This year I decided to take advantage of the Spring Festival holidays by renting a car and going on a road trip through northern
China. I was accompanied by my American flatmate and a friend of his from college, who has only just arrived in China. Although I have had a Chinese driving license for the best part of a year, I
had previously never done anything more ambitious than driving on one-day trips
to the countryside around Beijing. This was my first time driving anywhere
really far within China,
and I knew that whatever happened we would be in for an adventure.
China one must always be ready for mishaps and unexpected events getting in the way of your plans. During the Spring Festival this is even truer than normal, and travelling at this time is best reserved for people with stamina and some experience of the country. With hundreds of millions of people on the move and most businesses and shops closed for days, China cannot be said to be working
normally even by its own pretty abnormal standards.
Driving a car is a fun way to travel, but it also adds a whole new layer of possible problems, from the car breaking down in the middle of nowhere to the highways being closed because of snow (both of which things eventually happened to us). What’s more foreigners driving in
China are still rare, and outside
of the main cities almost unheard of. We were three foreigners preparing to
drive alone through some of Northern China’s
remote backwater provinces during the Spring Festival. I was thus quite ready
for unexpected, frustrating and/or hilarious stuff to happen, even though I
wasn't quite prepared for the amount of things which did eventually go wrong.
We left Beijing two days after the New Year. In typical Western style, we didn't manage to get ourselves together and leave before one in the afternoon. Our final aim was
Kaifeng, a city
in Henan province which used to be one of China’s ancient capitals, and was home to China’s only ancient Jewish community. We soon realized
however that we would never get to Kaifeng in a single day, so we decide to
make Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei province, our first stop on the way
After an uneventful four hours on the highway we reached the exit for
Shijiazhuang. Once we approached the
city, we immediately started regretting our choice. I mean no offense to its
three million inhabitants, but Shijiazhuang
encapsulates all the worst about Chinese provincial capitals: it is grey, boring,
soulless, sprawling, and completely lacking in history or culture, since it
only turned into a city about one hundred years ago. The huge buildings which
dominate its skyline absolutely fail to lend the city any air of grandiosity or
What’s more Shijiazhuang suffers from a terrible pollution problem even by Chinese standards, and constantly records worse levels of air pollution than Beijing, which is really saying something. The first time we opened the car windows, we could actually smell the pollution in the air. As I drove into the city’s urban sprawl, I started cursing myself for not getting those cheap tickets to Thailand.
We stopped at a chain hotel where they told us that they weren’t authorized to take foreign guests (a common problem with provincial Chinese hotels), but pointed us towards another hotel down the road which could. This hotel seemed quite nice and comfortable, until we checked into our rooms and discovered that incredibly there was no hot water in the bathrooms.
|The turtle we eat for dinner|
After the meal we decided to sample the local nightlife, and took a cab to what we had been told is
best bar street. When we arrived, we discovered that the “bar street” consisted
entirely of KTVs and only a single actual nightclub. The club followed the worst tradition of
Chinese nightclubs: it was a brash, loud, chaotic and expensive affair, full of
tables where groups of young men played dice games and munched on fruit. There
was also a “show” consisting of a scantily clad young lady pretending to sing
in the middle of the room.
|Shijiazhuang's poor visibility on our second day in the city|
Silently we drove along
boulevards, in a post-apocalyptic scenery. We could only see
the vague silhouettes of the giant grey buildings on both sides of the street, while
unfortunate locals rode bicycles around us. We reached the exit to the highway,
eager to get out of this hell-hole, when we saw that all the entrances had a
big red X above them, indicating that they were closed. Fearing the worst, I
got out of my car and went to inquire. A guy smoking next to his car told me
that the highway was closed because of the poor visibility, and he had no idea
when it would open up again. There was a whole queue of cars patiently waiting
for the highway to reopen, but we thought better of just sitting there for what
could be hours, and decided to take refuge in a nearby Burger King instead.