BACK TO REALITY
The immensity of China’s infrastructure continues to impress as we drive out of Ruili the next morning, but not before cleansing the cars of all the Myanmari muck and grime with a thorough car wash. Seeing the Kwid and Duster glistening once again is cathartic. We leave town through the most extravagant toll both we’ve ever seen, and onto a superbly-built four-lane expressway. Of course it’s tempting to just blaze down at Vmax, but alas, the speed limit is very strictly enforced in China, using arrays of cameras mounted above the road every few dozen kilometres to track your speed and snap you. We are not taking any chances.
But we get stopped by the authorities anyway – the military, actually – at a routine checkpoint. Initially, there’s a bit of suspicion, what with the unfamiliar cars, the Indian number plates and the obvious language barrier, but a check of our paperwork later, we’re posing for photos with the armed forces. They just can’t get enough of our journey, and the little Kwid.
It’s also out on this pristine highway that I’m really getting the hang of the new 1.0-litre engine. Despite driving through all of North India and Myanmar, in this organised environment is where I get a real feel for it. A small confession – before this drive started, I’d never driven the 1.0-litre Kwid. I’d thoroughly tested the 800cc version and even ran it as a long-termer for a while, but I first turned the key on this version at the flag-off in Delhi. And it fixes my one complaint with the original car. The 799cc mill is great for fuel economy, but its lack of oomph just wouldn’t cut it on the highway. This new motor is more at ease at motorway speeds, smoother and has enough power to cruise comfortably.
Night has fallen as we pull off the expressway and into the far more modest town of Dali. Yes, there are still neon signs all over the place, but it’s far more scaled down. There are the equivalent of ‘dhabas’ by the side of the road, the streets aren’t all well lit, and we have a surprise encounter with our first pothole in China. Even our hotel is in a tiny little village by a lake with extremely narrow streets. Dinner too is at a local Chinese barbecue stall by the roadside. Thousands of kilometres and half a world away, it somehow feels like home.
CHINA IS VAST
I hear that some really menacing roads will rear their ugly heads in a few days. This thought furrows my brow, but not for long, because of the view that’s spread out before me. We’re on the banks of the perfectly still Erhai Lake as the sun rises; it’s the picture of serenity. Equally staggering, but for a very different reason, is the 1500-year-old Ancient City, which of course we had to pay a visit to on our way out. It’s three towering pagodas were supposedly the target of dozens of failed robberies over the years because the thieves could never find the treasure that was said to be hidden inside. The Chinese government then accidentally stumbled upon the treasure during a restoration effort a few years ago, and it’s still in there today.
You may have seen this on the news, but we’re living it first-hand today – one of China’s infamous freeway traffic jams. The amazing highway comes to a complete standstill, and we’re in a 3km-long queue! There’s been an accident far, far up ahead, and all traffic is stopped (not diverted) until it is cleared up. Most of the hour’s wait is spent discussing the Kwid – with the help of our very patient guide – to the scores of curious locals who, too, are at a loose end. “No, it’s not really an SUV, but it’s not exactly a hatchback either.” “Yes, you can get an automatic also.” “Yup, ground clearance is very good.” “Made in India.” “All the way to France, yes!” “Coming to China? Don’t think so.”
We eventually get moving, en route to a lovely and twisty mountain road – a chance to let loose the little puppy dog that’s hidden inside the Kwid. Our first taste of fun driving in China, but surely not our last. The earlier delay means we reach Xichang – a city that somehow feels like Dubai, with its shiny buildings and wide, palm-lined roads – only at 10.30pm. Sleep comes instantly.
This section of highway in the Sichuan province can withstand earthquakes, and cost Rs 80 crore to build – per kilometre!
Our drive to Chengdu the next day is a collection of big numbers. At over 7,000m tall, Gongga is one of the tallest peaks in China. Through another mountain goes the Ni Bashan tunnel that’s an incredible 10km long. We also ford a section of the Yangtze, China’s longest and widest river. At 181 metres, there’s also the world’s tallest support pillar for a bridge. And that bridge is part of a highway that cost China 80 million Yuan (Rs 80 crore) to build – per kilometre! It’s also on this stretch that our trip meter ticks past the 5,000km mark. We’re almost at Chengdu now – the biggest city in China we’ll be visiting on this trip – and thankfully, we’re spending a day here to recuperate.
BYE BYE, BIG CITY
Today we’ve threaded our little convoy into a market in Chengdu seemingly too small for mopeds, let alone cars. If you’re familiar with Mumbai, imagine Lamington Road, but more crowded. We’ve picked up snow chains for the tyres, in case things get really Arctic. Going by what the locals are telling us, we should be a little careful, as they’ve seen heavy snowfall and loads of ice on the mountain passes in recent days. Yikes!
It’s not all hard work though, as we do get the chance to take in some of Chengdu’s big-city culture, including a nice Sichuan hotpot dinner. Sichuan, of course, is the name of this province that’s been lost in translation on the way to India (you know it better as Schezwan), but the common factor is spicy red chilli-based sauce, and we get to sample the real deal. Suffice to say, all of our shopping is made up entirely of spices.
The other thing that hits me right away is that the infamous pollution you hear about in the news is real. There’s a murky haze that lingers low, halfway up the buildings, causing the tail-lamps in the traffic to glimmer as they come on. But then I’m once again reminded of how quickly China’s infrastructure has come up and how the locals have just had to adapt. A global standard of traffic rules, world-class roads, a proper fining and regulation system – it all sounds like a dream, sure, but it mustn’t have been easy to implement, especially to a populace that was only introduced to proper passenger cars much later than you think.
I’m told that Chengdu is the last proper metro city we’ll see in China on this drive, with only villages and satellite towns from here on, and as big-city folk, we’re certainly going to miss the mad urbanism of this fascinating city. So we let the Kwid soak in the last of the big neon lights before we head back to the countryside.
IT COULD GET WILD
“I did wear my thermals this morning, right?” I think to myself as we roll out of Chengdu in the smoggy dawn. A quick glance at my colleagues’ uncomfortable faces reveals they’re probably thinking the same. It’s suddenly gotten so cold, and we’re in the same city we’ve been for the past two days! Perhaps if the cars had shown some signs of hesitation when they started up this morning, we’d have been better clued in; but they didn’t, firing to life on the first crank.
It starts with more of that incredible Chinese expressway of course, and in fact, almost half of the journey is dispatched in the blink of an eye because of this. We’ve got a bit of sun, but the temperature reads dangerously close to zero. We meet some locals at breakfast who are just as curious about our journey as they are about the Kwid. “All the way from Delhi?” “All the way to Paris!?” Some of them are proper car buffs too, quizzing us about valve gear and suspension, but more so about why the car was envisioned and who it is for. There’s clearly a buzz building around the Kwid in China and we’re excited to be at the centre of it.
The region’s most reliable mode of transportation meets the Kwid.
Things are now starting to get decidedly rural, and the whole place resembles Ladakh quite closely. This part of China runs alongside Tibet, and we’re told a lot of people from both countries cross the border to live on the other side. As a result, it’s a melting pot of both cultures, with even the road signs being labelled in both Chinese and Tibetan. We’ve also climbed to 3,500m above sea level, and for the first time on this trip, we see our first signs of snow, capping some mountains in the distance. As we check into our hotel in Xiahe, we’re thrilled to finally reach somewhere while the sun is still out, for a change. We should savour it; tomorrow is going to be really cold.
And, as predicted, the next morning is frigid. The cars are covered in a thin film of snow and the temperature has dropped to -3deg C. We have ‘only’ 470km to cover today, that too on some rather good highways, but the views are so breathtaking that we can’t help but stop every few dozen kilometres to get a few shots in. The result is it’s 12 hours before we pull into Heimahe Village for the night.
On the contrary, the next day, we’re promised rather treacherous roads. An unwelcome -6deg C is a frightening sign of things to come, and when we do stop for breakfast in a small town, we’re forced to take shelter in a grocery store; the kind lady even lets us use her little residence in the back of the shop, with a furnace to keep us warm. Piping hot instant noodles never tasted this good.
Next is an ascent to 4,120m above sea level where, mandatory photos and videos later, we risk frostbite with a rather violent snowball fight. On the way down, our guide tells us we have two route options – shorter with a poor surface, or longer but smoother; we choose the latter. Turns out our guide was entirely wrong, as what lies ahead ends up being the most dangerous road we drive on this entire trip.
The toughest road we faced in China and perhaps the whole trip; thick snow and sheer drops kept the drivers on their toes and their hearts in their mouths.
The tarmac runs out in less than 100km, the surface deteriorating to mud, peppered with pockets of snow. It also climbs quite quickly, and the next thing you know, we’re atop a mountain pass. The icy winds are rocking us from side to side, the road is barely wide enough to fit both cars, and, because the snow is so thick, we can’t quite make out where it ends. Our photographers are super excited to get as many shots as they can, but we have to call them back into the cars; it’s too dangerous, and we just need to get it over with as quickly as possible. Nerves of steel, a smooth throttle pedal and faith in the cars’ (and the tyres’) ability to pull through; and pull through they did; you thought all that ground clearance was just for show? Once our hearts had moved from our mouths back to our chests, we descended the mountain on an absolutely demolished road that could have been plucked from India. After the monotony of endless perfect roads in China, it was actually a welcome challenge.
We start our journey from Jiayuguan with a visit to the Great Wall of China, but disappointingly, it doesn’t look quite as ‘great’ as we remember. We’re then told that this is the western end of the wall, one that’s a lot smaller than the main section that you see in pictures.
I mentioned earlier how, in parts of China that bordered Tibet, the two cultures would often cross over. That’s stopped now, but in the final province of Xinjiang, a whole different sort of metamorphosis is taking place. Things are starting to look and feel a lot more Central Asian, a little Middle Eastern, a bit Baltic, with just a hint of Europe, but we’re very much still in China. Well, at least the expressways are back, so that’s a relief, and the next 600km goes by in a flash. On our way from Hami to Turpan, we stop by the Kumul desert, with soft, sandy dunes that could rival Abu Dhabi. It’s strange being around sand and heat mere days after being shin-deep in snow. It’s also quite a shocker that while we were 4,120m above sea level just days ago, we’re now at the lowest inland point in the world – 154.3m below sea level! What a vast and varied country China is.
We’re still in China, right? Kashgar, the last city before Kyrgyzstan is a melting pot of several cultures, evident as we stop for a photo outside its famous Id Kah Mosque.
Finally, we enter Kashgar, the last city in China before the Kyrgyz border. This place is the equivalent of cultural schizophrenia, as it was once a key pit-stop on the Silk Route. Signs here are written in not one or two, but five different languages, and similarly, there’s a better chance of finding someone who can understand English here than most other places in China. The traffic has gotten rather unruly as well. It’s a fitting way to prepare us for the cultural shift that we’ll encounter getting into Kyrgyzstan tomorrow.
Read our Journey from Delhi to the Chinese border here.