A Travellerspoint blog

September 2011

Chopstick Diplomats

0 - 10,000km Review

The challenges of becoming proficient with Chopsticks, learning to drive Chinese style, navigating by guesswork and being the center of attention are all worthwhile to have the opportunity of travelling around a quarter of the world circumference without leaving China. If that isn’t quite enough fun then pop over the 4,800m pass across the Pamir Mountains and continue along the fabled Silk Road through Central Asia towards Europe. You’d best have a 4WD. Our choice was a couple of R50 Nissan Terrano’s – it was an inspired decision.

We expected our 22,000km journey overland from Hong Kong to London to be challenging - and it was. The challenges were however quite different from many expected. The inoculations against every known medical malaise, including one that prevents certain types of warts should one purchase a certain ancient personal service, maintained our good health. Our modern communications and internet mapping resulted in only being occasionally lost - and that was usually the fault of our local guides who knew all about the things we were seeing but had never travelled in the role of navigator before. It seems the view from the back seat of our car was inferior to that of the guides’ previous experiences on top of a donkey. The many border crossing manned by Soviet trained bureaucrats succumbed to my well known charm … and the hope of a hard currency ‘gift’. We weren’t even threatened once. Although on the occasion they held our wives in isolation on the Uzbekistan boarder for a couple of hours, my mate travelling in the other car suggest that we may be in serious trouble for exposing the boarder guards to the dangers of argumentative western womans logic.

The planning and documentation procedure for this journey occupied 18 months. Planning to traverse China in cars is a long and arduous process that starts with providing a preferred itinerary and ends many months and many versions later with being given a route that is acceptable to the Chinese military. This can only be accomplished with the assistance of a good Chinese Travel agency. Ours kept track of us all through China as recipients of regular reports from guides and police. The routes through Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan were easier to arrange because there are so few ‘roads’. Russia, Ukraine and Poland are complex only in the many options available and the large distances between accommodations. It is virtually impossible to plan a journey through this region without the help of professionals. Fortunately one of the worlds most knowledgeable Central Asia travel agents is based right here in New Zealand. Silk Road Adventures (NZ) Ltd operates from Greymouth from where they juggle all the options, deploy local guides along the way and dispense excellent advice.

Prebooked hotels are mandatory in most countries along this route before visa’s will be issued. The standard of the ‘tourist’ hotels in China is excellent. A ‘tourist hotel’ is one at which the staff have been especially trained to keep the plumbing operational and to serve only food that is recognisable and acceptable to our delicate bowels. There are exceptions and we did manage to track those down a couple of times. These hotels tend to be a little expensive – especially the lavish evening meals which are designed to keep fat businessmen in the shape to which they have evolved. We ate the excellent breakfasts which inevitably involved an egg together with the most unlikely accompaniments. Lunch was usually a ‘picnic’ alongside the road with food purchased from the excellent shops and markets. Contrary to common perception, there is no shortage of food in China and the variety is astonishing. Our guides were sure we would eat our evening meals in the hotels and left us for their more ‘modest’ accommodation. But we preferred to investigate the local restaurant scene and as a result of some interesting communication experiences that usually resulted in our becoming the best entertainment in town, we became gastronomes of Chinese epicurean delights. There are only two limitations to Chinese food – it must be partially digestible and it must be able to be held between 2 sticks or drinkable.

Taking a car into China is difficult and expensive. We endured 5 days waiting in queues at Shenzhen to obtain; customs clearance, WOF inspection, Emissions inspection, Insurance and our Chinese drivers licence. The costs make your eyes water. We gained a respect for the Chinese peoples patience as they waited, sometimes for days, in queue’s only to reach the decision maker and be told their documentation was incomplete. I suspect ours was deficient as well – but the bureaucrats could probably see the murderous glint in my eye. Some lived dangerously but they lived. Once on the road it’s a fascinating country. Astonishing in its magnitude and rate of development.
Many of our preconceived ideas of China were shattered. Its doing more towards cleaning up the environment and reducing pollution than the rest of the world combined. The development of its roading and railway infrastructure is staggering. The completed new highways are magnificent and the other sealed roads are typical of New Zealand standards. The unsealed roads are atrocious and there are lots of them … a bit like NZ in the 1950s before our masters discovered cheap and nasty chipseal. When building new highways, Chinese traffic drives on them throughout all stages of construction. I guess its good compaction. In the areas large machinery is working, the traffic simply drives off into the surrounding countryside and makes its own new temporary dirt road which beggars belief. Our years of 4WDing in New Zealand barely prepared us for these challenges and provided some very interesting and testing driving.

China is like no other country on earth. It’s a country of 2 halves. The Eastern side is the China we all know – rice paddy’s, rickshaws, industry, pollution, green countryside, huge rivers and big bamboo hats. The Western side, virtually half of the country, is enormous deserts. The indigenous population is predominantly Muslim people of Turkish descent wearing turbans and robes that reminded me of Afghanistan. There are few roads or cities and the whole culture is totally different. Its 4WD heaven. No mud and endless places to explore off road – although one is not supposed to deviate too far from the planned route. The rural Eastern Chinese tend their rice paddies by the most astonishing terracing and feats of agricultural engineering. They keep ducks and fancy chickens together with pigs and cows. This is where swine flue originated and it’s easy to see why. The pigs at the back door are like members of the family only more pampered. There are enormous regions where fruit and grain is grown. In the west its fat tailed sheep, goats and even camels. One of the worlds largest viticulture areas is in central China producing some of the finest raisins. Surprising to us was to learn that China ranks first in worldwide farm output. We were amazed and impressed day after day.

The most memorable thing about China is the driving. It’s truly inspirational. Contrary to common perception I consider the driving to be among the best in the world. Here’s why. There is a Chinese Road Code that is a bit like ours. This will come as a bigger surprise to the typical Chinese driver than to you, because few have read it and those who have, take not the slightest bit of notice of it. The general principle of driving is simple … Watch the vehicle in front and react accordingly. That’s it. Visitors should not be surprised and become indignant when other road users cut them off, swerve into tiny gaps, pass on the wrong side, drive 5 abreast on a 2 lane road and even drive on the wrong side of the roads. Nobody indicates – that would give away the element of surprise. Highways in the East are crowded but almost empty in the West. Intersections are a ‘free for all’ with signage and traffic lights used as optional guides. It took us about 3 days to understand that none of the laws and rules of the road which we live by is in the least bit helpful to driving in China. By the end of those three days, the driver of the second Terrano who had been very proud of the fact he had never broken a road rule since he had been married, proudly confessed to have now broken every one and quite few more that he had never conceived. He felt good. Imagine Auckland having 3 times as much traffic and it continuing to move at twice the current pace. Dispensing with rules and driving to maximise the road in every respect makes traffic flow surprisingly efficient. In 10,000km through China we never suffered even a scratch. Accidents caused by their driving habits were rare although there were many that appeared to be the result of mechanical failure.

Generally, Chinese diesel fuel had been of excellent quality. This quality did deteriorate a little as we moved west and was noticed by a slight loss of power. Not that this mattered too much as we competed against hugely overloaded trucks and agricultural machinery.
Big Bus

Big Bus

We were the fast vehicles on the road … and loving that status. Crossing the top of the Taklimakan Desert our speed did create a few issues. It was a surprise to be stopped a few times in deserted areas and told that a camera 10kms back along the highway had recorded our excessive speeds. Speeds which had been quite acceptable in the East of China. The difference was ‘cultural’. In the East the police have other priorities like collecting protection money from big business. In the West they rely on speeding fines to supplement their incomes. Unfortunately for them our attitude differed from the locals who were keen to get on with their journey and simply paid up. We felt the need to ‘bond’ with the law enforcement agency and demonstrated a relaxed friendly attitude in the spirit of building international goodwill. Soon the police realised that all the good payers were speeding by while they chatted with us. They tore up our pictures and wished us a good journey. We left China without a blemish on our fine characters.

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