China-2023: in praise of Chinese highways.

Chinese roads are simply the best. What’s more, they’re often anything but simple constructions, and almost always come with the most wonderful views to be had therefrom in all directions – simply looking out the window of your moving vehicle is wonderfully meditatively awesome. Here, for example, is a masterpiece highlighting perfect integration of a highway and its natural surroundings:

I mean – they’re the best on literally all levels:

  • Road surfaces – great!
  • Signs – great!
  • Bridges – great!
  • Tunnels – great!
  • Views – great!
  • Roadworks/repairs – great!

Tunnels get crazy-long:

And there are sooo many new roads. I can bet that the S15 isn’t on many a map yet as it’s just so new. It doesn’t seem to be on Google Maps, for example (btw: that Google Map of China shows the dense web of roads across the country really well (not including the deeper interior (mountains/desert) where there are hardly any).

If only the speed limits were as generous (rather – absent) as those of Autobahns – especially since many a Chinese driver loves to hog the outside lane. Still, such downsides are hardly worthy of the name, to be fair.

Our first big road experience on our China trip began when we left the relatively small city of Zhangjiajie. I say small as it has a population of 1.5 million, while the ten biggest cities of the country have at least nine million inhabitants (if the internet is to be believed or isn’t out of date already).

Here we are – still in the city:

Three-story interchange, with a parking lot on the ground floor:

There wasn’t much traffic on the roads; still, this is hardly Beijing or Shanghai (in terms of big cities in Southeast Asia only Tokyo and Singapore seem to have dealt with the traffic problem properly; but that’s a whole other story). But here on a weekday the traffic situation was like this ->

Interestingly, you can make a u-turn from one of two lanes – the far-left and the far right! ->

We drive out of the city and things become more modest, just like anywhere ->

Next, our minibus comes to a toll-booth. Even it is a fine construction – featuring a covered pedestrian walkway over the road above and perhaps something else inside there (there’s actually a third floor too!). And – bonus: China’s toll roads now feature transponder payment; in the past paying by cash was the only option.

Here’s our driver, btw – Shi Fu. He was driving for the duration of our stay – from airport to airport – and we’d become friends by the time we left. Meanwhile, Shi Fu turns steers the bus onto a modern highway…

Up ahead crossing over the highway – a viaduct carrying a railroad, which in turn carries high-speed trains:

Now – some maps and a few words about Chinese roads in general…

Around a half of China is desert and mountains – most unsuitable for human habitation. Here’s a map of the country; as you can see – to the west and northwest there are hardly any settlements at all. Indeed, it’s the east, south, and southeast of China where the action – and the population – is at (where the map’s colored green, not beige) ->

Now, what you can also see on the map is just how dense the network of roads is in (populated) China.  To get a better handle on the relative density though, compare China’s roads with those of western Europe – here, on a map to the same scale) ->

Sure – in the Netherlands and western Germany the scribbles of highways are all bunched up, but even those hardly compare with China’s “kid’s scrawl” ) ->

Are you as surprised as I am about just how thickset China’s highway network is? I never knew! And given that China’s landscape necessitates many a super-long bridge and many a super-long tunnel, well, the feat is even more impressive. Also – back to the comparison with Europe, Chinese highways don’t seem to suffer from the perma-repairs European highways do (we only came across two roadworks during the whole of our trip). But the Chinese aren’t stopping there: they’re still building more and more roads and tunnels and bridges! ->

It makes you wonder why China still classifies itself as a developing country!

Two viaducts crisscrossing, one under the other – with us on the highway in-between! ->

The highways we took were mostly always empty:

Highway interchanges – also impressive; not their existence, but their quantity!

Tunnels are met frequently constantly in these parts. This one is more than 10km long!->

In some places, as one tunnel ends another one – or two – appears! ->

Inside the tunnels – post-modern hi-tech designer vibes. Apparently the rings of light help drivers concentrate and stay alert. Don’t think I’ve seen such phenomena in America or Europe…

Most of the highways we took appeared to be brand new (and, as mentioned – mostly empty). I wonder why? Are the roads built with the future in mind, when there’ll be more vehicles on the roads?…

Woah: knife and fork. But everyone here eats with chopsticks! ->

Now for a few words about transportation infrastructure. The roadside services and conveniences were all mostly large, looked brand new (with more than half of the individual shop spaces to let still empty) – and with practically no customers:

Actually – a closer look showed there weren’t any staff working there either: most things were closed – for now…

The filling station works, but no one’s about:

Yes, it seems they’re just planning well ahead – making sure everything’s in place for future demand. I’ve noticed it’s a trend across the country – including in its more populated regions.

Btw, all the highways are toll roads. Pros: (i) they’re accessible from anywhere and you only pay upon exit; (ii) road quality is exceptionally high. Cons: you gotta pay to drive on them (but I never did find out how much you’ve got to pay).

+1 con: the speed limits are low and strictly enforced. Normally 110 for cars and 90 for trucks and buses. Sometimes it gets up to 120 and 100. And there’s no pushing one’s luck going above the speed limit by around 10%; we observed this with our driver: if the speed limit’s 90, he stick to 90 and never above.

And there are speed cameras everywhere – in places literally every couple of hundred meters or so! ->

Ah yes – there’s another +1 con: China never signed the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic, so internationally recognized and generally accepted road rules don’t cut it here – and neither do international driving licenses. Getting a Chinese driving license is real tricky for foreigners; I’m not sure quite how, but down the years I’ve been told by different European driver-tourists that it’s a mega pain in the posterior.

Accordingly – I recommend going by minibus or coach driven by a local, like what we did. But ideally you need more seats than you have passengers (2:1 ratio, at least), since you can be on the road for hours and hours and  days and days – and some folks like to lie down across two seats for a nap. Others check out the passing scenery, while still others catch up with emails and the news ->

The best passenger seat is the one up front with the driver – but it can get a bit scary, apparently: the passenger in the pic here, for example, perhaps not used to such an expansive windscreen, early on would emit squeals when passing oncoming vehicles on serpentine roads up in the mountains:

Here’s Shi Fu again. Good driver, good fun, most pleasant, and very friendly – pretty much like most Chinese ) ->

Meanwhile, we were back on the road: mountains, bridges, viaducts, tunnels, and wonderful views non-stop…

Occasional towns pass us by – and high-speed railroad viaducts too:

Onward. Up ahead – construction. But of course: we’re in China! ->

The speed limit comes down around built-up areas:

Heavily loaded trucks with their bulky cargoes fully covered up and secured are a common sight here:

An unfinished highway; we take the right fork ->

Interchanges – no matter how remote and vehicle-lite the location! >

My turn up front – hurray! Meanwhile the others have had enough of the passing scenery ->

I picked out “vehicle” and “road”, but that’s all. Clearly a call for safe driving ->

The road gets busier – but still: hardly heavy traffic ) ->

On and on and on we drove – for several days! Most days we were on the road for half-a-day, others – the full day. That could sound hellish; it wasn’t!…

A few photos taken by my travel companions:

Parking – ladies only? Why? Don’t know! ->

Flag dualism:

No comment! ->

Finally – we approach our next touristic port-of-call. But more about that in the next post…

All the photos from China are here.

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