Editor’s note: Here's a blog I wrote on 17 July that I didn't have a better way to introduce.
My first impressions of Chengdu were mostly an awed terror. Admittedly, part of it was the exhaustion of travelling for thirty hours, but part of it was the overwhelming sensory overload of experiencing the city.
Being nearly midnight, I was astounded by how much activity was taking place. Outside of that Kanye video, the last time I saw that much flashing neon was when I was doing some evening shopping at Piccadilly Circus. There were western-looking skyscrapers next to ancient Chinese facades; there were brand new buildings next to dilapidated, crumbling structures next to buildings months in the making (fluorescently illuminated, I might add: I learned later that much construction takes place at night because of the soaring temperatures during the day). Bizarre juxtapositions around every corner—our fancy hotel was across the street from Hooters, to boot.
Venturing out during the day eliminated some of the visual stimulation, but replaced it with more pollution, and much more noise: the large growl of diesel busses; the rapid-firing horns on not just taxis, but every vehicle zipping down the road. You cannot go three minutes without hearing that quintessential car alarm made more (or less) tolerable by that old Dane Cook joke. (I learned after walking into one, the noise is not a car alarm, but a scooter alarm.)
However, ignoring the bright lights and tremendous noise, the single most astonishing thing about Chengdu is the traffic.
It reminds me of a more dangerous version of the traffic I saw in Cairo, actually. Many volunteers remark about how dangerous it is, and how terrifying it is to ride the bus or in a taxi and watch it. They say they do not mind that Peace Corps does not allow volunteers to operate motorized vehicles, because you could not pay them to drive in Chengdu. Between the buses and large trucks, the multitude of green taxis and personal vehicles, and compound all of that with the scooters, bicycles (motorized or not) and pedestrians, the traffic in Chengdu is chaos.
My host family does not own a car, so I’ve spent a lot of time going from place to place via bus and taxi. Any line on the road, sign or signal meant to direct traffic is more of a guideline than an actual rule. Every vehicle jockeys for position that will get them to their destination the fastest means necessary.
If Chengdu traffic is chaos, it is the type of beautiful chaos seen in the raging currents of a river. Everything seems to flow, finding a way downstream, from point a to point b. When I taught soil erosion experiments to Boy Scouts, we observed and discussed the path of least resistance the water will inevitably take. Traffic in Chengdu seems to follow unspoken rules of the road, where everyone accommodates others, while still looking out for number one. It is a successful combination of aggressive and defensive driving.
Driving down the road, lanes may multiply from two to four without reason; vehicles drift easily from lane to lane, swerving around slower cars or tricycles hauling a towering mass of something or another; quick horn blasts communicate a jockeying for right-of-way.
The traffic ebbs and flows, sometimes swirling as taxis make a U-turn to deliver passengers (regardless as to whether there is a U-turn lane or not). Jams will happen, but that’s to be expected when there is such a huge population of people on the road. Outside of jamming, I have not seen, nor heard, of any accidents taking place. (Editor’s note: Since the time this was written, I have seen one accident and come up on another after the fact.) With all of those stereotypes about Asians being terrible drivers, I have not seen anything but superb automotive handling. Maybe it’s our traffic rules that are too stringent?
|I didn't run to the streets, but I did get a little wet.|
In the end, if the mean streets of Chengdu have taught me one thing, it is that the music we lovingly associate with ice cream trucks is not universal (I assumed it was after hearing it being played from the back of a bicycle selling ice cream in Guatemala). Here in China, that noise invokes the opposite reaction. Do not run toward the street looking for a tasty treat. Get away from the street because you are about to get blasted with water from the street sweeper coming up behind you. (Editor’s note: Now that I live in Lanzhou, I've discovered that the garbage trucks play "Jingle Bells".)