How to cross the road in Beijing like a hero

Hey everyone! This week we’re back in Asia but this time I’ll write a little bit about my experience with traffic in Beijing, China. I had a pleasure of visiting this immensely interesting country for a study trip last year and since then I haven’t really written anything about it so I thought it’s high time!

As mentioned above, last year when I was in my final year of uni we could sign up for a study trip to China, which I did straight away without even thinking about it twice. I’ve always been interested in visiting this enourmous Asian country as I wanted to verify everything we hear about it here in Europe myself. Coming from Poland - a country with its own communist past which influences still hold a very strong place in our society, I was really intrigued and excited to see how communism has developed in China. But I’ll talk about it in another post as what I want to talk about today is what baffled me about Beijing the most… the traffic and the etiquette of crossing the roads.

China is overpopulated and so is its capital Beijing. There are plenty of people everywhere but considering the amount of space that Beijing has it doesn’t really feel that packed. But because there is a lot of people, there is obviously a lot of cars too. Honestly, an awful lot of cars, We’ve all heard about the pollution problems caused by car fumes in Beijing and I have to say that, unfortunately it’s all true. We’ve visited China in spring so we were lucky to get quite a lot of sunny days with clear sky. The pollution on those days wasn’t too bad so wearing a face mask wasn’t neccessary. However, on the more cloudy days the Chinese students we made friends with would bring us disposable face masks in the morning and say that on the news it was recommended to wear them. From what I’ve observed, on those days the vast majority of people on the streets would actually do that which was quite telling. Another thing is that, if you’re not used to the smell of polluted cities, sometimes a slight smell of something similar to petrol would actually be quite noticeable.

In front of Beijing West Railway Station

But that was something I expected to be happening to us in Beijing. What was quite a shock for me was the way you cross the roads there! The streets of the Chinese capital are very busy most of the time which means that you wouldn’t really want to try crossing the road carelessly (like a lot of people in the UK do). The first time we were about to cross the road we’ve been all patiently waiting for the lights to change to green, just like the Chinese people standing next to us. Nothing unusual about that, right? Once the lights finally changed to green we were surprised to see that the cars wouldn’t stop, or at least slightly slow down, as they were still going crazy fast despite their red light. Quite confused we looked at our new Chinese friends and one of them suddenly said „ok, just follow me”. What happened now was probably one of the most unexpected things that I’ve ever witnessed. The guy who said to follow him fearlessly entered the road and with big amounts of confidence straightened his arms in a gesture showing the cars to stop. And then he just continued crossing the road with his arms just like that until the very end, looking at us every now and again to see if we’re still walking behind him. What a hero!

You can also spot all sorts of vehicles on the streets of Beijing, from super tiny cars to unusually packed bikes 

After that slightly confusing experience, the Chinese students explained to us that in Beijing the cars won’t stop even if their light turns red. Apparently the green light for pedestrians means that this is the time when they can try cossing the road but nothing’s guaranteed. They also added that the best way of doing it is to just enter the road and pretty much force the cars to stop or slow down by showing them to do so. Later on that day, each time we had to cross, I’d carefully observe how the Chinese people do it. I’ve called this way of crossing the road „the superhero method”. I also decided to give it a go myself, despite the little voice in my head that kept on saying „Zuzanna, that’s a very dumb way to die”. And at some point the next day, once I got all my courage ready, I entered the road with the biggest amount of sass possible and felt like Moses parting the Red Sea. It worked!

The traffic in Beijing gets absolutely mental, especially during the rush hours. A typical road there has 6 or more lanes going each way, which means up to at least 12 lanes in total. And even with such wide and spacious roads the Chinese capital gets completely congested at certain times of the day. We were once stuck in the bus for around 3 hours on a bit that, according to Google Maps, shouldn’t have taken us more than 15mins in normal traffic. But that prolonged bus drive was actually a perfect opportunity to observe how the traffic in Beijing acts and that itself was an experience as well. First of all, I’ve noticed that the drivers there barely use the indicators. When they are about to change lanes they just simply sound their horns instead. And as pretty much every single vehicle seemed to be constantly changing lanes, that made the roads extremely noisy. Another thing I’ve noticed is that they seemed do the U-turns quite a lot and pretty much anywhere. I don’t really know much about the Chinese traffic code so I have no idea if that’s allowed or not but it looked a bit mad regardless. Again, it seemed as everyone was already used to that so whenever a car would start doing a U-turn out of nowhere, every other vehicle would try moving out of its way and then continue on driving.


Typical Beijing road sign and crossing

So to summarise everything, Beijing’s traffic is a bit crazy but gives you the opportunity to feel like a superhero when crossing the road! It was definitely a new thing for me. I was also right in the middle of taking driving classes back in the UK at that time so I was extremely attentive to what was happening on the Chinese roads. Have any of you been to Beijing and noticed all those things as well? Safe travels!

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