As mentioned in my last post, I chose to do a package tour for most of this trip, except the last three days that I added on at the end. I’m generally not a package tour person but as a solo traveler for this trip, I liked having some activities planned for me and the option to socialize when I wanted. The schedule was fairly open, so I had a fair amount of alone and free time as well. The other reason I chose a package tour for this specific trip was because I knew it would be freezing out and I didn’t want to be standing around waiting for public transportation. I also had absolutely no intention of trying to drive in China. The cities are massive and chaotic, and often times the signs are not translated into English and it’s not like you can sound out the words. I knew a car rental would have been a terrible idea. I just didn’t know how right I was. I have lived a lot of places that seemingly have no enforcement of traffic laws, but I have never seen anything like Beijing. Vehicles turning right on red do not yield. They just roll right on into traffic, no matter how heavy, and whatever is coming has to figure out how to accommodate them. Furthermore, vehicles turning left on green without a green arrow do not stop. They just make their turn whenever they feel like it and whatever is going straight from the opposite direction has to figure out how to accommodate them. It’s all one giant game of chicken. I have never seen anything like it. Right-of-way simply doesn’t exist in Beijing. Cars race through lights that have been red for at least 10 whole seconds into the middle of crossing traffic. Two lanes magically morph into four at intersections when everyone is trying to get ahead, and on-ramps are the perfect opportunity to skip ahead of a few cars before you have to merge back into the flow. Cars overtake slower vehicles even when doing so means all oncoming traffic has to stop and wait for the overtaker since he didn’t have any room to pass. Vehicles turn clockwise into traffic circles because they don’t want to go all the way around counterclockwise to their exit. It is sheer madness.
And therefore, I will say that the Chinese, like the most of the world, are much better drivers than Americans are. This is what they contend with every day and somehow they aren’t getting into accidents in numbers disproportionate to the rest of us. They are attentive and efficient and proactive drivers because they have to be. They don’t claim their chunk of the road and get filled with rage when anyone comes too close. They don’t impede the flow of traffic by lingering in the left lane. They don’t purposefully, maliciously prevent motorcycles and scooters from sailing through in between cars. There was much less honking than I expected. If someone cuts you off, it’s because you aren’t driving efficiently or using all the space or going the speed limit, so you deserve to be honked at and there’s no point getting all huffed up with misplaced indignation. My hat is off to my van drivers. They’ve got one hell of a tough job and they all did it well.
Also, for the first time in my life, I came to understand the role of the traffic cop, the man who stands in the middle of the intersection (even though it has traffic lights) and signals who gets to go and who doesn’t. In Shanghai, you see, the traffic is much more orderly and drivers are expected to follow the laws. But the people driving in from the provinces have these terrible Beijing-esque habits and need to be put in check and told to obey the signals. That’s what the traffic cops are there for, to enforce the right-of-way. It’s a beautiful thing to see cultural change at work, as long as they don’t become absurdly territorial like us.
For the Christmas and New Year’s holiday in 2018, I spent 12 days in the People’s Republic of China. The trip marked the first time I had been to Asia in over 16 years. In these 12 posts, I share my thoughts, observations, and feelings about the PRC. For a highly readable, more in-depth account of past and future China from a westerner who lived there for many years, I recommend Rob Gifford’s China Road.