Country Driving – Book Review

Peter Hessler spent years in China, first for the US Peace Corps and then as a journalist and a writer. This book is a collection of stories about three of his adventures: Driving along the Great Wall, Renting a week-end house in a village north of Beijing and following a bra-supply factory in Zhejiang.

The Great Wall is tracked and traced both with the vehicle and throughout history. This artefact of Chinese Imperial defence is often used to symbolize lots of things – anything that is positive and Chinese. However, the real stories behind the building of the many walls and fortifications in Northern China are not often told. Hessler sheds some light on the multitude of walls and on life along the edge of civilization. Almost abandoned towns called “Butcher-the-Enemy” enjoy a visit of the tall American in his rented Chinese Jeep. Almost seduced by a drunk Mongolian guide in a fake museum about the “Great Chinese Hero Genghis Khan”, Hessler escapes to continue the tracks.

The village north of Beijing goes through a fantastic transition during the years that Hessler spent there. He recounts of local Party committee politics and the rise of economic activity and tourism. The road even got paved all the way! The change in lifestyle and food patterns come at a breathtaking speed and many struggle to keep the bearings.
Hessler describes his joyful weekends with hiking along the trails in the mountains and recovering from the Beijing bustle in this mountainous hardship resort. It is very inspiring to see what possibilities exist outside Shanghai!

The third story is about a factory producing bra-rings in Zhejiang. Cunning engineers and ingenious entrepreneurs push the limit of everything they can to press out a profit in this minuscule segment of the global supply chain.
The stories come interweaved with anecdotes about driving in China. Many stories could sound strongly exaggerated were it not for the fact that I have witnessed many similar situations just in the past year. Backwards driving from highway ramps, overtaking everywhere and crossing double lines… Going to work I sometimes feel like I am inside a computer game like Grand Theft Auto, where cars are moving like crazy. It is often scary, but so far so good…

A gem in the book are the hilarious examples from the Chinese driving exams – I hope that I can check this myself. It seems to weird to be true.

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