There’s a lot going on in the world these days. I hope this story will provide a slight distraction or escape.
The author, writing under an alias, reflects on time spent as a toll booth collector in a desolate stretch of the Gobi Desert in northwestern Xinjiang region. The piece was first published in Chinese by We Are People with Stories (WeChat ID: wmsygsdr) on April 3.
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I Survived Toll Booth Duty in the Gobi Desert
By Goat Sixteen
Edited by Deer
Courtesy We Are People with Stories.
In August 2014, after Xinjiang completed construction on and inaugurated its five major expressways, the highway administration of the regional government recruited from the public for non-civil service toll collector positions for the first time. The requirements were boldness, attention to detail, a sense of responsibility and team spirit. Presentable looks and standard Mandarin were also a must.
After several rounds of vetting, I finally crossed the threshold for the highway administration.
We were picked up by an orange-yellow bus emblazoned with “China Highways” on the side the day we were scheduled to report to duty. The bus headed west as the scenery gradually transitioned from skyscrapers to low-rise residences. Eventually, the private homes disappeared too. All that was left was unfettered yellow-brown dirt and desert. This was the Gobi Desert we had learned about in secondary school geography textbooks. The long-haul journey was so dreary that some of my fellow passengers dozed off. Later, using the GPS on the phone, I figured out that our toll station was located 150 kilometers away from Urumqi. It is far from the city indeed.
There’s a popular joke on the Internet about a desolate stretch of National Highway 216 that goes something like this. When you start driving in the morning you’re surrounded by the Gobi Desert and you still are by evening. Our toll station is located on that strip. The bus carrying me and my fellow recruits made an abrupt turn and a yellow three-story building emerged. That was our destination: Santai Oil Depot Toll Station.
It sat by its lonesome self quietly on the vast Gobi Desert like a tiny boat in a giant ocean.
The general office and canteen are located on the first floor while dorm rooms take up most the second and third. The control room is situated at the end of the hallway on the second floor. Above it sits a conference room. After settling in, we were summoned to a meeting by our instructors. The communal lifestyle reminded me of my student days.
The highway administration used to be run by the military before being handed over to the regional government. While the managing authority changed, the military culture remained. Soon we realized we were held to standards comparable to military protocol.
Take cleanliness requirements, for example.
To cultivate a collective spirit, housekeeping was organized as a group activity. We were assigned to different parts of the building as groups. One was in charge of dorm rooms, another was assigned to the hallways and a third to our toilets. When we were done, the head of the station ran his finger along the floor and blasted: “This is called clean? What is this then?”
We exchanged embarrassed glances. Little did we know that the gaps between floor tiles had to be scrubbed clean with scouring balls, that bits of sand and dirt that had seeped into window bars had to be teased out with fine instruments like toothpicks and that urinals had to gleam like mirrors.
When we got used to kneeling on the floor to wipe the urinals, to stooping or even lying on the floor as we carefully wiped our rooms, hallways and staircases, our boss finally approved.
During my early days at the toll station, our daily routine consisted of housekeeping, courtesy training, more courtesy training and more house cleaning. By the time our boss thought our housekeeping passed muster, we were also making headway in our courtesy training. When we lined up in formation in the conference room as part of our training, right hands on our lower abdomens, left arms extending out at 45 degrees, collectively we resembled a thousand-hand Buddha statue.
In November 2014, the regional highway administration issued word that toll collection was imminent. Our bosses assigned us to four shifts and started mock runs. The morning shift ran from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., the afternoon shift 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. the early evening shift from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. and the late evening shift from 3 a.m. to 9 a.m.
The procedures for the mock runs were the same as if toll were collected. The only difference was that when the drivers exited the expressway we collected their clearance passes instead of toll. The service standards were the same as if we collected toll.
By that point in time, the novelty of working at a toll station had worn off on us. Everyone was looking forward to actually collecting toll payments.
On the first day of toll collection, I was terrified of drivers not paying and had prepared for a variety of scenarios.
Close to 8 a.m., a big freight truck sped toward the toll station. As I took in the scene of the approaching red vehicle, I was worried that the driver might charge the toll gate because he couldn’t hit the brakes in time. I breathed a sigh of relief when the truck paused in front of my toll booth window firmly, dust swirling and all. I collected the driver’s clearance pass. After running it through my terminal I informed the driver of his amount due. The driver glanced at me sideways and said: “Wasn’t yesterday’s journey free? I just passed through here yesterday.”
I responded with a smile: “Indeed, toll collection just started today at 8 a.m. Beijing time.” It turns out he was speeding so he could clear the toll station before 8 a.m.
The driver continued: “Why don’t you adjust your clock backward a few minutes so I don’t have to pay?”
I started panicking inside. All my contingency responses began flooding into my brain, but I had to maintain my poker face. Noticing that the driver was in a relaxed mood, I acted in kind. “My terminal is hooked up to our network. I can’t change the time!” I joked.
The driver stared at me, head crooked. Maybe he was just messing with me a bit. When the thought struck me I relaxed instantly. I raised my thumb at him and said: “You’re the first vehicle we’ve collected toll from!”
“That’s to say I came first?”
“That’s right. I spotted you at a distance. If you were a bit faster and got here before 8, I would have waved you through. But now it’s 8:05. There’s nothing I can do.”
“Ah, don’t worry about it. I’m going to pay just on account of your sincerity!” The driver handed over the bill he had clearly prepared in advance.
Most of the folks who pass through the toll station are truck drivers who are constantly on the road. They are all happy-go-lucky personalities. Maybe the first driver didn’t give me a hard time because he felt lucky about being the first vehicle to be charged toll. I processed his payment speedily, raised the toll gate and handed him his receipt. I bid farewell with a wave of my left hand. The driver nodded and sped off.
I felt a huge weight off my shoulders after completing my first toll collection. I eyed the surveillance camera pointed to my booth.
My every move in the toll booth was captured clearly by high-definition cameras and could be seen clearly in the control room. You could even see how many teeth we flash. One of the main daily duties of our auditors was to review our surveillance footage and monitor our workflow live. If our hand waves weren’t proper or we flashed fewer teeth than required, it was all jotted down and counted against us in our regular top collector evaluations.
There was that video of a toll booth collector with the “fake smile” that went viral recently. Online comments focused on how contrived the smile was. As a former toll collector I can empathize. The golden standard for a proper smile is revealing eight teeth. If fewer than eight teeth are visible, then the smile is considered sub-standard and affects our pay and bonuses. So to protect our incomes, we have to resort to routine “fake” smiles. There are even toll booth collectors who make a point of tilting to the camera and flashing their two rows of teeth after a driver leaves.
Also, the highway administration regularly organizes courtesy contests. The competitors are the cream of the crop from different toll stations. I’ve watched footage of these competitions. You can tell some of the smiles are heartfelt. As for the fake ones, they put the viral video to shame.
I don’t like using fake smiles, so I treated the drivers as my friends. When you’re dealing with a friend, you’re bound to smile from the bottom of your heart. That’s why I soon earned the reputation of smiling like a total fool.
Most of the time drivers didn’t cause trouble. Only a minority of them took out their anger on us toll collectors, sometimes even using foul language or directing tirades at us. We felt very much wronged, but we couldn’t argue with them.
The rightmost lanes are special lanes, such as the green lane and extra-wide lane. One day my colleague Cheng Xiaoli was assigned to one of these lanes. A super-long truck carrying a blade for power-generating windmill pulled up. Cheng Xiaoli raised the toll gate and waved the truck through after holding the driver’s license and clearance pass, before asking it to back up again. That way the truck could be properly weighed by a built-in scale. We charge toll by weight.
The system reported 60 metric tons. The driver’s expression changed instantly. He clamored: “I’ve been 50 tons the whole journey. There’s something wrong with your scale. You’re liars!” The weight limit for a vehicle with six axes is 55 tons. Excess weight was subject to a higher toll. That’s why the driver was upset.
Cheng Xiaoli patiently explained that the system did have a margin of error, but not one as big as 10 tons. By and large, the scale was accurate, she said.
The driver pressed on. “Other expressways don’t charge toll. Only you do. It’s robbery!”
The beefy driver was quite an overbearing presence with his hands on his waist. Cheng Xiaoli felt scared, so she pressed the intercom connecting her booth to the control room and asked for the duty supervisor. The supervisor arrived soon, but the driver let him have it as well: “You’re bandits, thugs!” Although equally outraged, the supervisor didn’t dare talk back either. All he could do was try to pacify the driver and offer a detailed explanation.
The driver refused to pay and Cheng Xiaoli kept the toll gate down. The vehicles behind the truck kept honking.
Either the duty supervisor’s spiel had made a difference or the driver was worried that if he kept stalling one of the drivers behind him might get out and beat him up. The driver of the extra-long truck began searching for bill as he kept mouthing away. He pulled out 100 yuan (US$14) worth of bills and tossed them in Cheng Xiaoli’s face angrily. Fighting tears, she picked up the bills from her desk and forced a textbook smile as she handed over change, a receipt and the driver’s license and clearance pass.
The driver grabbed the change and glared at Cheng Xiaoli. After he drove off, Cheng Xiaoli broke down.
When I heard about the incident, I was incensed as well. We were simply following protocol. Since when did we become robbers and bandits? But after spending some time on the job, I began to take things in stride. As a professional toll collector, you have to stay calm regardless of the situation on hand. Even if you’ve been wronged and can’t hold back tears, you have to wipe them off quickly and flash a smile to the next driver.
In December 2014, overnight our toll booths were dressed in a white fur coat and the expressway covered in a thick layer of snow. Thus was born a new group activity: shoveling snow.
The point of shoveling snow wasn’t just appearance. Fumes from exhaust pipes melt the snow on the road and the low temperatures turn the slush into ice. Then the repeating braking of heavy trucks creates gutters out of the ice surface. So we had to shovel snow regularly for safety considerations.
Still, the frequency with which we shoveled snow paled in comparison with the Lord’s snow productivity. I started each shift terrified, worried that a vehicle will fail to stop and run over my toll booth and cause serious injury.
Similar incidents have happened before. Around the time local toll stations were handed over from the military to civilian authority, my senior colleague Sister Li was transferred from road maintenance duty to a toll collection position at the Cangfanggou Toll Station. Cangfanggou is a major gateway south of Urumqi. Comprising a dozen lanes or so, it’s quite the spectacle. Because it’s the only gateway to the south, traffic was substantial even 20 or 30 years ago.
Back then toll booths were basic sheds. The sheds also weren’t protected by railings of any sort. One day when Sister Li was on duty, a car lost control and barreled toward her toll booth. The booth collapsed instantly and Sister Li was buried underneath. Luckily, colleagues pulled Sister Li out quickly and sent her to the hospital. Besides a leg fracture, Sister Li didn’t suffer any major injuries.
Sister Li was terrified, as was her boss at the toll station. Major reforms followed. Thick metal barricades were erected in front of the toll booths and the booths themselves were elevated. Six months later Sister Li returned to work. A driver she collected from asked: “I heard one of your colleagues got crushed to death by a car in her toll booth. Is it true?” Sister Li responded angrily: “I’m the one who got run over. Do I look dead to you?” I used to joke that Sister Li sacrificed her well-being for the safety of the entire community of toll booth collectors. That was a milestone of sorts in Chinese highway history.
Snowfall is a regular occurrence in Gobi’s winters. Afterward, the skies are crystal clear, devoid of clouds. As the novelty of our job wore off, we eventually lost interest in the grandeur or oddity of scenery set against the snow. The end of snowfall was a de facto command. We picked up our shovels and sleds and dug away.
One day, everyone was going about their business in an orderly fashion as usual when our colleague manning the control room started grumbling. It turns out Ling Xuan had grabbed a shovel and hit the pavement. There was barely any traffic on the expressway. The empty lanes of the toll booths were dead quiet. The only movement you could see from the control room was a lone shadow pounding at the hard ice on the car lanes.
The colleague staffing the control room contacted the team leader of the shift, who in turn paged the duty supervisor. Soon a few more silhouettes appeared on the car lanes. They weren’t there to help. They were there to talk Ling Xuan down. The team leader contained his anger and tried to be diplomatic, only saying: “It’s too cold. Head back in now.” Ling Xuan responded: “I’m not cold when I move. I’ll head back when I finish.” The intervention having failed, the team leader and duty supervisor headed indoors first. They longed for the indoor heating.
After the team leader and the duty supervisor returned to the office and the door shut behind them, the cold winter air was sealed off once again. The warmth of the office didn’t dispel the disgust from the team leader’s face. He and the duty supervisor kept complaining about Ling Xuan but didn’t take further action. When Ling Xuan finished dealing with the ice on the lanes and dashed back to the office, the steam caused by her breaths swirling over her head, she was indifferent to the hostility.
I don’t know if Ling Xuan was aware of the discontent, but she did something I wanted to do but didn’t act on. I considered her a role model.
Some two months or so after we started collecting toll, the original auditor for the toll station quit because of family reasons. There was extensive speculation among us about candidates for the replacement. The auditor didn’t have to work night shifts and had a relatively light workload. There was a rumor that the new auditor would be elected. But the position ended up going to an unheralded and unremarkable young woman.
This particular colleague wasn’t exceptionally competent, but she did have a father who worked for the highway administration.
The few colleagues who were gearing up for auditor campaigns were depressed for a long time after the replacement was announced.
The fallout reminded me of what a veteran toll collector said to me once. We were the first batch of publicly recruited toll collectors. Previously, the highway administration only drew from the offspring of existing employees. The highway administration is a government branch. The non-civil servant toll collectors enjoyed the same pay as civil servants and were given the opportunity to sit for the civil service exam every year. Many children of highway administration employees followed in the paths of their parents.
Whenever there are other government departments holding entry exams for civil service positions, inevitably a huge group from the toll station asks for leave. Even though we are a government department, being a toll collector is tough work. And the two words “contract hire” resemble a cold dagger hanging high over your head, a constant reminder to my colleagues who want a permanent place in the system.
Colleagues who receive offers from other government departments resign from the toll station. The departing colleagues leave quickly while replacements never arrive in time. Thus shifts are short-staffed.
Day shifts were a bit better, but night shifts were severely undermanned. The first and second night shifts each require two collectors—one for the entry lane and one for the exit lane—and a supervisor for a total of six people. For a long period we only had five people for my shift, so the supervisor had to work both night shifts. Because of the extreme hours and the overtime, the duty supervisor was allowed to nap in our lounge and show his or her face if something came up. Most of the time, night shifts are uneventful, but those working toll booths have to hold standard posture for six long hours. In that context, your relationship with the team leader went a long way. Those close to our team leader or were so well-connected they couldn’t be offended were always assigned supervisor duty, while people who didn’t have connections were stuck with toll booth duty again and again.
Such is the politics and the essence of human nature at even a tiny toll station.
By the second half of 2015, I had unwittingly spent nearly a year at the toll station. In that year, I had been the frequent subject of angry glares and verbal lashings. But in my eyes, that was nothing. The slightest kindness from my colleagues and strangers warmed my heart again quickly.
Being a toll collector has made me bold and meticulous at the same time and cultivated the ability of keeping my composure regardless of what’s thrown at me, be it praise or insult. Besides us toll collectors, the toll station was also constantly improving.
When we first started collecting toll, there was a regular road running parallel to the expressway. Unclear on our fees, many truck drivers avoided the expressway. For some time, “business” was quite slow. We had even gone an entire shift without a single vehicle passing through.
Our biggest fear when we first started was the inability to square our accounts at the end of a shift. When we left the toll booth, we had to gather all the cash we had received other than the spare cash, fill out a form with our total take and wait for accounting to give us the OK. If the cash we turned in matched the number in our paperwork, it means we didn’t miss anything. We called that a squared account.
When we first started collecting toll, for whatever reasons, the cash we submitted often didn’t match the paperwork. During that period, the most common greeting between colleagues wasn’t “Have you eaten yet?” but rather “Is your account square?” For the longest time, word of a squared account was the sweetest music to our ears.
When payment by mobile phone started dominating in major cities, the highway administration took notice. Under the leadership of management, our toll station also followed suit, allowing payment by WeChat or Alipay. From then on we no longer had to worry about our accounts not matching up.
Starting at midnight on Jan. 1, 2020, in keeping with national policy to end toll payments at provincial borders and full implementation of electronic toll collection, our toll station started charging fees by car type instead of weight. I’m no longer a toll collector, but I firmly believe that no matters how times change, there will still be people tied to my old toll station, steadfastly maintaining watch on that strip of the Gobi Desert.