Small leaps forward beat Beijing's traffic bogy


IT IS a relatively short distance from our apartment into the centre of Beijing: left into our little laneway, left again on to Chaoyang Road, and straight into town - about four kilometres as the crow flies.

The trouble is the crow always gets there first. There is often bumper to bumper traffic on the in bound lane, and at night, when lorries are allowed into Beijing, a minor accident can block the road completely.

With a trip into town taking anything from 15 minutes to over an hour, it is difficult to keep appointments or make it to the school or office in time.

So we began to look for alternative routes. From our 22nd floor window we could see a toll motorway, nearly always empty, running into town parallel to Chaoyang Road a kilometre away on the other side of us. But it lay beyond a no man's land of factories, workshops and railway lines. How to get on to it?

One day, when driving away from town along Chaoyang Road, we discovered a little boulevard running through this industrial area and linking up with the service road alongside the motorway.

Infuriatingly, we couldn't get on to the motorway itself because the last toll entrance was just a little further out, and the service road was one way only.

But the service road itself was a good second best for getting into town. It was in poor condition, with cracks only negotiable in first gear, but at least it had no traffic jams.

So by going the wrong way along Chaoyang Road we could actually get to the centre more quickly. Then we found that even farther out of town there was a housing development we could drive through and get to the service road before the toll entrance, and hence on to the motorway itself. The toll was two yuan, a mere 15p.

Our troubles, it seemed, were over. The journey was now a regular 15 minutes: 10 minutes to the motorway, five minutes into town.

Then one morning the road through the housing estate was closed with concrete blocks, for reasons unknown. We could find no other way to the motorway entrance without going too far out into the country.

So it was back to the service road, via the little boulevard. Truth to tell, like most other drivers, we were sometimes tempted to drive the wrong way along it to get to the toll entrance. Going down one way roads in Beijing is not uncommon: bicycles and the little "breadboat" taxis do it all the time.

Not long ago, however, I drove up to find the entrance to the service road also blocked with concrete bollards while pipes were being laid. Foiled again. With all alternatives shut off, it was back to Chaoyang Road with its irregular traffic.

But the owners of the apartment building, anxious that tenants should not leave because of traffic problems, had meanwhile themselves been looking for ways to make our life easier.

They ascertained that we could in fact turn right on our lane, which we had always thought led to a dead end, and make our way through the Beijing Printing and Dyeing Factory on to the motorway service road, cutting a couple of kilometres off our earlier circuit.

The new route led through a curving alley way lined with industrial pipes, dilapidated store houses with broken windows, and piles of metal shavings and rubble. It criss crossed a railway shunting line three times before reaching a main railway line, where a guard opened the level crossing gate when a car approached.

On the other side it became a back street teeming with typical Beijing life: people selling vegetables and hardware from little stalls, children playing, local lads hanging round an open air billiards table. Beyond it was our familiar, pot holed, motorway service load.

Gratefully, we began using this way regularly. It was, of course, too good to last. Four weeks ago factory officials locked the gate to the dyeing plant, ostensibly to stop pilfering. We were back to square one.

And there the matter rested, until Friday, when a letter arrived from the apartment administration. It said that the Beijing Printing and Dyeing Factory had agreed that our cars can again use its premises as a short cut - if we pay 30 yuan a month "management fee" for a "passing card".

It may be a minor rip off. But I've already applied for the permit. Anything to avoid Chaoyang Road when it is blocked by trucks. We wonder nevertheless: when and where will the next obstacle appear?