A Travellerspoint blog

March 2011

Patience is a virtue

There’s a process that must be followed

A well known saying attributed to some lazy guy called ‘Piers Plowman’ is worthy of Confucius himself ... Patience is a virtue. It’s certainly a trait practiced a lot here in Shenzhen.
We arrived across the boarder from Hong Kong on Monday morning in the care of the ambitious guide who called himself ‘Raymond’ - who begged us to send him all our friends so he could make them the world’s happiest travelers’. I agreed to do that in lieu of the expected tip – but uncharacteristically I’ve weakened and given him both the free advertisement and the tip. It’s a payment I was reluctant to provide given, (a) he did nothing for us except sit in the best seat in the car and yap to the driver all the way through the efficient boarder controls and (b) he ostentatiously flaunted a ‘Louis Vuitton’ shoulder bag which left Flypaper in an expectant mood and myself feeling totally inadequate as a provider. I soon recovered.

Arrival in China was full of expectation – and still is … and that expectation may last for some time yet. Our first task on arrival morning was to obtain our temporary Chinese driving license. A remarkable experience and one that was marginally easier than my NZ license back on the day of my 15th birthday. On that occasion I drove up to the local Police station with some flair but more restrained than usual. Mr Plod strolled out and perched on a chair by the station door from where he instructed me to drive up to the crossroad and back. I did so – in record time – valve bouncing Mums old Austin and using the umbrella handbrake to execute a pretty stylish parking maneuver. The man who was to become my nemesis, strolled to the window and handed me my license with the words, “I’ve been expecting you”. Seems he had seen me driving illegally for the previous 2 years. Here in Shenzhen they were not expecting me specifically, but they were expecting about a thousand others. We watched our new guide fill out our applications in Chinese. Our contribution in addition to a signature was to smear gum onto the back of a photo and carefully apply it in the provided space. We did a nice job of that. That qualified us to undertake the eye test. This involved sitting on a stool facing a mirror that reflected a big bald man with a long stick. He pointed the stick at a symbol on a chart and our duty was to signal with a pointy digit the direction the ‘legs’ of the symbol were pointing – up, down or sideways. For me the third poke of the stick appeared to be in a blank white area but a vague horizontal gesture seemed to do the trick and I was rewarded with a 通行证. A further 2 hours dozing in a hard cold chair resulted in our receiving our 1st precious document.

Tuesday morning was spent at the Silk Road & Shenzhen History Museum – because we didn’t wish to annoy the Customs officers too early. Pity. They wouldn’t see us so we drove to the place where we would be issued our Insurance Certificate. For this we sat in the car for 3 hours while our ever patient guide negotiated successfully on our behalf. That almost made us late for the best sound & light show in the city.

The following morning we were invited to the docks to see Customs. Following some of the now expected waiting, they allowed only me to stroll through the huge complex to discover our container with the doors open exposing the rear of our friends’ car. After an hour or so, 8 people arrived and requested I prove to them the original engines were in the cars. This involved using a torch to compare the number in the engine block with the number on the firewall – checked 8 times. The contents of the vehicles, which we had previously been informed included ‘illegal’ items, were of no interest. That was followed by a dash across town for a quick traditional lunch and on to a large grubby yard full of containers and huge machines that seems determined to run us over. Astonishingly our container was there and 6 men – in years past they would have probably been referred to as ‘coolies’ - released the tie downs and jimmied the timber wheel chocks so we could remove the cars. They were then loaded onto a pair of car transporters – the sort used to recover accident vehicles – and transported to a huge yard adjacent to a driving school. Here Martin & I underwent our driving test which consisted of reversing down from the truck decks to have our photos taken then driving on again. A few minutes latter we were requested to drive down again and take them to a covered area where about a dozen people took a number of ‘rubbings’ of the chassis number on the firewall. A while latter a uniform came out to study the NZ WOF & Road Tax cards on the windscreen and approved our reloading of the cars onto the transporters. They were again unloaded and spent the night in our hotel carpark.
HeeHaw goes up on the cart

HeeHaw goes up on the cart

Day 4 Thursday. Early at the license plate issuing building, where we sat for 3 hours with hundreds of others hoping to be favored with a document examination and a set of temporary number plates. Around mid-day an official decided our cars should have a WOF inspection. 30km back to the hotel carpark, back on the transporters and off to an inspection facility on the other side of town. My car failed the emissions test, Martins failed the brake test. Strange – we had completely overhauled the brakes and fitted new pads just before departure. Time in a nearby workshop followed by another test showed the results were worse! Given the fact that 3 failed tests means the car can never pass, we screwed up the documents and loaded onto the transporters yet again to find another testing station. This time, both cars passed without any problem. While we were transported back to the hotel – inside our cars – up on the transporters, our guide scurried across town too the license plate issuer. Too late. He must report again on day 5 when we are promised we will receive the plates and our enormous file of documents that will allow us to start driving West across China. Documents from the Departments of Customs, Tourism and the Military together with insurance will be held by our guides throughout the journey and presented on demand to any interested official. The plates and a mysterious window sticker indicate to all that we have completed the process required to drive our vehicles on the public roads.

The point of telling this marathon experience is simply to demonstrate that China is a great and prospering economy with an enormous number of work opportunities. It is also home to a race of very patient people. Our guides were frustrated on our behalf knowing we were told this process would take 2 days rather than 5. We feel for them – and never more so than when guide Steven spied the NZ national symbol on the back window of my car. He asked, “Why do you have a picture of a chicken on your window?” A very good question.

Posted by Wheelspin 06:38 Comments (2)

Through the looking glass

Hong Kong is terrifying for a country boy

It is true that the New Zealand educations system failed to prepare me for many of the realities of life. It taught the rudiments – the 3 R’s - reading, riting and rithmetic – but failed, for example, with the 3 P’s – politicians, pessimists and prostitutes (which are often the same person) and to this day I still have difficulties when dealing with each and every one.
The preparation for our first day of this journey was in my early life, the compulsory reading of Alice in Wonderland – Through the Looking Glass. At the time I did not consider it suitable material for a young man who intended to grow up to be a pirate. I’m now glad teacher wacked me into submission and I read that book because I became sure in the knowledge that there are amazing and bizarre things out there in the world. It did prepare me for our arrival in Hong Kong.

Before the day was over I had seen Superman, talking rabbits with blue ears, some bare breasted bearded Nuns, a herd of 2 legged zebra chasing a Unicorn, some leprechauns with tall green hats and a full squadron of Witches. We had arrived the weekend of the Hong Kong Rugby 7’s.
That evening our resident host and mentor took us first to the ‘Red Light’ district where, after admiring some of the ‘wares’ on early display, we enjoyed an superb meal at the Cheung Kee Club.
Matt then transported us to party central. This seemed to be an area of HK exclusively provided for drunken tourists to celebrate their rugby teams wins or to commiserate with friends as to what would have been had the ‘ref’ not been a biased blind fool. There was not a local to be seen. He disturbingly assured us that this area really livens up as the evening progressed so we decided to encourage him to have an early night for his own good. Not to mention the fact that we were suffering from too much culture taken in earlier in the day at the Art Gallery and Space Museum.

Given we are to drive through China and Central Asia, I was keener that usual to observe the driving standards and abilities in these huge cities. The journey in from the airport to our Kowloon hotel was an excellent introduction. It looked promising when the driver who looked like the sort of person you would call if you needed a ‘hit’ man, started by pulling on some sting-back driving gloves. My observations of the journey were all from inside the car because the dashboard was covered in every conceivable technological nick-knack, charm and air-freshener. The windscreen was plastered in large stickers and numerous evil looking appendages dangled from the sunvisors. The tinted side windows were covered in an additional black sheet that resulted in me being totally oblivious to anything outside the car. The driver had reserved a tiny gap to peer through but this meant he couldn’t see anyone alongside or about to overtake. I do believe this was the intention. On one occasion he slowed from 140km to 110kph in a 50kph zone – and never stayed in a traffic lane for more than 200m. On the strength of his demonstration I consider Asian driving skills are excellent.

Day 2 was exposure to Sunday in one of the world’s most densely populated cities. More resident friends, John & Ann transported us by tube, tram and taxi rides around various parts of the city to observe the population on their day off. For a country boy this was truly terrifying. A seething mass of humanity - every nationality enjoying each others company in the concrete canyons of their chosen environment … and seeming to enjoy it.

An early night in preparation of meeting Raymond – our first guide who will take us to China proper. The couple of days dealing with the formalities of gaining permission to drive in China are not one I’ve been looking forward to. It’s a period that some of my mates will either make or loose their fortunes based on which way they wagered regarding our success in dealing with the officials who hold our immediate future in their grasp.

Posted by Wheelspin 18:37 Comments (3)

Beasts of Burden

Bilbo & HeeHaw should be well bonded by now

A few years ago, Flypaper and I borrowed a brand new Volkswagen Touareg V8 and subsequently buried it in the Oman desert. You can read the full account of our troubles at … http://www.maor.co.nz/Other%20Stories/Initselement.htm
Contrary to popular perception, we do learn by the occasional mistake. Especially if it involves leaking a bit of personal blood or doing physical labour. The exercise served to educate me to the realization that highly sophisticated modern cars are great places in which to travel when they are making all the correct noises and moving under their own power. They do however cause a bit of head scratching when they stop. Especially if smoke escapes from the wiring.

With reliability, proven longevity and strength as important considerations, we decided the ideal vehicle to carry a washing machine from Shenzhen to London would be a Japanese diesel 4WD.
Diesel is the preferred fuel because, apart from frugal running, with the aid of a siphoning hose, it can be purchased from sneaky truck drivers who wish to supplement their income with some hard currency – or, for example, a replacement kidney. Also, diesel doesn’t suffer quite so much from quality issues as petrol can. A diesel engine doesn’t need a spark so that eliminates most of the mystery if it stops. Chances are it’s simply out of fuel at the noisy end.
Most roads we plan to take are good enough, even superb in places. There is a section where we will follow the truck tracks through a desert and other places where the potholes are used as wells and fishing spots after rain but it seems the locals survive in cars of dubious age, condition and parentage so that’s no worry.
A 4 wheel drive does have inherent strength, adequate capacity for Flypapers cosmetics and shoes, not to mention the astonishing array of drugs we will be carrying. Before you alert the boarder controls to claim your reward, I’m referring to the perfectly legal pharmaceutical medications my mate the chemist has loaded us up with in the event we see a good spot for him to open the first foreign branch of his business. We are permitted to be his first offshore customers if we become aware of having “three or more loose or liquid bowel movements per day” or require open heart surgery.

After research that included consulting some guys in filthy singlets at the local watering hole, we concluded the ideal vehicle would be a 1998 Nissan Terrano TDi. Primitive enough to be repairable with goat tendon and mud bricks. Comfortable and quiet enough to lull Flypaper into a false sense of security. Modest enough so that we don’t attract too much attention from the pirates along the way. Powerful enough to avoid being passed by rickshaws and tractors … and so strong we’ve decided to name our car ‘HeeHaw’.


Our traveling companions have an almost identical car – ours is blue, theirs is green. They called theirs “Bilbo”. We both carry a few spare parts, some consumables like filters and an assortment of tools that may supplement the local mechanics hammer & screwdriver collection. Tow rope, jack, jumper lead, etc were all checked and placed handy on the basis that if we can get them easily they probably won’t be required. We’ve studied automotive contrariness.

Modifications have included fitting an extra spare wheel to the rear of HeeHaw together with a couple of securely locked jerrycans – 1 for water 1 for diesel. The only time I suspect we may need them is if I loose the key. We have both fitted some shelving and partitions in the rear luggage area to enable access to things that inevitably find themselves at the bottom of the pile. In HeeHaw there are designated ‘he’ and ‘she’ areas ... ‘hers’ is bigger. (I understand that Bilbo is a ‘free for all’ area which I predict will be the subject of a negotiation around day 4.) The largest compartment has been tightly packed with soft, multiply toilet paper.


We are also carrying a canvas chair with a hole in the seat and clips to retain plastic bags. This, you may think, is a very handy thing and a good idea. However, all the pictures I’ve seen of Central Asia do not show glades of shady trees – its bare desert forever. Past travelers tell that the moment they stopped they were surrounded by dozens of interested locals – all hoping to catch a glimpse of the latest toilet apparatus being carried by grim faced white travelers who walk funny. Tucked in last, is the washing machine.

The cars were given a serious service that included the replacement of all fluids, new brake pads, shock absorbers, belts, hoses, tyres and anything that looks like it was ready to become rebellious and contrary was dealt to. Thought was given to various gadgets that no self-respecting motoring traveler would go without. This included the inclusion of GPS, inverter, 1.5v – 12v battery charger, compressor, multiple 12v outlets, compass, advanced security systems with immobilizer, tracking device, etc. We didn’t fit a roof rack because we suspected that would probably end up fitted to a Yak or Camel – without a Certificate of Fitness …or our approval.

Most of the modifying, servicing and packing was undertaken during the final 2 weeks before both cars were parked and securely tied into a 40’ shipping container. This wasn’t due to lack of organisation or effort by us. We had arranged shipment from Auckland to Shenzhen (over the bay from Hong Kong) in November – so we thought. When Flypaper & I returned from a motorsport event in Dubai in mid January we discovered the freight company had forgotten to confirm the ship that would arrive just in time to be cleared through import formalities a few days before we arrived to collect it. They scurried around and found a ship that would arrive in time – but it left Auckland 2 weeks earlier than the original. %#*# !!! This provided some real pressure and has resulted in other problems which have been solved through the application of more money to the Chinese agents. Bilbo and HeeHaw will be well bonded by now. They arrived in China just a few days before the Japanese tsunami. Flypaper's really caring sister called to tell me she heard Hong Kong Harbour was full of floating containers. For a moment I had visions of traveling through Central Asia in a Rickshaw - but then I heard her sniggering.

A week after shipping we were informed by the Chinese that our packing lists showed some items that are illegal to import into China. %#*# !!! This could prove challenging because Flypaper isn’t giving up any of her stuff and everything I packed is critical to our survival. I suggest you be glued to the TV on the 28th March. An international incident is likely to be broadcast from Shékŏu Port in Shenzhen. I’ve discovered that Shékŏu; literally means "Snake's Mouth". We couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate place to start.

We depart tomorrow for Hong Kong and on to Shenzhen to find HeeHaw & Bilbo. They may be impounded or being sent back. I’ve only just organised Green Card Insurance for Europe and our passports arrived back full of new Visa’s earlier today - just a few hours before we leave home. There's a few last minute dramas but apart from those we’re in great shape. The next blog will hopefully be a few days past the first bureaucratic battle. Hopefully we will be in China and hopefully, we will have passed the health inspection and the test making us the proud holders of Chinese drivers Licenses. Over the past month we’re trying to learn how to drive really badly while tooting. We've also seen and learned an astonishing number of rude gestures from other drivers. They may come in handy.

Posted by Wheelspin 02:32 Comments (4)

Psyching up on Central Asia

In the footsteps of Ghengis Khan and someone called Boris

Ever since Ghengis Khan and his descendants popped over the hill from Mongolia and killed about 1/5th of the world’s population, people in Central Asia have had a very jaundiced opinion towards visitors. Nothing much has changed. Admittedly, there have been a few invaders since, including the Turks, Greeks and Russians, who have abused the hospitality and one tends to sympathize. But only up to a point. That point is the one I made when I said, “My names not Alexander, Khan or Boris, I’m not freighting armaments nor do I have any intention of taking advantage of too many women (in spite of their expected demands). All I want to do is drive through your dusty neighborhoods while throwing money at those who look friendly and leave well within the time usually required to set up a tyrannical guvmint.”

Planning to travel through Central Asia is problematic enough even if you intend to take an organised tour. Backpacking is pretty tricky and requires plenty of time and a willingness to rough it or spend lots more loot than expected. Driving your own car is just silly – don’t even think about it. I wish someone had given us this good advice a year ago. Fortunately, help is available. Flypaper & I had previously travelled in Russia & Mongolia with the help of Silk Road Adventures (NZ) Ltd - a small specialist travel company in Greymouth New Zealand with a big reputation. Don’t consider talking to anyone else – anywhere. Murray & Pats principal advantage is that they have my Swiss Bank A/c number to pay for this glowing recommendation … NO … that’s not true. (I never give out my Swiss Bank number). The fact is, there are few people in the world as experienced or helpful as Murray & Pat hiding away in Greymouth, New Zealand. All their clients will tell you the same thing. We simply told them where we wanted to go and when. They were extremely diplomatic (unlike the Chinese) in suggesting some better options and never once said “Do you think, at your age, you should consider a Caribbean Cruise”. The time may arise when I talk to them about that oversight.

Most of the ‘stans’ require confirmed hotel bookings before issuing a Visa. I suspect that’s for our own safety and wellbeing – buts it’s not what we set out to do. We wanted to rough it in Yurts and local dos houses and generally prove that we were still able to be tough like 20 year olds. However, while our traveling companions read abundant books about the history of the region and the culture and stuff, Flypaper studied the cuisine (which hasn’t changed much in 2000 years – don’t expect food that will settle in the gut without a struggle), I studied the important stuff. I did an ‘in depth’ study of Cimex lectularius. You probably call them bed bugs at your house. Bedbugs are attracted to their hosts primarily by carbon dioxide, secondarily by warmth, and also by certain chemicals such as those contained in antiperspirants and makeup (I’m safe). Most species feed on humans only when other prey is unavailable. The only sure way to beat them in some of the places we will be staying is (a) don’t breath out, (b) sleep in the refrigerator, (c) sleep with some fresh road kill and (d) rub oneself all over with whisky favoured whipped cream. The team are lucky I‘m on their case.

During the ‘prep’ phase one should consider the potential for trauma and even illness. We delegated the woman to undertake a ‘First Aid’ course and they are now the qualified nurses to be summonsed whenever I’m leaking. They consider themselves a cross between Florence Nightingale, Sister Maria Theresa and my old Auntie who reckoned Epsom Salts sorted out most problems. Not to be outdone or considered to be dragging the chain, I have assumed responsibility for administering the coup de grâce and the last rites. We all must have our responsibilities. Each of us are currently undertaking a long and painful course of multiple injections to guard against the effects of mad dogs, snakes, immoral women, high altitude, bird & swine flue, contaminated water, bad breath, bubonic plague, infections of unknown origin, bowel disruption and bureaucratic corruption. My mate who is a chemist has given me a barrel of stuff called Betadine for everything else. He said to mix it with donkey poo and rub it on the sore bits. I expect to set up a Clinic in most towns most nights and receive the No Bell prize for kindness – not to mention a few Kazakh Tenge and Uzbek Sum which will be invested in a mobile donkey farm to guarantee supply of the raw material.

You can see that this organising stuff is pretty complex … not to mention surprising. Blog 2 covered our China phase. Blog 3 has educated you on the middle bit known as the ‘stans’ (mostly because no-one can spell the whole country names). The next chapter, which I have with some difficulty calculated, will be Blog 4, is all about our vehicles and getting them to the start line. The subsequent blogs will get right on into the traveling bit - some actual experiences and how we escaped.

You can read a lot better blog about our experiences at http://silkspin.travellerspoint.com/
Thats written by our travelling companions in the backup car. They'll be humming along to Classical Music while Flypaper and I will be learning Russian. So far I know "Здравствулте! Борис. Вы терпите от люмбаго?" There's a few early teething problems with the program. I thought I was saying, "Good morning Sir, do you have any more toilet paper?" However, my tutorial suggests that I'm saying, "Hello Boris. Are you suffering from lumbago?"

Posted by Wheelspin 02:01 Comments (7)

25,000km in a Washing Machine

Planning – China wants you … but wants your money even more.

I often wonder what Captain Cook took along when he decided to cruise around the globe. I do know that he left his wife at home – so that probably freed up the cargo hold a bit. I imagine he would still have had to take copious quantities of spare underwear because his wife would have packed his bag and had a pretty good idea he would get into a few scrapes that would have resulted in likely involuntary soiling. I understand he took his trusty sextant and made his own maps as he went along. I doubt he required Visa’s and probably sailed all around and right up rivers without so much as a “Please or May I?” He did take a canon. That’s where we have gone wrong.

Back in the gloomy days of winter, Flypaper and I decided to drive from Hong Kong to London via a few dusty and potholed roads. We thought it prudent to have a 4WD. Research among my mates suggested a Unimog or an APC would be good but we settled on a 1998 Nissan Terrano Diesel. Not too ostentatious – we didn’t wish to upstage the local Mafia. Not too old – it has some work to do and comfort is becoming increasing important. Not too new – it must be repairable with old cans and fencing wire. Not too big – one needs to feed the beast. Not too small – room for a few tools, clothes including the quick drying smalls, shoes for every occasion – and the Washing Machine.

Lifelong friends Martin & Jeanette heard about the purchase and, given they had an almost identical car, decided that was an alignment of the stars. They suggested it would be prudent for them to join us if only to ensure the reputation of New Zealand travelers didn’t become too tarnished. I considered that a couple of sacrificial representatives may come in handy – so we teamed up and started planning.

Deciding on a route from Hong Kong to Europe is impossible for a committee. It’s also a huge task requiring lots of research, good co-ordination and planning skills and plenty of time … so we gave that job to M & J. They suggested an excellent route that included lots of China’s more ancient and spectacular stuff, the best part of the ancient ‘Silk Road’ and a little used route between the Aral & Caspian Seas where we're not sure if anyone has bothered to make a road yet. This leads across through Southern Russia into Ukraine and on to Poland - after which the two cars will part – M & J traveling to family in Denmark while Flypaper & I spend time playing with racecars in Germany before traveling on to friends in the UK.

Planning travel in these parts isn’t like zipping around Europe or across the US. It requires the assistance of professional agents to circumnavigate an unimaginable amount of bureaucratic and political nonsense. For the first Month / 8,000km in China we took the advice from a friend who owns a business called ‘Rally Tours’. He runs professionally guided tours across various routes from here to there and hasn’t yet caused any international incidents or lost clients. He recommended ‘China Tour Services’. Good choice. They instinctively knew we wouldn’t be allowed to go to many of the places we wanted and put in a completely different itinerary to ours for approval by the many prefectures we were traveling through. Yes – you must obtain permission from the Police in each county to cross their land. Again, some routes and destinations were disallowed and we were told to go from this place to that by their 'tourist approved' roads – and they would provide a guide at our expense to ensure we did as we were told. They also insisted on booking flash ‘tourist’ hotels for every night of their section of the journey. These are registered and approved 3 or 4 Star + and cost around 12 times as much as the locals pay for adequate sleeping facilities. That took 3 months to organise. They also informed us they would make the arrangements for us to take our cars – NZ$10,000 application & Service fee. They would ‘clear’ the cars from the wharf into Shenzhen (across the bay from Hong Kong) – NZ$2,500 (10 times more than bringing a car into NZ). They would also apply for the Visa’s (the worlds most expensive), book all the hotels – 3 star wasn’t good enough for them (we wern't consulted) so we ended up with 4 star at outrageous cost. They arranged the guides at NZ$90 per day - and we must purchase them lunch and provide the approved tips when they leave us. (We’ll take daily turns at having the guide in our cars). Then there’s the small matters of having to have Chinese driving Licenses at NZ$100 each for the month, compulsory insurance NZ$60 each car, boarder departure fee NZ$650 per car. Finally, there will be an unknown refundable bond on the vehicles payable before we leave NZ for something in excess of the cars values to be held for 3 months after we depart China. I’m certain the rumour is correct – China won’t be poor for much longer.

Given one can’t get the Visa’s issued until within 3 months of arriving in China, this couldn’t be achieved until the New Year – the same time as every other country along the way needs our passports. It’s not an easy exercise and one I think Captain Cook would have dealt with in a much less subservient way to us. "Load - Aim - Fire ... hoist the sails my good man".

Since the cars left on the ship we have been informed that the authorities have scrutinized our ‘declared contents’ and there are some illegal goods in the cars. We are also told we will need to pay a penalty wharf storage fee and expect some other creative funding issues before we have been guests of the Peoples Republic of China for very long.

I’ll tell you about the next stage of planning in the next blog. Right now I’m out looking for part time work for Flypaper and trying on my balaclava before visiting the bank.

Posted by Wheelspin 16:20 Comments (8)

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