Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Road to somewhere: Where I live in Orlando, all but one of our limited-access highways are toll roads, and the tolls are expensive enough. In China, where tolls are comparatively more expensive and where the rule of and respect for law has always been compromised by bribery and money, people are going to seemingly ridiculous lengths to avoid tolls. So some villagers are striking back:

By 2020, if all goes as planned, China will have completed almost 53,000 miles of expressways, a network roughly equivalent to the Interstate System in the United States. China considers expressways crucial to maintaining its economic growth and developing its western and interior provinces.

But the cost is so exorbitant that China is financing much of the system with tolls that are, by Chinese standards, pricey.

Two people who should know are Mr. Wang and Mr. Gu. The two men — who were nervous about divulging their first names to a snooping foreigner — are posted at a dingy intersection in this farming village in Hebei Province.

Not far away is a highway tollbooth. Every day cars and heavy trucks, as steady and determined as a trail of ants, try to skip the toll by cutting through the village on a narrow road.

Mr. Wang, 65, and Mr. Gu, 58, try to send them back. They say the tollbooth operator is paying the village a monthly fee to help crack down on toll jumpers. For its part the village is trying to stop heavy trucks from ruining its roads. The two men regulate traffic with a long, crooked stick that goes up and down like a crude crossing barrier.

Mr. Gu does the talking. Mr. Wang wields the stick.

“Can I get through?” one motorist asked on a recent afternoon as other cars waited.

“No,” Mr. Gu replied. Only local people are allowed to pass.

“Is there any other way around the toll?” the driver asked, smiling. “Come on, let me through.”


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