Ji Zhigang, a long distance freight truck driver drives carefully on the express way. (Photo: Li Changyu/People's Daily)
With the click of a mouse, online buyers in China submit their orders while thousands of truck drivers are hitting the road to deliver goods to the next freight terminal on time. They’re on the road all the time, hence titled "highway nomads."
From January 15 to 16, I, together with truck driver Ji Zhigang and his partner Yu Zilong, was off to a journey with 32 tons from the logistics port in Chuanhua Highway in suburban Hangzhou, and drove along the Shanghai-Kunming, Jinan-Guangzhou, Beijing-Hongkong-Macau thruways before arriving at our destination, the Qijun freight market, in Taihe Township, Guangzhou. The whole journey lasted 22 hours and stretches nearly 1,500 kilometers, from which I got a real taste what they are going through.
Experienced young driver
Upon a friend's introduction, I came to the logistics port in suburban Hangzhou for a truck driver who would be willing to give me a ride. Covering an area of 60 acres, this port, home to thousands of logistics enterprises, sees 2,500 trips in and out every day.
It was there that I met Ji Zhigang, a man who is sort of an old hand, though remains comparatively young for a truck driver. He has been running a small transportation business for 17 years, when he was 19.
Last July, Ji bought the 5th truck. He spent about 1.3 million yuan ($207,883) to bring it home, which emptied his wallet and brought with him a huge loan.
The trip, entrusted with some logistics firm, was to take 32 tons of screws and sponges to Taihe. At noon on January 15, I had an appointment with Ji that the goods should be loaded before 9 o’clock, and we would leave for Guangzhou.
But around 5 pm I got a sudden call from Ji, who said we must leave right away because the consignee in Guangzhou had a tight deadline. Shortly thereafter the journey began. We hurried off with packages of instant noodles and snacks since there was no time even for a simple dinner.
Why not drive in the day?
Aside from fewer cars and less traffic, another reason for such a seemingly irrational choice is that they face a lower risk of questioning by traffic police and road administration officers at night. Anybody caught could be fined a lot, then the "profit may not be so rosy."
Driving long distances can be really tiring. For people who drive at night, fatigue can be the biggest killer or the trigger of an accident. According to the Law of the People's Republic of China on Road Traffic Safety, continuous driving over four hours is commonly referred to as fatigue driving. When that happens, driving is prohibited without a 20-minute break, but it's a mere scrap of paper for drivers working against the clock.
Yu Zilong joined our drive as a shift partner-not just for rushing to the destination but for escaping from tedium, though more drivers opt to work alone to earn more.
Truck drivers try all kinds of ways to fight off their weariness and drowsiness. Most often, cigarettes or betel nuts are surprisingly helpful for refreshing the sleepy ones, so they are popular among freight drivers who smoke packs of cigarettes every day.
Still it doesn’t work when one is so sleepy that even their attention wanders. "If you ever see cars rolling on the markings or running in S-shaped, take care, something bad is on the way," Yu said. "Luckily, in most cases, drivers behind would toot their horn to awaken their sleepy peers and put them back on track again."
As night falls, cars gradually disappear from sight, nothing except silence and huge trucks barreling down the roads. After an 8-hour drive, we stopped at a highway service area where Yu took over from Ji, and after a short break, we hit the road again.
As gloom deepened, I slept soundly despite bumps along the way, and when I woke up, it was already daylight.
At 7:40 in the morning, we stopped over at the Ganzhou South Service Zone. It occurred to me that last night when I was deep in sleep, we went by Fuzhou, Jiangxi Province, or rather, Ji’s hometown, which is not far from the thruway we were on. His wife and three children were at home.
"It is no exaggeration to say I only sleep in bed 30 days a year," Ji added that while at times he had the feeling that this small cab is more like a home, he still felt stressed and guilty to be out all the time as the sole bread-winner.
There is no way to avoid this because supporting a family entails deep pockets. With the shock from fleets of trucks, the self-employed have been in a dilemma, lacking bargaining power, and worse still, gas prices have been steadily increasing. Coupled with premium and maintenance costs, Ji's annual income is modest, at 100,000 yuan ($15,993).
Lost on journey
After driving through the long Dameiguan Tunnel, Guangdong gradually came into sight.
The lonely process of a long journey is always accompanied by a variety of stories, and that worries the freight drivers is not lack of stories but gasoline thieves.
Ji has come across these thieves on numerous trips. Each time they meet, they suffer heavy losses. A tank of gasoline is worth at least 2,000-3,000 yuan ($316-474) and up to 4,000-5,000 yuan ($632-790). One theft is likely to make one trip in vain. The spare wheels are occasionally spotted as preys as well.
Besides the unexpected guests, "highway nomads" must also be on guard against burglars dropping from the skies who often drive roofless vans. Their modus operandi seems simple but complex enough to get what they want: hook the moving truck to the van before climbing on the roof to ransack the goods inside the former.
A Journey never really ends
At 2:50 pm on January 16, after a nonstop trip of nearly 3,000 miles in 22 hours, we arrived at the freight market. I let out a sigh of relief after suffering from upset stomach and back pain.
After this business, my companions had to leave immediately for another factory in Foshan before hurrying back to Hangzhou overnight. They had no time for a good meal, hot shower, or even chitchat, while I would leisurely pace in my cozy bedroom for a sound sleep.
According to a survey by All-China Federation of Trade Unions, 33.41 billion tons of goods were transported throughout China in 2016, accounting for 76 percent of the country’s total. The output value reached about 3 trillion yuan, making up for more than 5 percent of China’s GDP that year.
Truck drivers lead a lifestyle dominated by heavy workload, messed-up schedules, and minimal pay-and that's when things are going well.
A survey conducted by Chinese Seamen & Construction Workers’ Union shows they work an average of 12 hours a day, and only have 3-5 days off per month. 83.1 percent of the respondents have no access to prompt meals, while 54.5 percent suffer from chronic diseases like cervical spondylosis.
The average monthly income is 7,474 yuan ($1194), and 48.6 percent of them earn 3,000-6,000 yuan ($474-948) per month. At the same time, the signing rate remains low, at about 25 percent, posing a threat to truck drivers’ rights and interests.
(Complied by Zhu Yingqi and Liu Wenbo)