Dressed in his summer pyjamas, the hotel owner clung to the bonnet of our rented Chevrolet Malibu like a surreal hood ornament as we slowly made our way down the village street in Anhui Province, China. Inside the car, I was among three passengers stunned into silence as we videoed the spectacle on our mobile phones.
I had joined this road trip from hell on a whim in the summer of 2015, along with my Chinese girlfriend, Vanessa, after responding to a WeChat post by Benjamin, a photographer acquaintance from the United States. The purpose of the journey was to give Wyatt, a US university exchange student, a last taste of China before flying home. Our destination was the ancient village of Hongcun, a UNESCO World Heritage site famed for its Yuezhao (Moon Pond), Ming and Qing dynasties architecture and as a location for the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
We arrived in the village on the outskirts of Hongcun, without a hotel reservation, about 10pm. It had been a six-hour drive from Shanghai, wholly undertaken by Benjamin, the only one of us licensed to drive in China. Tired and disoriented after speeding through long stretches of highway flanked by forested mountainsides barely perceptible in the dark, we parked the car at the door of a small hotel, next to a row of shops and restaurants that were already closed.
A polite woman in her 30s checked us in, taking our passports for registration with the authorities. We split 240 renminbi (about $50) in cash for two clean, basic rooms. So far, so good. We were just hauling our luggage inside when the woman’s husband emerged, surly of disposition, with a strong whiff of local baijiu hard liquor.
From here, a request to move our car shifted to eviction from the hotel, a scuffle over a broken pot plant, a hasty three-point turn in the car park with a now mop-wielding hotel owner blocking our path, to the five of us cruising down the main street with our assailant gripping the bonnet for grim life.
An attempt to remove him by braking hard resulted in the already furious local stamping his feet, leaving impressive dents.
A visit to the local police station became an overnight stay in an interview room, while Vanessa translated our statements for an insurance claim on the Malibu. By the time we made it to Hongcun the next day, I had lost all enthusiasm for the UNESCO site. In a daze, I photographed a local woman washing her dishes in the Moon Pond. She leapt up to slap me with a wet dishcloth.
If one good thing came from my stint as a passenger on this disastrous weekend, it was the motivation to get my own Chinese driving licence. In most countries, foreigners can legally drive as long as they hold a valid licence from their home country, or an international driving permit. Not so in China.
A new provisional Chinese driving permit has lowered the bar for foreigners to drive in the country, but things were not so simple in 2015. The only way to drive legally was to obtain a full Chinese licence, requiring multiple visits to the local transport authorities plus a full physical medical examination. The greatest obstacle, however, was learning answers t0 1000 questions. These are divided into 32 subchapters such as “Breakdowns and Stopping”, “Mountains and Hills” and “Signalling, Signs and Police Signals”. My personal favourites were the two “Law and Punishment” blocks. To reach the minimum pass rate of 90 per cent, I learnt by rote the penalties for fleeing as the culpable driver of a fatal accident, attempting to obtain a driving licence by “deception, bribery or other illegal means” and “causing a major traffic accident after drinking alcohol”.
I learnt the answers on an unofficial website that also offered 100-question test exams. Perhaps due to poor translations of the questions, some answers were confusing or contradictory. The punishment for fleeing a hit-and-run that resulted in death was stated as three to seven years’ prison, while perpetrators of a hit-and-run that involved “human death” could expect more than seven years in jail. Regardless, after a little more than a month, I passed three practice exams in a row and booked in for the real thing. I faced 88 questions with different translations from those I had learnt and another dozen I had never seen before. To my great relief, I correctly guessed half of the unknown answers and managed a respectable 94 per cent pass.
Despite getting my licence, I never seriously considered buying a car in China. First, there was the matter of registering a vehicle. In Shanghai, already clogged with cars, new licence plates are allocated via an online auction. Only 4 per cent of those who apply are successful, and the starting price was more than $19,000. Then there’s the ordeal of navigating the narrow roads of downtown Shanghai, with speeding delivery drivers on motor scooters and cyclists veering in and out of the path of oncoming cars.
I wanted to explore the country and for this, hiring a car was most convenient. Self-driving opens up corners of China still unreachable by the nation’s 42,000 kilometres of high-speed railway. While this network increased fourfold in the decade of my stay from 2012, much of the country remains inaccessible by anything but road.
Not one to do things by halves, my first journey behind the wheel took in a portion of China’s longest and arguably most dangerous road, National Highway G318. Viewed on a map, G318 cuts across the lower third of the country from Shanghai to Zhangmu on the China–Nepal border at a distance of almost 5500 kilometres. With Vanessa as my navigator, we departed from Qingcheng Mountain, the cradle of Taoism, on the outskirts of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. The itinerary took in part of G318 known as the Sichuan–Tibet Highway on a 750-kilometre loop through the western edge of Sichuan’s Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, also known as the traditional Kham region, Tibet’s eastern frontier.
While Tibet itself is sporadically closed to foreigners, who can only enter by rail or air, close to 80 per cent of Garzê’s 1.1 million residents are Tibetan, spread over a mountainous area larger than Greece. Our midpoint was the Tagong grasslands, which at the time was under an internet blackout. Locals eagerly told me this was due to a recent mass protest against pollution from a tungsten mine.
The two-way road, also a pilgrimage route to Lhasa, is a perilous series of switchbacks that zigzag through breathtaking scenery and altitudes that surpass 5000 metres. In addition to the thin air, one of the great dangers of the road is the unpredictable weather. Shortly after we’d rounded a high pass on the way back from Tagong, fog swept in to obscure the partially snow-covered rocky slopes above and below a long downhill section. A lumbering road train was a godsend – we tailgated it down the mountain, making sure its flashing hazard lights did not disappear into the fog ahead. Just as the fog cleared, we saw a white Peugeot impaled on a guardrail – one of many accidents we encountered. In this case, the rail had been hit at full speed, passed under the car’s bonnet and partly into the front cabin, lifting its front wheels off the ground. But the impact had been a stroke of luck. Had the driver missed the rail altogether, the car would have careened into the valley hundreds of metres below. The two occupants escaped without serious injury.
Over the course of our journey, new lessons were reinforced. On the Sichuan–Tibet Highway, plenty of drivers were willing to overtake trucks on blind corners based on little more than faith and luck. For the more cautious, it was a safer strategy to follow the system of indicator signals that the truck drivers used to let other vehicles know when it was safe to pass. I also discovered the importance of leaning heavily and unrelentingly on the horn as we made our way through villages, as anything less alarming raised the risk of colliding with a local.
None of these directives were mentioned in my 100 questions, and they were just the beginning of my road trip induction. The rest of the journey is another story.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 8, 2023 as "Freedom riders".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription