Thursday, August 30, 2007

Chengdu deathrace blues

Wow, I got home on time.

I'm still alive.


It's been a while since I visited one of the "less developed" parts of China. Whatever complaints I may have made in the past about people in Beijing or Shanghai often betraying a flabbergasting obtuseness, lack of foresight, tunnel vision, etc...... well, it's 10 times worse out in the sticks.

The University I'd been visiting had arranged a car to take me back to the airport. I had a little bit of time in hand, so a couple of the girls from the International Programs Office offered to take me on a short sightseeing tour. All very nice.

They knew what time I needed to be at the airport. They knew what time I wanted to leave the vicinity of the campus to set off for the airport. They knew - or ought to have known - how long it takes to get to the airport (quite a long time, since it's the other side of the major nearby city of Chengdu).

You wouldn't think, then, that one of the girls would casually suggest - at the very last minute - dropping her off at home in the centre of Chengdu: a detour of at least 10 miles each way. I had to say no as politely-but-firmly as I could and drop her off on the outskirts of the city to catch a bus.

You wouldn't think that the driver would only realise as we were setting out for the airport that he was almost out of fuel. But he did. And his grotty little car had been converted to run on LPG. There was, apparently, only one service station for miles around which sold this. And, since this is what all the taxis are required to use these days, there was a queue a mile long for it. No, I exaggerate: the queue was only about 200 yards long - but several taxis were cutting in ahead of us, so the queue didn't actually move in the 10 minutes we tried waiting in it.

A few frantic phone calls later, the driver had ascertained that there was another station selling LPG..... on the outskirts of Chengdu. On the way to the airport. Not too much of a detour. And good news for the girl from the Uni who was trying to scab a free ride home. And we'd only wasted 15 or 20 minutes so far.

Unfortunately, after dropping the girl off and refuelling, my numbskull driver got a bit lost, got on the Expressway going back the way we'd come. When we approached the next toll-gate, he gazed at the road-signs above the booths in horror and disbelief..... and slowed right down to read and re-read and re-read them again.

Yep, after about 30 seconds of crawling along the middle of an Expressway at a few miles an hour (admittedly the road wasn't very busy, and traffic should have been slowing down in the approaches to the toll-booths..... but you can't really rely on that in China, and I was fully expecting someone to slam into the back of us at 70mph any minute), he had nearly reached the toll-lanes, so..... he came to A DEAD STOP, while he pondered his next course of action. Yes, that's right, in the middle of the road. Without even putting his hazard lights on.

Then, he pulled sharply sideways, across three lanes of the Expressway, to drive into the yard of a building at the side of the road.... perhaps thinking that there might be another exit from this enclosure which would allow him to bypass the toll-gate. No such luck. So..... after vainly negotiating with one of the toll-keepers for a few minutes to see if they would let him go through for nothing, he hit upon a new plan, quite staggering in its impetuosity. He reversed back into the Expressway, then turned across it, perpendicular to the direction of the traffic, parked in the middle of the outside lane, and got out. What could he be up to, I wondered to myself, as I noted a coach about a quarter of a mile away, bearing down on us at high speed, and eased myself out of the car to seek the comparative safety of one of the toll-lane dividers. Of course, he was going to try to remove one of the concertina barriers of the central reservation, so that he could make a U-turn into the opposite carriageway (at least there were toll-booths on that side as well, so there wasn't too much danger of being T-boned at maximum speed). Obvious, really. Equally obvious that the policewoman on duty beside the toll-booths would be having none of it.

So, eventually, much to the driver's chagrin, we had to reverse again down the Expressway, go through the toll-booths, and turn around at the next exit a couple of miles further on. We encountered a similar problem there because - thanks to one of the unfathomable stupidities of Chinese road design, the route back on to the Expressway in the other direction was ostensibly blocked. Well, not entirely unfathomable, perhaps - the toll-booths were on the entry/exit ramp, and they were trying to insist that you go through the toll-gate before turning round to come back on to the Expressway. This time - there being no central barrier to get in our way - the driver was able to persuade one of the guys in the booths to turn a blind eye to our pulling a U-turn. Nevertheless, we still had to go through a further toll-gate a few miles further on (and then another one for the final section of Expressway leading to the airport), so I think my poor driver's navigational ineptitude cost him at least another 20kuai in road fees.

By this time, of course, we were a good half an hour behind schedule, and - since Chinese airlines tend to be rather strict about closing check-in precisely 30 minutes before the slated take-off time - I was starting to get a bit worried about the possibility of missing my flight.

My driver, to try to make amends for his previous errors, put his foot to the floor. I haven't driven at 100mph in China before. It's not nice. I'm pretty sure it must be well over the speed limit, even for one of these Expressways. And it was a good 20 or 30 miles an hour faster than anyone else was going. The man's steering technique was a bit wobbly at the best of times; when he had to grapple with his mobile phone to field an anguished call from my contact at the University enquiring as to whether I'd got to the airport safely..... well, I very nearly didn't: he was wandering all over the road - at 90+mph.

The girl at the Uni then sent me a would-be reassuring text message: "Don't worry. You will be at the airport soon. The driver's skill is trustable."

Oh yes, honey, I absolutely trust this driver to put someone in a coffin sometime very soon.

At least it wasn't me. Amazingly enough - having burned up the last 20 miles or so of road as if on The Cannonball Run - we got to the airport only a few minutes later than I'd planned, and I still had plenty of time to check in.

China, eh - what larks!


moonrat said...

so a friend of mine was on a business trip in shanghai (recently--in 2000 or 2001 or so) and was riding a city bus on one of his days off. the city bus driver apparently missed an exit he meant to take and was headed in the wrong direction down a one-way highway (there was a partition). when he realized this, he unapologetically jerked the wheel in a circle, turned the bus around, and headed back (full-tilt) wrong way down the one-way highway.

your expert opinion--could this actually have happened, or was my friend pulling my leg?

Froog said...

Oh, no, sounds perfectly plausible to me. I mean, they like to think they're oh-so sophisticated and 'Westernized' in Shanghai, but it ain't really so.

I've written about the hell on the roads quite often. This place has become a nation of drivers in less than one generation. I think the number of drivers has increased tenfold in something like the last 10 or 15 years, and probably 100-fold in the last 30. Until recently there was no driver education worthy of the name. There still isn't all that much. And there's no cohort of experienced older drivers to learn from. In China, you're not taught to drive by your dad; you both learn at the same time; and then crash into each other.

Mind you, my favourite crazy bus anecdote actually happened in Jamaica many years ago. I was on a minibus, heading west out of Kingston on just about the only length of expressway on the island. Our driver recognised a fellow mini-bus driver passing on the opposite carriageway - a cousin or a long-lost schoolfriend or something: it was a very emotional reunion. Though they were both in the fast lane, screaming along at 60 or 70mph, they both slammed on the brakes and reversed a hundred yards or so down this busy and very fast stretch of road, and then parked up opposite each other to catch up on old times across the central dividing barrier for 10 minutes or so. One of the most bizarre little incidents I've ever witnessed.

The only reason this doesn't happen in China all the time is that the Chinese are less sociable than the Jamaicans. But I have seen plenty of road behaviour here that is just as horrendous in its jettisoning of the instinct for self-preservation.