Beijing or Bust by Guy Nicholls

For Inter-continental Traveller magazine

“It’s twisty, turny bendy for the next 80 kilometres,” said Nikki, our PR guardian angel, as she looked up from the tulips and around the small dusty cabin, talking to anyone of the three of us who caught her eye.

So that was it: Ping Le mountain, at the tip of the Wangyang range in south-central China, of such stunning beauty that it’s untrained sylvan vistas take one’s breath away, dismissed as twisty, turny, bendy. But such is the workaday language of a car rally. Like an army on the move, it treats the terrain it passes through dispassionately but in great detail, taking into account only logistics and the co-ordinates of distance and direction.

On the one hand, incongruous: millions-of-dollars-worth of high-tech automobiles hurtling through peasant country, rushing past the inheritors of what is said to be the oldest civilisation on earth, through landscapes that have hardly changed in thousands of years. On the other hand, apt: careering through scenes that are changing almost faster than it takes the dust from the rally cars to settle.

The 555 Hong Kong-Beijing Rally consists of a convoy of 210 cars and service vehicles, carrying more than 500 fanatics and stretching at any one time on its route 300km from leader to tail-ender. The front and the back ends of this great safari travel, surprisingly, very slowly – given that somewhere in the middle are cars that move very, very fast. Fuel trucks, tyre trucks, baked beans and mushy peas trucks leave at dawn the day before and are committed to a more leisurely tourist pace, arriving early enough at any given point to receive the rally, then packing up and following it long after that special stage has been shown on television around the globe and written up in the sport’s pages of the world’s press.

The rally covers 3,800km in seven days and is watched by an estimated 300 million people around the world, 10 million of whom witness its progress from the roadside. Some 100,000 Chinese are involved in assisting the rally on its route, which passes through Guangdong, Hunan, Hubei, Henan and Hebei on its way to Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

And somewhere in the middle of it all is the press, cocooned in their own vehicles, driven on by the need for instant noodles, result statistics, tinned tuna and the sponsor’s free cigarettes. No time for a leisurely pre-lunch amble into the environs to chew the cud with a farmer and pick up some of the finer points of rice cultivation. No time for lunch as such or to banter with a local builder over a pile of baking bricks – huge, cylindrical towers, glowing Halloween-like from the inside out; you can drive all day at high speed across hundreds of kilometres and the towers will still be there at dusk, watching over you as you tear past.

The Hong Kong-Beijing Rally, or the “pulling force” as some of the local Chinese like to call it, which takes place this October, will be the last long haul of its kind. After the return of Hong Kong to China the rally will still probably exist, but in “clover-leaf form” – a condition required for the race to be included as part of the World Rally Championship. This means, roughly, that the race ends approximately where it began, rather than at the end of a line thousands of kilometres away.

It’s the end of an era, one that will have seen seven rallies take place over 12 years, the first won by Hannu Mikkola in an Audi Quattro A2 and including a win in our year by Sweden’s Kenneth Eriksson in a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo III.

If your travels find you in the People’s Republic of China between October 19-25 this year, don’t miss the last opportunity to see this extraordinary expedition of eccentrics take part in the final twisty, turny, bendy “straight-line” format.

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