Sunday, October 07, 2007

Reading the traffic

I've just been for the LONG run that I've been putting off for the past few days. (On Friday and Saturday mornings the rain provided a convenient excuse; but on Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning clear skies had returned; so it was procrastination, pure and simple. Shame on me!)

Luckily, the end of the holiday week and the arrival of chillier weather mean that the crowds around the small lakes where I run were much thinner this afternoon than they have been for any of my previous runs in the last 6 or 7 weeks since I got back from my summer break. I seem to have lost the knack of psyching myself up to make an early start for these runs. Dawn is much the best time to go; but really, any time in the morning will usually do; the tourist situation doesn't start getting really crazy until after lunch.

Running in crowds is never fun, in any country in the world. It's particularly not fun in China because Chinese pedestrians (and cyclists and motorists) are so particularly selfish, inept, and literally short-sighted.

And I fear that I was today more-than-usually intolerant of this obstructive blundering. I fear I brought with me some of the pent-up frustration and aggression that that sodding Formula 1 driving game has been arousing in me all week. Perhaps I brought with me also some of the ruthless - reckless? - weaving-through-traffic skills that this game has cultivated in me.

On my first lap of the lakes today, I found myself stuck behind a tricycle rickshaw which suddenly, for no apparent reason, slowed down from 8mph to about 3mph. I was just about to overtake it when another of these tourist-conveying contraptions came up suddenly outside me at a much higher speed, and then...... slowed also to 3mph, just as it had started to draw level with the first tri-shaw that had been blocking my path..... leaving me no gap to pass through between the two vehicles: he had completely boxed me in. Un-fucking-believable!! I gave the second tri-shaw driver one of my most savage scowls. I gestured to him as if to ask, "Hey, are you going to let me through here, or what? Just speed up or slow down for a few seconds? Is that so much to ask?" He looked back at me with obstinate incomprehension.

Naturally, I soon lost patience with this. And, as in my Monaco Grand Prix simulation, I braked for a moment, drifted round the back of the second obstructing vehicle, and then sprinted around the outside. Of course, at Monaco at least there's never something coming the other way. Now, in this instance, the oncoming traffic was a slow-moving geezer on a bicycle, and he was a good 30 or 40 yards away. And he did, in fact, still have plenty of room (well, OK, maybe not plenty, but some - enough) to pass both the rickshaws and me to our left.

However, he seemed determined that he wanted to continue calmly down the middle of the lane, and was highly alarmed when he suddenly noticed that three relatively fast-moving objects were approaching him in line abreast. Now, in any other country, the cautious cyclist would brake to a halt, pull over to the side of the road, and let us pass; the bold cyclist would maintain his speed and steer confidently for the remaining gap on the right-hand side of the road (which is the side he should have been on anyway!); and the competent cyclist would probably both brake (moderately) and steer around us.

But this is China. Bicycles here appear not to be fitted with brakes; or not with very good ones; or the cyclists decline ever to use them on some obscure point of principle. So, the use of braking is not an option here. And, for a nation which has more bicycles per capita than any other, where most people spend a substantial part of their lives, from childhood to old age, on a bicycle - well, the people here do seem to be remarkably incompetent in controlling their bicycles much of the time. So, steering tends not to be an option either.

No, what cyclists do in this country when faced with an obstacle in the road ahead is the weave-and-wobble. This appears to be the only technique they know for trying to lose speed. It's not terribly effective. And, of course, it does make them even more difficult for you to avoid. And sometimes, it results in the rider falling off his bike - which makes him even more difficult for you to avoid. At least that didn't happen in this case - but it was a damned close-run thing.

So, we had a slow and very erratically moving bicycle carve right through the middle of us. I was able to alter my course just enough (it's really not easy to change speed or direction quickly when you're running; non-runners never seem to appreciate this!) to allow him to pass between me and the rickshaws, but the doddering, wobbling cyclist very nearly collided with the second of these.

I threw a stream of invective at the guy as I passed. I couldn't help myself. At least it made me feel slightly better that the two rickshaw drivers gave him even more of an earful.

Yep, I have become very good at 'reading' the road ahead and charting the best course between obstructions on my little Monaco game. But it's 10 or 20 times harder to do when you're running around Houhai because the Chinese are just so random, so dumbfoundingly obtuse, so gobsmackingly oblivious at times even of their own safety.

You just never know what they're going to do next. Well, no, after a while your powers of prediction do get quite highly attuned to the prevailing conditions. A good general rule of thumb is this. Ask yourself: "What is the most stupid/inconvenient/dangerous thing this Chinese pedestrian/cyclist/motorist could conceivably do in this situation? What would be absolutely the worst time for them to do it?" And then assume that the worst-case scenario will happen. 8 or 9 times out 10 you'll be right.

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