All over the Chinese capital, walls are daubed with cryptic telephone numbers. They are the cellphone numbers of forgers, who will knock you out an ID, a wedding certificate, a university diploma, or anything else you need – at a price.
One day I intend to call one of these numbers and see how easy it really is to get one of these false documents, and how convincing they are. But I am new in Beijing, so I thought it wiser to go about getting myself a Chinese driver's license the orthodox way.
The Chinese authorities make it both easy and hard to get a license. Easy, because if you already have a foreign license, you don't have to take the practical test and also (and this is a BIG easy) they don't make you take the theory test in Chinese.
Hard, because some of the questions you have to be able to answer do not come out of any highway code book I had ever come across before I bought my copy of "Road Traffic Safety Rules and Regulations and Related Knowledge, Exam Reference Material" for about $20.
Take question 10.15, for example. "What should a driver do when he needs to spit while driving?
A. Spit through the window.
B. Spit into a piece of waste paper, then put it into a garbage can.
C. Spit on the floor of the vehicle.
It may well be that Chinese drivers are all perfectly aware that the correct answer is B, but you wouldn't know it to drive around Beijing. Option A is definitely the preferred solution.
The questions often reveal cultural clues, giving hints about the way Chinese drive by offering up the sort of circumstances the police must come across often enough to put them in the book.
Question 10.11 asks what you should do if you come across an accident where someone needs help. Your options are to drive past, to slow down, stop to offer some assistance and call the police, or to "negotiate with party concerned if some reward available, OK."
The way the test works is that you learn the correct answers to about 600 multiple-choice questions in the book, and when you take the test a computer chooses 100 questions at random and you have to get 90 or more right in order to pass.
The majority of the questions are straightforward enough if you know your highway code: The rules of the road are the same everywhere, and so are the signs, though you have to recognize a few Chinese characters on one or two of them.
But the book appears to be wrong or ambiguous on several points: It mandates driving in the fast lane as a matter of course, for example, recommending you pull over to the right only if someone wants to pass. That can't be right.
And one answer gives cars going uphill priority on an icy mountain road, while another gives it to cars going downhill.
Still, none of this fazed me when I showed up at the headquarters of the Beijing Motor Vehicle Administration for my test Tuesday morning. My equilibrium was slightly upset by the scenes the video-recorder in the waiting room were showing – ghastly traffic accidents in which cars drove off cliffs, crushed pedestrians, crashed into trees and upended cyclists, leaving trails of bloody corpses – but I was confident.
There were about 15 foreigners taking the test on Tuesday, including a Frenchman who had failed the week before and was convinced that the computer had been deliberately programmed to outfox him. Most of us were leafing through the manual until the last moment, studying the tricky questions such as the one about the minimum-height requirement for drivers of passenger vehicles (5 feet) or the penalty incurred for passing on an off-ramp (2 points off your license).
As it was, I breezed through with 94 out of 100, and as a bonus I was asked my favorite question in the whole book, number 10.18, which I think even the Frenchman would have got right.
A. Deliberately underestimate each other.
B. Compete for road supremacy.
C. Learn and help each other, adopt one's strong point while overcoming one's weak point and keep safely driving.
It is simple, but it speaks volumes about the way people drive in this country, especially those (and they are legion) who got their driver's licenses from one of the cellphone numbers scrawled on a wall.
Next week I will be able to pick up my new license. Whether I will have summoned the courage by then to actually get behind the wheel, well, that depends on whether I feel Chinese enough to enter the fray.
I will have to practice spitting out of the window.