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May 31, 2022

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Stranded drivers await the day when they can ‘keep on trucking’

Spare a thought for the legions of long-haul truck drivers who form the lifeline of highway commerce in China. Shanghai’s long coronavirus lockdown has left many of them stranded in the city — sleeping in their vehicles, cooking meals roadside and even drinking water from fire hydrants.

The drivers have essentially been frozen in place for more than 50 days.

“I didn’t bring any summer clothes,” said driver Li San, 42, from the northern province of Hebei as he boiled rice porridge in a small pot over a pavement fire. “It’s hot now, so I’ve had to cut holes on my clothes to stay cool.”

Li said he hasn’t eaten any meat for almost three weeks, and taps into a nearby hydrant for water. His truck was parked at Luojing Port on Chuanji Road, a road that stretches to the mouth of the Yangtze River near the border with Jiangsu Province. Days ago, the roadway was lined with kilometers of stranded trucks.

Li was delivering mechanical equipment to Shanghai from Hebei to the north when the lockdown began. He couldn’t get a pass to drive home.

“I can’t go anywhere now,” he said.

It’s hard to understate the importance of truck traffic in China. Last November, the Ministry of Transport said there were 17.3 million truck drivers in China, accounting for three-quarters of the country’s road haulage.

The resurgence of COVID-19 in many cities across the country has forced the closure of highways, service stations and toll gates in the national battle to stop the spread of the virus.

Truck drivers have plenty of things to worry about beyond just eating and sleeping. Many fret that their travel history codes will be marked with a star, which signifies they have been in a COVID-risk region and could limit their range of operations. They also worry that negative results will expire before they can get another test, complicating their ability to get exit passes.

Trucker Shao Tianhui, who hails from Henan Province, said he never expected to be stranded in Shanghai for such a long time. In late March, he was transporting a load of construction materials to Shanghai from Yixing in Jiangsu. That was two days before the Pudong New Area of eastern Shanghai was put under lockdown.

By the time, the goods were unloaded and he was ready to drive back, his exit routes had been effectively blocked.

“I thought it would just be a couple of days,” said Shao, who parked his truck on Chuanji Road to ride out the stoppage.

A week passed. Shao said he realized things would be getting worse before they got better when a lockdown expiration deadline passed without a lifting of restrictions.

He went through all the instant food he had brought along for the trip, then retrieved a stove from a nearby trash bin and started to cook meals over small fires stoked by branches and plastic foam. A photographer who happened on the scene gave him a lighter.

“It has been the hardest of times,” Shao pointed out. “I have never felt so desperate before.”

As Chuanji Road grew into a makeshift home for almost 60 drivers and their trucks, the local government started to deliver instant noodles every three days. Local volunteers showed up with supplies of rice, flour, water, eggs and vegetables.

“I’ve applied for the pass to leave, and I’m still waiting to hear back on that,” Shao said.

With COVID-19 cases declining, some service areas on highways have opened lounge rooms for drivers. More toll gates are resuming operations.


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