Page last updated at 16:55 GMT, Thursday, 30 September 2010 17:55 UK

Going for a drive with China's car clubs

Car club in China
Drive Round the World Car Club: Many car owners in China are joining car clubs as a way of exploring new places with like-minded people

By Martin Patience
BBC News, Beijing

China's growing number of car owners are using their four-wheels to take to the roads in exploration of new places and new friends.

"Going for a drive," I used to think, was a particularly British pastime.

Bundling granny up in her warmest coat and taking her for a run in the countryside, or lowering the roof on the sports car and zipping down to the coast.

Or perhaps, packing a good picnic before taking the road to the hills.

To me, this was "going for a drive".

Generally, your model of car dictates which club you join... and that probably increases the chance of dating

But, having recently arrived in China, I have found a country that takes this concept to a whole different level.

In the burgeoning middle classes here, everyone wants a car.

And when they have got one, many join car clubs.

There are hundreds of them in Beijing alone.

Generally, your model of car dictates which club you join.

There is one for Volkswagen owners, others for those who drive Renaults, or Porsches.

This means the vehicles generally move at a similar pace and everyone is roughly from the same income bracket, and that probably increases the chance of dating.

Car club, China
Travelling the vast country in a group is less daunting

And what do you do in these car clubs?

Well, you go for a drive.

But it is not just about the vehicle.

It is about the experience - the freedom of the open road.

And for many Chinese, who have just become car owners, these emotions are keenly felt.

There is a whole world out there to explore and distance is no longer an obstacle.

You can leave your old world behind and venture forth.

But, obviously places that you have never been to before can be a bit daunting.

So, why not go as a group?

New 'freedom'

At 7.30am one Sunday morning, I joined one of these car clubs as we rallied on the outskirts of Beijing.

And after the 20 or so cars arrived - all QQs (the Chinese-made equivalent of, say, a mini) - we set off on in a convoy.

There is a whole world out there to explore and distance is no longer an obstacle

The team leaders had radios.

There was a lead car showing the way, and then a tail car making sure no-one got lost.

I rode with Miss Song who was driving, and Miss Zhing - a couple of friends in their mid-30s.

We listened to some slushy Chinese pop ballads, while my knees slipped deeper and deeper into Miss Song's back.

It was a very small car and an uncomfortable ride.

But Miss Song proved irrepressible.

She told me, through a translator who was also packed into the car, that driving out into the countryside was like freeing a bird from its cage.

Chinese couple looking at minivans
China is the world's biggest car market with 13 million sales in 2009

And as we left the grey, concrete city behind and reached the rolling, green mountains of the countryside, where the cicadas drowned out speech, it was easy to see what she meant.

We got lost three times.

The QQs are cheap cars. They have no GPS or satnav, and, for the record, are not terribly good at going up hills when loaded with four people.

But it was wonderful. It was an experience. It really was… going for a drive.

Disorientating and lonely

After two hours of motoring, we reached a farmhouse-cum-restaurant, with the biggest pile of walnuts I had ever seen lying in the drive.

All the car-clubbers were in their 20s or 30s. They were middle-class Chinese, mainly doing IT jobs or working in finance.

Some were couples.

One was a vole-like young guy, who wore a chunky gold chain, smoked incessantly, and spoke in a rat-a-tat-tat fashion.

The club was a way of creating a community in a society experiencing so much change that it has become disorientating

For the trip, his girlfriend had decided to wear, along with her red-Nike dress, a pair of white stilettos.

She must have struggled along the narrow, muddy path, as we walked through a gorge into a national park.

The park itself was charming - lots of pools of water, people lying in hammocks, girls carrying umbrellas to shade themselves from the sun, and families picnicking.

Over lunch at the farmhouse, I got to chat to many of the members.

One couple at the end of the table puffed on cigarettes and told me that they found city life lonely - that is why they enjoyed coming out with the car club.

Back in the city on weekday evenings, when they wanted to chat to people, they would cook their noodles, take a couple of chairs, and sit on the street outside so they could eat and talk to passers-by.

Other members agreed that the club was a way of creating a community in a society experiencing so much change that it has become disorientating - as well as, for some, lonely.

After the meal, it was souvenir time - the group photograph.

The cars were carefully arranged up a steep slope so they would be in shot.

Then the group gathered in front of the vehicles.

And perhaps, inevitably, one voice cried, "Martin", and the coordinator gestured with his hand beckoning me over.

And so, as the camera shutters clicked, there I was proudly holding a corner of the red banner which read, "Drive Round the World Car Club."

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