WITH vacations in mind, I recently got my Chinese driver’s license. The first goal: to rent a car and tour the countryside in a southwestern corner of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. With help from someone at the hotel where I spent one night in Nanning, I scored a rental car for 250 yuan (US$41) per day.
“Excellent!” I thought. I’ve got an economical Nissan with air conditioning, an allowance of 400 kilometers per day, and five open days to go exploring. What could be better?
But then reality set in: I was immediately confronted with navigating the streets of the provincial capital. This was no simple task. Nanning, a city of 3 million, reportedly has more motorbikes than any city in the world, and on busy streets the right lane tends to be filled with them. Often they carry a mother, father and one or two small children. They weave in and out of traffic at intersections and you must watch for them at all times, in addition to the cars, trucks, larger motorcycles, tuk-tuks, vans and various other vehicles — and pedestrians — that make Chinese streets so colorful.
Finally, after a rather harrowing night drive of perhaps 30 minutes, I made it back to the hotel, somehow without an accident. With map at the ready the following morning, I left in traffic made worse than usual by the massive construction of a subway system, which of course was right along the road I needed to take out of the city.
Finally I made it, white knuckled, onto an expressway I thought was heading toward Daxin County to the west. But no, it turned out I was on the wrong highway and was en route to Daming Mountain, another scenic highlight of the province but not my destination. I soon realized this but was forced to go about 25 kilometers before there was an off-ramp where I could turn around. I hoped this was not an omen for my five days of exploring.
Heading back toward the city, I found a ramp to the right road and proceeded to skirt the north edge of Nanning on a very fast expressway, cruising at about 110 kilometers per hour. After sailing through a couple of toll booths, I soon remembered one good thing about the holiday week I chose to make this trip: All tolls were waived. Being able to just drive right through toll gates without stopping no doubt saved lots of time — and money — because it prevented traffic jams.
From here on, the biggest problem was following signs to make sure I stayed on the right roads. At first I feared all the signs outside of Nanning were in Chinese only, but soon some started appearing bilingually. Relief! Between the sporadically English signs and the highway numbers, I was able to navigate my way along some of the most beautiful landscapes through which I’ve ever driven.
In addition to rivers, karst mountains and pastoral scenery, I went to a beach on the South China Sea and stayed in the city of Dongxing, on the Vietnamese border. I took dirt roads to ancient fishing villages, ate fresh seafood on the beach and drove through a huge port city being built at Fangcheng, stopping to photograph giant stone statues overlooking the water. All of this was spontaneous. The access to places was far in excess of what would be available through public transportation, comprehensive though it is in China.
On Day 5, I limped back into Nanning on two almost-flat tires and missing the left-front hubcap. I have no idea what happened to the tires, but one was damaged enough to need replacement. Cost: 450 yuan for the tire and 30 for the hubcap. Value of the trip: Priceless.