Driving in China–On a road trip


Its one thing to accommodate the driving style of the urban areas of today’s China and quite another to navigate your way on their highways.  There are the written and unwritten rules of course.  The written rules are typical – speed limits.  The unwritten rules are there for you to observe and integrate into your driving psyche.


In the US we have speed limits as well and they are for the stretch of highway that we are on.  In China each lane can have a speed limit unique to it.


When there are three lanes the left lane will typically have a limit of 120 kph (about 75 mph), the middle 100 kph (about 61 mph), and 80 kph, for the far right lane.  There will also be a minimum limit for all three lanes of 60 kph (about 37 mph).  If the road is two lanes the limit for the left lane can be anywhere from 80 kph to 120 kph.


In the US we are used to having the state police using RADAR or LIDAR or VASCAR, or even aircraft to monitor speeds that vehicles travel.  US drivers often rely on radar detectors and other such devices to provide early warning.  When the state or local police in the US enforce speed limits it is usually a matter of spotting the violating driver and using their police cruiser to pull the offending vehicle over and citing the driver.  Not so in China.


Speed cameras are used exclusively in China.  Only occasionally are there signs to warn drivers of speed cameras ahead.  Usually it is just the xenon flash you see and by that time you are busted.


The car we were using was a 2012 BMW 335i with a twin turbo engine.  While not an M3, this sedan was no slouch.  Like most BMW’s it was made to turn roads into autobahns and inspire well deserved confidence into the driver.  Unfortunately speed cameras don’t take into account your abilities, the realities of the traffic situation, or what a heck of a nice guy you are.  It just reads your speed and snaps your photo if it determines that you are in violation.

Much like some particular counties in the US some provinces in China see this vehicle law enforcement as an opportunity to obtain revenue.  While we made our way to Xi’an we managed to discover one of those provinces.  At the toll booth that was just prior to leaving that province we not only paid our toll, but were greeted by a police officer.  He checked the license plate of the car and the operator’s license and then instructed us to report to a building off to the side of the toll booths.  As we made our way over to the building we saw a lighted sign with license plate numbers and the infraction listed next to each number.

Into the building went my host who had been driving the car.  He had plenty of company as other drivers were waiting to settle up with the authorities and more were being stopped and sent to the building.  After about twenty minutes my host emerged with a not so happy look on his face.  Who ever does have a happy face when they have been stopped?


He was cited for six violations and fined 700 Yuan, which is about $80.  He was not upset about the amount as much as he felt that is was kind of a scam to raise income for the province.  The violations that drivers were being pulled over for were going too fast, going too slow, or being in the wrong lane.  While photos were provided of the car in question it was impossible to know where it was taken or what speed you were really doing.

So we were delayed and frustrated.

Back on the road we commiserated with each other and kept out eyes pealed for cameras.  I was just glad that the fines were not in dollars.  My host told me that you can get up to three violations a year on your license in China, but when you exceed that number you will be required to take a week long class in traffic laws and safety.  It means you miss an entire work week.  I was concerned that they might want to extend his training period to four weeks.


Back to the road and how you drive on the highway in China.


While in the US we have pretty abysmal lane discipline we do have some unwritten rules.  When you are going to pass a car you generally use your turn signals to indicate which side you are passing on.  I have even seen cars signal when they are just changing lanes, but I will admit that is pretty rare.  The old joke about cars in Massachusetts is that it is mandatory that the turn signals are disconnected and the horn is wired to the brake pedal.  It says a lot about what to expect from those drivers (yes, I am from Massachusetts originally).


In China you stay in the left most lane.  If someone needs or wants to pass you they will put on their turn signal (right side) and leave it on for the entire time they are passing you.  If there is a truck in the lane to your right you flash your headlights and turn on your left turn signal – even though you are already in the left lane – and execute your pass with the blinker on the entire time.  I saw this time and time again.  I might seem strange to American drivers, but it does kind of make sense.


There were a lot of trucks on the highway, especially in one province where there are a lot of coal plants and coal mines.  The typical truck is a cab-over design.  Which means the operator’s cab was on top of the engine, which was a turbo diesel.  In the hilly country there were truck lanes for the slow ones to move into on the right.  There were run-away emergency ramps once in a while, but I would never hope to have to use one.  In West Virginia I have seen them where they are a long ramp of upward sloping soft ground.  Those ramps would definitely slow down a semi without inflicting major damage.  The ones that I saw on the highway in China were short ramps with a concrete wall at the end.  It will stop a run-away truck, but its not going to be usable afterward.


Gasoline and road food was available from time to time as service areas were just off the side of the highway at various intervals.  Some gas stations were name brand such as Sinopec, but others were not regular brands and often that meant bad fuel, maybe with water in it.  The food at these stops was not the greatest either.  I told my host that I wanted to experience the “real” China and road food was part of the deal.  It was served on stainless steel trays and the food was not great, but it was cheap.  My host let me try it , but it was clear that he thought it was junk.  Although not junk food in the sense of Mac Donald’s.  It was better than fried greasy food.  It was just like cheap takeout Chinese we find in the US – with more flies.


Gasoline prices were not that different from what we pay in the US.  Fuel comes in two grades 97 or 93, probably about the same as our 93 and 87 which is an average of the combines ROM and MOM figures for anti-knock.  You just cannot pump your own fuel, much like being in New Jersey.  (If you want to do the math there are 3.8 liters per gallon and the exchange rate is about 8.43 Yuan per Dollar).  In the above example the price on the upper right is for diesel fuel.


So we had over 1100 km to drive that day to get from Beijing to Xi’an.  It was late when we arrived and then found a nice hotel.  We needed it.  The beds in China are very firm, just the way I like it.  My back felt marvelous in the morning and the hotel buffet allowed me to have a western style breakfast.  For me I like to start that way, but the rest of the day I stick to traditional Chinese.


Then we drove around the walled portion of the city so that I could see all four gates and the moat surrounding it.  People were everywhere, it is a large city, after all.  There are lots of trees around the outside and there are people working hard to keep things clean.


Yes, there is definitely pollution in China, but there is also a lot of dust coming from the west.  I believe it comes from the deserts.  It mixes with the pollution and coats things pretty well.  But the Chinese are really concerned about pollution and would like to get some ideas as to how to deal with it and get it reduced.  Frankly, being concerned is the first step.  There are several things that can then be done, but it will mean sacrifices.  The Chinese are ready to make sacrifices for a better future.

Once I had the tour of the outside of the walls we found and entrance and drove inside.  Like most streets in the larger cities this had the main pathway and then a parallel road for parking and travel.  Sometimes parking was on what we would expect to be the sidewalk area.  We found a spot in the sidewalk area and locked up the BMW and started exploring.


This was a auspicious time as that day was the anniversary of China during what became known as World War II.  The Chinese had over 12 million of their people killed and still hold a grudge.  There was a concern by the government that people’s emotions would get out of hand so there were police personal and fire trucks in areas where people were gathering to remember.  At mid-day sirens went off to mark the occasion.  Police vans with speakers were urging folks to stay calm and not let their emotions get out of hand.  While I did see some unofficial postings of atrocities that occurred I did not see people getting loud or violent.


I think it would go a long way with the Chinese if the current Japanese government would offer a sincere apology for what occurred during WW II.


We walked around and found a convenient way to cross the large intersection.  We took an escalator underground and used pedestrian tunnels to get across.  It was a very nice way to allow pedestrians to move about without having to brave the automobile, bicycle, and scooter traffic.


We found a nice place to get some lunch.


Then we explored some of the back alleys of Xi’an.  This is a multicultural city and you are just as likely to cross through a Muslim neighborhood as a Christian one.






The Chinese find interestingly shaped rocks – well, interesting.  Here is one on display.



There were many market stalls to browse through.


Here is a place where offerings were being made to the dead in remembrance.


It was fascinating to explore the city and later I was taken to see the university where my host had received his degree.  We explored more of the area before calling it a day, but it had been a long day and I slept well.

The next day we would head back toward Beijing, but not before stopping off and seeing another walled city – Pingyao.  It was where many of the banking and government basics were established during the Qin Dynasty.  Today people still reside within its walls.










More highway was ahead of us and I am glad that I had all the photos in my camera.  Soon we would be back in Beijing and I would go to their latest automobile museum.

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One Response to Driving in China–On a road trip

  1. Jim's sister says:

    Terrific pictures, Jim. I enjoyed your travels very much. I am curious if the Chinese have based their driving patterns on someone else’s or if it is unique to them. It’s interesting how Eastern cultures seem to take special pleasure in unusual rocks and trees. Westerners tend to be much more utilitarian about such things, I guess. Can’t wait for the next installment.

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