Beijing traffic can be a nightmare, but try buying a used car

Beijing's traffic jam caught the world's attention this week. But when I went to buy a 7-year-old Jeep last week, I discovered another world of gridlock.

Aly Song/Reuters
Customers look at new cars at an auto dealership in Shanghai August 5.

If you are planning to buy a second-hand car in China, read this first.

Since I arrived in Beijing four years ago I have been driving a 1990 “Beijing Jeep Cherokee.” It is a historic vehicle, one of the first commercial models to roll off the production line that Chrysler set up with the Chinese government, but it has reached the end of its useful life.

Spare parts are increasingly hard to find, and increasingly necessary; last winter I had to be towed to the repair shop three times. I am no mechanic, nor am I a collector of antiques, though I gather that in three years time my car will qualify as a vintage model under Chinese regulations.

IN PICTURES: China's huge traffic jam

So when a departing journalist offered his own 7-year-old Jeep for sale last week I jumped at the opportunity to buy it.

Little did I know what I was getting myself into.

On Tuesday morning my colleague and I drove the car to the official second-hand car market, a sprawling conglomeration of hangar-like buildings and parking lots an hour or so through Beijing traffic from my office, where used vehicle sales must be registered. Almost as soon as we had arrived, the process ground to a halt.

The first official to scrutinize the seller’s papers pointed out that my colleague had changed his passport since he had bought the car. The number in his new passport did not match the number in his vehicle ownership papers. Those papers would have to be amended before we went any further.

Only the Beijing Traffic Management Bureau, a branch of the city police, could make that amendment. So off we set for the bureau.

It did not take long for the policeman at the counter, sitting under a sign reading “Harmonious Traffic for Beijing, Friendly Beijing Traffic Police” to find another problem. The residence certificate my colleague presented had been issued by the management of the compound where he lives. The police would accept only a certificate issued by the police themselves.

Only the nearest police station to my colleague’s home could issue such a certificate. So off we set for the police station.

Three hours into the process we were two bureaucratic steps back and 500 yards from where we had started. The discovery that the policewoman who issues residence certificates would be out to lunch for another 45 minutes did not improve our mood.

It did, though, give us a chance to get ourselves some stir fried vegetables, lemon chicken, braised eggplant, and a plate of tofu. And after we had eaten, the policewoman did her job efficiently, if slowly. What did she give us? An exact replica of the certificate we already had, but written out on a flimsy piece of white paper instead of a flimsy piece of pink paper and stamped in red ink with the all important police “chop.”

Back to the Traffic Management Bureau to get the ownership papers updated (and my colleague’s driving license replaced: His old passport number was on that, too.) I passed the time watching videos of ghastly traffic accidents being screened in the marble walled waiting room. When that got too much, I went outside, only to find a horrifically mangled sedan car displayed on a raised dais decorated with a cautionary slogan: “Drive Carefully. Safety is Worth 1,000 Pieces of Gold.” The Beijing police are anything but subtle.

By this time it was late afternoon, but a mad dash got us back to the second-hand car market 45 minutes before it closed. Confronted by a bewildering maze of offices and counters and crowds of other people just as keen as we were to get this over with we threw caution to the winds and splashed out 50 RMB ($7.35) on an agent, identifiable by her orange T-shirt emblazoned with her official number, to guide us through the chaos.

She does this every day, all day. My colleague and I trotted behind her like lambs from one counter to the next, handing her the documents she needed as she asked for them and marveling as she barged to the front of every line to deal with clerks who were clearly her friends.

Only when we were leaving the building did I realize that neither my colleague nor I had signed the contract of sale. I found that in order to save time the agent had simply signed for both of us.

One more hurdle remained; we had to change the car’s plates. Thankfully the Traffic Management Bureau stays open later than any other municipal bureaucracy and there was somebody there to wield the electric hacksaw needed to cut through the special security rivets that held the old plates in place.

There was also somebody there to explain to me the last procedure of the day, one that almost made up for all the others I had suffered through: I could choose my own new license number. A vanity plate for free!

After nine hours of traipsing from pillar to post, exhaustion trumped imagination. Using the sort of computer that allows instant check-in at airports I tapped out my initials and my date of birth. It will be a long time until I forget last Tuesday. But at least I will never forget my license plate number.

IN PICTURES: China's huge traffic jam

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