Country Driving Cracks Me UP! Geoffrey Gorman reviews Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip by Peter Hessler (Harper Perennial 2010)
Several years ago I was invited to go to Beijing, China, to participate in an international Art Fair. It’s not a country that has been on my top ten list because of its human rights record and its authoritarian regime. But how could I turn down an all-expense paid trip and a chance to sell some of my art? I said yes, spent two weeks in Beijing, and, to my great surprise, had a fascinating time. I was able to meet a wide variety of people, from formal, uptight government officials, wild-eyed Mongolian artists, aggressive local sales girls, twenty-something kids living in Beijing, battered war veterans, the list goes on and on. The people I met and spent time with won me over.
I was lucky enough to stay in an old Chinese hotel in one of the older neighborhoods, called a hutong. Every night after leaving the modern convention center, as I turned down my street, I was amazed by its crowds, its noise, its vibrancy. It felt like I was going back in time. Every morning, with a plate of steamed dumplings as my breakfast, I would sit and watch locals head off on their bicycles. I loved it!
I came back from China with a changed attitude. I loved the city, the people, the culture, and the food. I wanted to know more about this fascinating country. I read Peter Hessler’s two earlier books about living in China: Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China, and River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze. Hessler is a staff writer at the New Yorker, where he served as the Beijing correspondent from 2000 to 2007, and he is also a contributing writer for National Geographic. He now lives in Ridgeway, Colorado.
Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip is the third book in his trilogy. It was published last year, and I picked it up as soon as it was released. What a great read! The book is broken up into three parts. The funniest and, for me, most interesting part is the first chapter, about the introduction of cars and driving to the Chinese. Peter gets his Chinese drivers license, rents a stream of cars, has some hilarious mishaps and ends up driving the length of the Great Wall, more than 4,000 miles. He rents a small house several hours away from Beijing, where he spends many of his weekends.
Peter is a great storyteller. His descriptions of the people he meets are thoughtful, insightful, and real. He goes to places where most westerners would never go. He allows readers to see both the similarities and cultural differences between us, but with no condescension. All three of his books have given me terrific insights into a fast changing world in China. I heartily recommend them!
Harper’s Magazine interview with Peter Hessler, written by Ken Silverstein
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Geoffrey Gorman, a nationally recognized artist, creates magic from a myriad of found objects. When he’s not in his studio or out scouring the countryside around his Santa Fe home for new materials, he is exploring the world in person or by armchair. He’s truly an adventurous spirit! Gorman’s website