The recent survey trip to China for the 2005 Peking to Paris expedition may be of interest to some motoring enthusiasts.
A vehicle was organised for me by Jason Li, the NRMA manager in China, to survey the 1907 car race route from Beijing to Mongolian border. Gao was a delightful young fellow supplementing his income as a car club break-down mechanic by “guiding me. His English was only slightly better then my Chinese but a great few days was had by the two of us.
Gao is not the worst driver I have ever been with but he was certainly well through the qualifying rounds. I doubt he has ever been out of Beijing and he certainly had not driven on a dirt road before.
My suspicions were first aroused 15 minutes after departure while driving along the freeway leading out of Beijing. We slowly began a graceful sweep right across three lanes. Not seeing any traffic to pass in front of us I thought Gao was positioning to exit. My theory proved to be correct, he was preparing to exit but via the wall! I hate to be a back seat driver but I thought in the circumstances it may be justified. I reached over and grabbed the wheel to make a minor course adjustment before thumping him on the shoulder to awaken him from his slumber.
Gao had been trained by the Beijing Training Academy and had been examined (as had every other Beijing driver) to confirm without question that there was absolutely no trace of situational awareness or anticipation in his list of driving skills.
Beijing actually has a bad wrap from people who have never driven in the great cities of the world. The traffic can only be described as light for a city of such size. I am sure it is also the slowest in the world – 60-80 kph on freeways and less on other roads. There is none of the maniacal, horn blowing insanity of Cairo or Karachi or a city sinking under the sheer volume of cars like Bangkok.
Chinese drivers are cautious drivers and certainly not aggressive. The main problem is they drive as though they are the only ones on the road. This is where Beijing’s fabled traffic jams come from. They are not traffic jams at all but tailbacks, as the British say, from small log jams!
At any intersection one may observe the problem. Milling around on the footpath are the pedestrians, schooling for safety like sardines about to cross a shark infested channel. At each corner there is a brown uniformed “conductor” equipped with a whistle, loud speaker and a red flag. The whistles are going continuously interspersed with instructions on the loud speakers which were all Chinese to me. Meanwhile the red flag is waving in all manner of individual moves according to the energy and ingenuity of the waver.
When the starter’s gun goes, amazingly indicated by a green “walk” signal, the school swarms into the channel, totally ignoring any whimsical directions the brown clad conductors feel compelled to issue.
Meanwhile the green light has also released the sharks travelling in the same direction as the sardines. This is fine until one wished to turn right. He may of course freely do so as he is the only vehicle on the road. Totally oblivious to the fact there is a stream of sardines flowing across his path he sticks his snout into the flow. When it becomes obvious there are objects brushing up against his car he comes to a halt half on the pedestrian crossing with his tail blocking the traffic lane.
The pedestrians also oblivious to the fact there may be a car turning, come to a sudden stop. Such is the press from the mass behind the numerous people are introduced to gay society or suffer unwanted pregnancies, as the case may be, as a result of their unobservant leaders’ abrupt halt.
By this time a second car wishing to turn right has seen a space outside the first stalled vehicle so he comes around and sticks his snout into the stream as well. We now have two cars with their tails out in the traffic lane unable to complete the turn.
Despite the frenzied whistle blowing the flag waving (and a red Don’t Walk sign) the flow is still trickling in front of the stuck cars when the opposition team begin their charge from the other direction. It takes little imagination to envisage a repeat performance from the other crew and within seconds cars are pouring into the blocked intersection – because they are the only car on the road.
A couple of light changes and the entire intersection is geometrically packed with cars. Any space between them is filled with pedestrians battling their way by any means to the other side. Adding to the gaiety of the occasion, the brown conductors are blowing whistles and waving flags in an insane frenzy while being completely ignored by all and sundry.
Meanwhile the tail back is 3 kms long. Not a traffic jam but a log jam.
But I digress. After his quick power nap, Gao masterfully took us out of Beijing. A task even I could perform because the freeway signs are in English and Chinese.
The road became a simple two lane affair crammed with trucks. Passing manoeuvres ranged from outrageous to ingenious. Gao’s technique was one I had witnessed often in Indonesia. We would be slogging along in third gear behind a slow moving truck. Seeing an opportunity for a quick pass, he would pull out and immediately select top gear. As the car staggered to maintain momentum in the face of oncoming traffic, I casually asked “What the hell are you doing?” The reply was “Because we must pass quickly, top gear is faster than third.”
We slowly came into more remote areas. I had already discovered the Beijing Driving Academy graduation exam precluded any skill or indeed, understanding, of map reading. Along the main roads I managed OK with the Chinese map but when we got into the back blocks, my efforts trying to match the Chinese characters on the map to hand painted signs had their limitations.
As a result, Goa got away from me a couple of times. It was only the sun shining in my eyes instead of the back of my neck which alerted me to a recent navigational disaster. I managed to speed up the process by allowing Gao to make the decision without any input from me then selecting the exact opposite course of action to that he proposed. The sun-in-the-face correction system was only employed once after this.
When we came off the bitumen it was onto a total outback dirt track without any nice gravel road transition. It was obvious Gao had never driven on dirt in his life. After a couple of attempts to launch us into orbit and some strongly worded admonishment she slowed down.
Once again the Beijing licence test came into play. “There will be no knowledge of where the car’s wheels are nor will there be any attempt to learn.”
I must admit I am being a little harsh because after two hours on the dirt, I noticed twice, within a single ten minute period, Gao stayed on the wheel tracks for distances approaching 50 metres at a time. He did even better on the freeway on the way home when he regularly stayed entirely within our lane for distances as much as 200 metres at a stretch.
The country was very barren and featureless and we lost the track completely a couple of times. I had Gao drive in a big circle to find it again. It was -23 degrees outside and the white knuckles and heavy breathing told me that Death had a firm grip on Gao’s shoulder. This bloody Australian had him stumbling through the shrubbery on this frozen wasteland and he would never see his family again.
When I finally found the track again the release of tension was audible. Gao looked at me with such loving affection for saving his life it would have earned him a punch in the nose in other circumstances.
The track improved towards the end and smoothed to a relatively flat surface. We came around a corner and there were some light corrugations and as we hit them. Gao slammed on the brakes and started looking around the car. I did not say anything, so he gently started off again and at about 10 kph the car got into perfect resonance with the corrugations, nearly shaking our teeth out. Once again he stopped, fiddled with the transfer case lever (another story) and got out and crawled under the car. He was so upset that the car was falling to pieces I relented and told him it was only the road. Only half believing me, he took off again and looked seriously worried. “Faster, faster!” Suddenly things smoothed out and I told him to hold the speed at 70kph. As it became obvious we had beaten the demon, Gao turned to me with a grim from ear to ear and stuck his thumb up. I had managed to pass on one of the great secrets of the Western World.