Road Tripping in Mainland China

Road trips have been part of my psyche since before memory. I’ve grown up watching them in movies, taking part as a passenger and later in life spent a good few months in an ’86 Ford Mustang criss crossing North America in search of that highway nirvana. Ever since starting my driving career I’ve been at it, known as the fool who gets in a car and drives for twenty hours to no visible end.

For those uninitiated out there, road trips remain a colossal symbol for many, most popularized by American culture (although definitely not exclusively an American pastime).

Folks road trip for many reasons, but all share the same atmosphere and basic principles: you don’t just use the road, you live it. An open highway and big skies just the start of it, other elements join to create a motorized adventure most people deem insanity in an age where you can travel by plane rather than spend untold hours cooped up in a small vehicle. Therefore road trips aren’t for the lazy or weak, rather they exist to please dedicated souls capable of appreciating the bond between human and machine, not to mention good roadside diners and motels.

Ever since relocating to Beijing this writer engaged numerous individuals in an effort to promote mainland road trips. Resistance has been fierce generally speaking, with the concept appearing exceedingly alien to most, local, expat and even extraterrestrial (ok the latter’s a bad joke). Conversation partners usually seem to think getting in a car and driving long distance in China would be sheer folly, quoting anything from high costs through bad roads to highway bandits (now how dumb is that?) as reasons. Strangely enough, these same people typically see nothing wrong with taking a 40 hour train ride, but that’s for psychologists to analyze.

So this passed National Week off I went once more to peruse China’s growing express and highway network, hoping to break my own distance record (previously Dalian was the furthest I’ve driven to).

Armed with a beat up taxi-esque Xiali, it was my mission to prove skeptics wrong by having a perfectly enjoyable road trip Da Lu style. Did I? Well�

Stage 1: Beijing-Qingdao.

Leaving old BJ was quite exciting with the thrill of another journey beckoning all in attendance. After having morning coffee at Guo Mao we hit Jingjintang Expressway which unfortunately gives way to a somewhat cluttered and accident prone national highway (Guo Dao) for the Tianjin part before re-connecting with the Beijing-Jinan expressway.
My mom’s old rule of thumb that everywhere on the planet looks just about the same from a highway-hugging car held true. If not for occasional Hongtashan or Sinopec billboards you’d be forgiven for thinking it Iowa. Also, despite Hebei’s excellent service areas, we didn’t find that unique US interstate feel as no eye-popping KFC, Taco Bell or Country Kitchen signs greeted our weary selves. Food was mostly drab standard restaurants and instant noodles. This selection forced us off the road and into Jinan proper (a true one McDonalds town if there ever was one), searching for decent local eats. We found it, but paid with time and traffic.

While all stops have convenience stores, most were minimally stocked. Encouragingly, now many of these areas have small hotels, but don’t expect a Days Inn or even Motel 6.

Road quality was excellent throughout, but peripheral items seemed lacking at times, with a generally lackluster road environment and even confusing distance markers which at one point inferred Qingdao was getting away from us! Also, most of the Jinan-Qingdao route was blanketed with smoke caused by countless farmer-started fires.
Total Time: about ten hours. Total Cost: road fee=RMB315. Gas=RMB160.

Stage 2: Qingdao

European elegance and seaside charm have garnered quite the reputation for this Shandong city, making it Dalian’s natural counterpart. Aside from beer and Haier it’s also famous for beaches and delectable seafood. Sadly, yours truly tends to stick with chicken so let’s go straight to driving-related issues.

If in Qingdao, don’t drive. Arriving there late at night caused us to get lost big time, not helped by the city’s labyrinthine layout and disorienting topography. Half the streets are one-way, and detouring can cost you a large chunk of sanity. Many drivers seem to consider red lights a recommendation at best and few notice solid lines. I’ve driven in literally hundreds of cities across several countries but Qingdao was one of the most challenging. Unless you have tons of time to adjust, consider alternative transport modes.

Stage 3: Qingdao-Shanghai

Heading to the pearl of the orient became an ordeal as a direct expressway connection hasn’t been completed yet, resulting in a need to locate G204 which, like most of the country’s national highways, has no signs pointing to it and therefore can be a major hassle to find.

However, guo dao’s can be more interesting of course, avoiding samey expressway scenery and revealing deeper layers of the countryside. Naturally, this also entails going through many villages and towns as well as their ensuing traffic, and you’ll have to cope with hordes of overdue, irate truckers, cyclists and who knows what else. Taking a guo dao extends travel times considerably.

Luckily, driving into Shanghai at night and looking at that glorious skyline was definitely worth it.

Total Time: 8-11 hours, depending on who you ask� Total Cost: road fee= RMB150. Gas=RMB180.

Stage 4: Shanghai

We soon started missing Beijing’s orderly grid layout and conspicuous ring roads. SH tends to favor narrow elevated thoroughfares Hong Kong-style which lend themselves nicely to traffic jams. We must give the city credit for including compass directions in road signs, making getting around much easier than the smaller Qingdao. Still, if you’re there don’t forget driving up and down Waitan (The Bund) while staring at Pudong’s majestic visage. Chances are you won’t hit anyone as the city’s big roads are free of annoying bikers.

As a footnote, Xialis and Fukangs (Citroens) stand as anomalies down there. While we represented with our Jing license plate it would probably be nicer to blend in using a Santana.

Stage 5: Shanghai-Beijing

Thanks to some logistical issues we had to turn back prematurely. To save time we drove on the Shanghai-Beijing expressway, taking us through Jinan once more. Exits were a bit difficult to find, but save for that problem and some Jiangsu farmlands it was identical to any other stretch of expressway you may find yourself using.

As Iron Kite played on the stereo our trip turned ponderous in view of Hebei’s darkening, sparse landscape. Backtracking the way you came always tends to be introspective and uneventful.

Total Time: about 14 hours. Total Cost: road fee= RMB580. Gas=RMB290

Stage 6: Beijing

Coming back home to the Big Jiaozi was of such elation this writer found himself teary eyed, especially once CBD, Jinguang and Capital Mansion were in sight. Then we stood in traffic.

Stage 7: Beijing-Zhangjiakou-Yan Qing-Beijing

Another unrelated event but still worth telling was a trip to nearby Zhangjiakou (two and a half hours west-by-northwest from downtown). While an expressway exists, it’s relatively new and gets shut down regularly for inspections, which forced us to use a small road snaking its way into Hebei province through mountains and several small townships. While very scenic, this road’s quality leaves much to be desired and it can get harrowing at night when visibility is low and motorists blind each other with supercharged high beams.

Zhangjiakou’s one of the friendlier places we’ve been to recently, and has several good places to eat as well as a superb cigarette brand (Diamond) for the nicotine inclined.

If going there, head back to Beijing by way of Yan Qing, the suburb nearest Badaling great wall and a beautiful, clean city worth frequenting for its vibe and impressive riverside observation pagoda. At night a plethora of colorful lights are turned on, making it even more appealing.

Conclusions

While definitely feasible and not the crazed daring act many would have you think it, road tripping in China still has a ways to go before graduating into a fully-fledged experience. Right now basically a way of satisfying wheel-craving, the journey lacked many ingredients mentioned before, and it’s still very difficult to find all you need on the road itself. Gladly, all myths regarding long distance travel as perpetuated by the masses were dispelled, including those elusive banditsâÂ?¦

Important stuff to remember are toll way fees which can certainly drain your budget (at least until they pay off construction costs), at times inconsistent signage and slightly unruly fellow road users, a minority which nonetheless can be quite irritating and obtrusive thanks to their lack of road awareness and, possibly, experience. This is a shame as China’s highways do offer quality of the highest order, making fast, solid driving a natural thing to do.

Was I proven wrong? No way. Will I do it again? You betcha.

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