Population control through inattention
At school when I was about 14 and suffering from regular outbreaks of acne, I suddenly noticed a young lady in my class was no longer an obnoxious distraction but had become quite a pleasant distraction. I don’t recall if this change in attitude stemmed from the fact she had her teeth braces removed or because her blouse suddenly seemed to have changed shape or shrunk – probably the teeth. I consulted with my best mate as to how it could be arranged for me to sit near her on the bus (I wasn’t quite ready for a conversation). He promptly told the whole school that I was in love with her. Mortified as I was, I did learn a valuable lesson. Never tell anyone a secret. Now, here I am on the cusp of making the same mistake – but I know I can trust you. So long as this knowledge is keep well away from our political miss-managers that will be OK. Here in China, every road that has been blessed at some time with a puddle of tarseal is tolled. Transportation in China is growing at a phenomenal rate and those who must deal with the consequences have wisely decided, unlike the dazzling brains in the West, that the motor car and truck is not about to vanish any day soon. They are building roads at a rate you and I will never comprehend. Over thousands of years many civilizations have made huge alterations to the world. Roads have been laid, walls built, rivers dammed and changed course and large cities have sprung up. However, nothing preceding has even made the impact on Earth that is currently occurring in China. Our guide calls a ‘small city’ any place with about a million people. There are very few cities with less and those are being added to at a phenomenal rate. People are being moved from traditional homelands to new places and new industry is sprouting up all over. It’s mind boggling. To enable all of this requires a roading infrastructure that is likely to eventually make up almost half the paved roads in the world. Someone’s gotta pay. We’ve certainly done our bit. Daily tolls on various classes of roads range from 50 – 200 Yuan per day (NZ$10 – 40).
Roads in China span the range of smooth superhighways through to lumpy farm tracks. Sometimes one evolves into the other without warning. All are inhabited by the biggest overloaded trucks in the world … together with all types of conveyance and people doing goodness knows what including leading their pigs to service.
The Expressways are 2 – 4 lanes each way. Usually rather new and very smooth with good signage, Armco, and a center divide. You are not a successful provincial leader if you haven’t commissioned a couple of highways. This is easy enough without a Resource Management Act, guaranteed payment from tolls in a growth market and virtually unlimited practical road-making resources that include lots of long handled shovels. The posted speed limit is 120kph for cars, 100kph for trucks and 60kph for agricultural machinery. Also well signed is the instruction for cars to use the fast lane when overtaking and trucks to use the right lane closest to the edge of the highway. No-one takes any notice of the signs. Any speed will do - from walking to subsonic. The trucks prefer the fast lane and much of the passing is done on what we in NZ consider the wrong side – but you can’t be quite sure that the truck isn’t about to move over … and given their oversized load blocks their mirrors they have no idea you are about to undertake them. ‘Undertake is an appropriate word given it extends into undertaker which is potentially the next person who will take an interest in you. Often, and particularly in the South, you can expect to find families out for a stroll on the expressway, farmers taking their animals and produce to market in a motorized wheelbarrows, broken down vehicles stopped exactly in the lane where their problem developed and repair workers asleep behind a few warning rocks. You may also encounter elderly people strolling down the center lane because this is exactly where the track they have strolled for the past 70 years is – the nice men with the big machines just tidied it up a bit for them.
There are many tunnels. These provide for invisible pedestrians. I’m not sure if its potholes or pedestrians that cause the bumps in the exhaust filled back holes through inconveniently positioned mountains.
Equally disconcerting are the moments one rounds a bend to discover an enormous earth moving machine approaching in your fast land. The driver is confident who will do best in a head on collision and one should make a quick judgment in terms of deciding to test his theory – or not. (Driving direction on any road seems to be a bit arbitrary.)
A highway need not be completed before traffic uses it. Often the total (say) 300km will be under construction with multiple sections in various stages. Traffic just bounces along on the unstarted or unfinished bits and feels very grateful when a nice smooth patch is encountered for a while. The unstarted bits range from farmers fields, bare desert, old potholed provincial roads to recently built but instantly destroyed highway. The destruction of all sections is caused by the enormous overloaded trucks of which there are hundreds of thousands. Some of the toughest off-road driving I have ever encountered occurred on Chinese Expressways. On many days we will bump pass (by the skin of our teeth and with the grace of any interested god - there’s supposed to be plenty in most areas) say 30 trucks per kilometer (perhaps 6,000 + in a day) – often in thick dust that obscures the front of the truck and makes approaching traffic impossible to see. After a while one becomes philosophical but I still find it difficult to blink and ones over exercised sphincter muscle often develops cramp.
Provincial or ‘ordinary’ roads that may have served well for the past 20 years when there was limited traffic are now of no interest to the local leaders who expect to have their photo taken with the President when their new Expressway is opened. There is no maintenance of the older roads that have usually deteriorated into a series of linked potholes. I recall a stretch recently – 10km of straight road with 5,000 bends in it. It’s the best upper-body workout imaginable. Trucks are still the No 1 challenge but Taxi’s, 3 wheeled utes, put-puts, demented scooter pilots and pedestrians oblivious to all around are close challengers. The speed limit is not revealed and there are no other obvious rules except when you give up trying just go back to the correct side and follow a cyclist – or anything else that you hope is going in the same direction as you. A two-way road is usually good for 5 lanes but none of these can be guaranteed to have an orderly flow in a single direction. All alternate between seal and dirt but often it’s impossible to tell which surface one is on at any given moment. Indeed, one couldn’t care less and there isn’t time to look.
City streets are often in good condition. This is due to the fact they are protected by a layer or two of trash. Again, direction of flow and speed is optional and uncontrolled intersections are free for all. It’s very efficient. The cities in the east of China are far more challenging than those in the west where they are often new, wide and well designed with separated motorcycle / bicycle lanes. The western China cities are also much cleaner and very tidy. They put considerable effort into beautification and are quite impressive given the barren environment from which they have evolved.
The minor country roads are different again. Narrow, poorly defined and populated by all the local agricultural machinery together with the agriculture itself – plus the inevitable put-puts, bicycles, and strollers. Villages and small towns typically feature dirt roads which make them a bit messy in the rainy season. During our couple of weeks in the South and moving up through the less developed central areas it rained most days. Bilbo and HeeHaw became very grubby. It wasn’t until a farmer approached us and asked if his sow could mate with HeeHaw that I reasoned it was time for a wash. A superb car wash and inside clean can be acquired for 15 - 20 Yuan – about NZ$3 - 4. Usually there’s a male organizer who applied the water and a couple of enthusiastic women who scrub and dry. Very good value for 20 minutes entertainment. I do often wake up at night feeling sorry that the pig was deigned.
One thing that is consistent with all roads is the way the authorities deal with the issue of slowing traffic in the event of road works or something they deem to be a little more dangerous than the status quo. They accept that no-one takes any notice of signage and the majority of the population is unable to pay a fine (if you could catch them). The solution is simple. They dig a trench across the road. Speed bumps are a waste of time – the motorcyclists just remove parts of them to maintain smooth progress. The trench is typically 500mm (1’8”) wide by 150mm (6”) deep – enough to tear out the front suspension if hit at any speed above 20kph speed. These provide adequate incentive to slow down and there is never a warning they are ahead. As a result, motorists stay alert. This state of mind also helps to spot large square patches of seal removed for no obvious reason. These ‘patches’ are about 3m x 4m (10’ x 13’) and also deep enough to spoil your day. I’ve concluded that both the trenches and squares are a form of birth control. It’s simple – if mother or father dies there’s no chance for junior from that coupling. The other ‘warning’ devise used by motorists (usually large trucks) that have broken down (usually in the fast lane) is a row of large rocks placed across the lane at a carefully calculated distance that would enable a inattentive motorist to hit them, focus - and discover they have lost their steering and are about to crash into the idiot that fate decreed would organize their joint demise.
In the western desert where the roads are fabulous and often almost deserted, we have had two encounters with the law. The first was an astonishing accusation that I was speeding. As one should do, I asked through our interpreter guide for the evidence. I was told that I featured in a photograph and was directed to a car sitting well back off the road in the dust. On approach I discovered it contained 4 policemen. 2 were asleep, 1 was studying a blank laptop screen and the other was searching for my registration number on a handwritten list – it wasn’t there. The one who stopped us simply gave up and waved us on.
The next day they were a bit more organized. After a 2 hour drive through an amazing feat of road engineering that took us through a spectacular gorge that was in turn, through some rugged desert mountains we emerged on to a wonderful highway that had all the appearances and signage of a 120kph limit. Imagine our surprise to be stopped and each presented with photo’s proving we were exceeding 60kph. Me by 25% and Martin by 50%. There was no question of our speed – we were astonished that it wasn’t 100% each. (Our guide believes it was a police temporary speed trap.) After being relieved to discover none were descendents of Genghis Khan, 30 minutes of pleasant 3 way conversation and perusal of the Central Government official papers that we presented, it was decided we could proceed without horrendous fines or any other penalty. They already had a big drawer full of cash and pulling in more every couple of minutes. Out of appreciation of their wise decision I presented them with a 20c plastic Tiki to hang on the shed wall. I think they got off lightly.
As we move west into the desert and ever closer to our exit from China, there are a number of unexpected things on display. Lots of oil wells and refineries, very modern prosperous cities, astonishing intensive desert farms – their grapes. pears and apricots are superb. All grown with artesian water. We have also seen some of the worlds largest wind farms. Hundreds of fans … sitting idle. Too late to tell the well meaning energy experts – the wind is more often than not too strong. Windmills have a limited window of operation. Both too little and too much wind renders them useless. Oh well – there’s always coal in abundance.
You will have seen Asians, particularly women, prowling around with face masks. These were really popular during the swine flu epidemic (which by the way is still prevalent here in China and probably due to the fact that the majority of the population keeps a swine or two handy to the back door for garbage disposal and the well known rainy day.) There is usually good reason for wearing a mask, particularly if you are about wipe out a large part of your neighbourhood with a new disease that you probably unknowingly cultivated in your bathroom. Another good time is when the wind is blowing the Gobi desert into your noodles. The western center of China is a big dusty bowl, much of which is held in the air by cyclonic winds for a good part of the year. The men keep their mouth shut and get on with playing Mahjong. The women however wear multicoloured cotton masks that loop around their ears – I imagine enabling continual chattering while they do all the work. It was probably a negotiated settlement by the union of women; “If your want us to work we must be properly equipped to chat”. As were traversed this part of China, Flypaper & Jeanette also bought masks. As a lad I often donned a mask and considered I had been transformed into Zorro. With a wooden sword and Mothers best broom I could gallop around the back yard saving distressed damsels and disposing of all of the bad guys between arriving home from school and dinner – no problem. It’s not quite right that my life has evolved to the point where it is now the distressed who wear the masks. Flypaper had developed a continual cough that was scarring the general public into believing she was a special biological weapon sent by the New Zealand guvmint to conquer China. Given they just moving away from a socialist regime they were not keen on this idea. The first time she wore it we stopped at the road toll booth to pay our fine for driving … and the tax collector thought it was a holdup. It seems the word has spread ahead because now people seldom get excited and just give the impression of giggling amongst themselves saying, “See why we call the Westerners “big noses”.
Tomorrow we leave China and enter Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Given you’ve probably never heard of these countries I suspect the details I provide will be the final rounding out of your education. Unfortunately we don’t expect reliable internet service – so the information you are undoubtedly now craving may be a little slow appearing.