Rachel Katz arrived in Chengdu in the fall of 2010 with experience as a student and teacher in China and speaking Mandarin, but little knowledge of trucking.
She learned fast, first at the city’s Transfar road port and then on the highway. “I decided to go on a limited trip with a couple of drivers I had met and that went well, so I took the leap and took a longer trip,” she said. “From there I just kept going.”
For six of her 10 months in China, Katz logged 8,000 miles on the road with Chinese truckers, gaining deep insight not only into Chinese logistics but also the lives of the owner-operators who handle the majority of China’s truck freight.
“The only way to really understand what was really going on was to just see it,” she said. “I was blessed to have that kind of freedom in the Fulbright program.”
What Katz discovered was a unique truck driving culture built around the demands of China’s fast-growing economy. “An entire small town of men will transplant themselves onto the road driving from their hometown to a central hub,” she said. “They’ll caravan together, they’ll stay together, they’re tied together extremely tightly by their families and their community.”
That support network helps make the extremely harsh life of an owner-operator in China bearable and economically feasible, she said. “These road families are very important. The guy who caravans with you is the one who will help you replace your tire,” Katz said. That can mean the difference between earning a meager profit or no profit at all, she said.
These rolling communities sometimes include women and children, and in some cases the community puts down roots along the road. “In one case, an east coast community literally transplanted people to operate a small hotel for truckers in Chengdu, Katz said. “You think of people in this industry as being so isolated, but I found these communities to be very closely knit. That really enabled these guys to do their work and live contently within the system.”
Katz, now a consultant for McKinsey in San Francisco, is writing a book about her travels and trucking in China. She chronicled her journey and research online at www.longhaulchina.com.