Paperwork Pains

The post-trip dust of mystery receipts and cryptic notes-to-self (‘It [what?!] starts at 4,650m’  and ‘Watch out for… [illegible scrawl]) has finally settled. When I’m leading a journey, the adventure is often bookended with administration, as was my latest trip. This time, however, the usual amount of pre-departure paperwork was compounded by a quirk of Chinese law that requires foreign drivers to hold a Chinese license before being allowed to drive. I hold a full six-year licence, for example, but there’s also a temporary licence available for short-term visitors, which several of my guests required for our trip to Lhasa.

Road on Balangshan, Sichuan

Dangerous curves ahead on Balangshan, Sichuan © Jo James

For any type of Chinese driving license, one first needs to pass a ‘health check’. While this is generally straightforward – take a quick eye test, tell them how tall you are, show them your fingers – in China there are a few conditions that preclude driving. Even if you’re able to drive perfectly safely in your home country, if you’re colour-blind or missing two fingers on the same hand, you won’t be able to get a license in China. I’ve had colour blind guests pass the health check before – all you need is a willing translator for the colour blindness test:
Guest [in English]: “Erm… errr… is it a panda?”
Guide [in Chinese]: “He says it’s the number 23.”

Road, Sichuan

All downhill © Jo James

On this occasion, however, we had a new challenge on our hands, as we belatedly discovered that a guest was almost blind in one eye, which – of course, of course – is one of those no-driving-in-China conditions. After an embarrassingly amateur attempt to bluff our way through the test and twenty minutes sat next to a blood-encrusted gentleman with two black eyes in the ophthalmology department, the issue was correctly diagnosed and we were told that it wouldn’t be possible for the guest, P, to pass the health check.

Once outside however, a trio of middle-aged ladies with bubble perms gathered around us and, having followed our progress around the hospital, explained a cunning plan to help P pass the test after all. All we needed to do was to go to a different hospital with them and give them 100RMB for the doctor, plus 50RMB for themselves. I should explain here that while I don’t have a very big problem with this type minor-league facilitation, I hesitate to embroil guests in it unless they’re happy and willing, as P was, it turned out. So off we went with Bubble Perm #2 to the second hospital, and thirty minutes later – health-check certificate in hand, complete with an ID photo of P with his hands held out either side of his face to show all ten fingers – we caught up with the rest of the group at the Vehicle Licensing Office.

Mind the tour leader!

Mind the tour leader! © Jo James

The rest of the application process went mercifully smoothly. Finally, in Chengdu, as elsewhere, temporary drivers are given a short welcome-and-take-care speech by a senior policeman – a charming end to a morning of paperwork. Officer Zhang helpfully listed road hazards of particular to Sichuan. There are, in this order:
1) Ethnic minorities
2) Yaks (and other livestock, but I’m all about the yaks – mind the yak!)
3) Steep slopes
4) Ice and snow
5) Ethnic minorities, again.

And with that, the officer presented everyone with their freshly laminated temporary licenses, and we were free to go and add ourselves to the list of hazards: 6) Temporary Chinese Driving Licence holders.

Next up – we crash a Tibetan wedding and have another brush with the friendly folk at Chengdu PD…

P.S. While writing the above, it occurred to me that perhaps I’ve become a little too relaxed over the issue of ‘facilitation’. Anyone else feel similarly relaxed? Or all you all moral paragons?

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