On a recent Friday on Beijing’s East 3rd Ring Road, a 10-lane inner-city artery, cars inch forward, faces press against windows in steamy, overpacked buses, and traffic wardens with orange vests and whistles struggle to hold back the surging tide of pedestrians and cyclists. It’s here that Wang Xiaolong from Hebei Province sells his wares: world map posters and phone chargers he has strung around his neck. His starting price for a charger is eight dollars, but as the lights turn green and the traffic begins to flow it drops to just over a buck.
As China’s economy strengthens, its traffic gets progressively worse, creating an increasingly captive audience for enterprising vendors like Wang, who hustle everything from dumplings to water to steering wheel covers—all at steep markups. Back in August, Beijing experienced a world-record nine-day jam stretching 60 miles. After just a couple of hours, groups of hawkers descended upon the jam with dumplings, instant noodles and water, and sold them for four times the original price.
An Australian journalist recalls being caught in an eight-hour jam in what should have been a two- hour journey on another of the notoriously clogged highways leading into the city. Locals hauled drinks up from a nearby village on the backs of tricycles, he says, and there was no point in even trying to bargain.
Of course, drivers are starting to wise up. Truck driver Gao Yunming says now he takes some ham, noodles and water with him on long trips. As for battling boredom, his solution is simple: When he hits a jam, he pulls out a pack of cards and rounds up some other drivers for a game or two of poker.—ELISE OSBORNE