Monday, August 1, 2011

Riding in China (Shudder)

A more appropriate title for this post might be "Sit Back and Say a Prayer."  Or, "Taking Your Life in Your Hands and Trusting that the Maniac behind the Wheel Isn't Going to Kill You."  Or "China's Secret Way for Cutting Down on Population:  Automobiles."  They would all make appropriate titles.

In the eight days that I have been here, I have managed to discern only one rule that drivers in China follow: Try to avoid hitting the car in front of you.  The vehicles beside and behind, as well as all things smaller than you (especially pedestrians) are fair game.

Having spent a year in Korea, I thought I had already seen the world's wildest driving.  They use the sidewalk as an extra lane, for pete's sake!  But Korean drivers cannot hold a candle to Chinese drivers.  There is a special kind of insanity on the roads here.  If crazy driving ever becomes an Olympic event, China will medal in every category, and no one will be able to accuse them of cheating.  I wish I could say that they do it well enough that there are no accidents, but that's different from Korea, too (I saw very few accidents over there).  So far in China, I've seen at least six or seven accidents.  I've seen a bus come within a foot of taking out a woman pushing a stroller.  I've even dodged my own fair share of buses.  I've seen fear in the eyes of my fellow teachers that will haunt me till the end of my life -- which may be soon, if Chinese drivers have their way.

Yesterday, Beth and I went to go get paint for my room.  It took FOREVER to get a taxi, but at last we succeeded.  He took us all the way to one of the major roads in the city, where we suddenly hit one of the oddest traffic jams I have ever witnessed.  In the same section of road, there were cars attempting to go in all FOUR directions, simultaneously.  No one had any intention of actually stopping and waiting their turn.  Causing and complicating the mess was an accident:  a car had hit a bus, and the two vehicles had been abandoned in the center of the upcoming intersection.  So, our taxi was attempting to go one way, with cars going the same way or the opposite direction cutting in front of us and behind, while other cars behind us and on either side were trying to keep going straight.  Our taxi wound up with a flat tire, so we had to get off and then catch another one, this time taking even longer than before.

Walking is particularly hazardous here.  The common comparison made is that crossing a street is like being inside that old Atari game, Frogger.  It's perfectly legal for cars to hit people, from what I've heard.  There are very few crosswalks or walk signals, and generally those are ignored by cars, who just keep coming anyway.  They usually honk at pedestrians for DARING to walk while there is a WALK signal.  A few times, I've found myself trapped in the middle of a major road, waiting for the traffic to thin out in one lane so that I can make it across with all limbs accounted for and attached.

The school bus is perhaps the most terrifying part of daily life.  I was talking to one of our Chinese staff the other day at dinner, and she said that even the Chinese staff are afraid to ride with one of our drivers! He's a nice fellow with kind eyes and a friendly smile, but he drives like a demon-possessed version of NCIS's Ziva David.  He zips about, seldom braking, cutting off buses and cars alike, leaning on the horn as though it were a lifeline, and frequently using the lanes on the other side of the road when the correct lanes are too slow to please him.  I'll never forget the day last week when he veered into the opposite twos lanes at top speed, straddling the both of them, in the path of two oncoming buses, whom he managed to avoid at the last possible minute.  Then he wove into the correct lane, managing to fit our bus into an opening of only a few feet.  The entire time that he did all this, his face was perfectly calm and placid.  I, meanwhile, was gripping the seat in front of me for dear life, convinced that I wasn't going to live to teach a class here.  One of the other teachers told me that it helps if you don't look.

1 comment:

Chris said...

Having experienced both Chinese and Korean drivers, I promise you neither can hold a candle to the Indians!

Great blog by the way.


"Passage—immediate passage! the blood burns in my veins! Away, O soul! hoist instantly the anchor!
Cut the hawsers—haul out—shake out every sail!
Have we not stood here like trees in the ground long enough?
Have we not grovell’d here long enough, eating and drinking like mere brutes?
Have we not darken’d and dazed ourselves with books long enough?

Sail forth! steer for the deep waters only!
Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me;
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go, And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.

O my brave soul!
O farther, farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! Are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!"

~Walt Whitman, "Passage to India"