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Gridlock hell in freezing China

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  • Trucks, buses, private cars, crammed with workers and families, but going nowhere
  • Some families had already been on the road for two or even three days
  • One driver took 30 hours to drive from Hefei to Nanjing, normally a 2-hour trip
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From Andrew Stevens
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NANJING, China (CNN) -- It was supposed to be a two-hour trip. True, the weather was cold, but it was clear and there was no snow expected for at least 12 hours.


Chinese migrant workers carry items on a snow-covered road in Nanjing.

Our aim was to get from Nanjing in the east to Hefei, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) due west in Anhui province, which was suffering its worst disaster since 1949.

We packed some food and plenty of water in a Toyota Pajero 4WD, and with producer Chen Xiaoni and cameraman Brad Olsen set off from our hotel about noon.

Almost immediately we were in a gridlock. This is a city of about 8.4 million and in any big Chinese city, traffic is bad. But this was something else.

Migrant workers were trying to get out west to their homes for Chinese New Year on February 7. The city was at a virtual standstill.

Trucks, buses, private cars, all crammed with workers and families, taking a chance on the weather and heading home, but going nowhere.

On Chinese roads, space is a luxury. Road markings become vague guidelines and the rule is give way to anyone who's bigger than you.

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To make matters worse, our driver hadn't up the gas tank. It took an hour, and dire warnings on the radio of fuel shortages, to find a station and fill up.

Two an a half hours later we arrived at one of the bridges over the mighty Yangtze River, and the expressway heading west. Suddenly, mysteriously, the traffic thinned out, and some optimism returned.

We soon passed a bus with a dozen men standing around the back end watching the mechanic working on the engine, all offering helpful comments -- the first of many such sights.

Suddenly, cars and buses just ahead of us began U-turning, coming back up the expressway the wrong way. No explanations, just horns blaring as they dodged the oncoming traffic.

They were followed by a police car, siren on, saying that the road was clear and we should keep going. So we did.

We hit our first big gridlock just five minutes later. We sat in the car for about an hour not moving. The live broadcast we did there to describe the scene made us realize just how bitingly cold it was outside. Temperatures below freezing and it was only early afternoon.

The gridlock became the focus of our life for the next 10 hours as we inched agonizingly up the expressway. Drivers and passengers alike were resigned to their fate.

Many had already been on the road for two or even three days. Some had restocked with supplies in Nanjing, some had not. One driver told us it had taken 30 hours to drive from Hefei to Nanjing, a trip that should take two.

One family of 10, yes 10, packed into a family van, were prepared for their second night sleeping in the car. "We have to get home," they said, children sound asleep in the back of the car, in between bags of food and water.

The side of the expressway became a communal area/waste dump/toilet and dog walking track. Some children threw snowballs but it was too cold to be out long.

As night fell the temperature plunged and the jam grew worse. We saw a sign for a roadside rest stop. That would be where the bottleneck is, we thought. It wasn't. The traffic was stationary going and coming out.

The first time we really heard genuine anger was at the petrol pumps. The enormous Sinopec station was running only about a quarter of its pumps and the queue was non existent. Every driver for himself. No violence, but a lot of anger.

Buses roared in, disgorged passengers to buy instant noodles or grab a quick bite at a canteen-style restaurant serving rice, cabbage, beans and some sort of meat.

Buses drove off, leaving their passengers still queuing for food. No problem, they would catch up with the bus a couple of hundred meters up the road.

The temperature continued to drop as the night wore on, and black ice started to form. Stepping out of the car was like stepping on to an ice rink. In places ice several centimeters think had formed. Cars slipped and slid, miraculously missing each other.

Cars got stuck on the shoulder, engines revved and wheels spun. Eventually someone would help push them forward. We only saw a handful of cars stuck solid, families still in them waiting for help.

Help ... where was it coming from? As we debated the wisdom of traveling on in such treacherous conditions with a major snow blizzard brewing, our driver turned to us and said: "It's ok. If we get into trouble the government will save us."

His faith was sincere. But the point is, millions of people are today trying to travel through appalling conditions and the numbers may well be overwhelming.

The government is making a point of saying they are doing everything they can to protect and rescue travelers and get the country working again.


But perhaps more tellingly, it's telling people not even to try and go home.

Finally, after nearly 13 hours we decided it was too dangerous to continue. We found a guesthouse just minutes from the road -- virtually empty. Home, is where people want to be at Chinese New Year. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

All About ChinaGuangzhouBeijingWen JiabaoWinter WeatherNanjing

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