By Peter Hessler
There are still empty roads in China, especially on the western steppes, where the highways to the Himalayas carry little traffic other than dust and wind. Even the boomtowns of the coast have their share of vacant streets. They lead to half-built factory districts and planned apartment complexes; they wind through terraced fields that are destined to become the suburbs of tomorrow. They connect villages whose residents traveled by foot less than a generation ago. It was the thought of all that fleeting open space—the new roads to old places, the landscapes on the verge of change—that finally inspired me to get a Chinese driver's license.
By the summer of 2001, when I applied to the Beijing Public Safety Traffic Bureau, I had lived in China for five years. During that time I had traveled passively by bus and plane, boat and train; I dozed across provinces and slept through towns. But sitting behind the wheel woke me up. That was happening everywhere: in Beijing alone, almost a thousand new drivers registered on average each day, the pioneers of a nationwide auto boom. Most of them came from the growing middle class, for whom a car represented mobility, prosperity, modernity. For me, it meant adventure. The questions of the written driver's exam suggested a world where nothing could be taken for granted:
223. If you come to a road that has been flooded, you should
a) accelerate, so the motor doesn't flood.
b) stop, examine the water to make sure it's shallow, and drive across slowly.
c) find a pedestrian and make him cross ahead of you.
282. When approaching a railroad crossing, you should
a) accelerate and cross.
b) accelerate only if you see a train approaching.
c) slow down and make sure it's safe before crossing.
Chinese applicants for a license were required to have a medical checkup, take the written exam, enroll in a technical course, and then complete a two-day driving test; but the process had been pared down for people who already held overseas certification. I took the foreigner's test on a gray, muggy morning, the sky draped low over the city like a shroud of wet silk. The examiner was in his forties, and he wore white cotton driving gloves, the fingers stained by Red Pagoda Mountain cigarettes. He lit one up as soon as I entered the automobile. It was a Volkswagen Santana, the nation's most popular passenger vehicle. When I touched the steering wheel my hands felt slick with sweat.
“Start the car,” the examiner said, and I turned the key. "Drive forward."
A block of streets had been cordoned off expressly for the purpose of testing new drivers. It felt like a neighborhood waiting for life to begin: there weren't any other cars, or bicycles, or people; not a single shop or makeshift stand lined the sidewalk. No tricycles loaded down with goods, no flatbed carts puttering behind two-stroke engines, no cabs darting like fish for a fare. Nobody was turning without signaling; nobody was stepping off a curb without looking. I had never seen such a peaceful street in Beijing, and in the years that followed I sometimes wished I had had time to savor it. But after I had gone about fifty yards the examiner spoke again.
"Pull over," he said. "You can turn off the car."
The examiner filled out forms, his pen moving efficiently. He had barely burned through a quarter of a Red Pagoda Mountain. One of the last things he said to me was, "You’re a very good driver." The license was registered under my Chinese name, Ho Wei. It was valid for six years, and to protect against counterfeiters, the document featured a hologram of a man standing atop an ancient horse-drawn carriage. The figure was dressed in flowing robes, like portraits of the Daoist philosopher Lao Tzu, with an upraised arm pointing into the distance. Later that year I set out to drive across China.
Excerpted from Country Driving by Peter Hessler (Harper, 2010).