Curious highways

Can the highway be an interesting subject of conversation at a lunch or dinner with friends? Yes, of course. And we don’t mean just talking about the traffic jam you got stuck in on your way the beach, or the work to improve other beaches during the summer, or whether you found a great shortcut to your destination and thus saved a few hours of traveling time.

Highways –so serious, so uniform– have their fascination. You just have to know how to find it and then remember some curious things like these:

  1. The longest international highway in the world is the Pan-American. Although in reality it’s a system of roads that’s 47,958 kilometers long. It links 14 countries in the Americas, from Patagonia to Alaska. It’s interrupted only by a mountainous stretch of 87 kilometers in the Amazon jungle, known as the Tapón de Darién, between Panama and Colombia. It was conceived at the Fifth International Conference of American States in 1923 and was fully open to traffic in 1963.
  2. The KKH (Karakoram Highway) runs at about some 5,000 meters in altitude. It connects the cities of Hasan Abdal, in Pakistan, and Kashgar, in China, through the Karakoram mountains: 1,200 kilometers through mountains, glaciers and the highest asphalted border post in the world, the one at Khunjerab. It follows part of the original Silk Route and the Chinese know it as Friendship Highway. It took 20 years to build and was officially opened twice: the Pakistan part in 1982 and the China part in 1986. Nowadays it’s an increasingly popular tourist destination because of its spectacular surroundings.
  3.  Without leaving China, we find the Guoliang tunnel, in the Tahiang mountains of Henan province. It’s considered one of the most dangerous stretches in the world. Tired of getting no answer from the Chinese government to their request for a point of access to traverse the mountains and link their town with the rest of the country, the people of Guoliang decided to build it themselves. They selected 13 of the strongest workers and in 1972 began excavating a tunnel in the rock using pick and shovel. Five years later, in 1977, it opened to traffic. It measures 1.2 kilometers in length, 5 meters in height and 4 meters in width. Today it is one of the country’s principal tourist attractions.
  4. To find the highway with the greatest number of lanes in the world, you have to travel to Houston (Texas, USA). It’s the Interstate I-10, better known as the Katy Freeway. In some stretches there are as many as 26 lanes: 12 main ones, 8 service lanes, and a remaining 6, located in the middle, which are used as reversible lanes for vehicles carrying multiple passengers so as to speed up access to, and exit from, the city center.
  5. Let’s stay in the United States because that’s where the first stretch of asphalted road in the world was built. It was in Detroit (Michigan) in 1909. Some automotive pioneers, among them Henry Ford, needed to test their vehicles, which were beginning to be mass-produced, on paved surfaces. So they got the idea of putting a thick layer of cement on a part of Woodward Avenue in Detroit, between the fifth and sixth mile of its original course. They invested 13,500 dollars, including 1,000 dollars in help from the state of Michigan.
  6. Among that group of motoring pioneers was a cyclist, Edward N. Hines. It was thanks to him that today’s roads and motorways are painted with those white stripes that mark the limits of lanes and shoulders. He got the idea when he saw a truck pass: it was carrying milk and had a leak.
  7. And speaking of stripes (and to finish up), have you ever noticed a blue line, parallel with the white one, that can be seen on the shoulders of many European and Spanish highways? It is there to indicate where the optic fiber is, so as to take advantage of the ease that these roads offer for this kind of wiring.