One of the first little Chinese riddles I was taught shortly after arriving in China was this: “Shenme che bi huoche chang?” “What car (che) is longer than a train (huoche)? The answer is “Du che!” Traffic jam! OK, I admit, no fun after translating, but I suddenly remembered it now that I am biting my nails in yet another traffic jam. Eight years ago, I wondered how they knew about traffic jams, since there were hardly any cars. (Although the multitude of bikes and tricycles could jam up minor roads from time to time.)
No one knows how this one started, but than; no one cares. Maybe a car scratched a biker’s butt and they are now drinking tea with their vehicles still in the middle of the road, waiting for the police and insurance men to come. It could also be a junction far ahead where the traffic lights are collectively ignored by all citizen of this harmonious society benefiting from the ‘one eye open one eye closed’ policy.
Eight years ago, I was stunned to see 4 to 8 lanes wide roads cutting through town that seemed to be made just for bikes, electric scooters and rickshaws. Why, I wondered, these ridiculously over sized roads? Vanity? Of all cars, most were taxis, cheap mianbaoche or expensive BMWs. For the small entrepreneurs, a mianbaoche was IT! These ‘bread car’ pocket size minivans had the look of a loaf of bread on wheels and were always shaky and rusty. The nouveau riche of Chengdu moved differently; I saw more Mercedes ABC’s, BMWs or Jaguars together in one street here than in all of Holland together. But then, the Chinese Barbie dolls driving these statements could hardly look over the dashboard and most of the time the cars would be parked in front of a hair fashion saloon. Usually about a meter away from the curb, just to be sure. Enough space for the beggar to go through and fish his valuables out of the gutter and rubbish bins.
Eight years ago, you would see traffic police men in the middle of a junction waving their arms in harmony with the flow of traffic and wonder who was following who. These Chinese law enforcers were working hard creating the illusion that they were in control. A frown here, an aggressive wave there. No one cared less. Least of all their colleagues-on-wheels. They would jump queues, cut corners, ignore other traffic and traffic-lights. Setting a nice example for China’s first generation drivers whom were just wondering whether they should be waiting for the red light or not.
Around that time, I learned some simple skills that were crucial for survival: don’t look anywhere when turning onto another road; and when turning right, pass all other waiting traffic and select the most left lane or better use the opposite lane but don’t forget to flash your light as to make sure on coming traffic – whose lane you are on- will move aside for you; and if that’s not possible, at least squeeze yourself between other cars to reach the front as far as you can; never let straight-on traffic go first; on the highway, drive always on the most left lane even if you’re just going 40 km/ hour; don’t make space for an ambulance and ignore pedestrians; in the dark, keep your large head lights on at all times, or don’t use lights at all (saves energy!). To give you an idea of the importance of this: I once dropped of a family on west side of the Kehuabeilu, a middle size road in Chengdu. They needed some shopping done on the other side. When I passed by again 15 minutes later, they were still waiting to cross.
This chaos is not all the drivers fault though. City developers are the other source of hardship. Traffic lights can be red and green at the same time. Lines to guide to traffic flow make you block oncoming traffic. Four lanes that suddenly become two lane. Forcing whole herds of rule abiding citizen to make u-turns on the most dangerous places. Because turning left is not allowed at most major roads, you end up circling the city 7 times before realizing that it may just be impossible to enter the city and that the walls of fellow-road-users will not collapse.
It is slowly changing though. Slowly, because in China, for many of its problems it’s all about numbers; big numbers. In this city of over 10 million people, if you stop for one pedestrian, a thousand will follow and you will still be waiting the next day –not to mention the thousands of bikers that share the road with you… The empty roads of eight years ago are jammed today. Chengdu alone has seen such an incredible car increase over the last 8 years, that it now ranks third among Chinese cities in terms of car ownership. And don’t think you’re better off by taking a car and parking it near to where you need to be, because at the moment, every six cars are fighting over one parking lot.
On top of that, all these new cars are driven by beginners with a cell phone whispering in one ear and instructors that themselves don’t know how to drive in the other, looking through dark shaded windows seeing nothing. A Chinese friend announced happily one day that she passed the drivers exam. Expressing my joy for her, I said: “Then you can drive my car tomorrow,” to which she replied: “Oh, no! I can’t drive yet!!” Which reminded me of my grandfather. All he had to do to pass the test in his home town in Holland, back in the good old days, was to drive a few kilometers in the flat and empty countryside without diving into a canal. He made it. The car didn’t. No wonder that in the midst of this chaos the Chinese government requires foreigners with international drivers license to get a Chinese test and license. We surely need it. I just learned that an exception is made for Belgium drivers: they don’t need a Chinese license in China. But knowing how they drive, this is understandable.
And so there I am, stuck in a Chinese traffic jam -but at least with a Chinese drivers license- I have come to admire the Chinese broadmindedness to plan these huge wide roads, I just wonder why they didn’t make them bigger.