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Motor Mouth articles 2010

A Chinese puzzle with no solution

IF, like me, you’d rather have root canal work without anaesthetic than sit, engine off, in a traffic jam on a motorway, then spare a thought for a few thousand Chinese drivers.

What passes for normality on Chinese roads has finally returned after the jam to end all jams – more than 14,000 vehicles, spread over 75 miles in a hold-up that lasted 22 days.

I get impatient and frustrated if I have to stop for 22 seconds on an English M-way, so I find it impossible to comprehend how all these poor hapless motorists could have sat there, day after day, wondering if they would ever see their families again.

The mother of all snarl-ups, on a major highway leading to Beijing, was caused by roadworks, according to news agency bulletins, and although it brought havoc and widespread dismay, it did not seem to have generated quite the level of unbridled fury it might have done in Europe.

Apart from the natural inscrutability of the Chinese citizenry, this was also down to the fact that monster jams have become a fact of life in 21st century China, where the roads infrastructure has failed to keep pace with the country’s spectacular economic growth.

Drivers, mostly of freight-carrying trucks, passed the time playing cards, and the main complaints concerned locals cashing in by selling them food and water at grossly inflated prices. The Chinese are clearly learning the ancient western art of commercial opportunism.

Traffic stretched all the way to Mongolia, apparently, and the general discomfort was exacerbated by fierce summer heat and an overhanging pall of smog. It sounds rather like an average British summer holiday journey but minus the rain.

The Chinese authorities sent 400 police officers to the area to try and keep everyone calm and to deter thieves. Even so, one night a band of eight robbers attacked cars and trucks, escaping with £7,000 worth of booty.

One driver told how he had eaten instant noodles and sausages at every meal because that was all he had with him; the roadside was used as an open-air makeshift latrine.

Motorway hold-ups in the UK have never quite reached these levels, thank goodness, but the frustration they can cause is huge. Several times in the last year or so, I have found myself parked in the fast lane of, usually, the hateful M25, watching the time tick slowly by.

Friends of mine recently sat for three hours late into the night on the M5 as a result of an accident many miles ahead of them. They sat in total darkness and near-silence in a sea of other parked vehicles and finally reached Dorset at nearly 2am. Knowing their fondness for the ablutions, I’d advise anyone not to picnic on that stretch of motorway verge for a while.

Probably a better bet than a certain stretch of road in the Orient, though.

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