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Observations Of China, From Behind The Wheel

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Observations Of China, From Behind The Wheel

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Observations Of China, From Behind The Wheel

Observations Of China, From Behind The Wheel

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New Yorker Beijing correspondent Peter Hessler registered for a Chinese driver's license in 2001 and spent seven years crisscrossing the country by car. He documented his journeys in the new book Country Driving. Darryl Kennedy hide caption

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Darryl Kennedy

New Yorker Beijing correspondent Peter Hessler registered for a Chinese driver's license in 2001 and spent seven years crisscrossing the country by car. He documented his journeys in the new book Country Driving.

Darryl Kennedy

China today is the world's largest producer and consumer of automobiles. The increasing prevalence of the car is creating major social, environmental and economical changes in nearly every corner of the country

Back in 2001, just as China's auto boom was beginning, New Yorker writer Peter Hessler decided to join the nearly one thousand people who registered to drive each day in Beijing alone. He spent the next seven years road tripping around China to see just how the car was transforming the country.

His new book, Country Driving, details his observations from the road. It begins with his 7,000-mile road trip, following the Great Wall across northern China.

"Along the way, I would stop in villages, and ... it was really sort of sad because so many of these places are losing population to the south," Hessler tells NPR's Melissa Block. "This is basically the story of today's China ... that you have an estimated 140 million people who have left the countryside to work in factory towns, work on construction crews. Often the only people you see are very old people who no longer work, or the children, the youngest people who are still too young to go out and find jobs."

Changes In The Countryside

Initially, Hessler says, he wanted to get a driver's license in order to escape periodically from the bustling city of Beijing and the intensity of living among 13 million people. Eventually, he sought more permanent peace and quiet by renting a house several hours outside of the city.

In 2002, he rented a house in a remote and traditional village nestled along the Great Wall. The road leading into town was made of dirt, and the population was about 150 people.

"When I moved in, there were still two old women in the village who had bound feet," he says. "There are ways in which it was like going back in time."

But as the automobile boom began to touch all parts of China, the feel of the village rapidly changed. The road into the village was paved the year after Hessler moved in, and suddenly visitors from Beijing came to see the countryside and the local section of the Great Wall. In response, villagers began to open businesses to cater to the newcomers.

Hessler saw household incomes spike from $250 to more than $800 in a time span of five years.

"For them, this is a 100 percent positive thing," he says. "They don't have nostalgia for the old days."

But as an outsider, he says he noticed a few of the downsides of increased wealth and development, reminiscent of life in the United States.

"When there is this rapid pace of change that we have seen in China, it puts a lot of pressure on people," Hessler says. "They're continually having to adjust to new opportunities, new situations, new challenges."

And some of those new opportunities are having a detrimental effect on health. Hessler says he saw children become sedentary as cable television was introduced in the village, and adults pick up smoking, which is perceived as a status symbol.

"That's what middle-class people do," Hessler says. One man he met never smoked when he was a farmer, "but now that he was doing business in China, you smoke if you're doing business, because you give cigarettes to clients and to guests and to people that you're doing business with."

A Postcard From The Industrial South

Hessler also traveled extensively in China's industrial south, watching as factory towns sprung up practically before his eyes. He passed through entire cities devoted to making buttons or playground equipment.

"There's a place in China that makes one-third of the socks on Earth," Hessler says. "Everybody's manufacturing in this part of the south."

To get a closer look at what China's industrial evolution involves, Hessler got to know two entrepreneurs, and followed them through the process of getting a factory up and running.

When they finally got to talking about their product, Hessler realized their entire industrial apparatus was devoted to the manufacture of tiny nylon-covered steel rings that connect bra straps.

"You sort of realize all of this energy, this huge amount of investment from these two people — they have all these workers, they've got a big space, they're getting all this equipment — and it's all going to create something that we would take for granted," Hessler says. "Pretty much every little thing that we're buying, even the pieces of things — to somebody in China, that is an entire world of ambition and competition, of risk and opportunity."

Excerpt: 'Country Driving'

'Country Driving' cover

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.

When I began planning my trip, a Beijing driver recommended The Chinese Automobile Driver's Book of Maps. A company called Sinomaps published the book, which divided the nation into 158 separate diagrams. There was even a road map of Taiwan, which has to be included in any mainland atlas for political reasons, despite the fact that nobody using Sinomaps will be driving to Taipei. It's even less likely that a Chinese motorist will find himself on the Spratly Islands, in the middle of the South China Sea, territory currently disputed by five different nations. The Spratlys have no civilian inhabitants but the Chinese swear by their claim, so the Automobile Driver's Book of Maps included a page for the island chain. That was the only map without any roads.

Studying the book made me want to go west. The charts of the east and south looked busy-countless cities, endless tangled roads. Since the beginning of "Reform and Opening," the period of free-market economic changes initiated by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, development has been most intense in the coastal regions. The whole country is moving in that direction: at the time of my journey, approximately ninety million people had already left the farms, mostly bound for the southeast, and the routines of rural life were steadily giving way to the rush of factory towns. But the north and the west were still home to vast stretches of agricultural land, and the maps of those regions had a sense of space that appealed to me. Roads were fewer, and so were towns. Sometimes half a page was filled by nothing but sprinkled dots, which represented desert. And the western maps covered more space-in northern Tibet, a single page represented about one-fifteenth of China's landmass. In the book it looked the same size as Taiwan. None of the Sinomaps had a marked scale. Occasionally, tiny numbers identified the distance in kilometers between towns, but otherwise it was anybody's guess.

Most roads were also unlabeled. Expressways appeared as thick purple arteries, while national highways were red veins coursing between the bigger cities. Provincial roads were a thinner red, and county and local roads were smaller yet-tiny capillaries squiggling through remote areas. I liked the idea of following these little red roads, but not a single one had a name. The page for the Beijing region included seven expressways, ten highways, and over one hundred minor roads-but only the highways were numbered. I asked the Beijing driver about the capillaries.

"They don't name roads like that," he said.

"So how do you know where you are?"

"Sometimes there are signs that give the name of the next town," he said. "If there isn't a sign, then you can stop and ask somebody how to get to wherever you want to go."

The driver's exam touched on this too:

352. If another motorist stops you to ask directions, you should
a) not tell him.
b) reply patiently and accurately.
c) tell him the wrong way.

From Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory. Copyright 2010 Peter Hessler. Reprinted by permission, HarperCollins. All Rights Reserved

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A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory

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