Saturday, 12 March 2011

Driving Through China

Peter Hessler signing books afterward his talk
On Wednesday I went to hear journalist, writer and author Peter Hessler speak as part of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival. He gave a humorous account of his drive across northern China as an assignment for National Geographic to follow the Great Wall.

He explained that when he drove on his adventure in 2001, there were 44 million Chinese with driver's licenses and last year it ballooned to 140 million. And on top of that 35 percent of the people in 2001 had been driving for less than three years. That's the equivalent of cities filled with 16-year-olds who have just gotten their driver's licenses which makes for perilous driving in the cities. However Hessler only drove out of the city, not within it.

One would think getting maps wouldn't be difficult, but the ones he found gave the vaguest indication of where things are, the scale and many highways or roads didn't even have names. It was later he found out that high quality maps were virtually impossible to get because they were for military use, not leisure driving. So he would have to ask for directions along the way.

During his presentation Hessler showed pictures he took along his journey. He was amazed to find hardly any cars on the highways but there were also warnings not to drive dangerously. One photograph showed a totaled car placed on a pillar as an example of what could happen to you if you don't drive carefully. Another was a sign that read: 40km/h is safest; 80km/h is dangerous; 100km/h will take you to the hospital.

He also described his experience of renting a car in Beijing. One of the conditions of the contract said he was not supposed to take the car out of Beijing. And upon returning the car it would be inspected to see if there was any damage the driver would have to shell out for. He knew this at the time, but also knew that if he told them he was driving the car out of the capital, he would never be able to rent it. He ended up driving the car all the way to Inner Mongolia and back, putting on 4,000 miles or 10,000 kilometres on it.

When he returned the car, the rental company guy were so shocked to see so much mileage on it. They asked him where he took the car. Hessler said he could have lied, but said he took it out to Hebei Province... and then further out... and then all the way to Inner Mongolia and back. The rental car guy called his colleagues over and announced proudly that the laowai (foreigner) had driven the car all the way to Inner Mongolia! How about that!

Oh and the car? It was a Jeep Cherokee, but at that time car sales let along SUVs hadn't taken off yet in China so they were sold cheaply. How? With the four-wheel drive taken out. As a result Hessler was stuck many times in creek beds and in the snow. He had to enlist the help of farmers nearby to pull him out with their tractors.

He also noticed on the desolate highways that there were no highway patrol despite China being such a police state. However, there were many wooden statues of policemen periodically along the roads and Hessler took many pictures of them. He even showed us an inflated one, but it was very expensive because the base had the fan that blew the air to keep the policeman standing up.

What Hessler didn't expect was to see hitchhikers along the road and picked up some of them. Most of them were shocked to see a foreigner driving but were too shy to say anything as most of his passengers were women migrants. They were mostly hitching rides out of their villages and while he tried to make conversation with them, it didn't get too far, probably because he was a foreigner despite speaking fluent Mandarin.

He made the observation that the younger generation tries very hard to differentiate themselves from their parents and grandparents by the way they dress and their habits. What is also interesting to note is that when he visited villages he would ask them the population and many would say it was cut in half. Anyone who was of working age had left to go to bigger cities to work, leaving behind the elderly, babies and disabled.

This has also changed the social dynamic where previously the younger generation would obey their elders, but now they don't ask them for advice partly because they aren't there. Kids in the villages depend more on their teachers for support as they only see their parents once a year. This social development will lead to the death of villages as young people refuse to go back to their hometowns and prefer the excitement of the city.

After his presentation, someone asked what was next for Hessler and he announced he and his family -- Leslie Chang and two nine-month-old babies -- will move to the Middle East in the summer. He explained that he enjoyed the challenge of learning a new language in adulthood and wanted to do that again but this time with Arabic.

He admits his life has been filled with a series of good fortunes -- going to teach English for the Peace Corps in a small village in Sichuan which gave him material for River Town, followed by freelancing long-form feature stories for the South China Morning Post, The New Yorker and National Geographic as well as two other books, Oracle Bones and last year's Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory. As one of my peers, he is one of the last few able to write long pieces in a time where we constantly consume bite-sized information.

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