In a list of the top places to spend the summer, a motorway just outside Beijing beneath a pall of smog and battered by ferocious heat would probably not feature. But some have little choice. For five days, thousands of Chinese motorists have been stuck in the world's worst traffic jam that stretches for 60 miles. And even worse, the 10-day queue is expected to remain backed up until at least the end of the month.
The mother of all road works have spawned a temporary and very slow-moving community. Truck drivers, their vehicles packed with coal from Inner Mongolia, wash themselves in the scorching heat by the roadside, play cards to pass the time, and sleep beneath their lorries. Occasionally they get back into the vehicles to move forward a few inches – then turn off the engines and get out again.
The ultimate driving nightmare has led to authorities posting 400 police officers in the area to prevent the frustrations of drivers from boiling over and to try to prevent criminals taking advantage of stationary vehicles to rob motorists. "One night, around eight robbers attacked six trucks and cars, and ran away with a total 60,000 yuan (£7,000). One of the old drivers we know was even injured and the windshield of his truck was broken," a woman with the surname Ding, the wife of one of the drivers, told the Beijing Morning Post.
Many of the drivers are remarkably resigned to such huge tailbacks as China's double-digit economic growth played havoc with the country's infrastructure. They are accustomed to long delays – though not quite this long. Some have been stuck in the jam for five days, China Central Television reported.
Road construction projects are struggling to keep up with the demands put upon them by the country's need for raw materials to be moved around the country.
There is no sign of things getting better anytime soon. Major road construction under way means that this stretch of highway could be backed up until the end of the month. In one section of the jam, vehicles can move little more than a half a mile a day, according to Zhang Minghai, the director of Zhangjiakou city's traffic management bureau.
One driver was furious at the extortionate prices being asked for basic provisions by the roadside hawkers who have moved in. A bottle of water can cost about £1 – about 10 times the usual cost. "And if you don't buy from them, they will hit your window with bricks," said Mr Zhang.
The Beijing-Tibet Highway has always been a busy thoroughfare for transporting coal, iron ore, fruit and vegetables and other goods. The roads worst affected, the Beijing-Tibet Expressway and the G110, are two of the major routes leading to Beijing and are for lorries carrying less than four tonnes.
One driver named Lu was bringing coal from Hohhot, in Inner Mongolia, to Hebei province, near Beijing – a journey that normally takes a day, but has so far taken four. "I can only wash with the water stored in the water-box of the truck, and I need to ration it. I brought some instant noodles with me, but I don't have the hot water to cook them. The hot water they sell costs almost... the same as the instant noodles," he said.
Another driver from Shandong province in north-west China said how he had been eating instant noodles and ham sausages at every meal. "Also there is no toilet, so everyone just uses the roadside – everyone's getting used to it," he said.
August is the time of year when coal is traditionally moved. It is mostly transported by road, even though there are plans to expand the rail network to allow more to be moved by train. Coal accounts for 69 per cent of the primary energy in China.
During last year's massive economic stimulus plan, money went into upgrading the country's road network, and, while there have been major improvements, some are toll roads and lorry drivers prefer to use cheaper secondary roads, which remain in poor repair. It's not just China's roads that are experiencing difficulties. Although the construction of new ports has eased the situation somewhat, it was only three years ago that scores of container ships carrying iron ore were backed up outside China's main ports.