5 articles Articles posted in china

Roadtripping in China, Part 1: Passing the Chinese Driving Test


One of the things I miss the most in China is being able to get in a car and go wherever we want to go. Because travel is just as much about the journey as it is about the destination, I find mobility really affects how I experience a place.

Despite knowing that, it has still taken us two years to get our act together and embark on the somewhat amusing, but mostly just tedious process of getting our Chinese driver’s licenses. Part of why it took so long was (1) we weren’t sure whether we’d be brave enough to actually drive here; and (2) obtaining a Chinese driver’s license is somewhat of an ordeal in itself.


China does not acknowledge international driver’s licenses, so in order to drive locally, you must obtain a local license (unless you have diplomatic immunity, those lucky Embassy folks!). The process includes, among other things, a health check, registering at the police station, and taking the infamously ridiculous written test. (Thankfully, if you already have a license in your home country, you can skip the behind-the-wheel test.) We were lucky to have the help of one of my husband’s researchers in figuring out a lot of the administrative stuff. The entire process is so tiresome that many people hire an agency to take care of all the details. (And because this is China, it is also possible to hire someone to take the test for you. :P)


Passing the Chinese driving test has become an expat rite of passage. The experience really does throw you into the thick of Chinese culture because, like many other kinds of Chinese tests I’ve taken, studying once again relies on pure memorization, not on actually understanding the content (which doesn’t always make sense… at least from a Western point of view). There isn’t really a road guide or rule book to give an order to things — all the study materials I came across simply list the 1000+ questions that the test draws from. After failing it the first day, I had to make up my own rough guide by trying to deduce what the actual rules are based on the answers to the 1000+ questions. This was not easy because sometimes knowing the correct answer didn’t actually tell you anything — like some of the true/false questions where the answer is simply “false” but with no indication of what is actually true. To top it all off, you wouldn’t be able to tell that anyone on the road here has passed any kind of test based on how people actually drive!


Much has been written about the ludicrous nature of the test (click on any of those links for more! I also highly recommend the book Country Driving by Peter Hessler, who is one of my all-time favorite writers). For better or worse, the test was updated last year and seems far less colorful, though perhaps a little more straightforward, now than in the past. I was somewhat disappointed that it no longer includes amusing questions about intestines, such as the following:

For an open abdominal wound, such as protrusion of the small intestine tube, we should:
A. Put it back.
B. No treatment.
C. Not put it back, but cover it with a bowl or jar, and bind the bowl or jar with a cloth belt.

The correct answer is…



For more choice bits from the old test, see here. I have to say, though, that the updated questions don’t necessarily make more sense, and they are far less amusing than the old ones! See here for a sampling of questions from the most recent test version. I’ll point out, too, that there is a whole subset of questions devoted to traffic police hand signals — I figured I would only get a few of these on the test and didn’t even bother learning any of them. Hope I don’t regret that down the (literal) road…


Even though we’d been warned that you really do need to study, we didn’t actually start studying until the day before. My husband managed to pass on the first try (you have to get at least 90 out of 100 questions right), but it took me three tries to pass it! You get two tries per sitting. I got an 87 the first time, then 89 the second (augh, just 1 short!). So I had to schedule to retake it the next day and finally got a 93 on the third try. It was a huge relief, because I really did not want to have to take it yet again or waste any more time studying!


After we finally had our licenses in hand, we just couldn’t wait to hit the road. It just so happened that my brother-in-law came to visit shortly after, so we decided a roadtrip was in order. At the top of our list were Inner Mongolia and camping at the Great Wall. So, last weekend, we did both. You’re getting a glimpse in this post of some of the scenery we saw on that trip. Stay tuned for more!

If you’re actually studying to take that test yourself, here are two posts I found helpful:

  • The Middle Kingdom’s Chinese Driver’s License Guide – It’s outdated now, but still helpful in laying out the process for obtaining your license and general strategy for the test. Check the comments section for some more updated links and info.
  • Photographer Mark Griffith’s post on Passing the Test. Note this was also written before the latest (2013) version of the test that I took.

I used the China Driving Test Pro app, which, while better than nothing, I can’t fully recommend. There are a few questions on there I’m doubtful are correct, and a number of questions are also worded differently than on the actual test (e.g., a “T-intersection” on the test is simply referred to as “intersection” on the app).


I haven’t yet had much opportunity to venture into the Chinese countryside. After our anniversary trip to Moganshan a few weeks ago, I’ve decided we must do this more often. With the industrialization of many Chinese cities, escape to a more natural and serene setting isn’t just a nice, leisurely thing to do — it’s almost a necessary measure to restore your sanity and replenish your oxygen supply! :)

Moganshan, being about three hours outside of Shanghai and a little over an hour outside of Hangzhou, has served as an escape from city life for over a century to all kinds of people, from foreign missionaries to Shanghai mobsters and even to Chang Kai-Shek and Mao Zedong! It’s not hard to see why…

Given that our trip was a bit of a last-minute idea, many of the properties here were booked, but we were able to get an “earth hut” at Naked Stables, an eco-resort run by a company called Naked Retreats, which also runs a property of restored farmhouses called Naked Home Village (also based on ecologically sustainable principles).

I loved the earth huts! They’re made of cement and compacted earth, and the architecture is inspired by African rondavels (the founder is South African). Many of them sit on hillsides, so they almost feel like treehouses.

There are also some pretty crazy villas at Naked Stables available for short stays or even for sale!

During our time at Moganshan we also got to sample some of the foods cooked at Naked Stables. Naked boasts ingredients sourced from either their own organic farm or directly from the producer (local whenever possible). Not every dish was amazing, and obviously we only sampled a small selection of what they had, but there were a few standouts, including a hand-pulled noodle soup where I thought the highlight was the giant crispy bamboo shoots. They also serve a great burger, which is hard to find over here!

I actually would’ve liked to check out the Naked Home Village, as it is made up of the original farmhouses of an actual village that the founder stumbled upon. It’s further up the mountain and so is more remote. And given the history of the structures, it seems to retain more of the original feel of the locale. Each house in the Home Village is also assigned an ayi (housekeeper) who cooks local dishes that many reviewers have said good things about. About half of the farmhouses are also meant for larger groups, so it seems like a fun place to go for a family reunion or church retreat or even just a gathering of friends. Each of these farmhouses has its own kitchen, so you also have the option of cooking your own meals, whether with ingredients you bring yourself or DIY meal sets purchased there.

I also had the chance to take some walks around the area, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I came upon rice paddies, tea plantations, bamboo groves, corn fields, and running streams. It was breathtaking. And I didn’t encounter a single person!

Our stay was definitely a respite from city life. And I was not the only one who had a nice time. :)


Just wanted to post a little update after arriving in China four weeks ago. We’ve been in Shanghai for a little longer than intended, due to a couple unexpected complications and what my husband calls the molasses speed of the paperwork process we encountered. But! We are scheduled to head to Beijing this coming Tuesday, and I am relieved to be nearing the end.

I don’t know what it is… the first time I was in Shanghai, I was absolutely smitten with the city — the history, the sophistication, the friendliness of the people. All of that is still true, but I guess this time around I’ve been more exhausted. We moved three times in less than two weeks (and still haven’t arrived at our intended destination). The weather’s been typically hot and humid (though the air quality is much better here than in Beijing). And the addition of a baby this time, of course, complicates things a bit, including how much longer it’s taken to get over jet lag (he has, though, been quite good overall!).

All of which to say, I have done virtually nothing in Shanghai and consequently have hardly anything of interest to report back here.

We did, however, take the opportunity last weekend to go visit some DC friends who moved to Hangzhou last year. While we were heading out that way, we decided to take a little getaway trip for our anniversary (which happens to be today!) to the bamboo forests of Moganshan. More on Moganshan later, but here’s a bit on Hangzhou from our trip last weekend. [Link updated.]

There’s an old saying that goes, “In heaven there is paradise, on earth there is Hangzhou.” It’s purportedly one of the most beautiful cities in China. Given how industrialized most cities have become in China, though, I’m never quite sure what to expect. Perhaps that was for the best, because it allowed me to be pleasantly surprised by just how lovely Hangzhou actually is.

The city of Hangzhou is so refreshingly lush with trees and water. It actually smells naturey! Our friends Melanie and Brian took us on a nice long walk through their treelined university campus and on to West Lake and then back to their apartment.

To give you an idea how hot it was, here’s our poor little guy trying to stay cool.

On our way back, we stopped at Pur for dinner, a favorite of our friends’. We started with a carafe of lemonade that included lemon, calamansi lime, and passion fruit — a fragrant tropical drink that really hit the spot after a hot afternoon of walking.

Even little E seemed to be doing better (well, he had food but not lemonade :).

For the meal, we were eager to try some of our friends’ favorites — a cold pumpkin appetizer dish topped with parmesan, and tofu cubes in a nest of bread covered with tomato sauce. We also ordered a couple meat dishes, a claypot rice dish (bo jai fan), some stir-fried water spinach, and mango sorbet. It was all really well done and, what’s more, came to only about $8 (US) per person.

In the end, Hangzhou turned out to be just the break we needed: trees, water, fresh air, good food, and good friends!

Update (5/13/2013): The Hangzhou friends we visited tell me Pur is no longer what it was — skimpier portions and not quite as good food. Nevertheless, here are the details, and more (including a map) can be found in a review here.

Pur 朴墅餐厅
Qingzhiwu, 61 Yugu Road
Phone: 0571 8720 3383


I’m currently in the middle of a big move… to the other side of the world.

My husband’s work is sending us to Beijing for the next three years or so to cover news in China. I’ve always wanted to live abroad and to give our little E the chance to be immersed in another culture. So we’re both excited about this opportunity.

The past week has been full of craziness: We found a tenant for our apartment, amassed things we’ll need or just miss, had movers come and pack up most of our belongings, and today we sold our car.

We leave on Sunday for Shanghai, where we’ll be taking care of some official things before we head to Beijing.

In light of all this, I’ll be taking a short break from posting here, but I’m hoping to resume soon with lots to share as we embark on this new adventure. I also still have a few more France posts (hope you’re not sick of those yet!). And we hope to take advantage of our time in Asia to travel to various nearby countries. In fact, Becca and I will be joining our parents for 10 days in Saigon in September, which I’m super excited about!

In the meantime, if you’d like to follow along, you can find me on Instagram. Be back soon!