With Kazakhstan behind us, the Chinese border grew in our windscreens as we rolled across no-man’s-land. Beneath the nation’s blood-red flag, four immaculately turned out young soldiers stood unflinchingly to attention, as if they’d not moved for days. As we awaited our turn to enter the border post we watched the trucks in front of us roll past the unblinking guards, who maintained their rigid stance as if their life depended on it, in a display of discipline as impressive as any London beefeater.
Then it was out turn to pass.
The motionless guards began to twitch as the V8 rumble reached their ears, desperately trying not to turn their heads. However it was all too much, and the steel order and discipline of the Korgas border post rapidly fell apart as we passed their field of vision, with drillsquare uniformity quickly being replaced by dropping jaws, blinking eyes and an aura of confusion. We were well past the guards before they finally gave up any pretence of order and broke ranks, running after us to find out who the hell we were.
And so began our time at the Chinese border.
China is rather an awkward place to take a car into, and preparations for this leg of the journey had begun a full five months before, when we’d put together a full itinerary of our planned route and timings for the perusal of the government, along with details of the cars and passengers. Liaising between us and the Chinese government on these matters was a company called Navotour, which specialises in negotiating the complex red tape which bars foreign-registered cars from China, and who also supplied our guide for the duration of our stay in the country – a legal requirement for self drive visits.
Meeting us at the border, our guide – who hailed from Chengdu and goes by the name of ‘Shannon’ – set about the complex task of getting the cars into China, a thankless task by anyone’s standards, and one which ended up taking 4 days, such is the weight of bureaucracy involved. However eventually, the cars had passed their Chinese MOTs, we had Chinese driving licenses and number plates, and a dossier about an inch thick had been assembled on each of our vehicles and submitted to the authorities, meaning we were free to hit the road.
And so we got stuck into the 3,500 miles from Kazakhstan to the Laos border by hitting the road to Urumqi, capital of China’s north westernmost province, Xinjiang. Our initial impressions were that the whole country was still under construction, and for days our view through the windscreen was seldom without the skeletal outline of a tower block, railway or power station being built, as the government strives to develop the country’s poor west, harvest its abundant raw materials and bind the nation together through infrastructure and development.
For day after day we crossed unattractive empty deserts dotted with building sites, the temperature soaring higher each day. Every time we parked a crowd 20-strong formed around our vehicles, while on the chaotic highways every third car we passed had a camera phone blinking at us. In the town of Urumqi we hit slow traffic which caused the Corvette’s first breakdown of the trip, as the cooling fan died and the temperature gauge shot towards the red; however a temporary bodge got us moving again with the fan wired directly off the alternator. Meanwhile the Rolls plodded on in a businesslike fashion, with only the noise from its broken exhaust denting its refined air.
Nearly a thousand miles into China, the temperature passed 40 degrees as we dropped down to the desert town of Hami, known as China’s Death Valley thanks to its location 80m below sea level. Fortunately, the cars took the temperature in their stride this time, which was just as well as we were locked into our pre-agreed itinerary and couldn’t afford a delay – both in terms of time, and the fact the cars were subject to a £20,000 customs deposit which we wouldn’t see again until the cars left China. Breaking down in-country was not an option.
After Hami, we swung down to the Silk Road oasis town of Dunhuang, which plays host to some rather cool sand dunes and also the Mogao caves, a UNESCO heritage site. We headed to the sand dunes first, and the clean desert landscape provided a good opportunity for a spot of work in the form of a photo-shoot for the Corvette’s sponsor – Dewerstone, a travel and adventure clothing company which a friend and I set up in the month before our cars left the UK.
The photo shoot brought back varied memories as three months ago, the decision to set up a new company at the same time as I was making final preparations for V8Nam had felt somewhat optimistic given the combined workload. However, we’d managed to get things up and running in time, with the first clothing samples running off our screenprinter the night before the cars left the UK, while the long weekend which V8Nam spent in France’s Fontainebleau forest also played host to the initial photo-shoot for the company’s range of ‘Dewerstone’ and ‘V8Nam’ inspired designs – available over at www.dewerstone.com, the site which has also been hosting the live satellite tracking of our cars’ progress.
Following our photo-shoot amid the dunes, we headed to the Mogao caves, more famously known as ‘The Caves of a Thousand Buddhas’. From the 4th century AD, a series of caves was cut into a sandstone cliff, each one covered floor-to-ceiling with Buddhist art. To the current day, over 700 caves have been carved, ranging from tiny grottoes to huge caverns containing statues up to 26m high. Our two hour tour took in ten of the caves, and resulted in not only a heady feeling of appreciation for the intricacy achieved by the artists, but also a definite sensation of Buddhism overload.
Next on our itinerary was ‘the last gate under heaven’ – the Great Wall fort at Jiuquan. Once, this fort represented the boundary between a civilised world of Chinese culture within the wall, and the bleak deserts inhabited by barbarians outside. This being China, even the historic landmarks are building sites, and hence a lot of the fort was covered in scaffolding, but it still wasn’t difficult to gain an appreciation of both its substantial construction and its strategic location in a narrow pass between two mountain ranges.
From Jiuquan, we headed southeast, into the mountains which rise up to form the Tibetan plateau; a land of yaks and monasteries, prayer flags and battlements. It came as a great relief to finally reach the cooler uplands after so long spent crossing the bleak, development-scarred deserts which dominate China’s northwest regions. The landscape retained its bareness as we climbed, but gained a drama which increased with every metre of altitude we gained. Craggy, rough set mountains shadowed the smooth tarmac, their slopes covered with a dusting of grass which gave way to snow at their summits. As the road swerved its way to a highpoint of nearly 4km above sea level, the cars gained a definite lethargy, but predictably, the big V8s had plenty in reserve to cope with the altitude.
After overnighting on the 16th floor of a tower block in the fairly uninspiring regional capital of Xining, we carried on through the mountains, passing near the source of the Yellow River, before arriving at Xiahe, home of the Labrang Tibetan monastery. This fine collection of buildings has a patchy recent history, having been pretty much destroyed during the cultural revolution of the 1960s, before being rebuilt in the late ‘70s, then damaged by a fire in the ‘80s, then repaired once again. Today, it is one of the most revered sites of Tibetan Buddhism, and is home to around 600 monks – all of whom seemed rather excited by the Corvette, whatever their age:
After spending a few days exploring Xiahe, we headed south through the mountains towards Chengdu, taking in the monasteries at Langmusi and the walled city of Songpan as we went. After crossing the famous Aba plains – scene of the most celebrated leg of Mao’s great march 70 years before – and passing through lands devastated by the brutal earthquake of 2008, we began to descend out of the mountains into the flatter lands around Chengdu. This sent the temperature soaring once again, but fortunately the smooth highways allowed us to make easy progress with our windows-down aircon turned up to maximum. Our southward journey was broken up by visits to a selection of giants – namely the 71m high giant Buddha at Leshan and a giant panda sanctuary near Ya’an, where approximately 80 of the remaining 2,000 gentle giants pass the time by munching on bamboo for around 14 hours a day.
South of Kumming, and a relative stone’s throw from the Chinese border, The Rolls suffered its first proper breakdown in China. A stuck float in one of the carburettors resulted in fuel being pumped overboard through an overflow pipe whenever the engine was running. After a fair bit of head scratching (and a definite reluctance to remove the carb, given the customs deposit and our general incompetence with all things mechanical) we ran the engine without the fuel pump for a while, dropping the level in the float chamber to a point where a hefty blow could release the stuck mechanism, and thus allowing the Rolls to reach the border without haemorrhaging several hundred pounds of fuel in the process.
And so we were free to hit the road to Laos, and China celebrated with one last change of landscape, the rolling green hills of further north growing more verdant to the point where we could almost be in the jungles of SE Asia.
And after a surprisingly easy passage across the border and into Laos, we were.