Wednesday, August 22, 2012

First Road Trip in China

Unless you want to count the long distance bus trips I took, this will be my first actual road trip by car in China. I was so excited!! I prepared for it much like I would prepare for a road trip in America: a small stash of clothing and food: hard boiled eggs, bread, cheese, sausage, fruit and veggies. Don’t forget the cookies and chocolate for dessert!

Gary had packed water and Sprite, otherwise I would have brought my large thermos full of hot water for tea. As it turns out, it is a good thing I didn’t.

Yes, me and my bestest traveling buddy Gary are hitting the road! He had to return to WenZhou (pronounced ‘when joe’) to register his car and renew his insurance. Why Wenzhou when he lives in Wuhan?

In China, you register your vehicle and maintain the insurance in the place where you bought the car, not where it is garaged. Registering a vehicle implies having it inspected therefore, every 2 years he must drive the car back to where he bought it. Aggravating, isn’t it? 

The plan was to drive straight through, no stopping. In that way, the food stash was a great idea because it was a twelve-hour trip, not counting the stops we made for the typhoon-driven rainfall. More on that later.

As camping and day tripping are relatively novel concepts in China, coolers and other such outdoor gear are in short supply and not something you can buy at your local store. I made use of a vinyl bag that my friends had given me while stateside. It has an outside zipper pocket perfect for packing ice and a larger inside pocket where I put the food. Because the bag is vinyl it did not leak water at all. Because of the separate pockets the food did not get wet and, with the top folded over, the bag worked just like a cooler.

I don’t know what Gary had planned for provisions or meals along the way but my ‘cooler’ packing turned out to be the thing that impressed my travel buddy the most. Until I told him how we could heat the sausages: on the engine manifold, wrapped in aluminum foil. That sincerely impressed him.

I find the interstate highways in China much like the ones in America: closely resembling the Eisenhower Interstate System. Their system of numbering interstates eludes me but the road signs are the same: green for directional, blue for advisory, brown for tourist attractions and so on. Traffic signs are more like European ones: Merge, Start/End of Highway, speed limit signs all harken back to my time in France and Germany. Thus upcoming road conditions were not a mystery.

As I’ve noted before (see Lang Lang Madness, among others), all traffic signs are both in English and Chinese. Gary did not have an answer as to why that is even though he did affirm that not many foreigners drive the highways in China. The only thing that would probably stump the English reading motorist would be the explanation for traffic signs such as ‘merge’ or ‘yield’: ‘Intermingling traffic ahead. Please use caution when cars come to you.’ There were also several signs that warned: ‘Choose lane according to destination’

Nice of the Highway authorities to warn the unsuspecting, English reading motorist of such possibilities but wouldn’t “Caution: Merge Ahead” be so much simpler?

I’m given to understand that not many Chinese partake of fanciful road trips. That is due in part to the cost of gasoline: over 7Yuan per liter. It cost Gary over 400Yuan to fill his gas tank. Another reason for not taking road trips in China is toll fees. All the highways we went on were toll roads, and indeed all the highways I’ve run down in long distance buses charged toll fees.

Here’s how it works: unlike in America where you get a paper token that denotes your point of entry, here you are given an electronic badge, much like a security badge. It is programmed with your point of entry. Once you get off the highway you are charged like in America: by the distance you’ve traveled. It cost Gary between 115 and 150Yuan to cover the highway distances between Wuhan and Hang Zhou.
A note about these toll roads: I’ve heard it reported that many citizens are angry about the ongoing tolls. As in America, toll charges are meant to offset the cost of building the road. Once the road is built, maintaining it falls under the purview of the government… or, if you prefer, the taxpayer, being as the government pays for road maintenance out of tax funds. However, many if not all of the roads are still charging a toll. Not sure if there’s been an outcome to this debate but when/if I find out more, I’ll certainly let you know.

The final reason why most people do not road trip in China: no vacation time. Unlike in America, the Chinese do not accrue vacation time in addition to paid holidays. For the most part they only get National Holiday off – first week in October, and time off for Lunar New Year celebration. These are the two big holidays in China and if people travel they would rather make use of mass transit, such as trains or buses. In the long run it is cheaper and faster than driving one’s own car… if one even owns a car.   

Let’s talk about that typhoon rainfall for just a minute.

Gary, like so many Chinese drivers, is very cautious. He does not exceed the speed limit and observes all of the traffic laws, even that most annoying one that states: ‘if you are in the passing lane your left blinker must stay on at all times.’ The same rule exists in France. Nearly drove me crazy, hearing the blinker kilometer after kilometer while passing a long line of trucks.

The entire coast of South China is primarily a shipping port, thus most South China cities are crowded with factories. Stands to reason that the highways would be lousy with long distance trucks, doesn’t it?

But that doesn’t answer why I was not inspired to safety at Gary’s driving skill in the pouring typhoon rain. A few things led to my disquiet about that: not turning on headlights when turning on wipers, not being able to read road topography (if the road is darker it means there is standing water on the road), getting freaked out when passing cars splash his windshield and, perhaps the most curious, not knowing what that little switch at the bottom of the rear view mirror was for.

He had commented that he was bothered by the headlights of vehicles behind him. When I suggested simply deflecting the mirror he nearly had a cow… until I showed him how to reposition his mirror by flipping that switch the other way. Amused and amazed he seemingly forgot he was in the driver’s seat and flipped the switch back and forth, back and forth, while the car slowed down and the rain poured outside. I made sure my seatbelt was securely fastened. 

We did stop in the worst of the rainfall. Visibility was down to about 3 meters beyond the hood and a rest stop was just coming up anyway. Besides, we hadn’t been out of the car for 6 hours; it would be nice to have a good stretch.

NOTE: it is law to turn on your 4-ways when driving in adverse conditions to let other drivers know that adverse conditions are coming up. Signaling to exit the highway means turning those 4-ways off. Gary forgot about that, simply veering off the highway when the ramp came up. Fortunately he did not hear my gulping in fear.

Small note about rest stops: they are not like rest stops in America. More specifically, they incorporate all of the rest stop features you might expect, such as: restaurant, small convenience store, gas station at one end, public bathrooms. But they are distinctly Chinese in that they sell things like tea sets and other porcelain ware instead of pillows, blankets and local region souvenirs. The restaurant is only open at mealtimes and instead of a bottomless cup of coffee you can get all the hot water you want for tea or that bowl of ramen noodles you just bought at the convenience store. You can also buy vacuum packed snacks like peanuts, dehydrated fish, duck thighs and chicken feet at that store.

All in all, other than those obvious indicators of being in China, it was a road trip, much like one could make in America or any other country. Other than the typhoon causing some disquiet, it was a nice reunion and a fun, relaxing time spent in the company of my good friend.

Let me tell you about HangZhou, next.


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