Truck driving in China is a test of patience and endurance. Click through for images of life on the road.
The majority of trucks in central China are owned and driven by individuals from the countryside. Each owner-operator hires a co-driver, and the two switch off driving and sleeping. A two-man micro enterprise.
Owner-operators are contracted on a per-trip basis. Drivers often look for loads at local freight markets, where small intermediary companies use chalkboards to post outgoing shipments from factories in the area.
The intermediary companies are usually family-run businesses that operate by nurturing a network of personal connections with local factories. They are unregulated and low tech, some operating with no computer.
Loading processes are slow, often done by hand. Drivers regularly wait for hours or days before departing.
On most long haul trucks in China, the goods lie directly on a flat platform. They are covered by tarps and secured with rope in a strenuous process that takes one to two hours.
These trucks are forced to be versatile, carrying anything and everything a driver can get.
Competition between drivers has increased steadily for the past decade, leaving them to operate in an industry where they can barely break even. To get by, many drivers have their trucks altered so they can carry more goods each trip.
Road policing in China is both ubiquitous and ineffective. On most trips a trucker pays multiple fines for overloading or other common violations. The tickets are usually about thirty dollars, paid in cash out of the driver’s pocket. The fines serve as an excellent revenue stream for local police departments but do little to discourage infractions.
Drivers eat at roadside service areas, where food is many times more expensive than it is off the highway. They usually eat either cafeteria-style buffets or shrink-wrapped meat and instant noodles.
Highway-side hawkers sell snacks to drivers stuck in traffic. Drivers often wait in traffic for hours, and in a few infamous cases days and weeks.
The terrain in central and western China is formidable. Bumpy, two-lane roads winding around mountains cause perpetual traffic jams.
The speed of road construction in China is impressive, but the task of penetrating central and western China with efficient transport is still massive. Efficient mountain highways must be built on a series of extremely expensive bridges and tunnels. When the new two-lane highway pictured here opens for use, it will be fast and flat, but its capacity will be insufficient almost immediately.
The explosion of road building in China has led to a spike in tolls – China now has 2/3 of the world’s tolled miles of road. The tolls are paid by the drivers, but rolled into the price of shipping. Decreasing and eliminating tolls has become a top national priority as the central government becomes increasingly concerned about rising consumer prices. At this toll the driver paid ¥1245, about $200.
Tough roads, overloading, and small driver profits mean that trucks are heavily used and poorly maintained. Drivers walk a fine line between saving money and avoiding breakdowns. Without the money to invest in quality parts, most drivers choose to buy cheap or used parts when they need a replacement.
At either end of a trip, a pair of drivers usually rents a cheap motel room to share for a few days while they look for another load.
There is a sense among drivers of being stuck in the job. They are unwilling or unable to save money or take on debt to expand their business and get ahead. Most have been driving for many years, have sunk a big chunk of money into the truck, and have few other skills to fall back on.
One of the ways drivers cope with the challenges of the road is by bringing their home community along with them. A driver will often travel in a caravan of two or three trucks with other drivers from his hometown, and the group will drive between that home base and an urban economic center elsewhere in the country.
Today’s drivers do not want the same for their sons. The driver pictured here brought his son along for a trip, but was adamant that he would not learn to drive. The nine men in the caravan on that trip celebrated the boy’s birthday on the road.