Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Transportation in China: Not for the faint-hearted

One thing I learned during my travels in China is that using any kind of transportation such as Car, Bus or even motorcycle is an unforgettable and sometimes even regrettable event. Every time I need to travel within China, I'm faced with the tough decision of how to get to my endpoint. Basically, there are 3 options: by airplane, train, or via the road.

Hong Kong, although busy,
is a safe place to drive. 
If you think that airplane would be the the most convenient, you are wrong. Most of the Chinese airports that I have been to, I got stuck in endless queues of fighting Chinese, who all were trying to get as close as possible to the check-in counter as they can by jumping the queue, not realizing that by converting the line of waiting people into a V-shape, we all are not going to get our tickets much faster.

And after finally managing to fight your way through the queue, you will have to face the same kind of event near the customs.

So.. usually I do not prefer taking domestic flights.

By train is quite convenient, especially the new high speed lines, if you don't take into account the recent accidents they faced. I've been travelling on the modern high speed trains that for example go to Guangzhou, but I also have travelled in the night trains that will get you to your destination when you are sleeping on one of the beds in the cabin that you share with about 5 other people. However, I noticed that in most trains, the travellers are very quiet at night. I managed to sleep perfectly during those kind of trips, without being disturbed by anyone. If you are less lucky, and booked a hard-seater train, you will have to get accustomed to the plastic chair, which can be quite uncomfortable.

Then the last option is by road, using a bus or car. As a non-resident I am not allowed to drive in China, so I have always been a non-driving passenger. Before I moved to Hong Kong, I drove about 40.000 KM per year for the last 10 years, so I call myself a reasonably experienced driver. I had my experiences in Europe, and I thought that I've seen it all. But that illusion was blown away already after my first 10 minutes as a car-passenger in Shenzhen.

It was in 2005 when I went to Shenzhen for the first time ever. We took the train from Hong Kong and exited in Lok Ma Chau, where a minibus driver was picking us up to go to the office. Me and my colleague went in the car, the driver went off, and within 2 minutes we were stuck in a traffic jam on the road that supposed to get us up to the highway.

Our driver, being "experienced" with this situation, didn't hesitate for a second. He waited patiently for a couple of seconds in the jam, before he said something in Chinese to us, turned his car, crossed the double line in the middle of the road, drove in the opposite direction on the other half of the road (while we saw cars coming at us flashing their front-lights), made a sharp turn, and drove straight up the what-should-be-the exit from the highway from the opposite side.

Then, at the end of the still what-should-be-an-exit-off-the-highway-and-not-an-entrance, after evading some cars with again flashing lights, he made a sharp turn, and drove the (now) correct direction. Our driver smiled at himself. He outsmarted everyone, and was clearly very content with his action. I looked at my colleague, and he looked at me. Probably I had the same pale face as he had.

Welcome to China!

This is not the only near-death experience I have had in China. The story above happens quite frequently. You see drivers turning left or right without looking over their shoulders, you see people make sudden reverses on the highway, and more frightening actions. I'm amazed however that I have seen very few bad accidents, which I believe comes from the fact that most of them don't drive really fast.

Besides the near death experiences, I've also had some other interesting moments:
  • I've seen a man on a bicycle, in the middle lane of a highway, transporting a small palm tree on the back of his bicycle. (Yes, I still regret I didn't take a picture).
  • I've seen (and heard) cars of ordinary people making police sounds or flashlights. Although this is strictly forbidden, some people install it so they can make their way thought the traffic jam.
  • I've seen, while waiting at the gas station, a car coming from the wrong direction on the highway, driving (in the wrong direction) up to the gas station, flashing their headlights to drivers that are waiting and yelling at them to move away.
  • I've seen cars that do not want to be flashed by the red-light police camera, driving through the red light, making fake left or right turns, and then halfway past the crossing, turn back straight and accelerate away straight ahead. Apparently the Chinese red-light camera has some "bugs" to be worked out...
But despite all the scary moments, I think you cannot really blame the Chinese driver. If you look at Shenzhen, there are millions of people that have their drivers license for less than 5 years. Combine the lack of experience with the (I heard mediocre) performance of the driving exam, then you understand why the roads are such a crazy place.

In the last 5 years I've been visiting China I do see some improvements though. The police is getting more aware of safe driving, and there are millions of speeding camera's installed nowadays. (Hopefully they solved that red-light "feature")

So I think that eventually even the road will be a safe place, even in China. But until then, I hope my guardian angel will be monitoring me on my roadtrips until then!

By the way:
Compared to China, Hong Kong is pretty safe to drive. Although it is very busy, the drivers have a more "european" style of driving.

Have a safe trip!


  1. What to say ...... um ...... I think even most of the HK people with more than 10 years driving experiences, they might probably not dare to drive in China too......... hahahahahah!

    Mainland Chinese, they have their very own way to solve the problems on the road, make impossible to be possible! hahahahaha

    I saw even one time, there were whole family on one motorcycle .... 3 adults and a kid =_=


    1. Haha yes it's always amazing, Never a dull moment on the road in China :-)

      I would like to try to drive in China, but unfortunately I am not allowed to :-(

  2. Thank you very much for sharing this information, I'm sure that the people will love to know about this information.

  3. Transportation is different everywhere especially in the eastern parts of the globe.

    1. A good insurance is neccesary... or a regular visit to a chinese temple to wish for good luck!