Location: 26° 52′ 22″ North, 100° 14′ 06″ East (Lijiang, Yunnan Province, China)
Distance from Sydney: 8,646km
China. The Middle Kingdom. Home to the Giant Panda, the noodle, and about 1.3 billion people. It is impossible to approach China without pre-concieved perceptions; many words and ideas come to mind. Awakening super power, industrial power house, communism, proud dynastic history, environmental disregard, 1 baby policy, Tianamen Tibet and Taiwan. As we approach the China border it was certain that we didn’t entirely know what to expect.
We left Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia with three days up our sleeves to cover the 700 or so kilometres to the China border. At the guesthouse in Ulaanbaatar we’d met a group of overlanders who were travelling through the border the same morning, in one large group made up of 5 vehicles and a motorbike (we called them the group of 6).
While we hadn’t met many of the locals in Mongolia (language being the primary barrier) we really enjoyed meeting other travellers, particularly the overlanders. There is a difference between traveller and tourist, overlanders are an even smaller niche within that traveller category. Sharing stories, experiences and information as you find an instant connection.
We camped each night, the first night once again finding a quiet solitary spot overlooking a shallow valley, enjoying the silence. The next morning a herder in the valley below spotted us, and headed up to take a look. Dressed in traditional dark robes, with a bright orange sash around his waist, and a long whip over his shoulder he rode up and started to talk to us – when I replied he shrugged and then we both laughed. Having seen a few tourist traps around Ulaanbaatar, with eagle hunters, camels etc, it was very cool to see ‘real Mongolia’ right there in front of us – a traditional herder living as they had for hundreds of years.
Mid afternoon the second day, as we rumbled over the dirt highway we came across the group of six and ended up travelling with them over the next two days to the border. 2 huge trucks, a slide-on camper, a van, a Land Rover, a motorbike, and us with Magda. we loved the variety of vehicles and ways that everybody was doing the same thing. Every approach was different, but they all worked. We swapped stories and drinks as we waited for the border crossing.
It took us two and a half days in the end, to cross the border. The Mongolian border was as chaotic as the herds of animals we had seen across the country. We arrived at passport control, only to get sent out of the building with an armed escort, who kept signalling us to follow him. We had no idea where to. We went out to a dusty carpark, and he got into a battered car with a missing window, and told us to get in. It didn’t seem right at all, but we followed. He had a gun after all. The car took off back down the road, and pulled into a truck inspection station. He took us into an office where everyone looked too busy to bother. We had a feeling some paperwork for the car was required, but we were guessing. Meanwhile my car in the queue back at passport control must have been causing a problem, and the officer took me out into the main road, waved down a car full of locals, and told me to get in. I think the locals were as surprised as I was. We smiled at each other as the car continued back to the border gates.
So I waited with the car, while Andres dealt with the paper work. Perfect. Finally we had everything, passport control stamped us out, and our trip to Mongolia was over. The transition from Mongolia to China couldn’t be more abrupt, in every way. Like Russia, shiny button uniforms were back. On the Chinese side we queued with a hundred battered Mongolian Jeeps. Chinese border officials escorted us inside where Malinda, our guide was waiting for us. Immediately things started to move, the car paper work was taken from us to commence the registration process, we were stamped in, and a temporary number plate attached to the car. We were escorted into the border town of Erenhot to the hotel where all foreign vehicles had to wait while their paperwork was processed. A few hours later the group of 6 pulled in and we all congratulated each other on making it across.
However the next morning we hit a snag. Malinda told us Magda’s approval processing had been stopped, as the Mongolia border had given us the Mongolian copy of the export, not the Chinese copy (she pointed out it was clearly written in Chinese and Mongolian at the bottom of the paper we had…silly us). Officious as expected, the Chinese authorities needed their copy. Further complicating things was the fact that the Chinese border would close within a day for 4 days for a huge national holiday. We couldn’t go back over to the Mongolian side because we didn’t have a visa for Mongolia, nor could we re-enter China once stamped out. “ohhh” said Malinda. “Maybe need some money to make fix”.
About $150 bucks worth of fixing was required in the end, but finally, lunchtime Saturday we were given the all clear to drive, and drive we did. Flying along the highways, revelling in beautiful, smooth, quiet tarmac. Hundreds of kilometres. No sudden goats, camels, donkeys, horses or yaks appearing in front of us, no potholes or sudden lumps in the road. The terrain of Inner Mongolia gradually changed as the mountains grew, empty space started to be more populated. A 7 stack nuclear power plant appeared, the highways grew in width, towns became more frequent. We weren’t in Mongolia any more.
Our plan for China was to head to Beijing, and then head south west fast, stopping only to see a few of the big sites such as Xi’an (Terracotta warriors) before heading west into the mountains from Chengdu. This was the Sichuan province, neighbouring Tibet, and we would climb well above 4,000m, close to 5,000m (16,400 feet), a region of narrow mountain roads, several ethnic minorities, and a little more off the beaten track than usual.
We headed south east for the Great Wall, and conscious of the national holiday picked a quieter section of the wall further away from Beijing. We were lucky, we practically had the wall to ourselves, and the skies were clear, clean and blue. Based on what others had warned us of, we had braced ourselves for crowds and pollution haze, but it seemed that everyone had been grossly exaggerating.
They weren’t. As we arrived in Beijing at the height of the national holiday, crowds such as I have never seen before filled the streets. Either we were naive, (I prefer brave) or stupid…but we headed right for Tianamen Square and the Forbidden City, in Magda. Maybe no one else was daring to drive to the centre of it all, but we got away with it! Parking in a park right outside the City walls, and a 2 minute bus ride to Tianamen Square and we were there right in the thick of it. The pictures tell the story, but the crowds and energy, while full on, made the place buzz.
It was amazing but we were happy to get moving. Well, we were happy to be leaving Beijing, but I have to admit every time we climbed into Magda’s cabin, the idea of facing Chinese drivers and traffic made my stomach turn. It’s a war out there. Every driver assumes every other driver is on the wrong side of the road, and/or hasn’t seen them. So everyone toots their horn continually. Which is a good thing because usually they ARE all on the wrong side of the road or haven’t seen them. Cars drive straight into intersections at a slow and steady pace assuming others will see them. On one memorable three lane roundabout a guy in a tuk tuk came steadily chugging around the roundabout the wrong way, sending cars in all directions. In frustration on a narrow mountain road I exclaimed (expleted?) that if there was less effort in tooting and more effort in staying on the correct side of the road it would all operate far more smoothly. But this is China, and as my mother reminded me they haven’t been driving for that long. So before long I was tooting and flashing (my headlights) with the best of them.
In fact, despite seeing rolled trucks and crashed cars daily, we’ve managed to escape without a scratch. There does seem to be an unwritten rule of size counts. That is, give way to anything bigger. The motorbikes avoid the cars, the cars avoid the SUVs, the SUVs the trucks. Meanwhile I learnt the hard way not to mess with the toll gates.
It all started when the national holiday started. The central government had announced that all tolls on China’s highways were waived for the week (no wonder they call it Golden Week, those tolls were expensive). Malinda, our guide, told us that we could drive straight through the toll gates, we didn’t need to stop. As tolls were only waived for cars, not trucks, the gates were still staffed, so trucks could pay. Gate after gate we cruised through, beaming at the attendants. One afternoon, as we exited the highway, we approached the gate, which had its gates up. “You should go through that one” said Malinda, pointing to the left of the two gates, but they seemed identical, and (perhaps getting a little over-confident) I already had Magda lined up for the right hand one, with quite a head of speed.
As we flashed past the attendant the gate in front dropped. I stamped on the brakes but it was too late, tyres screamed as Magda’s bonnet connected with the descending gate with a loud crack. Stunned silence. The broken gate folded out of the way, and I believe I may have mentioned some words that weren’t covered in Malinda’s english course. We reversed back to the attendant, where I possibly shared some of my thoughts on her actions in dropping the gate on my car during a toll free week. I jumped out of the car and stomped around angrily to check for damage. Somehow (I’m not sure how) Magda had escaped without a scratch. Apparently the lane I had driven through was a truck lane, and the attendant had panicked and dropped the gate thinking I was trying to run it. They were very apologetic, and when Andres told me the gate was broken I felt much better, and we beat a hasty exit before they staff noticed.
Before long however we had more to worry about than toll gates, as we left the large highways and headed for the mountains. We were following the Sichuan to Tibet highway, which Lonely Planet described as: “…one of the world’s highest, roughest, most dangerous and most beautiful roads.” I was already wetting my pants in excitement, until we discovered that at the current point in time there were significant portions on roadworks on the mountain sections. Following long convoys of hundreds (yes, hundreds) of trucks up wet, muddy, rocky single lane roads was interesting to start with, but as truck after truck broke down, we found ourselves stuck in Magda for hours on end, with no way forward or backwards. On one particular day, we managed to watch two movies and an episode of Modern Family sitting motionless on the side of the mountain. That particular day we did around 10 hours in the car and travelled less than 160 kilometres.
It was not all bad however. Sleeping in a small, scenic mountain town, we walked the street the next morning for breakfast. A wedding was being held later that day, and the locals were busy preparing a street festival. Huge steamers full of buns, huge pots full of spicy pork, and what must have been more than 100 kilos of rice were being prepared. We were clearly the first westerners many had seen, and before long we were the centre of attention. The women crowded around and insisted we tried the food. Bowls appeared from no where, and as fast as we tried one another would insist we come and try theirs. Photos were taken, we were invited to the wedding, and then they insisted we belt out some karaoke for the street on the stage that had already been setup. Fortunately Malinda saved us, and whipped out a Chinese number much to everyone’s entertainment.
We were only half way through our 4 weeks in China, but already the experience had completely changed our perceptions of China. The fascination of the locals at “foreigners” had taken us by surprise. We would continually be asked to pose for photos for no other reason than we were from somewhere else. Magda left a trail of turned heads on the roads. This was no arrogant world power, but a land of people meeting the rest of the world for the first time. We were climbing into remote mountains, and the best was yet to come.