Thursday, February 25, 2010

Feeling at Sea on the Roads of New China
By Dwight Garner
Published New York Times: February 23, 2010

A Journey Through China From Farm to Factory

By Peter Hessler
438 pages.
Harper. US$27.99

American travel writers over the past century have taken special delight in describing the intricacies, and the lunatic comedy, of driving etiquette in foreign countries. Some enterprising publisher is bound to scoop up the best of these observations and issue a queasy-making anthology: “Carsick: A Global Reader.”

When that anthology does arrive, Peter Hessler’s new book, “Country Driving: A Journey Through China From Farm to Factory,” deserves a special place in it. It’s not merely that Mr. Hessler convinces us that the Chinese, being new to driving, are simply awful at it. He makes the additional, and delightful, case that perhaps no other people “take such joy in driving badly.”

The Chinese rarely use turn signals or windshield wipers or seat belts or headlights. They tailgate and honk like mad. “People pass on hills; they pass on turns; they pass in tunnels,” Mr. Hessler writes. “If they get passed themselves, they immediately try to pass the other vehicle back, as if it were a game.”

The Chinese government is little help. Traffic lights are occasionally mistimed, Mr. Hessler notes, showing green in all directions. A left turn lane might be on the far right side of the road. Highway patrols are so rare that officials put fiberglass statues of police officers at some intersections, to function like traffic-calming human scarecrows. Get a dent? Hop out and haggle for an instant settlement.

Mr. Hessler is a staff writer for The New Yorker, and he was that magazine’s Beijing correspondent from 2000 to 2007. “Country Driving” is his third book about China, after “River Town” (2001), which was about two years he spent there teaching English while in the Peace Corps, and “Oracle Bones” (2006), a multi-layered survey of that country’s past and present.

His new book is an exploration of China’s burgeoning highway system, and it definitely contains some epic drives: Mr. Hessler, for example, undertakes a 7,000-mile trip across northern China, following the Great Wall all the way from the East China Sea to the Tibetan plateau, his rental car packed with a tent and food supplies that will make your teeth ache: Coca-Cola, Oreo cookies, candy bars, Gatorade.
Read morre at NYT.

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