Write in (2) – Chinese Highways 2007 by Hal Swindall

Chinese HighwaysDespite its reputation for road accidents and poor preparation for this year’s Olympics, China does offer this century’s traveller one ray of hope: long-distance bus rides, at least in the coastal provinces, are much more safe and comfortable than they used to be. In many respects, China is the supreme example of plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose, but it has improved its transportation infrastructure a great deal.

While in the country last August, I had the pleasant surprise of making a day trip by bus from Jinan, capital of Shandong Province, to the city of Zibo, where a former student of mine resides. Since I had lived in Jinan as an English professor ten years earlier, I approached the long-distance bus terminal with trepidation, remembering all those near-death experiences of days gone by.

Instead of the gimcrack building with people fighting for tickets dispensed by a crabby old woman, a vehicle without seatbelts that needed replacement parts all over it and a sadistically reckless driver, I found myself in a carbon copy of a western airport lounge, with everything computerized. Having purchased my ticket as easily as I would in a western country, I bought a junk food breakfast at a KFC outlet within the terminal, there being no decent sandwiches available (this was still the orient, after all).

Shining, new buses were drawn up in orderly rows around the parking lot, with none of the dangerous reversing and swerving that I recalled from my professorial days. Nor were passengers obliged to risk their physiques by walking behind reversing buses or boarding them at a run as they sped toward the exit; rather, everyone sat on cushioned chairs indoors until boarding time. Inside, the buses were air conditioned and had safety belts, features of which I had despaired back in the 1990s.

The highway between Jinan and Zibo was another morale booster. Six lanes wide, it had newly planted trees in neat ranks lining it, beyond which well-organized farmland and some new factories were visible. The most notable aspect of this journey, however, was the driving: gone were the terrifying, white-knuckle accelerations into the oncoming traffic lane in an effort to pass some unsafely laden truck in front, with hell-for-leather swerving back into the proper lanes just before shattering, head-on collisions, all of which were routine then, and went on for kilometre after kilometre, hour after nerve-wracking hour. Nowadays, it’s just like “going Greyhound” in the USA.

All along the route, I could observe signs of heavy economic development, since I wasn’t constantly worried about being hurled through the bus’s windshield, then through that of another bus going in the opposite direction. In fact, traffic going in opposite directions was separated by a centre divider, and there were no Indie 500-like attempts to pass vehicles in front during the whole trip! The drivers to Zibo and back seemed as sane and sober as was I.

Arriving at Zibo’s terminal, I found it to be a miniature version of Jinan’s, with everything clean and tidy, except the lavatory, a room which, everywhere in China, seems oblivious to the benefits of sanitation. The overall effect, though, was nothing like what I remembered, even from my 2001 trip there. Thus, I was able to link up with my ex-student, himself now a professor, and spend the afternoon catching up before returning to Jinan in the evening. Later, I took a trip from Jinan to Shanghai on a sleeper bus that, while not too comfortable, was nonetheless safer and faster than a particularly nasty and prolonged sleeper bus trip I took from Canton to Guilin in 1995.

As the Middle Kingdom slouches toward hosting the games later this year, it’s nice to know they have gotten one thing right.

First Published: Jun 25, 2008

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