BEIJING DAYS: Dispatches from the Middle Kingdom
Family Road Trip From Hell
The Chinese road trip to hell — the most dreadful hours I have spent in any vehicle, short of being pistol-whipped, roped, gagged and tossed unceremoniously into the trunk — began on a Friday evening, amid the teeth of Beijing’s emerging weekend rush hour.
I was held captive in a van dominated by three stubborn siblings; none of whom had really ever negotiated their nation’s freeways outside the Capital City, even to the next major metropolis a few hours down the road.
My brother-in-law Xie Yi, our driver, usually had a friend or employee behind the wheel on such excursions. His sisters, Lily and Yuyu, had emigrated to the U.S. years before and had never driven in China.
As a result, I have never made so many wrong turns; never driven such badly-signed highways, never sat gridlocked in traffic amid so many noxious, diesel-spewing trucks; never heard so many raised voices (mostly my wife’s); never dealt with so many desultory toll booth attendants, who couldn’t fathom where we wanted to go, and didn’t care. In all my motoring years, I have never considered opening the passenger door to fling myself into traffic at 80-miles-an-hour, out of pure frustration, to finally bring an end to my suffering.
I was surrounded by the Chinese version of the Three Stooges: Moe behind the wheel, Larry and Curly in the back, firing off directions; one on her iPad supposedly consulting a map, the other, even more clueless, assuming her self-professed street smarts would guide us. Meanwhile, Xie Yi held his smart phone in his hand, consulting the GPS guidance system, staring at the screen instead of the road as we greased the hips of trucks large enough to crush us like an empty aluminum can.
The device gave directions in Mandarin, in a female sing-song voice. But apparently Xie Yi assumed he knew a better way. Because time and again, he ignored the instructions, throwing us into another traffic eddy, off the freeway, farther and farther from our desired destination.
My superstitious wife insisted we had no business even being on the road. According to her Chinese calendar, her daily bible of all the things that can and will go wrong, it was a black day. Earlier, Xie YI had been stopped by a cop and issued several tickets — for driving in his slippers, without a license and for ignoring the alternating odd-and-even license days that kept too many cars from being on the road at once.
Down the road, my wife warned, trouble waited.
Ah, the joys of family travel.
It all started because Xie Yi wanted to visit the nearby city of Tianjin, normally a two-hour drive north from Beijing. He’d seen a food show on TV called “A Bite of China” that recommended several seafood restaurants on the port of Tianjin. He wanted to give them a try, or maybe he’d been there before and wanted to return with his guests; I could never figure that part out.
There were seven of us in all: Xie Yi, his sisters, mother, girlfriend and eight-year-old niece visiting from Orange County. I rode in the front passenger seat, normally a spot for the trusted navigator. But since I didn’t speak Chinese, I was reduced to mute excess baggage , like a pet dog allowed to sit up front, mindlessly watching the road ahead, slobbering on the passenger window.
We made our first wrong turn a few miles from home. Xie Yi knows Beijing well and the blunder surprised me, but maybe he was distracted with his van-load of wards. The mistake meant that we were caught in suburban traffic, forced to take a long detour to the northbound highway.
OK, no problem; everybody makes mistakes.
The next departure came a short time later. We were past the outermost 6th ring-road of the Beijing freeway system, looking for the highway that would spin us off toward Tianjin. We wanted the Jinjing Highway; simple right? Suddenly, there was confusion between Jinjing Highway and Jinjing Tang Highway. Inside the car, chaos prevailed.
To make matters worse, we were stuck amid a brigade of long-distance trucks, stopped, as a turned out, by some accident, a few miles up ahead. It was a scene from a Mad Max film, where all forms of government had become extinct and filthy lawless truckers ruled the land, their rigs belching black smoke, the anonymous men behind the wheel refusing to give an inch to the victims that scurried down below.
These were trucks that would never be allowed on U.S. freeways. Most were overloaded, their freight stacked high — old toilets, reams of cardboard, scrap metal — held down by flimsy ropes. One sharp turn and the gravity would bring the whole towering load tumbling to the pavement. You tried to give them wide berth, but it was impossible.
And then there were the animals.
Next to us was a large semi with a three-decker load of pigs, the animals stuffed into over-crammed cells, enduring their own versions of hell, unknowingly headed off to slaughter. Flies plagued their eyes, the bigger beasts crushing smaller ones beneath them.
We finally got past the pig truck, only to find ourselves next to one packed with goats. Legs and hooves protruded from the cages. The animals looked sickly — each of them an advocacy poster for vegetarianism. I lost my appetite. Slowly, luckily, we inched past the miserable creatures; God bless them all.
We were still looking for the Jinjing Highway. In my experience, major freeway confluences are easy to negotiate. But apparently not in China.
We exited, barging our way past a few angry truckers and approached the toll booth. Xie Yi handed our ticket and asked for directions. I couldn’t make out what was said precisely, but the word Jinjing was repeated again and again. We were not allowed to turn around, but waved ahead with an imperious motion of the hand.
All too quickly, we realized that we’d gotten off too early, now trapped on some rural road. We got back onto the highway, passing the same trucks we had previously put into our rear-view mirror. I saw the pigs again, then the goats.
They all still looked miserable, heading off helplessly toward an undesired fate. I felt a certain kinship.
Then, by some mistake, or miracle, we found our Jinjing highway. Nobody told me. This was a Mandarin-only vehicle, without time or inclination for English translations. Then suddenly, I had to pee. Big time. But I kept quiet; we’d already been on the road for two hours. Tianjin had to be close. I could wait.
But unknown to me, we weren’t headed directly to Tianjin. The port-area restaurants that were our destination were much further north. We were apparently on a bypass route around the city. It was dark as we hurtled along stretches of road without lighting, through a brooding post-industrial landscape. A thick smog had also set in and bug juice clouded the windshield as we passed clutches of empty apartment buildings and smoke-belching factories. Oncoming headlights cut through the gloom.
I’d never seen a place so ugly, so unwelcoming. There was nothing that resembled any kind of destination where you would want to stop and have dinner after a long and stressful drive.
And then the bad news: We were lost. Again.
Xie Yi telephoned two friends, who both told him to keep going. The sisters disagreed. More bickering. At one point, we stopped dead on the freeway, as traffic whizzed past at 80 miles an hour, to scrutinize directional signs. Miles down the road, we were just about to pass an exit when protests erupted from the back seat, sending us careening off the highway onto the off-ramp. In all, we exited at a half-dozen spots, each time turning around to continue our slog.
I had absolutely no idea where we were, how far we’d come, how far we still had to go. I was afraid to ask. And I still had to pee.
Finally, we stopped, and turned around. The decision came quickly. For Xie Yi, something apparently didn’t feel right. We back-tracked 20 miles, eventually reaching the same toll booth we’d passed a half hour earlier. Again, the conversation was animated. The attendant barked a few words and waved us off. We plunged back into the darkness.
Xie Yi was amazingly calm throughout. While I faulted his decision-making, I couldn’t criticize his patience over repeated blunders — some his own; others not — that would have had me pounding the steering wheel in tears and frustration. My mother-in-law and Xie Yi’s girlfriend sat in silence in the van’s back seat, while the sisters bickered in the darkness.
Finally, the eight-year-old niece piped up from the back seat.
“When are we going to eat?” she said. “This is ridiculous!”
I agreed. But nobody asked me.
Eventually, we found the place, a collection of neon-lit buildings in the middle of the abyss. As far as I could make out, there was no port, no boats, no nothing, just a few isolated eateries that didn’t seem to warrant a four-hour drive, let alone a walk across the street.
To make matters worse, the place was about to close. We were given a table next to a large group of drunken locals who had obviously been imbibing for hours. The laughed and shouted. There was no rest for the weary. Mosquitos dive-bombed into our dishes.
Two hours later, we reached a suitable hotel in Tianjin city, the fourth-largest in China. You couldn’t miss it on the map if you’d tried. But somehow, we had. Our hotel was a dump, so we wandered the streets until we found one more suitable. My head hit the pillow after a 1 a.m., some eight hours after we’d started.
We headed home the next day. I feared the worst, but hoped for the best. My wife got directions at a gas station. This time, the trip would be a piece of cake.
We left Tianjin, driving for an hour before we saw it: A sign announcing we were entering Tianjin. Tempers rose, not at one another, but at fate, the Chinese road system, anything and anyone other than the people making the decisions.
We pulled up at a toll booth and my wife leaned out the driver’s side window, berating the attendant for all this wasted time. (Of course, it was the woman’s fault.)
I pushed back in the passenger side seat and fell into a deep, stress-free sleep.