I still can’t believe I am lucky enough to be in China. And that I’ve joined such an impressive expedition to cross it. Over the past three days on the road, I’ve yet to become accustomed to this vast and ever-changing country, and I hope that I never do. Because to become accustomed, I’d have to feel bored with it – and I hope that never happens to me. The journey across China by Land Rover Discovery has been an amazing experience, but for the team that’s been driving the cars, it’s merely the final stage in a 12,000 mile epic from Birmingham to Beijing. And tomorrow, we’re finally going to roll into our destination…
You’ll have already read about how we visited the start point of the Great Wall, and how it barely resembles the icon we’re all used to seeing. That’s in the Beijing region, by the way. The rest of the wall is made up of compacted mud, and it wends its way through the country, almost unnoticed these days. In places it’s even sporting graffiti, or has been knocked down to make way for more worthwhile projects. Such as roads. And railways.
But that sums up China in a nutshell – always looking forwards, never back. No matter what way the political landscape lies.
On day two, we head out of Jiayuguan and wonder at how it’s the production of steel that drives this town on. One thing’s for sure, a lot of raw materials are coming out of the ground here – and it seems like a train carrying iron ore passes the town every five minutes or so. And each one is pulling at least 30 containers-full behind it, and the night before, they kept me awake. Interestingly, I’ve already noticed that the make-up of what cars are in abundance is heavily dependent on where you are – and here, there’s quite a lot of MGs and Roewes. Land Rovers are popular, too – and the shining Discoverys and Range Rover Sport make quite a contrast to the crumbling town we’re leaving.
We’re running along the Gangsu Expressway, which is in the Hexi corridor of the Silk Road, and what’s interesting about this is that it’s a smooth superhighway that cuts a path through what looks to be a pretty barren part of China. Alongside there’s a new high-speed railway being built. And that contrasts wonderfully the Great Wall of China, which also cuts a similar path through these windy plains. As the miles roll by – and with me behind the wheel, enjoying the V8 warble from a Russian-spec Disco, as it’s a 5-litre model running on petrol – I really can’t think of a better and more relaxing way to view these extremes in China’s history.
Which was a good thing, as I have to face the city traffic far too soon after a languid run on the motorway. It’s a strange thing, Chinese traffic. It doesn’t move that quickly, and outwardly it looks calm and composed (tooting horns aside), but traffic regulations are only loosely adhered to, with cars emerging from anywhere without looking, pedestrians that don’t fear moving cars, little electric powered scooters (that we soon started calling silent assassins), and huge laneless junctions. Call it ordered chaos.
Being in the Discovery gave us an advantage – size being the main one. But also great visibility, accurate steering for aiming at gaps, and a responsive engine. Whoever said that SUVs aren’t suited for town work, they should come here.
After a stop-over in the industrial town (well, a town with two million inhabitants) of Wuwei, we’re out into the rush hour, and organised chaos once again. Today, it’s mainly A-road, and I am relieved to be seeing the heart of the country away from the motorway. Getting on to the roads, and travelling through the villages – and stopping regularly – is a great way to feel where you are.
The roads are challenging in places, but the Discovery V8 HSE seemed to lap up everything in its stride. The lofty driving position and easy power delivery – as well as smooth air-suspended ride – make mincemeat of roads that have most of the local commercial vehicles crawling along at less than 20mph. The thing is with China is that it’s never consistent. One minute you’re in the villages, picking through the farming traffic, the next you’re in the mountains – and then the desert. It’s here that we encounter the Yellow River for the first time. It’s known as the cradle of civilisation in China, and is probably as important to this region of China, as the Nile is to Egypt. The banks are verdant, and there’s much more activity around here.
After a day on the road, we arrive at the Desert Hotel resort, and another short night’s sleep awaits.
Day four of our drive through China sees us cover another 350-400 miles. It’s never conventional, and along the way to Tai Yuan, China changes from rural, through remote and mystical, to downright dirty and industrial. I’ve said it before, but four days in, and I’m still wide-eyed at the magnificence and scale of China, as well as the warmness of the people we’ve encountered.
We’re running along the Tsingtao expressway, and it affords us a lofty view of the business of powering China’s 1.4 billion people. Grey high rises and a ghetto of houses accompany the mines and power stations. This is old-school industrial China, here for one reason only. To power the rest of the nation. Still, we admire our motorway on stilts for what it is – a true engineering feat that simakes light of what should be near-impassible mountains. Its scale (that word again) easily rivals Millau in France, and yet none of us have heard of it.
Soon we’re joined by a huge army of lorries, loaded with coal. And according to our guide, this short stretch of motorway is host to a third of all of China’s transported coal. And it’s moving from the mines to the power stations at less than 40mph in slow lumbering convoys. The drivers like to keep us on our toes from time to time, by pulling out into the overtaking lane, testing the Disco’s powerful brakes. The drivers might be signalling, but we’d never know, as their rear lights are as filthy as the air around us. Still, we take comfort in the fact that we’re moving along this well, aided by the 380bhp V8 upfront pulling us effortlessly back up to speed – and shudder at the thought that until six years ago, this was a single carriageway road…
But then, we come across what I can only describe as the longest queue of trucks I’ve ever seen. Mile after mile, the inside lane is blocked by stationary lorries, parked nose to nose for an as yet unknown reason. After 20 minutes, and about 15 miles, we find out why – there’s been a crash. What’s impressive is that the lorry drivers are all obeying the rule that they cannot enter the overtaking lane in the event of a stoppage. A sensible rule, reckons this car driver. Still, China doesn’t know how to do small.
We take a quick detour into the ancient walled city of Ping Yao Xian. It sounds lovely in the guide, but all we find is traffic chaos (driving’s getting worse as we near Beijing), and a touristy heart. Still, the food’s good. The chaps in my car – two from Land Rover and another journalist start playing a game of spot the fake car. It’s an easy game to play here, with Chery’s QQ Daewoo Matiz replica coming out top. But as well as that, there are fake Smarts, the Maestro-based Yema Subaru Forester clone, a rather fetching BYD that’s the spit of a Lexus R400h… the list goes on. We also wonder at the sheer number of alternative cars wearing Volkswagen Passat badges, and that evergreen classic, the Santana. Whisper it, I want one.
But all too quickly (and before I get chance to buy a fake iPhone or iPad), we’re on the road again, now heading for Tai Yuan. Once again, it’s a city on a scale that us Brits will find hard to comprehend. It has over 4,000,000 inhabitants, making it bigger than Birmingham, and yet none of us have heard of it. Welcome to modern China.
Tomorrow sees the Journey of Discovery make its final day’s drive to Beijing. 12,000 miles in 50 days, and with a fair few adventures along the way. That’s some achievement…