BEIJING -- A woman carrying her young daughter on the back of a bike suddenly defies the most basic instincts for self-preservation and swerves in front of your moving car.
A 55-foot, accordion-style bus barrels toward you head-on with its horn blaring. Ignoring a red light, pedestrians rush through a crosswalk, enveloping your vehicle like a school of fish.
These are typical scenes from rush hour in Beijing -- a moving obstacle course where anything can come at you at any time from any direction. The goal is to reach your destination as quickly as possible without having an accident. Your opponent: everyone else.
"It's chaotic," says a 16-year-old bicyclist as he waits with dozens of others to cross the East Grand Bridge intersection -- one of the city's worst. The high school student -- who declines to give his name after being scolded by a fellow cyclist for publicly criticizing China -- doesn't worry about getting hit.
"I think I'm very skillful," he says.
Other Asian capitals have worse traffic problems. In Thailand, Bangkok's gridlock can last more than 2 1/2 hours on a bad day. Manila's drivers aren't much better than Beijing's and the Philippine roads are much narrower.
Beijing's traffic, though, is a particular brand of controlled chaos that somewhat mirrors the way the world's most populous country works these days.
Although the Communist Party still rules China with a heavy hand, social forces unleashed by market economic reforms during the past two decades have made daily life here increasingly anarchic. In a nation where there is no rule of law and leaders have exhorted citizens to "get rich," people scramble to improve their lives as fast as they can in an ad-hoc manner without much regard for one another.
In 1981, Beijing had 111,000 vehicles. Today, there are about 1.2 million cars -- many driven by people with little experience behind the wheel. Add 8.7 million bikes, hundreds of thousands of pedestrians and you have a transportation free-for-all.
Traffic accidents in urban China are high by international standards and rising rapidly, according the World Bank. In 1996, there were 14,688 accidents in Beijing -- 442 of them fatal. There might have been a lot more if the roads were less crowded and people could drive faster.
The city tries to enforce traffic rules, but most motorists don't seem to pay much attention. Last month, authorities hung red and yellow propaganda banners along the East Grand Bridge intersection as part of a campaign to make Beijingers better drivers.
"Good-bye to the Uncivilized Traffic Behavior," reads one banner, hopefully. "Please Obey the Traffic Rules; Don't Cross and Park Mistakenly," says another.
Zhao Guishan, 50, works as a "traffic safety inspector" at the four-way intersection where tens of thousands of people converge during late afternoons. Zhao's job is to hold out a red flag to halt bicyclists at stop lights.
In his floppy denim beach hat, dark sunglasses and olive-green military overcoat, he does not exude authority. And it probably doesn't help that Zhao tends to laugh and shrug when people defy him.
After the light turns red, scores of cyclists line up behind Zhao -- but a few others slip past.
"Oh!" he yells at a woman who pedals by and then swerves across several lanes of traffic. "Theoretically, it's not allowed," he says, as he wags his finger half-heartedly at the offender. "But there are too many cyclists to handle."
If Zhao, who earns $48 a month, is less than aggressive, some of the traffic officers don't set a much better example. After Zhao stops another group of cyclists, a policeman hops on his bike and rides off -- right down the yellow median.
While many motorists in Beijing ignore the traffic laws, most follow at least two rules of the road: no sudden movements and no eye contact. When you come to an intersection, you don't just look left and right. You look forward and you look behind. Then you begin to drive slowly, because you need as much reaction time as you can get.
Rush hour is a continuous game of chicken where everyone waits for the other driver to blink. If you don't look at an oncoming driver, he might just hesitate before throwing his car in front of yours.
When not totally frustrating, driving in Beijing is often hilarious and can even be fun, a bit like playing a fast-paced video game. Motorists routinely drive the wrong way down one-way streets. Crosswalks are merely decoration.
Head down a highway one night and you might have to swerve suddenly to avoid an open, unmarked manhole.
Making a left turn can be a competitive event. If you don't drive quickly enough, the car behind may pass you on the inside in much the same way Formula 1 racers edge out each other in the banked turns at Indianapolis.