Cheating Death on Asian Highways

Traffic accidents are a key danger of expat life as we live in countries with hazardous roads and move around by car a lot. (Smug expats riding their bikes on the dedicated cycle-lanes of the Netherlands or Denmark can stop reading now.)

There are three startlingly clear moments in time when I thought that I (or someone I love) would be killed on the highway. I’m far enough removed to now have a sick fascination with these events, so let’s plunge in:

Bishkek in winter.

Zero visibility on the road from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to Almaty, Kazakstan. On my first overseas trip as a new “development worker” I went along with whatever everyone else was doing. Everyone else decided that it was more convenient to fly in and out of Almaty, Kazakstan and drive to and from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan: three and a half hours over a mountain pass in winter. Fair enough when we were all together and the road was visible. Maddeningly scary on a dark, snowy, very foggy night alone with the Kyrgyz chauffeur. As a former Soviet fighter pilot, he was touted as an exceptionally good driver. I can only guess that he was also highly skilled at “flying blind” and had every turn of that highway memorized, because I couldn’t see one foot ahead of the car in the snowstorm that we rocketed through. Today, I would have told him to turn back and have happily missed the flight. Then–young, childless, and on my first work-trip–I closed my eyes and pretended to sleep.

Wrong Indian state, but this sign should have been posted all along the "Grand Trunk Road."

Suicidal passing on the “Grand Trunk Road” within West Bengal, India. On another work trip a few years later, I found myself in West Bengal, India on a two-lane highway completely overloaded with colorful lorries, buses, and Tata Sumo SUVs. A significant fraction of these ill-mantained vehicles were driven by guys who considered it an assault on their manhood to either be passed or to not be continually passing others. I was in the car with my superior (whom, as a devout Christian, left his fate in God’s hands) and an ego-mad driver (whom, as a devout Hindu, probably also left his fate in Gods’ hands). As a Godless soul, I cowered in my seat as we played chicken with oncoming Ganesh-decorated, and heavily overloaded trucks.

This road in Zhuhai looks safe enough until you come across unmarked road-works at night.

Taut, chest-height metal cable across the highway in Zhuhai, China. I have Ma Siji (probably also Godless) to thank for saving my husband’s life. One dark night coming home from the factory, Driver Ma brought the car to a screeching halt. My husband, the workaholic he is, looked up after his computer flew to the floor of the car from the force of the stop. It was then, that he saw that laborers had secured a metal cable across the road at chest height. Seeing the VW Passat stop, one man casually walked out and lifted the cable high enough for the car to pass underneath; at the same moment a motorcycle whizzed by, the driver’s head just missing the now slightly elevated metal cable.

Stay safe. Miss your flight. Find a hotel for the night. Shower safe drivers with money and praise. If there is a seat belt, wear it. Drive defensively.

8 responses to “Cheating Death on Asian Highways

  1. I heartily agree. It is one of the reasons why we relocated to Hong Kong instead of say Shanghai. HK cab drivers may drive crazily but they have working seat belts. Shanghai cabs mostly do not.

    I have been on a couple very scary rides over the years as well, mostly going up and down mountains with no safety rail on the side on narrow two lane highways. I did not do them at night, but saw a few mudslides here and there with our driver saying “oh this just happened an hour ago!”

    • After three years of walking and cycling around Cambridge, England, I am honestly not looking forward to driving or taking taxis again. But, you make a great point that at least the taxis in HK have seat belts!

      Some of the taxis in Zhuhai with no seat belts, metal bars between passenger and driver, and no back door handles (so the driver had to open the door for you), scared the shit out of me.

  2. I remember when I went to Delhi several years ago crossing the street was one of the most terrifying experiences of myself. Shanghai traffic I tend to describe as – look left, look right, look left, look right – GO!

    • Seems like in many parts of the world, as a pedestrian, you’re just meant to start walking, with strategic pauses, and assume that the cars will weave around you. One more thing to be happy for on your business trip to Singapore: safe roads, with functioning cross walks that are actually observed.

  3. I was crossing a street in Shenzhen last year, and held out my umbrella as if to say, the green pedestrian light is still on. The standard issue driver didn’t care and drove right through it.
    Having been in Shenzhen on and off since 2006, I was often amused by the ubiquitous ignorance of their urban planning. One week a new crosswalk would be painted across Shennan Donglu (the city’s major east-west, non-highway thoroughfare), the next it would be fenced off and construction of a pedestrian underpass would commence. But of course, I said commence, and not complete, so the only way to cross was to walk to another fenced-off crosswalk and run with the fools. It’s also humbling to go by a semaphore and see that there are “199” seconds until the light turns green again, giving the locals (and expats) ample time to STILL hop over the fences that have overpopulated the metropolis like kudzu in the American South.

    • Ha! Similar in Zhuhai (although traffic must be a bit calmer than in crazy Shenzhen). When I crossed the border to Macau it always took me a few minutes to figure out that the cars were actually voluntarily stopping for me to cross the painted crosswalk…

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