From The Archives Stage 3. Beijing to Laos.

17 January 2011

Hello my old China

A look back at FTFE’s smashing and cracking 24 days in China

With well over a year of research and hard graft behind it, we had always thought that of all the borders we are crossing, the Mongolian/China border was the “big one”.

In order to comply with Chinese regulations and to ensure we could successfully enter China with Martha we hired a company called NAVO. To comply with the regulations it meant having a guide with us for the entire time and NAVO selected Sun Ji for this task. It was Day 54 and Sun Ji was there to meet us at the border. As he joined we had already been surrounded by some very interested Chinese border police who Ailsa was impressing with her Chinese.

Sun Ji had been at the border for a couple of days finalising the paperwork which had started a year ago. After a spot of fun with the customs officials, we were through in no time at all. We were so incredibly shocked, relieved and confused that the crossing was met with complete silence as opposed to the usual hysteria. There was still further official paperwork to complete, but essentially, we had successfully rolled into China. The first foreign fire engine ever to do so. Another first chalked up for FTFE.

There had been quite a lot of press coverage about how bad the traffic had been around Beijing with tales of a huge traffic jam and people being stuck in their vehicles for over nine days. We came across three lanes of traffic about 250km out, and when I say traffic I actually mean thousands and thousands of trucks. Sun Ji suggested we take to the hard shoulder and try and squeeze past some of the worst of it. With sirens blazing Martha seemed to develop her own personality and nothing was going to stop her, or get in her way. She pushed, nudged, bullied, and cajoled her way through over a 100km and we were tired and exhausted when we rolled into Beijing at 3am.

Beijing was the official end of Stage 2 and start of stage 3 so it meant and change of crew and saying goodbye to Ailsa Fereday and James Morrow.

Myself and Jim were united with the Stage 2 crew at Tiananmen Square at 12 noon GMT (and 17 minutes but whose counting) which was exactly 8 weeks since the launch! There was great rejoicing! Funnily enough to celebrate we went for a Chinese which reminded the crew of Chinatown in London but bigger and more touristy.

A special mention must go to Ben Lloyd, our friend and man on the ground for all his hard work in China and helping stage 2’s arrival at 3am in Beijing and hand holding Jim’s and my arrival.

Beijing really felt a modern bustling high rise city with a rich mix of modern and historic architecture and we explored it under beautiful blue skies, a rarity for Beijing I’m told… of particular note were the CCTV Tower, Olympic stadium and Water Cube, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.

On Day 59 we were back on the road and left Beijing with the first stop being one of the great icons and ‘must sees’ of China, The Great Wall. The Great Wall, built over 2000 years ago, is 8862.8km long. It was an incredible experience as we parked Martha and walked a small section of the wall.

We got a taste of what the next three weeks would hold as we were greeted with looks of astonishment and people wondering over to us in their droves to look at us and Martha. A smile and a wave immediately broke the ice every time and we were rewarded with wonderful smiles, handshakes, requests for photos, and at times even autographs. We really did feel like celebrities our entire time in China and had a wonderful reception wherever we went.

The next day stage three really kicked off in earnest and we got a great taste of what Northern China has to offer. The day started in Datong under a cloud of dense smog caused by the numerous coal mines and power stations in this province, Shanxi. We then progressed to the famous Buddhist Yungang caves. Dating back from the 5th century these really are a site to see, over 250 grottos carved into the side of a hill each containing huge Buddha and intricate stone carvings, stage 3 is definitely the most cultured stage already. That night in thick smog we entered the ancient walled city of Pingyao and there was much fun and games in trying to negotiate our way out of there the next day. Rather like the medieval zone of the crystal maze.

.The drive into Xian saw the debut of the game “Sauna Saturday” which was played out in 35 degree heat. Windows were wound up, heating was put onto the max and it was a fight to see who would be the first to bail with the in cab temperature rising to well over 40. We were saturated with puddles at our feet by the time we rolled up to the hotel. Thankfully Ross bought this lunacy to the end, for one week at least.

After only a few days with Sun Ji our initial impressions were as follows; like the lady in rent-a-ghost, he can make himself disappear when we’re all ready to go, knows a girl in every town, nodding donkey. He can fall asleep sitting bolt upright in seconds, he still hasn’t mastered right and left and he never wears the same colour FTFE top as the rest of us… rebel.

Sun Ji not only did an incredible job for us, he became a very great friend to all those involved in China for FTFE.  He had been incredibly kind and patient throughout our entire time in China and really gone above and beyond the call of duty. In return we taught him sarcasm, banter and a reliance on coffee. I don’t think he will ever forget us…

On Day 68 we reached Chengdu which was Sun Ji and NAVO’s home town. We were eagerly looking forward to our visit and were blown away by the reception we received. NAVO and the Crowne Plaza hotel looked after us royally. William the general manager presented us with a cake and gave us free reign of the great hotel as we sought to catch up on much needed sleep, admin and importantly laundry. A few weeks of sweat and oil had dulled our sense of aroma and we had become unaware of the full extent of our unique Eau D’Martha. We perhaps should have realised when our t-shirts started walking themselves toward the laundry basket.

Our first full day in Chengdu was incredible. Karen from NAVO had arranged press coverage and for us to visit a Chinese fire station. So imagine our excitement when we learn that the firemen at Chengdu Fire Station had challenged us to a game of Basketball, table tennis and snooker at our planned visit that afternoon.

So we arrive at Chengdu Fire Station to a reception which quite rightly befits our celebrity status? A TV crew, 2 journalists, several photographers, the firemen all looking magnificent in their uniform and a large crowd. All please take note – that’s now how we rolled! It was so overwhelming that Ross and Jim skulked behind the truck for the first 10 minutes to keep out the limelight…first time these boys have been camera shy so it gives you an idea.

Day 70 : Sun Ji’s parents’ house for lunch. On the way Sun Ji told us that he hadn’t actually told his parents that we were four large British lads in a fire engine, and all he had mentioned is that he was bringing a couple of Chinese friends home with him for lunch. Oh boy they were sure in for a shock! Sun Ji explained that westerners were a bit of a rarity in his village and that in his memory only one had ever been, about 20 years ago.

The one thing that has been so exceptional about China for me is the reaction of the people to us. They have been so kind and so giving wanting to shake our hand and have their picture taken with us, everywhere we go we are surrounded by inquisitive well wishers. As we pulled up outside Sun Ji’s parents’ block of flats we got our usual crowd and Sun Ji loved being the prodigal son returning to the village of his birth with four rather abnormal companions.

On Day 72 Ross and I went on a run with Sun Ji who was a very strong runner and ended up soundly beating me despite him running in his pants and flip flops. We also visited the biggest sitting Buddha in the world, which is about 71m high and was engraved more than 1000 years ago. This Buddha was located in Leshan city, where three big rivers (Minjiang, Dadu and Qingyi) merged together and then flow towards the Yangtze.  The next day for the first time since Day 59 we saw Blue Sky having finally come through the smog that covers most of central China.

On Day 75 we left Kunming and soon heavy rain of biblical proportions began to fall. I lost control on a slippery wet hill and after a skid, Steve had time to shout, “Hold on” as Martha smashed through the central reservation and I regained control bringing her to a stop. The incident could have been a great deal more serious and the crew and Martha were fortunate to escape with a flat front tyre and a serious dent in my pride.

The next day was a national holiday as China launched a lunar probe into space (Chang’e 2), but the stage 3 crew had bigger fish to fry : to fully circumnavigate the island in the middle of Lake Xian in a rubber dingy (Challenger 4). This would test our team ethic, physical endurance and mental strength. With confidence high the first hurdle was just to hire the boat.  As per normal in China, it takes at least 9 people far too long to perform a task that would warrant just 1 person in normal money. The usual, “no no no no maybe maybe no no no maybe yes” fun and games kicked off until we finally got the sign off for launch. Dominate !!!  Let’s take this island doooown.

About 30 minutes into the voyage, Challenge 4 and the crew were already showing signs of weakness. The boat was taking on water, the crew looking exhausted and the island getting no closer. The executive decision to abort the mission of circumnavigation was taken as safety of our vessel comes first (nothing to do with the fact that we very tired and couldn’t synchronize our rowing strokes). Our revised mission of touching the island and retreating immediately was achieved but failure for the initial task sat heavy for the rest of the day. A full enquiry is pending and it just goes to show how hard circumnavigation is right?

Day 78 was our final day in China and border day, and through past experiences these need to be had early. With this in mind we departed our hotel in the pitch black at 6.45am, and drove the short distance to the China – Laos border. After watching the impressive flag raising ceremony from the Chinese side we elbowed our way through the melee and Ross and I were out of China within twenty minutes. Steve had the task of bringing Martha out and amazingly thanks to the mountains of paperwork Navo and Sun Ji had prepared they followed shortly behind. We waved goodbye to Sun Ji, a sea of bystanders all clicking them cameras and waving and China itself all for the last time and made our way into no man’s land and the Laos border control.

A crazy crazy month.  A crazy crazy country. Wonderful wonderful people.

Paul Barham

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One Response to “From The Archives Stage 3. Beijing to Laos.”

  1. Hi Paul,

    This was an amazing blog to read! Brings back all the great memories of China for me. I lived there for 3 months in 2007. All that said I’m glad you guys made it to Laos and we had the chance to meet you 3 on the river! You kept us alive in that locals hut!! I don’t think I’ve ever been so cold or scared of the dark haha

    Hope life is still exciting back at home and let us know if you ever come visit Canada!

    Paula “Piper”