Cheating Death on Asian Highways

Traffic accidents are a key danger of expat life as we live in countries with hazardous roads and move around by car a lot. (Smug expats riding their bikes on the dedicated cycle-lanes of the Netherlands or Denmark can stop reading now.)

There are three startlingly clear moments in time when I thought that I (or someone I love) would be killed on the highway. I’m far enough removed to now have a sick fascination with these events, so let’s plunge in:

Bishkek in winter.

Zero visibility on the road from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to Almaty, Kazakstan. On my first overseas trip as a new “development worker” I went along with whatever everyone else was doing. Everyone else decided that it was more convenient to fly in and out of Almaty, Kazakstan and drive to and from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan: three and a half hours over a mountain pass in winter. Fair enough when we were all together and the road was visible. Maddeningly scary on a dark, snowy, very foggy night alone with the Kyrgyz chauffeur. As a former Soviet fighter pilot, he was touted as an exceptionally good driver. I can only guess that he was also highly skilled at “flying blind” and had every turn of that highway memorized, because I couldn’t see one foot ahead of the car in the snowstorm that we rocketed through. Today, I would have told him to turn back and have happily missed the flight. Then–young, childless, and on my first work-trip–I closed my eyes and pretended to sleep.

Wrong Indian state, but this sign should have been posted all along the "Grand Trunk Road."

Suicidal passing on the “Grand Trunk Road” within West Bengal, India. On another work trip a few years later, I found myself in West Bengal, India on a two-lane highway completely overloaded with colorful lorries, buses, and Tata Sumo SUVs. A significant fraction of these ill-mantained vehicles were driven by guys who considered it an assault on their manhood to either be passed or to not be continually passing others. I was in the car with my superior (whom, as a devout Christian, left his fate in God’s hands) and an ego-mad driver (whom, as a devout Hindu, probably also left his fate in Gods’ hands). As a Godless soul, I cowered in my seat as we played chicken with oncoming Ganesh-decorated, and heavily overloaded trucks.

This road in Zhuhai looks safe enough until you come across unmarked road-works at night.

Taut, chest-height metal cable across the highway in Zhuhai, China. I have Ma Siji (probably also Godless) to thank for saving my husband’s life. One dark night coming home from the factory, Driver Ma brought the car to a screeching halt. My husband, the workaholic he is, looked up after his computer flew to the floor of the car from the force of the stop. It was then, that he saw that laborers had secured a metal cable across the road at chest height. Seeing the VW Passat stop, one man casually walked out and lifted the cable high enough for the car to pass underneath; at the same moment a motorcycle whizzed by, the driver’s head just missing the now slightly elevated metal cable.

Stay safe. Miss your flight. Find a hotel for the night. Shower safe drivers with money and praise. If there is a seat belt, wear it. Drive defensively.