This is a draft from Chapter 4 of my second book (Cross China Road Trip). I am open to any suggestions including editorial ones. Illustrations will be omitted when the time comes.
I am a wreck but not defeated!
30/01/16: With Chinese New Year is nearly upon us, my wife Suzie suddenly has the idea that we should go to Tangshan in the neighbouring Hebei Province to visit her parents early. Her best friend Zhang Tao says we can borrow her car for the day so from now on its game on.
Well I say no problem but actually there are a few distinct drawbacks to the plan. Firstly I’ve never driven in China before and have lived here long enough to know full well how totally insane the roads really are. To add to it, it’s been almost a year since being behind a steering wheel which was in the UK. That means left lane and right side driving position, phew! Next comes wifey’s complete lack of enthusiasm to participate and drive in any way despite possessing her own Chinese driving license, the excuse being ‘I haven’t driven in years. I just can’t!’ Oh cheers for that then.
Pushing niggling worries aside I haven’t thought about it much. Tangshan is quiet close to Beijing after all; a mere three hundred kilometres so we’ll get there no problem. Opening the road map the day before, seeing the actual route is like receiving a jolt of electricity. These days my total preoccupation in life is hitting the road, leaving Beijing for a few months to find out what life is like up in the North West. The sight of that straight expressway leaving Beijing therefore fills me with an excitement I haven’t experienced in ages.
Having worked out the route, we are up early, pack the car and are off. First head up the G6 Gausu Gonglu (expressway) which conveniently runs right through our area, up to the Sixth Ring Road and turn right along the S50. This will take us in an easterly direction then south avoiding Beijing at all costs. It’s Saturday and all driving restrictions are lifted at the weekend. During weekdays people without a Beijing number plate can only drive around town in the early mornings or late evenings. Those with can only drive on certain days according to the numbers on their plate, done in a bid to ease congestion and the legendary high levels of bad air. Without a shadow of a doubt, weekends are a total nightmare if you bring your car into the city.
“Where are we going?” grumbles Suzie after two minutes up the G6.
“Up to the Sixth Ring and around Beijing. I did my homework last night,” I laugh, trying to maintain a positive atmosphere in the car.
“I don’t know it,” she snaps. “We should have gone to the fifth ring road. I don’t know this way.” Oh dear. Yes we all love our nearest and dearest I know. That’s the reason why we’re with them in the first place. There are however moments like this when all feelings of harmony and togetherness automatically get transported to the bottom of the laundry basket with one’s dirty undies right? It is in fact at such times that wifey can inflate like a spiky angry old puffer-fish. Here we go!
After another ten minutes of ear battering I succumb, get onto the nearest slip-road, pay at the toll gate, pull a U-turn to the opposite side and get a second ticket. Quarter of an hour later, there we are driving back through Qinghe (our district and pronounced Ching-hurr) towards town immersed in a painful silence only broken by my passenger’s annoying huffs and puffs.
Hey presto! Upon entering ‘the Fifth’ we are instantly transported into traffic hell of the highest order. A six lane carpet of static vehicles that we will have to endure around at least a third of Beijing. Yeh nice one on that! It’s a startling scene that brings up more than the normal feelings of frustration and irritation though. For me the situation also shepherds a rising sense of dread. In China, if you are involved in any sort of collision, by law the drivers have to keep their vehicles in exactly the same position until the police come to view the scene thus intensifying the gridlock exponentially. An image of the single Westerner having just had a prang surrounded by thousands of angry locals all beeping their horns is one that I try to push aside while focusing on the task at hand. Cars jump lanes with annoying regularity. The ‘hard shoulder’ is in continual use by impatient drivers who skirt illegally alongside the slow lane and then push in causing more chaos.
After an agonising hour and a half at last we reach the junction for the G1. Praise be! To be honest by this time my brain feels like it needs to be shut down and rebooted though the promise of some open road ahead is incentive enough to maintain concentration.
And there it is! We’re out of Beijing, the car is at last out of second gear and we can all chill out. I love this feeling. I love this feeling. I love this feeling more than anything else in the world. We’re best mates again and Suzie reclines her seat to take a nap leaving me to my own head space. This is really living. To at last break free from the soporific confines of the metropolis.
Miles of farmland met by small villages of tiny box-like pale red brick weathered homes. Narrow tracks weave their way over hills and along the side of rivers navigated by small inexpensive cars kicking up dust as they go. The way on is over a low bridge at least a mile long as the expressway is briefly lifted above rivers, lakes and fields marked by stacks of hay and worked earth.
A huge ghost town that’s just been built. There are no people, no machinery and no activity. Apartment blocks tower empty against the horizon. Past Xianghe County. It is said that areas like this including nearby the city of Langfang will one day be absorbed into Beijing. Further on, another area is being developed. Row after row of twenty storey grey skeletons stand half-finished facing the elements. Rusty brown steel reinforcement rods protrude from the top of the incomplete walls silhouetted against the sky like an old toothbrush with its bristles bent outwards.
I remember Tangshan from back in 2011 when by Chinese standards it was an average sized sleepy little city of three and a half million with an additional four million in surrounding areas. These days new high-rise buildings have sprouted up all over the place and it looks completely different. As we’re already completely lost Suzie jumps out of the car and flags a cab shouting “Follow this taxi!” Not a bad idea that actually.
A brief few hours with the family. We’ve had a fine afternoon though in no time at all we’re already heading home. The way back is a distinctly more relaxed affair. A gorgeous winter sunset briefly obscured by a few peach and ochre clouds, I settle in behind the wheel in a state of utter contentment. Convoys of old blackened trucks line the slow lane filled with livestock. Sheep are caged up and squashed in together. Some have their faces pushed up against the bars. We sure don’t think about that when we’re down the restaurant now do we! A single lorry has a blown tyre and remarkably the driver continues to coax it along the shoulder as huge pieces of rubber are strewn all over the place. It leans precariously to one side and is no doubt causing maximum damage to the rear axle.
People do not indicate on the expressway and seems a strangely unnecessary thing to do though I can’t stop myself. Some cars pull wildly from the fast lane across the middle to the slow lane in order to overtake two vehicles and then diagonally shoot back across to the fast lane. For the first time I have a try myself, hurtling along the slow lane past a coach and then returning back to the middle lane, howling with laughter, yeeehaaaa! No way you’d do that in the UK without inciting some serious road rage.
As darkness falls we hit the final toll gate and once again enter the arena of doom during the peak of rush hour Beijing style. Great timing there mate. Thirty years of experience on tarmac including a year in South Korea and I’m not prepared for this at all. Compared to this morning’s fun and games the Fifth has become unexpectedly far more intense. I decide to put us in the middle lane according to the following logic:
1. The fast lane isn’t really a fast lane at all as its just as immobile as the others. Also, if I was in the fast lane how the hell will I get across to the other side when we finally get to our junction? If you indicate no one responds. You have to push your way in and even then people don’t move until the last possible moment. I simply don’t have the stomach for it.
2. Being in the slow lane it means you’re subject to hundreds of cars entering the expressway in a huge snake rendering you virtually motionless.
The middle lane idea however is a fatal error and henceforth today I now embrace a new kind of driving. Having travelled around Beijing in the safe confines of a taxi you assume you’ve seen everything, that you are familiar with the poor driving and fully able to cope with driving proper when the time comes. The reality is though, that only being behind the wheel will you find out what it’s really like. Lord help me!
If you are in the middle people continually try to change lane, pushing in from either side of you. This is done with zero regard for anyone else. There are numerous times when it happens from both lanes simultaneously and I feel that the car’s about to get crushed, especially when two lorries have me boxed in and there’s someone right up my tail pipe. From the slow lane, when someone cuts in another follows them sensing an opportunity to enter, unbelievable! Swings and roundabouts; Suzie and I click back into our usual sync’ as she becomes an amazing co-pilot giving radar-like warnings of potential prangs. At times when collision is looking imminent the only thing we can do though is both shout “AAAAAAAAAGH” at the same time.
Now refusing to yield it looks seriously like I’m about to make contact with a silver 4×4 as it comes in at an angle to my front end and I hit the horn in long uninterrupted bursts until it backs off, wanker! As a whole experience it can only be described as continual non-stop slow moving battle that proceeds throughout the entire length of the fifth ring road. We emerge unscathed; my primary goal of preserving Zhang Tao’s car intact.
By the time we reach Qinghe I am a worn-out beaten up wreck that never wants to be in a car again. Opening the door, stretching my legs out and emerging into the cold refreshing night air, I feel like a WWII fighter pilot that’s just had his first dog-fight over London. Climbing out of the cockpit of my beaten up Spitfire having made an emergency landing at Biggin Hill, smoke billows out of the engine housing, its wings strafed with cannon shells and canopy smashed; my trusty co-pilot and I barely made it back to tell the tale.