â€œDo Not Drive Tiredlyâ€ Â Thatâ€™s the message, in English, on large highway signs spanning the roadway in Jiangxi. I was charmed by the idiosyncratic English, and even more by the fact that almost all highway signs in China, including mundane ones announcing upcoming exits or defining the hard shoulder, are all bilingual, Chinese and English.
Based on my recent highway travels through part of Jiangxi Province, I was probably the only one who could get much value from the English. Thatâ€™s because almost all the other traffic on the highway consisted of very large and heavily-loaded long-distance Chinese trucks. Passenger cars are few and far between.Â
Highways are a recent phenomenon in China, of course. Iâ€™ve never seen anything quite like them, in my +30 years of driving around the US and lot of the rest of the developed world. The Chinese highways are mainly well-built and usually in pristine condition. Besides the English-language signs, another source of frequent delight are the life-size plastic policemen, pointing plastic radar guns at oncoming traffic. Theyâ€™re planted in the highwayâ€™s central meridian as not-so-subtle reminders to avoid speedingâ€“ or as the sign calls it, again in English, â€œOverspeedingâ€.
Itâ€™s those large trucks, though, that really define for me the current experience of highway driving in China. Despite their huge size â€“ the trailers often have 20-wheels, and seem to stretch the length of seven or eight passenger cars â€“ the trucks are often buckling under the weight of their loads. Most of the time, the cargo hold is open at the top, and covered with a very large tarpaulin, in various colors, intricately tried to the bottom of the flatbed. The trucks have a tendency to wobble and weave as they move along the road â€“ the result of either unbalanced loads or, more likely, less-skilled drivers.
Long-distance trucking may be among the fastest-growing new professions in China. Itâ€™s a safe bet few of todayâ€™s drivers have been behind the wheel for more than two or three years. Many have their own particular style of driving. Heavy, slow-moving trucks often canter along, 30mph below the speed limit,Â in the left-hand passing lane. Their side-view mirrors â€“ the only way the drivers can see traffic behind or alongside them â€“ are often tilted at angles that seem to defeat the purpose.Â Â
Few of the trucks have any kind of marking on them. The concept of a truck as a moving billboard is still an alien one in China. Not so the ordinary highway billboard, which is very common, as are advertisements posted on overpasses.Â
China produces so much, including a huge percentage of the worldâ€™s manufactured goods, that itâ€™s hard to imagine how all this stuff moved around before the expressway network was built. The traffic on many expressways, including the ones I was on in Jiangxi, must be over 90% trucks. Thatâ€™s only going to increase, as more production in China is moved to cheaper, inland areas.
The expressways are already quite crowded. Often, they are only two lanes wide in each direction â€“ which may have seemed more-than-adequate 10 years ago when first designed, but now seem to belong in the Pleistocene Age. Within ten years, these roads will almost certainly all need to be widened. That can cost almost as much, per kilometer, as building new expressways.Â
Chinaâ€™s toll fees are among the highest ones Iâ€™ve seen. In Jiangxi, itâ€™s 0.4 Renminbi ( or around five US cents) per kilometer for passenger cars, and more for trucks. So, financing all this construction wonâ€™t necessarily put a big dent in state revenues.Â Â
Even with all the slow-moving truck traffic, the expressway network in China is a godsend. It makes distances much less foreboding than they used to be in China. Itâ€™s possible to average over 100 kilometers-an-hour. On the older, ordinary road network, youâ€™d be lucky to average half that speed. Where the trucks thin out, you can â€œoverspeedâ€ at around 160kph, and rustle the plastic policemen in your backdraft.