Gridlock in Xinjiang

A dispatch from western China

By / November 2013

The best thing about cycling around Urumqi during these the final days of ice-free weather is sailing past the traffic. I stop for coffee beside the dwindling puddles of the Urumqi river, eyeing the exhaust fumes that fill the greying autumn skies, and I gloat. The congested streets have brought to mind the massive changes the roads here have seen over the last few years.

Once upon a time, all my friends were happy to jump on a bus or with farther to go, into a taxi. Two or three minutes was the maximum wait for a bus, and you arrived at your destination in the blink of an eye. The only friends I had with driving licenses had never actually driven a car in Urumqi. But now the city is at a standstill: Journeys take forever and no one gets anywhere very fast. The world changed forever four years ago when petrol bombs exploded in buses. The passengers fled for their lives as bus windows were smashed, while rampaging mobs lashed out at anyone in their wake.

Hundreds were killed and maimed in the Urumqi race riots. And curiously enough, it seemed to be the right catalyst for car manufacturers to lure people off the streets and into their cars. Following the slaughter, 300 vehicles were sold to Uyghur families every day. After all, they didn’t dare enter Han Chinese-driven taxis. Fearing for the lives of their children—lest they be caught up in the wave of retaliatory killings—they retreated into new cars. Han taxi drivers, for their part, refused to pick up Uyghurs. And to further complicate matters, the Chinese were also persuaded to leave the streets after rumors that mysterious hypodermic-syringe-wielding maniacs were attacking people in the underpasses and on buses.

The rationale for car buying has normalized significantly since the disturbances, so much so that a car is the new must-have accessory for anyone wanting to be anyone. If you’ve not already passed your driving test—or at the very least not signed up for driving lessons—you’re in serious danger of missing out on the action. Car purchase and ownership has now so much entered the sphere of normality that the kind of car you own can make or break a business deal or seal the fate of a matrimonial alliance. People have quickly forgotten how easy it was to hop on a bus, and they now prefer to be the talk of the neighborhood in a brand new Range Rover or BMW.

Whereas only taxi drivers or the super-rich and their chauffeurs used to aspire to four wheels, now it seems that everyone from slum-dwellers and street traders, to professionals and humble government workers are aiming to hit the roads as soon as they can. Everyone now is hurrying to be one step ahead of new government regulations, which over the past three years have tried to block every loophole that has unleashed a lethal cocktail of unqualified and under-age drivers onto Urumqi’s death-trap roads. It’s not hard to understand why Xinjiang roads have one of the highest mortality rates in China, and thereby the world.

Cars sweep and swerve like synchronized acrobats dodging potholes. Weaving donkey carts, aimless pedestrians and children–who at any moment could dart out in front of an unsuspecting motorist and finish up under the car wheels–are unfortunately par for the extremely uneven course.

Driving in Urumqi is a minefield of potential hazards primarily born out of Xinjiang’s only recent and extremely gradual transformation from a fundamentally rural economy to a modern industrial machine. But however many skyscrapers pop up and highways suddenly appear, life on the ground has stayed the same for many. Their mindsets lag significantly behind Xinjiang’s 21st-century façade.

Where in the world might a shepherd, with no warning, suddenly decide to steer his flock of a hundred sheep into the pitch black night across six lanes of traffic—and fully expect no casualties? Where in the world would he get away with it except here where such an event is commonplace, particularly during the Sacrifice festival. Any novice driver who “caused” the impromptu animal sacrifice would fully expect to cough up the compensation in full.

Where else would drivers have to compete with escapee camels and yaks from the nearby slaughterhouse? The animals run amok amongst precariously piled donkey carts zigzagging timelessly down the centre of a highway, much as they would down the poplar-lined leafy suburbs of village Xinjiang.

As with all new-fangled inventions, the law has been slow to catch up with the hazards of car ownership. Whereas a few years ago when only a handful of cars were on the roads, drivers never wore seat belts. They also parked wherever they wanted, did U-turns with reckless abandon, and partied, drinking to their hearts content before weaving home. All this continues to occur, but now there are the beginnings of laws calling them to account. Life is beginning to get easier too for hapless pedestrians running the gauntlet of obdurate motorists who have forgotten what life was like before they had a car. Now there are underpasses, bridges and pedestrian lights.

Crossings, it has to be said, are not exactly as we know and love them in the West, and they have particular Chinese idiosyncrasies. The main benefit of being hit while you are on one, I am told, is that the driver must pay your hospital bills; but he has no obligation to actually stop and allow you safely over. That being said at least there are places nominally set aside to cross and small islands to rest where U-turns are forbidden.

But cycling, too, is not without its hazards. Only a few weeks ago I was cycling on the wrong side of the road, as one does on a bike here, and laboring painfully up a hill. Suddenly from nowhere a young boy darted out and was under my front wheel before I could break. A kind passerby rescued both of us and there was no harm done. But there’s no room to gloat even for a cyclist. I finished my coffee, noticing that in the time it has taken me to jot down my thoughts, the traffic has barely moved more than 50 feet. It’s time to jump on my bike, look both ways twice and twice again … and weave carefully home, gloating ever so slightly, through the traffic.

 

Ruth Ingram is a writer living in China. She has also written for The Guardian.

 

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