Archive for the ‘Transport in China’ Category
In the last couple of weeks I haven’t had time to take a meditative breath let alone gather any kind of thoughts together to get a Note down here, which, I must say, is rare for this particular brand of laid-back Xi’anite. I have been keeping busy with existing work commitments, my new study routine of 3 Chinese classes a week, the checking out of a new voluntary role, my continued dedication to a ‘new’ running regime, as well as the ongoing work that goes into being a modern husband with Chinese characteristics.
I have also made two flying visits to Wuhan over the last two weeks. And, as the pollution on display during those visits was so bad, I thought I would dig around the web for a few representative images that could then kick-start another Note here. There was even one moment on the Chang Jiang 2nd Bridge, while we were traversing the great Yangtze River, where we became incomprehensibly aware that we were unable to see the river at all for the sickly, grey smog that engulfed it. Further, as I have only managed recently to keep abreast of developments in China by briefly dipping into The Guardian’s China pages, I thought I would give a bit of context to these pictures and pay a small homage to the UK paper’s environmental journalists, and in particular Jonathan Watts (of When A Billion Chinese Jump fame).
Watts noted in his December 7th piece in The Guardian, with reference to Beijing, that: “The smog persists because factories in neighboring provinces release pollutants, construction sites fail to manage dust, traffic grows on the roads and power stations burn ever greater mountains of coal.” These are the same factors that explain our own environmental worries here in Xi’an. However, until recently a very strange situation has existed in China – noted by Zhong Nanshan, President of the China Medical Association – a situation where: “Air pollution is getting worse and worse, but the government data showed it was getting better and better.” Zhong, in his March 16th interview with The Guardian, went on to say that of course people do not actually believe that the air pollution is getting better, but that this disparity between official facts and reality exists because the government hasn’t been monitoring particularly important pollutants. Zhong added, somewhat dispiritingly, that: “If the government neglects this matter, it will be the biggest health problem facing China.”
The main problem – the pollution itself aside – has been that authorities nationwide have not been measuring ozone or small particulate matter known as PM2.5 in the air quality index, when in reality these two pollutants are major contributors to breathing-related health issues. PM2.5 particles are able to directly penetrate lung tissue, causing damage that can lead to serious respiratory problems. PM2.5 refers to pollutants that are 2.5 micrometers in diameter, about 1/30 the width of human hair. Recently, however, the Chinese government has initiated changes to the way in which these pollutants are measured. The situation as it stands at the moment is that major Chinese cities are required to include this particulate matter in their air quality index results.
The government has at the same time been trying to lower expectations ahead of the publication of these new readings, by publically acknowledging that it will take decades for the pollution levels to fall within more widely recognized standards. Wu Dui, a haze expert from the Guangdong Meteorological Agency, observed that: “It took the US and Europe 50 years to deal with their problem. Even if we cut that in half, it will still take 20 to 30 years.” At present, 70% of Chinese cities fall within the existing national standards. However, as Jonathan Watts highlighted in his Guardian piece in January this year: “[D]eputy environment minister Zhang Lijun has warned that 70% will fall below acceptable levels if PM2.5 is added to the index.”
So, even though I am donning my shorts and regularly getting out for run, cutting back on cheese and bacon burgers and the Village Café’s damn good apple pie, Zhong Nanshan’s concluding words highlight a sad reality: “We all have to breathe. It’s no longer enough just to have a good lifestyle. A green environment is one of the most important elements in deciding people’s health.” I, for one, will still stick to my own new health regime as I am certainly gaining short-term benefits, but sadly the longer-term consequences could be rather serious. Let us just hope that we will wake up one day able to halt the forces that are pushing our world’s countries and economies down this particular path of development. Then, maybe, our kids might get half a chance of being responsible for their own health. I can only hope that I will, a few years from now, still have the respiratory capacity to be able to share in a bit of banter with them. Time will tell.
Today, Xi’an’s Underground system officially opened. Which is certainly good news, as it is much needed. On first impressions, it is superbly convenient, well, it is if you are traveling North or South. Although, it must be said that a few of the stations are not in the most accessible of places, but I’m sure we’ll all get used to that. The 4 most southerly stations are not yet in operation. It takes about 15 minutes from the TV Tower (Huizhanzhongxin/会展中心) to Zhōnglóu/钟楼 (the Bell Tower). It costs 2 kuài for up to 6 stops, the maximum price is 4 kuài. The last train at the moment is about 9.30pm.
There is not much more to note, as it is a Subway like any other, it’s just that this one is in Xi’an, which is actually quite strange to realize and experience for the first time. The trains are noticeable for the fact that they don’t seem to be broken down into cars, with joining doorways, but are made up of just one long open carriage. This is the first Line of 6, I am told the East-West line is actually going to come on line in January, its construction having been brought forward as a response to the global credit crunch. Here is a link to Wikipedia’s Metro Map.
Anybody who has followed my Notes here will know that I haven’t enjoyed watching Xi’an’s roadways move from a state of relative carlessness, though not a little carelessness, to their present state of frequent traffic jams (see here and here). Many people simply comment that it is just life, just development. But as Karl Gerth noted, it isn’t just life, it is a life chosen. Though, it is a choice that has been made to seem somewhat inevitable.
However, this Note isn’t intended to go over old ground or imagine for a second that it will be any different any time soon. That boat has surely sailed. It is just simply to observe, from anecdotal experience at least, that a few years ago not only was there a lack of cars, there was also a lack of cars going fast. Moreover, while there have always been many minor prangs on Xi’an’s roads due to the erratic nature of the drivers and pedestrians, there haven’t been too many serious accidents involving injured parties.
Both cases are now changing. I am seeing more and more people driving like the boy racers of our western provincial town centres, hough this is by no means the majority. But people are beginning to accelerate with force within any small gap that appears, and overtake at speed in more and more dangerous and pedestrian laden situations.
Further, and arguably more importantly, the lack of driving skills that the average Chinese driver possesses, which were previously offset by the lack of cars on the road and the low speeds that those cars were driving at, are beginning to be felt more widely and more seriously. At one time you could at least manoeuvre out of the way, or stop, as there was space on the roads to do so. Now, those options are limited by the sheer weight of traffic. Consequently, I am witnessing more and more cases of seriously and bloodily injured people. And, I have got to say, that really is very sad. (more…)
Today is not my day. It is not my day in more ways than one. Today is National Day; it is the Nation’s day. I’m a small piece of that Nation, but maybe so small I am not really a piece at all. It is also not my day because today I locked myself out of the house. Worse, this is not my house, not my real house, not the one with my neighbours and friends. This is my new house, my new house in the new city, or the old city, it just looks new. Well, parts of it do. This is where I now live. As the last of the summer heat left, we arrived.
It is also now the city that I am left to wander around for hour upon hour. I am waiting for my son and his family to arrive back into the city this evening. My son lives here too. I live with my son. He is a good boy but I do wish he’d left a key around here someplace for me.
I am now sitting on one of those orange plastic-seated benches that they seem to have next to many of the main roads here. This one’s not far from the house. There’s a big tree right next to me; there are actually trees going all the way down the street. The road is busy, though. There are more trees than I thought, but there are also more cars too. In front of me are a lot of colourful shops. Maybe later I will go across and see what they sell. The buildings are tall here. Above the shops the buildings just go up and up, really tall.
I could go and talk to some of the neighbours. I ought to, but I am not going to. My son said I should go and see Mrs. Qin on the third floor. I should go, but I am not going to. Don’t ask me why.
I don’t want to sit here all day though. Maybe I will cross the road in a minute.
There are some birds chirping loudly above me. As I look up I can see there is one bird chatting away from inside a cage, while another is replying to it from a branch opposite. I watch as the leaves that surround them rustle and move in the breeze and, as the road’s noise reverberates up amongst the branches, I notice how remarkably still they both stay.
When finally one flies higher up into the tree, the other begins to hop and flutter agitatedly from its perch, in a sort of bouncing motion from the roof of the cage to the bars below, its wings flapping wildly. It repeats these movements again and again, moving faster and faster, getting more and more agitated.
A lady with loaded shopping bags in one hand and a daughter being pulled along by the other hurriedly brushes passed me, drawing my attention down from the tree and back towards the road. I can’t sit here any longer. I must get up. I must do something. I will cross the road. I stand. I walk towards the street. I feel anxious. I don’t know why. But I quickly realize, as my thoughts catch up with me, that I’m not sure if I can actually get across.
Rushing along in a sort of narrow side section of the street, just down from the curb’s edge but separated from the main road by a low white fence, are a collection of motorized bikes, pedal bicycles and san lun che. Even if I can get across and can get over the fence, what am I going to do about all those cars? There are really so many of them and they are going so fast.
It’s really not my day.
I also now see that the trees in the central area of the road have brick plinths built around them, and that a green wire fence runs the whole length of the central section of the street.
I sigh silently.
There is no way I can get across.
I sit back down and look out towards the shops opposite.
I will wait here for my son.
Whatever might be said by some and whatever some people might tell you, there is no question that this is an amazing country, at a particularly incredible stage of development.
Of course, no one really knows where it is all going, but when you are being zipped along by an immensely smooth 350km/h fast train and you look out to see still-underused, but ready-to-go wide-laned motorways, as well as gleaming new train stations, dissecting and standing out respectively from within the terraced fields that make up the majority of this new route, you think the future may not be too bad at all: those chuffing chimneys aside. Well, at least not too bad for those actually riding the train, may be less so for those still working the fields.
Although, when I was talking to a couple of village labourers recently they were seemingly very proud and excited about the new gāo tiě 高铁 (high-speed train), and were aware of its speed and the various destinations along this new route. Time will tell how long it takes for them to be riding it, but that may well be missing the point, or it might actually be hitting it straight on (more on this below when I move away from this unadulterated positivity and highlight some of the concerns that are surrounding this rapidly developed rail project).
This is a country whose people have historically travelled by train; there has been a boom in air travel recently, but if the government continues to play its cards right (or wrong, again see below), this may well be a people happy to return to the tracks, rather than continuing to take to the airways.
And if this experience is anything to go by, that’s no bad idea. I must say from a personal point of view, I would choose this 300-mile train journey in roughly 2 hours, with half an hour cab ride each end, over the shorter flight and longer airport waiting time and travel. These trains are comfy enough, the seats recline and the legroom is fine, they could be a bit wider, but then I could be a bit smaller, and the average Chinese person actually is. Plus, give me a choice of looking out at some fields through a landscape-wide window or a pokey view of some clouds from a plane porthole and I’ll take the fields all day long.
I have also come across quite a few Chinese people who are not actually that enamoured by the air travel experience. If you don’t have much of a choice and money isn’t a factor but time is, which no doubt it often is, then the plane is for you. But when you’ve got more of a choice then that decision is not so straightforward. Whether the majority are able to ride these trains or not, there is a lot of pride swilling about at present, and they have got a pretty amazing system in development to be excited about. These developments may well also have some considerable environmental benefits, if they are not too careful.
However, there are some logistical and quality concerns arising from this new system, a couple of which I will outline below these brief references to Xi’an’s new station: (more…)
Before I begin this brief review of November’s news, or a few pieces of it that I have found of interest, I must just note that it took me 50 minutes in a taxi yesterday to do a journey that only takes 20 minutes on my bike. Although, I promise that after this brief aside I will avoid the issue of traffic for a few weeks, as it has become a too oft-repeated theme here and I am actually beginning to depress myself, let alone anyone else. But for now, back to yesterday, there didn’t seem to be any extra special road problem, it was just the sheer weight of traffic that was holding us up so long.
So, it was with a deep sigh that I concluded my re-reading of this extract from Karl Gerth’s book As China Goes So Goes The World, a poignant title if ever there was one, and one that China Beat picked up on this month. I had only just finished chatting with a friend of mine about the exceptional growth in private car ownership here in Xi’an, particularly over the last year, when I began reading it.
The article in no way contradicted our discussion or in any way led me to any brighter conclusions than the ones we had just dwelt upon. One of which was the almost inevitable sealing of Xi’an’s roads at some point in the near future, particularly in areas outside of the newly built zones in the west and far south, which do at least have somewhat wider boulevards and road junctions.
We seemed to both be acknowledging that the subway system, at least in the short term, is just not going to hit the spot in terms of a practicable alternative for the vast majority of car users out there. And with the increase in car ownership not doing anything like stabilizing, let alone decreasing, it really doesn’t bode well.
Gerth’s book managed to put this situation in a much graver light, by giving it some historical context and a consequential sense of the inevitability and run away, now out of control, nature of it all. To think an alternative, a non-private car based society and economy was actually being considered, or even expected, up until relatively recently. China really could have given its growth and increased global power some fluttering flags of moral leadership, if that is what it or we really wanted, but it didn’t.
A chair is, of course, just a chair but for some reason I like these chairs in more ways than for simply being chairs, or I like them in more ways for the nature in which they are chairs. Ever since I came across an article, some time ago, reviewing Michael Wolf’s book ‘Sitting in China’ I have had a few pictures of these random creations stuck on my wall. But I have just come across his website and these collective images for the first time.
I am not an inactive fellow, I get out and about town and do try to keep a little fit, but I am partial to a good chair, particularly a good comfy armchair, though here in Xi’an they are sadly few and far between. So, first off, I like these chairs from the perspective of a chair lover. I am though also a fan of these chairs because they seem to symbolize to me so much of what is still so good about China and what is increasingly not so great about our world.
I will highlight the former first. A directive here from a wise elder observing a young fellow standing uncomfortably by a number of seated and crouching locals, might go something like: “If you need to sit, find something to sit on, and if you really can’t use anything nearby to sit on, then crouch.” Sadly ‘the crouch’, or ‘the squat’, is becoming an increasingly frowned upon habit within this fast developing nation, even though for many ‘the squat’, once mastered, is actually quite comfortable and also quite conducive to a bit of street side banter, while also allowing a little youthful courting.
Though, of course, crouching, or more specifically squatting, should be cleansed from daily life if this country does want to find representation on the board of great civilized civilizations and certainly if it wants to become its Head. Or, so it might go. However, these chairs, like the crouch or squat, are useful; they are cheap, they are practical, they are full of life and they are varied. And they must have simply evolved out of a communal desire to continue chatting with neighbors, street sellers, local beauties and customers alike, in whatever random location you had found yourself short of a seat. The nature of the chair here in this context is one of pragmatism and utility; with a pronounced nod towards necessity and re-use, though they are also not short of design ingenuity, variety and are a simple representation of the reality of community here. Happy Days.
This is just a Note that has been brewing for a while.
*Cháng’ān Lù 长安路
We have grown up together side-by-side but now your behaviour has gotten to a point that I cannot abide, nor simply hide or ignore that which crosses my mind. But, first I gotta ask: “Sweet Cháng’ān Lù: Is it really you?”
I am sure, back then, it wasn’t just me who revelled in the criss-crossing mass of humanity, which descended on the Junction of Shi Da Lu; like some joyous, incongruous stew. No matter spluttering car or steaming truck, we strode out with a little good luck and little regard knowing, in fact, it was we who would pass.
Halting the traffic in our wake we grasped our long fought for humanitarian stake. But, make no mistake Chang’An Lu, you must take responsibility for the lack of humanity that now resides at your gate, you leaving us simply to wait and to wait. But, I ask… for what?
Back then buses would halt as an aged old lady would take to the street, simply sweeping a broom made from plastic bagged sheets, while motorcycles still weaved between pockets and sleeves. But, the time most enjoyed was when we all at once directed and objected from the centre of stage, before being forced to turn the page: losing that urgent, organic, glistening spell which storybooks will never be able to retell. We all halted, we all moved, the life was all there at that crossroads at Shi Da Lu.
A tear now crosses my eye for the deep sadness of goodbye and a progress more reminiscent of a creational mess than a strategic game of post-war chess. The shiny black wasteland that one-day you will be now carries eight high-speed lanes of immovability, directly dissecting our community.
Oh Chang’An Lu, I stood there at your side as the last roll of new tar was itself applied, giving your potholed visage a life a new. That night we watched as an aged old man not far from his grave, contributed his last efforts for you to be paved. So hot, it was steaming in the dark of the night, but we, a few, gathered in the future knew, one life had passed and another… who knew?
You changed then Cháng’ān Lù, you were never the same once this glistening black coat was tied at your neck. I wanted to believe it could be as before but now the reality has sunk in, there is no drop of that past left for us to draw. Today, we are no longer allowed even to gather at your side. “Take a chance” I hear you say, but sweet Cháng’ān Lù that’s a thing of the past, it just wasn’t able to last. A fact we cannot hide, if only you knew, no chance now, unless of course we are ourselves taken for a ride.
Don’t look back I hear wise words say but it was actually you who taught us that way, back in the day: “Don’t look back, stride out, you are Kings on my road”, you would say, and we believed you. Because be sure back then, as those who travelled with us knew, looking back was not something we knew how to do. We strode with criss-crossing glee, oh yeah, really quite free. May be some say it is not the case to be true, but today is a place less free: to be true, to be true. Oh Cháng’ān Lù what has happened to you?
Just a day or so ago, I was thinking of you as I held up a bus, of course, not wishing a fuss, but when I looked out from the North to the South do you know what I could not see Cháng’ān Lù? It was you. I could not see you, for a continuous, sickening metallic hue, which had morphed into one almighty incomprehensible queue: that quite simply had obliterated you.
But now, at the dawn of a new modern era, it does in turn dawn upon me what I probably always could see. You have gone Cháng’ān Lù. It is no longer you. I talk to myself now it does seem but if that is all I have left then what I wish say I wish to be clear, to be fresh, to be seen.
Oh consume, Oh swoon, Oh legitimate heir, Oh the reason so fair, Oh fair: the fair of fair rides, fair maidens and fair despair. Oh pollution, Oh evolution, Oh ignominious death, Oh development, Oh wither, Oh sickened river, Oh imbedded, hot headed, earnestnessness. Sweet love, sweet freedom and sweet redress.
Oh Sweet Cháng’ān Lù, I really miss you.
With the onset of summer interrupted by frequent rain showers it is may be not a bad time to partake in a bit of reflection, particularly with regard to a few of the transportational changes that have ridden into Xi’an in recent years; arriving on a wind of progress, though on the back of an almighty stimulus package, one that has included a few unpleasant side effects. The laid-back nature and slightly underdeveloped cityscape of Xi’an that I so liked upon arrival is changing.
There are so many cars on the roads now that it is even for me, let alone the slightly aged members of the local community, hard to believe that when I first arrived in China’s Western capital I really didn’t have to pay too much attention when crossing the road and never even consider waiting at a road junction. Not so now, walking between the lanes of oncoming traffic is not only restricted by increased car use but also by government directed traffic attendants, who, in such a short time, have vigorously put into place a road crossing etiquette that was almost impossible to ever imagine existing just a few years ago.
Having ridden a bike on a daily basis over the last four years it is easy, if not a little depressing, to recognize the increased volume of traffic that I now peddle, cough and occasionally splutter passed. ‘Passed’ though being the operative word, the term traffic jam or dǔ chē (堵车) has certainly entered the common cultural lexicon of Chinese cities over the last few years and Xi’an is no exception. I can often find myself leaving sleek blacked out and branded motor vehicles in my slip stream, as I jump between lanes and lights on my US designed Trek bike.
With on-line / pre-paid/ high environmental cost airline tickets tucked away in my gmail database somewhere, this year’s experience of Chinese New Year may well be somewhat different to last year’s. Although, bus stations/ train stations and a trip to the in-laws can only actually be forestalled and not avoided completely; Beijing for New Year- deep Southern Shaanxi a week later.
Here are a few extracts from last year’s Notes, just to remind me what Chinese New Year is all about and to get me in the spirit of it all. Plus this article about the ‘real-name train ticket system’ that is being piloted this year.
Chinese New Year is fast approaching and people in their masses are heading home. Yesterday I wandered down to the bus station to buy a ticket for my girlfriend who is also returning home for Spring Festival, a few days before I join her. No problem I had thought, a bit of a wait then I would arrive back at the flat a knight in shining armour, clutching a much sought after ticket when she returned from work. However… read on (more…)