SOMEWHERE ON THE G6 HIGHWAY IN INNER MONGOLIA – It seemed like a good, if basic, plan for covering the story.
"The traffic jam is hitting cars going south in the direction towards Beijing so we'll be okay, driving north, filming it along the way from the other side of the median," I repeated one more time to no one in particular as we drove out towards Inner Mongolia.
Except that there was no traffic jam.
Certainly not the one dubbed "China's monster traffic jam" on Twitter and by Western media. Not the one that reportedly lasted ten days, spanned two provinces, stretched over 60 miles, and spawned a local economy.
Virtually overnight, local authorities had managed to disperse the congestion – about 120 miles northwest from Beijing – so by the time we reached the area, all we encountered were the garden-variety traffic jams here and there.
The birth of a jam
The mega-backup on National Expressway 110 (or G110) had begun on August 14. ("Expressway" is a rather exalted name for what at times, far away from the capital, was no more than a two-lane dirt path.)
Even under the best circumstances, the G110 is susceptible to gridlock. Every day, thousands of trucks, carrying eight tons or more, bear down on the expressway. The G110 also attracts commercial vehicles because it's free – unlike the main highway which charges by vehicle weight and distance travelled.
All this traffic has, ahem, taken its toll on the road, and earlier this month authorities decided to undertake repairs on a section close to Beijing.
By Adrienne Mong/NBC News
China relies on coal for seventy percent of its energy needs.
Feeling the commuter pain
Closing off parts of the thruway ground everything down to a snail's pace. Some sections reported speeds of no more than a third of a mile a day, if at all.
This being China, a local economy sprouted up almost immediately, with hawkers selling food and drink to motorists trapped on the road. Price gouging inevitably followed, provoking widespread complaints –surprisingly more so than the traffic jam itself, which many people were resigned to accept.
"There's always traffic," was the refrain several drivers told me.
As residents of Beijing, we couldn't be more sympathetic.
Congestion has spiked in the past year despite efforts to manage the flow, prompting most of us in the NBC News Beijing bureau to become hardcore cyclists. A recent study by IBM revealed that workers in the Chinese capital suffer the worst "commuter pain" – more than those in Mexico City, Johannesburg, or New Delhi.
And the pain could become more acute. State media reported this week that average driving speeds could dip below nine miles an hour if Beijing continues to add 1,900 new cars a day to its roads.
But back to the expressway from Inner Mongolia, where rail transport also compounds the problem. Not enough rail links tie the interior to the coastline cities and the south.
And there's a rapidly growing need for rail transport. The main cargo being ferried out from Inner Mongolia?
Energy needs create bottlenecks
China, after all, still relies on coal for 70 percent of its energy demands. Moreover, the newly minted world's second-largest economy needs energy to keep fuelling its growth.
And Inner Mongolia has become the new coal-king province, overtaking Shanxi Province – where thousands of dangerous illegal mines have been shut down over the past couple of years in a government crackdown.
So, as one report argues, the real culprit here isn't roadworks or inadequate infrastructure.
"It's all coal being transported here," a truck driver called Zhao from Harbin told me.
We were standing near a toll booth on the main highway running from the provincial capital Hohhot back towards Beijing. Zhao makes around ninety dollars a trip driving his coal truck. As he spoke, his arm swept across the expanse of coal-carrying trucks behind him.
And by virtue of the fact they're willing to be inspected on the main highway and to pay a toll, those vehicles could be presumed to be carrying coal from legal sources. According to the Beijing News, trucks transporting coal from illegal mines are taking the G110 because they can avoid checkpoints run by cargo inspectors.
Chasing the coal
So here we were, hurtling north and west, towards what my colleague Ed Flanagan had dubbed the "abyss" of China's breakneck economic development, only to run into one of the country's other formidable quirks: marshalling the resources of a police state.
Everywhere we drove, police manned toll booths, weighing stations, and highway entrance ramps – all part of a massive and successful effort to get rid of the monster traffic jam.
So by the time we'd arrived at the 60-mile stretch, there was no sign of an unusual backup.
But there were plenty of trucks. In fact, traffic barreling down the G110 and the main highway, changing lanes at high speeds, was enough to make me - normally a bit too blasé about passenger safety (at least my own) - buckle up in the back of our minivan. That and the fact that 49 percent of all licensed drivers in China last year only got their permits within the past five years.
There were also plenty of pockets of congestion, especially anywhere where trucks were being funneled off the highway onto back roads.
And there's still always the possibility a monster traffic jam will re-emerge. The roadworks are expected to last until mid-September before more lanes will open up.