Walk on the wild side

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 July, 2005, 12:00am

Impatient motorists speed along the wrong side of the road or even mount the pavement to avoid a lane of traffic at a standstill. Pedestrians step boldly out into a busy carriageway in the safe knowledge that oncoming vehicles will swerve to avoid them. Cyclists weave in and out of those on foot, seemingly without a notion of which way they are heading.

A busy road junction in Beijing can make for a startling sight. Confronted by such a maelstrom when I first arrived in the capital, I would marvel at the alacrity of its participants and their ability to avoid a collision by a hair's breath. 'It's a wonder that nobody is injured,' I said to myself.

Then, I did see someone get hurt. I don't know where I was at the time - because I ended up there by getting on the wrong bus. It was a dust-filled street, lined with grimy shacks selling soft drinks. Rubbish was piled high at the back of each one. The ditches on both sides of the road were choked with polythene and Styrofoam.

I was standing at a crossroads drinking beer, because it seemed the most rational response to getting lost. The lights changed and an old man started to cross. Then I heard the snorting and squealing of a braking heavy truck, followed by a sickening thud.

My guess it that the lorry driver had intended to ignore the red light. I could merely watch as the old man was knocked down like a skittle. When I ran towards him, he was lying rigid on his back in front of the truck. I knelt over him and unbuttoned his collar because I recalled being told, in a first-aid course I had attended as a boy scout, that it was the right thing to do. Blood started running from his mouth; the same bright red as the soft-drink cans on sale in the shacks.

The crowd that was gathering around me seemed to think I knew what I was doing. I remembered stories I had been told of westerners being opportunistically sued in the same situation, so I got up and raised my hands in the air. It might have been better not to move him, but I did not interfere when two men picked him up and carried him to a waiting taxi.

Within a minute, the traffic was moving again. The truck continued on its way as if nothing had happened, and I do not doubt that its driver slept soundly that night. Me? I flagged down the first taxi that came along. All I knew was that I had to get out of that place.

I read recently that the World Health Organisation says the death rate on China's roads is the highest in the world. Today, I don't ride a bicycle in Beijing. I don't even like getting into taxis. And when the lights change at a crossing, I always wait until all oncoming vehicles have stopped before I step into the road.