Epic Traffic Jam Snarls Chinese Highway

It's being called the worst traffic jam in the world. Drivers in northern China have been stuck along a 60-mile stretch of the Beijing-Zhangjiakou highway, some for days. NPR's Melissa Block talks to Jonathan Watts, the Guardian's Asia environment correspondent, who drove out to see the gridlock firsthand.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

You think you've got commuting problems, consider this - in northern China, there has been a mega traffic jam for the past 11 days. At one point traffic was stuck for 60 miles along a highway northwest of Beijing.

Jonathan Watts of the�Guardian newspaper ventured out to the highway in Hebei province to talk to drivers last night. And, Jonathan, I'm trying to picture this is traffic moving at all or is it completely stopped?

Mr. JONATHAN WATTS (Guardian Newspaper): It was completely motionless, stretching as far as the eye could see, three lanes, bumper to bumper, 2:00 in the morning, everyone with their engines off, their lights off and fast asleep in their cabins.

BLOCK: Wow. And what was the longest wait you heard that a driver had been stuck there?

Mr. WATTS: Actually, some drivers had been on the road twice, believe it or not, in the past week and a half. And they said that when they were there last time it was three days. And they were actually saying it was better this time 'cause they had only been motionless for five or six hours.

BLOCK: And that was considered an improvement.

Mr. WATTS: Yes. All things considered, as far as they're concerned, things are getting better.

BLOCK: What's behind this, Jonathan? I mean, is this a fairly common occurrence or is this especially bad?

Mr. WATTS: This is pretty bad, but on this particular road, not that unusual because it's one of the most congested roads in China. It heads down from inner Mongolia, which is now the new coal capital of China. And almost all the traffic on the road is coal trucks. And they're coming down to the eastern coastal provinces where they're supplying coal to factories and population centers and ports.

But I think in the past couple of weeks it's been made worse by road construction. They're trying to improve the road, widen the road. All it takes is one breakdown and the traffic gets snarled up.

BLOCK: And there's no alternate route?

Mr. WATTS: The drivers say that a few dozen miles in either direction there are other roads, but the toll fees for coal trucks are so high that they consider it more economical to wait in the traffic for a day or two or even three, than to pay the higher toll fees and go on those better roads.

BLOCK: Wow. Well, it sounds like there's a sort of a side economy that's sprung up with people bringing in food and water and things for the drivers as theyre stuck there.

Mr. WATTS: Absolutely. Local people who live near the highway, they see a big traffic jam developing and out they come on their motorbikes and they can reap the rewards of the traffic jam by selling a bit of rice, a few vegetables and a couple of bits of pork for a dollar or two dollars apiece.

BLOCK: And what would unstick this traffic jam? Why would it get better?

Mr. WATTS: I think the main reasons why this traffic jam could clear up are better management by the police and, strangely enough, greater cooperation and awareness by the drivers themselves. Because almost all the drivers have got so used to these traffic jams that they immediately get into traffic jam mode and fall asleep...

BLOCK: A-ha.

Mr. WATTS: ...late at night. So the main problem then was waking up a huge, huge queue of drivers. So you have to go from cab to cab, knocking on the door, saying, please wake up and lets all get going.

BLOCK: Well, Jonathan, Im glad you made it back to Beijing and thanks for talking with us.

Mr. WATTS: A pleasure, thank you.

BLOCK: Thats Jonathan Watts of the Guardian newspaper. Hes also the author of a new book When A Billion Chinese Jump.

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