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Why does the “Familiar” look “Different” in China?

February 9, 2012

When an American first visits China, he is usually struck by how different so many things are, as is to be expected. Many things are very, very different.

But some things are about the same as they are back at home, and for this reason, they stand out.

Take this example: A highway rest stop. There couldn’t be anything more ordinary in America than the good ol’ highway rest stop. A parking lot, a gas station, a fast-food restaurant or two, possibly more – it’s a very simple formula, and it’s visible in thousands of places on America’s road system.

By contrast, China hasn’t really had highways as we know them until recently. There were plenty of roads, of course, and one shouldn’t foolishly assume they’re mostly unpaved, or some such thing: major thoroughfares in the big cities – Beijing, Shanghai – rival any boulevards to be found in Europe, for example.

So when industrial-strength, up-to-speed highways started appearing over the last twenty years or so (very rough estimate, don’t bill me for errors), the newly empowered driving class in China started getting the same kind of treatment that we Americans have come t0 expect.

This was visible during our Road trip to North Korea, posted previously, which focused on the view of North Korea from across the river – but at this point, we’d like to point out some of the highlights that got us to that view of North Korea.

Check out the highway rest stop on Liaoning Province’s G11, a brand-spankin’ new toll road:

Rest Stop on Liaoning's G11 highway

 Yep, just what you’d expect to see anywhere in America – so because of that level of familiarity, it just seems odd to observe it in China!

One important note, before we continue: for an explanation of why these supposedly-ordinary facilities are completely deserted, please recall that this was right at Spring Festival-time, so nationwide, the travel frenzy was well over by the time we ventured on this outing.

Have a look at the adjoining gas station:

Gas Station at a Road Side Rest Stop on Highway G11

 I couldn’t get good pictures, but the highway also has standard-issue highway signs, as in “Such-and-such city, 218 KM”, which are dull enough; the really amusing ones are the exhortations against “Driving Sleepily”, discarding trash along the highway, and drunken driving (which carries harsher penalties in China than in the U.S.) – I’ll have to capture those images for you next time.

In Summary, things are different on a Chinese highway, except when they’re the same. How’s that for an inconclusive conclusion?

Major difference: Expensive tolls – for our six-hour roundtrip, we paid about fifty dollars U.S. – add in the cost of filling the tank, which is a good deal more pricey in China – and the total bill for the trip was about a hundred dollars U.S., not exactly a bargain.

Major similarity: There’s almost nothing on the highway except other cars. This is a big difference from Chinese roads that are not flashy new highways – on those routes, you can still expect a hair-raising series of near-collisions with the usual tour buses, other cars, funky little tractor-motorcycle hybrids, donkey-drawn carts, bicyclists, pedestrians, and roadside vendors. That won’t be changing anytime soon.

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