again he stopped, fiddled with the transfer case lever (another story) and got out and crawled under the car.
He was so upset that the car was falling to pieces I relented and told him it was only the road. Only half believing me, he took off again and looked seriously worried. “Faster, faster!” Suddenly things smoothed out and I told him to hold the speed at 70kph. As it became obvious we had beaten the demon, Gao turned to me with a grin from ear to ear and stuck his thumb up. I had managed to pass on one of the great secrets of the Western World.
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Just by coincidence I received this post from a friend yesterday, makes my encounter with two hundred sheep on a narrow track, and spread out over about a kilometre, seem quite trifling. Two minutes of amazing unfrenzied control . . .
My trip was 2018 and the pace of change in China has been very very fast. No sign of conductors or whistles and traffic moved freely, possibly because of the huge investments in public transport infrastructure as well as more ring roads and restrictions on private car ownership.
I came away with the impression that if you want a bridge built you simply look up Bridges R Us and it will be delivered in a fortnight. 50 kms of railway with 315 kph capability takes a bit longer. Seems maps are now banned, try as I might couldn't find any.
It is certainly amazing development but it is really catering for the major centres and the main routes joining them. Once you get off the beaten track - and China is a very big country - the roads and tracks are little changed and the villages still feudal and dirt poor. You only have to look over the edge of an amazingly engineered 10 lane freeway suspended a kilometre in the air across a valley to see the dirt roads and hovel villages far below.
Despite its Communist aspirations, in my opinion China is the most corrupt country in the world and everyone in a position of power from the village mayor to high government officials is on the take. Show trials and executions of high officials for corruption are a convenient way of disposing of competition or critics.
I did an hour chat type interview on Channel 4, the English Language TV station, about the Peking to Paris car race recreation we were doing and the briefing sheet on what could and could not be discussed was long. There was a 30 second delay in the "live" broadcast and a Party censor could press a button and go to an ad if the discussion was not to his liking.
Despite all the progress it is an interesting place to visit but very far down on my list of countries I would not mind living in.
Apart from USA, Canada and New Zealand which are just variations on an Australian theme and about zero cultural shock, for the full package I think it would be France. I would not live in a huge city in any country and it would have to be regional centres or small towns - I have lived in both Sydney and Melbourne and they are included in my no-go list.
France is a big country with room to breathe. They have a pretty relaxed way of life (outside the big cities) and you are free to do pretty much whatever you want, like we can here. They have history and scenery we can only dream of in Australia. In my wildest dreams I would not live in UK which is like an ants nest - I think this is why about half the Anglo-Saxon population of UK either live or holiday in France or Spain.
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The totally expected transport-arrangement debacle took place and the expedition finally got away just on dark, instead of the planned 6.00am departure.
I had a 500-kilometre/12 hour journey in front of me, from Ujung Pandung (the old city of Makassar) to the INCO nickel mine at Soroako in Sulawesi, Indonesia.
There were 5 of us in the ubiquitous Toyota, 3rd world station wagon, the “Kijang”. As the short tropical twilight faded it became obvious that this was going to be an interesting trip. The main highway was a thin, two-lane strip of bitumen winding its way across paddy fields and through patches of jungle and it was immediately apparent that only the hardiest 98.5% of the population used the road at night.
The heavy flow of vehicles, travelling in both directions, occupied only half the road – a quarter each side of the white line. It was not because they are bad drivers (which they are) that this continuous game of chicken took place, it was because the outer half of each lane was occupied.
Moving in an endless, unlit stream were throngs of pedestrians, bicycles, motor scooters, food vendors pushing their makan (muck-arn) carts and pedal taxis. Occupying the limited space remaining between humans and the spectacular variety of minor transport, were representatives of every species known to the animal kingdom.
These travellers either stood idly gazing at the passing panorama while firmly positioned on the carriageway or trotted purposefully along on a mission known only unto God and themselves.
While all this was happening the main game was unfolding in the centre of the road. The rules of the game are thus:-
At a distance of half a kilometre each vehicle centres itself on the white line. At this time, both drivers commence continuous beeping of the horn. At night their dexterity is such that they synchronise the horn blowing with continuous flashing headlights.
At a distance of 100 metres they take their hand off the wheel to wave the other driver over (simultaneously loudly casting doubt on the other fellow’s parentage). As soon as the wave is completed, the beeping horn becomes a continuous blast as both vehicles move across just enough the give 10 centimetres clearance while passing. Experienced players gain extra points by retaining possession of the white line throughout the entire manoeuvre.
The horn beeping continues for approximately 5 seconds after the vehicles have passed for, by this time, a new challenger has probably entered the lists and the succeeding joust commences.
In the unlikely event the road ahead is clear, the driver randomly toots the horn at 20-second intervals just to make sure it is on its toes for the appearance of the next opponent. Likewise, occupation of the white line is studiously practised even on those short stretches where no other traffic exists.
All this begs the question “What happens when the distance between oncoming vehicles is too short to carry out standard jousting procedure?”
It soon became apparent to me that the majority of points are gained in the final standoff and passing manoeuvre. In the case of heavy traffic, the driver leaves his hand continuously on the horn (in accordance with the “Under 100 metre rule”). He dispenses with the wave and replaces the verbal abuse by reacting to the moving game with short exclamations appropriate to his fear level.
The white line must be reoccupied immediately upon passing, regardless of how close the next oncoming vehicle is.
The result of this behaviour, in a long stream of traffic, is a majestic synchronised slalom effect rippling down the line like a suicidal Mexican Wave. There are even a few hardy souls on motor scooters who participate but they are not taken seriously by the professionals. During the night we regularly came upon the result of a B-grade player trying his hand in the big league and zigging when he should have zagged.
These incidents ranged from the standard deceased pedestrian to a finely executed head-on collision between two trucks.
Adding to the flavour of the evening was the selection of broken down vehicles – at least one for every kilometre of the whole journey! Breakdowns also have a compulsory set of rules as follows:-
Immediately the engine ceases to run you must make no attempt to vacate the centre of the road as you roll to a stop. Immediately turn all lights (if any) off. Have your passengers instantly disembark on the road side of the vehicle and mill around across the whole carriageway. All passengers should preferably be dressed in dark clothing, deaf and blind (or a reasonable facsimile thereof).
Take some of the strongest passengers from the milling mob and drag a large log across the road at least 2 metres behind the vehicle to give early warning to following traffic. Should no log be available, a row of rocks no smaller than a basketball, will suffice. In the unlikely event cleaning the windscreen or gathering everybody to stand motionless staring into the engine bay gets the vehicle going, under no circumstances should you remove your warning log or boulders from the road before driving off.
The assumption that the above broken down vehicle would have lights to turn off brings me to the next point. So rare was it to have an oncoming vehicle with two headlights that it caused a short comment from the boys. To discover a vehicle in front of you actually carrying two working tail lights was a source of a couple of minutes delighted discussion among my fellow travellers.
The exceptions to this rule were the numerous trucks. These knights of the road are very keen to see ahead and like truck drivers all over the world, are slaves to fashion. Spotlights are all the rage in downtown Sulawesi trucking circles. They must, of course, be incapable of being extinguished and be as multitudinous as the driver’s pecuniary situation allows.
At a refuelling stop I counted on the front of one truck, no fewer that 26 spotlights! We passed a number of others carrying even more. No doubt this driver charged through the night incinerating small roadside mammals, starting grass fires and using enough power to run a city only slightly smaller than New York. Need I add, his tail lights were completely inoperative?
The lack of tail lights spilled over into the passenger-carrying arena. I did notice that some of the drivers of these small 20-seat busses had their 50 passengers’ safety in mind. A few had gone to the expense of screwing as many as three 50 cent reflectors to the back of the bus on the optimistic assumption they would warn an overtaking vehicle (without head-lights?) that they had no tail-lights.
By the time I had made sufficient observations to formulate the above theories, death had its hand firmly upon my shoulder. So, after wiping out two dogs, sideswiping a makan cart and running authoritatively up the arse of an unlit truck, I called a halt to proceedings. We spent the rest of the night in ½ star luxury in Palopo.
In the warm light of day the following morning the remaining four hours to Soroako went smoothly and without incident – except for the cyclist.
We were sailing along minding our own business, occupying the white line, when I heard a light thump on the side of the car.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a cyclist launching over the handlebars into a full pike with tuck and twist (degree of difficulty 4.5). He actually had passed from my sight before the twist but he had sufficient altitude and, had completed the first part of the manoeuvre so well, I gave him the benefit of the doubt.
There was only one small thing that slightly took the edge off the fun of the journey. For the entire 12 hours, the fellow in the seat behind me had been continuously clearing his throat and every 5 minutes spraying the back of my neck with a violent hacking cough.
The boys casually let drop a couple of days later the fact the poor fellow was suffering from advanced TB.
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I do enjoy reading Lang's exploits on 'foreign' roads. I can relate to them. David Lamb wrote a book- 'The Africans' ISBN 0 394 75308 9 and there is a chapter called Culture Shock which covers his views of Africans and motorized vehicles. It's a good read and as relevant today as the day the book was first printed. I experienced what he wrote first hand, every day I drove. When I was still over there the daily newspaper printed the road death toll from yesterday and the total for the year. 10 deaths on the road a day was about average but that used to skyrocket if a couple of buses were involved. The Nation newspaper stopped printing the daily road death toll- a lot of tourists to Kenya were there to visit game parks and this meant travelling in safari vehicles on the roads. Not good PR when there is an out of control death toll on the roads. Africans seem to lack all sense of self preservation when it comes to driving any sort of motorized vehicle. A person adapts and employs top of the range defensive driving practices. Never try to predict the unpredictable. It was fun though.
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