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By Johno

It was raining as we approached the ancient and historic city of Xi’an after two hundred days on the road.

It had been raining heavily for most of the day and the factors of good roads, bad drivers and water had combined with deadly consequences meaning we had seen more car accidents in this single day than in the rest of the trip combined.

Sign at a urinal

This didn’t seem to dampen Leigh’s determination to get to the city, home of the famous Terracotta Army, as quickly as possible and for the second time of the day we asked him to reduce his speed a little. His nonchalant reply wasn’t the most comforting, “If we hit something today we’re dead anyway, the speed doesn’t matter”.

[Paul: Sod Pakistan, Iraq and Iran, this was the most scared I’d been the whole trip!]

Despite the odds against us we made it safely into the city and found ourselves a nice youth hostel. It was still raining.

Roadside sculpture

The main draw of Xi’an is the Terracotta Army but on the way to the city one of our front suspension-spring brackets had snapped off so our highest priority was getting the car back up to scratch. So before we set out to find the rows and rows of pottery soldiers, archers and horsemen, Leigh and I set out to find some flesh-and-blood mechanics.

After some driving around with Frank we saw a place that looked promising, parked the car outside and took in the shattered plate and bent shock absorber. Frank spoke to the teenage mechanics at length explaining our problem whilst occasionally referring back to the broken parts Leigh and I stood holding.

Swarm of bees!

After talking for fifteen minutes Frank turned to us, “They say it is not possible to fix this”

Leigh and I were pretty stunned. “What do you mean? Of course it is, the shock absorber just needs hammering straight”

“No, this is not possible”

“Yes it is, we just need a big hammer,” we said, looking around until we saw a hammer, “look can we just use this? Do you have a vice?”

Frank spoke to them for another few minutes, “No. There are no vices here. This whole street is tyre change only”

“But… this is a mechanics, there must be a vice!” 

“No, they do not have such a thing”

Terracotta warriors!

Leigh and I told them we would be back shortly and walked out onto the street, into the rain, and along the line of mechanic’s workshops. After about five metres we saw a huge vice on the threshold of workshop and asked the mechanics if we could use it briefly. Five minutes of hammering later we had straightened the unfixable shock absorber and returned to the original workshop resisting the urge to ask Frank to translate, “There! See: don’t be so defeatist, you can fix anything with the right tools and materials!”

“They took my frickin’ kidney!”

Now we just needed to get the bracket which held the shock absorber in place made up. To cut a long story all that was required was to cut a triangular plate of metal, bend it in two places and then drill four holes in it. But to even explain this took literally hours, to actually make it happen took many more. To make things worse Leigh repeatedly tried to explain that they should drill the holes last as their position would change when the metal was bent. Frank eventually told Leigh to leave them to it as they were professionals. Needless to say, the pros drilled the holes before bending the plate and to their surprise the holes didn’t line up when they were finished.


The rain was still falling when the new part was finally finished and the mechanics tried to charge us over fifty pounds for a shoddily cut, bent and drilled piece of metal that either of us could have made in less than an hour. Much to Frank’s annoyance we ended up paying about half the asking price and returning to our hostel.

He was similarly sulky the next day when we managed to get our tickets for the Terracotta Army for 70 Yuan, much reduced from the 190 they were asking in the hostel. According to him getting a good deal by negotiating on things was somehow related to the ‘losing face’ concept we were struggling to fully understand.

Panda Porn

The army itself was interesting to see but ruined by the extreme commercialisation of what was deemed to be one of China’s most important archaeological finds: The rainy walk from the car park to the entrance gates was a fifteen minute gauntlet of cat-calling shop owners and restaurateurs and by far the most exploited tourist attraction I’ve ever visited (and that includes the Taj Mahall and Santa Claus Village in Finland).

Baby pandas!

More hotly anticipated than Xi’an was the next city on the route, Chengdu. Frank the Guide had been telling us of the legendary beauty of the girls of Chengdu and explaining that they have, “big eyes, like whales, filled with water”. We were positively moist with anticipation.

Frank turned out to be completely right and after meeting up with a friend of Matt’s we explored the local nightlife and once again enjoyed near-celebrity status in some of the city’s most exclusive nightclubs.

TV interview

[Paul: Matt and I did the classic backpackers trick of buying beers from the shop next door for 30p instead of the £6 asking price in the club.  Matt got caught smuggling his into the club and when he pleaded poverty the head of security winked and spoke into his radio.  He sat us at one of the best tables in the club and very soon two almost full £200 bottles of spirit arrive with a courteous nod from the waiter and no charge! We could get used to this.]

At one point Matt and I stepped out of the club to grab a snack and walked past a supercar that had just pulled up. Two near-supermodels stepped out, smiled at us and coyly purred hello. Things like this didn’t happen in real life! Not to me at least.

Biggest Buddha in theWorld (in China)

After a quick TV interview the next day we visited the famous Panda Reserves and spent the morning gawping at the crazy things. They almost didn’t quite look real and wobbled around like drunken stuntmen in bear suits just chewing on the nutritionally bland bamboo, too lazy to even try it on with their partners.

In the afternoon we visited a huge outdoor Buddha that we were reliably told was the, ‘largest Buddha in the world, in China” before continuing southwards towards to the border with Laos.



China has an outstanding road-building programme and with the exception of road up to Everest and a few minor roads we had spent the last three weeks racing along on smooth asphalt. The most impressive feats of engineering were the huge elevated skyways that sliced through steep winding valleys and cut our journey times dramatically. Unfortunately in southern Yunan it seemed we had arrived six months too early and so the whole next day was spent crawling up and down mountainous B-roads whilst staring longingly at the unfinished six-lane monsters towering above us.

Lunch with Beckham

But these slow routes allowed us more chance to meet local people and we spent an enjoyable few hours being treated to lunch by a car full of young Chinese who kept repeatedly calling Matt, “Big Ham”.

“Do you think they’re calling me Big Ham because I’m sat at the head of the table?” he asked.

“Dude,” we said, chuckling, “they’re calling you Beckham!” 

He wasn’t too impressed.

Insect Market

Our final large city before leaving China was Kunming, home of an amazing market that sold everything, ranging from live bugs, birds and animals to hand-made stone stamps to an entire shop stocking police gear including radios, weapons and even fully kitted-out police scooters.

Then we found ourselves on our last few days in China, having encountered surprisingly few problems on our extremely tight schedule despite my earlier worries. However, we still had 48 hours for things to go wrong and this they did.

Cages full of Mogwai and Police Shop

Firstly Frank finally reached the end of his tether with us after 23 days. Maybe he was used to overland expeditions with rich, middle-aged Westerners in roomy air-conditioned 4x4s and luxury hotels or maybe he just didn’t like the fact that we were all young enough to be his children but he had had enough.

We had repeatedly explained to Frank the purpose of our trip and that we were trying to break the World Record but most of it had gone in one ear and out of the other. We had a telephone interview at 3pm and so had decided to stop for lunch at 2pm so we could combine the two, but Frank seemed to think that the sole reason for the late lunch was to deny him food for a few hours more than normal.

Taxi stamp being made

So when Leigh drove past a service station at 1.30pm Frank was pushed over the edge, “You must take me to hospital now!” he suddenly demanded. 

“Hospital?” we asked, shocked, “Why, what’s wrong, are you okay?” 

“No, I am malnourish!” 

We laughed in disbelief, “Frank, we just told you: we are stopping at two because of the interview!”

“No” he shouted, “stop now!”

“I can’t stop now,” said Leigh, “we’re on the motorway”

“Stop or I will tell police you kidnap me!”

“He can’t stop here Frank, there’s nowhere to stop”

“It’s always Leigh, he always do this, it’s all Leigh’s fault!” huffed Frank.

After some food Frank miraculously felt better and we settled down for the evening a mere few hours from the border and our freedom!

The next morning didn’t start well when a few minutes from the border we heard a familiar unwanted grated sound. On closer inspection a bolt on the aging suspension had snapped off leaving half of it stuck in the hole and our front left wheel hanging on by a single nineteen-year-old piece of steel. Unsurprisingly the only garage in the town told us that it was not possible to fix this but after persuading them to let us use their drill, finding some new drill bits and tracking down some new nuts and bolts we had Hannah patched up again and were ready to finally cross the border.

Mechanical problems again, just before we leave…

After some arguments over our missing Chinese visa stamps [Paul: and our Chinese driving licenses, which we all ‘accidentally’ misplaced when they needed to be returned (if you had a Chinese driving license, you would keep it too!)], we managed to exit China and enter the PDR (Pretty Damn Relaxed) Laos.

Exit border!

In true Chinese style it was still raining.

Next time: Out of China and into Laos where the team brave a flooded tropical river full of flesh-eating bacteria with a belly full of snake wine!