Following a bone-shaking all-dayer to Mount Everest Base Camp the team pushed further into Tibet to face the horror of the Chinese driving test.
We had heard mixed things about the Chinese driving test, ranging from, “Don’t bother with it, just bribe your way out of any document checks” to “It’s a two-hour written test with a hundred questions and a 90% pass mark. And it’s in Chinese and you’re not allowed a translator”.
Cleaning the car ready for the police
Based on previous experience in Russia our car is quite a large target for police checks and seeing as we had over 7000km to cover in China and that none of us had a fond desire to complete a term of hard labour in Inner Mongolia we decided that it would be best to at least attempt the test and try to get the correct licences.
Paul, before the test
We turned up at the police station in the late afternoon on the day before a large local festival was about to take place but Frank did an excellent job of arranging the bureaucracy and Paul was quickly scooted off for an inspection of the car whilst Leigh and I nervously awaited the dreaded test.
It was twenty minutes before they decided to put us out of our misery and sent a short bespectacled officer, wearing trousers that were much too short for him, to begin the test.
He fixed us with a steely glare and started to fire off machinegun-Mandarin, never once taking his eyes off us.
Frank helpfully gave us a translation.
“Number one,” he started, holding up a finger, “always drive on the right”
We nodded and he continued.
“Number two: The speed limit forty in town, thirty near schools”
Everything seemed straightforward enough so far, less of a test and more of a lecture.
He carried on, “Three: Tibet very big place and there are not many police officers so you must use your conscience to obey rules”
I resisted cracking a smile and almost gave Leigh a sideways glance but the bureaucrat’s gaze was too powerful and he moved on to the final rule, “Four: If you get caught you will be punished!”
We promised to obey these rules and five minutes later were presented with our newly laminated Chinese driving licences, just as Paul returned and reported that Hannah had somehow passed the lighting and brakes tests.
The next Couchsurfer… or the old peasants quarters
And so we drove onwards towards Lhasa, one of the highest cities in the world, through stunning wide pastures and meadows that didn’t quite look real. The surreally well-ordered fields with their regular sheafs of wheat and almost crazy-paving-like footpaths gave the whole place the atmosphere of a giant, eerie outdoor folk museum and I couldn’t help but get the impression that the corridor along the tourist-trodden Friendship Highway might be slightly different to the rest of Tibet.
This feeling was backed up when we stopped at a small museum based in an old Tibetan feudal manor. When we reached the servant’s old quarters there were signs everywhere proclaiming how much the lives of the peasants had improved since China liberated Tibet in the fifties: “Pintsochuochun used to receive only 16kg grain a year. Since she stood up for liberation her family now have 7 cows, 1 horse, 1 cart, 1 TV set and 1 plough! She need not worry for eat, live and use!”
Frank saw us studying the boards and mused, “Ah, Chinese Propaganda!”
I was surprised at how forthcoming he was, especially after his previous obvious support for his government, until I discovered much later that Frank’s literal translation of ‘propaganda’ was just something along the lines of ‘government-provided information’, without the negative connotations usually implied by the word in the West.
It looks very terrible
We were used to the car attracting a bit of attention wherever we went but Lhasa was something else. As soon as we stepped out at the youth hostel we were mobbed by Chinese backpackers who were sitting around the courtyard avoiding the fierce high-altitude sunshine. Many photographs and swapped email addresses later we had moved into the huge dormitory room and decided that we needed to relax after the last few days of heavy driving. We put on our cleanest clothes and headed out into the night.
We were highly disappointed. Every bar we hit was overpriced and underoccupied and it looked like a boring and short night lay ahead. So naturally we started asking the bar staff where was best to go and after a short while we found ourselves bundled into a taxi, destination unknown.
Ten minutes later we pulled up at what was possibly the most exclusive club I have ever seen. The queue that snaked away from the door was populated by hip Young Things clad in expensive looking designer clothes and high-end 4x4s and sports cars were parked all around. Even the bouncers looked like fashionistas and the doorway into the club was made up of a row of green lasers. I immediately felt out of place in my shorts, sandals and t-shirt.
We paid for the taxi, tried to project an air of confidence and strolled up through the lasers, all expecting a hand on the chest and a, “Sorry lads, not tonight”.
But inside the theme continued and banging house music mixed with clouds of smoke and flashing lights. Every table had stacks and stacks of unopened beer bottles on it and people in various stages of drunkenness waltzed around.
Masks in Lhasa
In true backpacker style all I could think about was money. Even the backstreet bars we had started the night in were expensive, this place was going to be cripplingly so. However, I had a plan…
I walked up to a table near the bar that was covered in full bottles of Budweiser and put on my best Stupid Foreigner routine, “Excuse me, do you know if we just, er, order beers from the bar?”
A guy at the table smiled and without a word opened a bottle and passed it to me.
“Thanks! Uh… my friends are also…”
He opened three more and passed them around.
The whole night continued like this with us flitting around groups of locals being treated like mini-celebrities to calls of, “Me you love you!” and free drinks.
We later learnt that if someone offers you a drink and you accept you somehow “lose face” but this didn’t concern us too much as we discovered that the next floor up housed a suite of ‘KTV’ karaoke rooms and that the occupants were more than happy to have us lose face in exchange for our performances of Robbie Williams and Bloodhound Gang.
We stumbled in about 5am, trying to keep quiet in the dark room and slowly remembering that we were due to visit the famous Potola Palace, the huge former residence of the Dalai Lama now turned into a museum, in a few short hours.
It turned out that Frank had decided to have a sleep in and as the tickets for the Palace were only available first thing in the morning it was removed from our itinerary. Instead we spent a very pleasant day wandering around Lhasa in the blazing sunshine and admiring the spotless streets festooned with prayer flags. Once we learned to ignore the squads of police in riot gear posted on every corner the place was actually very nice and I wished we could have spent more time there.
After a well-deserved Yak steak we made our way back to the hostel and took our computers into the friendly cafe in the courtyard so we could us their free Internet. We had only been ogling Facebook through numerous illegal ‘proxy’ websites for a few minutes when we were interrupted by a pretty Chinese girl who ran up to our table from a rowdy group in the corner.
She looked embarrassed shouted loudly, “I love you!” at none of us in particular. Her group roared with laughter and she slinked off.
It took us a while to figure out that the crowd were playing a local version of Truth or Dare and we had just added a whole new league of awkwardness for them.
Taking the high road!
After another hour or so of strange interruptions later we decided to hit the sack and get some rest for the big day ahead. Tomorrow, all being well, we would pass the point 21,691 miles away from London and finally hit the target we had been aiming at for almost two hundred days of driving and three years of planning.
Tomorrow we would break the World Record for the Longest Ever Taxi Journey!
Next time: Will we make it? Only the highest pass on the route stands between the team and certain honour, fame and recognition!
Days on the road: 193
Miles covered: 21,430
Tanks of fuel used: 107
Meter reading: About £40,000
Face lost: Lots