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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).

Sushi in Tokyo (with a toddler)

Sushi is one of my favorite foods in the world, but I must confess that for most of my life I have prioritized value over quality (Costco salmon sashimi, anyone?). This is in large part because whenever I tried better sushi restaurants in the US, it rarely ever felt like the quality justified the price, so I just couldn’t afford to keep looking for good sushi where I lived (which were admittedly not very good sushi towns to begin with… Phoenix and DC). So our hopes in Tokyo were to experience (1) quality sushi the way it was intended it to be, and (2) the best value sushi we could find. I think we didn’t do too badly… even with a toddler in tow.

Tsukiji Market
Let me start where sushi begins… at Tsukiji Market. I felt lucky to have a chance to visit this historic place, because it is very likely to be gone soon. In fact, when we visited last September, there was a lot of talk that the (inner) market would be closing by the end of the year and relocating to somewhere farther out. Last I heard, the move has been rescheduled to 2016 (check out this piece for more info on the move, as well as the market’s history). Even though the new market will have much larger and better facilities, it’s definitely sad that such an iconic piece of the city will no longer be the way it has been for the past 80 years.

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Eating in Tokyo

Last September, we took a short trip to Tokyo. It was my first time in Japan, and though my husband has relatives there, he hadn’t been back since childhood. This city truly felt like Paris in Asia, and like the French, the Japanese also bring a lot of care and attention to everything they do. Ever since our trip, I have found myself quite smitten with the Japanese obsession with details and their compulsion to perfect absolutely everything, right down to how to keep your noodles firm when you are eating them with broth. These are the questions that keep this culture up at night. And we were very happy to benefit from it for a brief four days.

During our time in Tokyo, we stayed in a neighborhood called Shimokitazawa on the western edge of the city. The area’s calm, relaxed pace was just right for us with our two-year-old, but at the same time, the long history of arts and culture there has exploded into a hip, vibrant community kept alive by both young and old. Our kind AirBnB hostess, Wakana, gave us such a great introduction to the area that I ended up writing a travel piece on our time there. The story ran recently in the Washington Post travel section, and if you’re interested you can read more about the neighborhood’s personality, history, and offerings there. Tokyo is pretty expensive, so if you’re ever looking for a more affordable lodging option, Shimokita is definitely a great pick, especially if you also want to get away from the frenzy of the big city!

Much or our time in between meals in Tokyo was spent meandering in different neighborhoods and popping in and out of shops. We’re lucky to have plenty of Uniqlo and Muji shops in Beijing, so in Tokyo we instead frequented Tokyu Hands, Loft, and Daiso. Our hostess also kindly invited us over to her home and to attend the annual local temple festival with her family, which we thoroughly enjoyed. It really gave us such a personal glimpse into local life and culture. One morning, we even stumbled upon this children’s parade coinciding with the festival, and little E was very happy to participate in it!

As for food, given that our time in Tokyo was very brief, we decided to focus on just a few things we really wanted to eat…

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Eating in Chiang Mai, Thailand

I am finally getting around to finishing up my Thailand posts (more than a year after our trip!). After ringing in the new year in Hong Kong with family last year, we spent 5 days each in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. This was the last leg of our trip, and we didn’t have a whole lot planned. Many people go to Chiang Mai for trekking and elephant riding, but the thought of bringing a squirmy toddler along on a long ride in the back of a truck out to the wilderness did not quite appeal to us (not to mention getting him through the hiking and riding part :).

Instead, we situated ourselves in a small hotel near the city gate within the city walls. We visited a lot of markets. We took turns doing a solo activity (my husband got a foot massage, and I took a cooking class). We drank a lot of fresh fruit smoothies and ate a lot of noodles. We took naps. :)

Chiang Mai was a bit tougher to navigate because there isn’t any public transportation. (In the past few years I’ve come to realize that good public transportation, or having a car, makes a big difference when traveling, since being able to get around on your own just allows for much more flexibility and independence, especially when you don’t know the language.) A lot of the getting around in Chiang Mai is done in the back of these covered trucks, and you can negotiate a price with the driver. The old city within the walls is very walkable, but once you get outside of the city walls, distances are much farther between places.

Nevertheless, we did enjoy many leisurely strolls through the old quarters, at various markets around the city, and even to a few farther out places. We also enjoyed getting to try some northern Thai flavors and new dishes. It was in Chiang Mai that I discovered my new favorite Thai food, which I was lucky enough to taste in our very first meal in the city, so that meant I had the next five days to eat more of it. :)

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