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Witnessing progress on the road to adventure

By Owen Fishwick | China Daily | Updated: 2021-06-17 08:17
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"Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world."

Nineteenth century French novelist Gustave Flaubert wrote that, and he lived before the invention of the car.

Nothing on the planet has empowered the movement of people more than the car. Sure, we've got ships that can cross oceans, planes that shrink the world and trains that streak across the land. But the car has provided individual freedom to countless millions across the planet to travel further, connect with convenience and get to and from work day in day out.

I bring this quote up, along with my heraldry of the car, having been tasked on an epic 11-day, 1,966-kilometer journey from Shanghai on China's east coast to Chengdu, Sichuan province, in the country's southwest. And the mode of transport? You got it, the humble car.

However, here in lays the first issue. I don't have Chinese driver's license. Sure, I have British one, but that's not going to cut it here. So, I had to put myself through a rigorous (and rather rushed), study regimen. I bought a book online with all of China's road laws, regulations, restrictions, requirements and explanations of all the roads signs, and I crammed for a whole day.

I hadn't taken a test or exam in what must be decades, and that feeling that I had thought I had forever banished from my life suddenly returned. I felt sick, nervous, irritable.

The following morning, I went to the test center and was joined by smattering of other foreigners who too had booked a written test-If you've already got a license from your own country, you only have to do the written. To pass, you need to score at least 90 out of 100 questions set on a computer in a designated exam room. At each computer, a camera is trained upon the exam taker's face to ensure there is no funny business going on.

Beforehand, I had taken what must have been 20 mock tests online with scores ranging from as low as 76 to as high as 97. And?

I passed! First time. A score of 92 out of 100. What a legend.

And so to the journey itself. Why, you might ask, are you bothering to drive from Shanghai to Chengdu? Surely the train or flying would be much faster? Firstly, because China has the world's most amazing expressway network, and secondly, that is true but misses the point in this case.

China's very first expressway opened in Shanghai in 1988. Just a short three decades later, more than 160,000 km of expressway connect the entire country, making it the largest expressway network on the planet.

That's pretty impressive. Yeah, but what is the result, you might ask?

Well, it's opened up China to the car, and to an even greater extent, commerce.

Take the automotive industry, for example. Along the Shanghai-Chengdu Expressway sits a series of massive automotive hubs, manufacturing everything you can think of along the industry's supply chain. There's domestic and international brands, battery makers, raw materials, sales, services and one of the world's busiest ports for imports and exports.

I write to you now, dear reader six days into my trip, where we've arrived at the world's largest dam and hydro-electric power plant-the Three Gorges Dam. It seems like the icing on the cake after seeing other monumental infrastructure, from great bridges spanning the majestic Yangtze in Nanjing and Wuhan, to gargantuan spaghetti expressway intersections in Anhui province during the journey.

All this world-beating infrastructure facilitates the mass movement of people across the vast country, unleashing commercial juggernauts and anyone with a dream and a road to get there.

The journey continues to our final destination-Chengdu.

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