I'm off to Lebanon today. I'm going to be there for about a week and I've hired a car to get me around. I'm pretty excited about this, as I have to admit to finding driving in England very dull. It's only when you're in a car fighting your way through a city like Beirut that you can fully experience the visceral automotive thrills we have forgotten about in the UK.
In the bad old days, parking disputes in the Lebanese capital would be resolved by one of the parties getting out of his car and producing a large machine-gun from his boot. It's not quite like that any more, but there is still a distinct feeling of "survival of the fittest" once you are behind the wheel that I find very exhilarating. Traffic lights are viewed with contempt and the "emergency" lane is seen as something you use in the emergency of a traffic jam. I know that it's brilliant having an organised society where speeders are fined and filmed and parking is so regulated... yet my view of a "proper country" is one where you can still park on the pavements and traffic wardens are an alien concept. I like to get back to a bit of traffic chaos – it makes you feel alive.
Lebanon, however is not nearly the worst place that I've driven in. The most frightening place was definitely Mumbai. Not only did you have to deal with unbelievable, asphyxiating heat and the air-con not working. You also had to dodge tuk-tuks, naked children, motorbikes with more than seven people on them and huge craters in the middle of the road. Driving in Mumbai is like some glorious video game that you start to forget has very real consequences.
China is another place that is not for the faint-hearted driver. A lot of Chinese have absolutely no idea how to drive, but refuse to let this get in their way. This is particularly true of Beijing cab drivers who all seem to be from the provinces. Not only do they have very dodgy driving abilities, but they have zero knowledge of how to get round the capital. In total, I have spent three weeks in Beijing and in that time have had four relatively serious cab accidents. But all of these pale in comparison with remote regions of Turkey where the bodies of dead relatives are sometimes hurled at passing tourists' cars who are then accused of having run them over and forced to pay a large "fine" in order to be allowed to leave.
One of the safest places in the world to drive is Pyongyang, capital of North Korea. This is because there are almost no cars in the city at all. Every roundabout has beautifully dressed traffic women in crisp white uniforms, performing hypnotically robotic arm movements. The only problem is that there are no cars to direct. Buses in Pyongyang are given a red star to put on their side for every 50,000 kilometres they do without hitting anything. Every bus is festooned with these red stars, mainly because there is almost nothing to hit.
The very best place in the world to drive, however, is in the desert. My dad taught us all by sitting us on his lap and allowing us to steer his car all over the Syrian Desert. You could roar up sand dunes, burn down dusty tracks and practise your handbrake turns on a deserted salt-lake. Obviously, there was nobody about so it was an ideal place to learn. Sadly, my sister did manage to locate the one Bedouin campsite that was anywhere near us and somehow managed to steer the car through what passed for a Bedouin back garden. They weren't too impressed, to put it mildly. For once, the traditional hospitality and offers of tea were not that forthcoming, as we eventually departed rather sheepishly with my sister now firmly ensconced in the back seat.Reuse content