A Travellerspoint blog

March 2011

What's the chicken for?

Bilbo and Hewhaw in Shenzhen

There in front was one of our vehicles riding high above the Shenzhen 5pm traffic on the back of a yellow truck. We were following behind with our driver and guide, grateful not to be driving in the chaos of the traffic. Rule number one seems to be that you have to change lanes as frequently as possible in order to gain that small, but often fruitless advantage over your fellow drivers.

It was our guide Steven who asked about the chicken. Reasonable question. Who would put a sticker on the back of the car with a chicken on it? ‘That’s not a chicken,’ we all exclaimed. ‘It’s a kiwi.’ And there followed an explanation of our national bird. ‘Like the panda,’ Steven said and we agreed though we were all trying to imagine the thoughts that must be going through his mind about these people who took a flightless bird as their national icon.

We had spent two rather frustrating days in Shenzhen trying to secure our two Nissan vehicles which had arrived on 8 March, nearly 3 weeks previously. Driving licences, eye sight tests, customs papers for the cars, temporary number plates – the bureaucracy seemed endless and difficult to understand. Steven spoke reasonable English, and he and the driver who was Steven’s manager, were very helpful, but we often didn’t know what was taking place and what would happen next.

Nevertheless, Shenzhen is an amazing place and between dealing with the cars, we had time for some sightseeing. We had arrived in Hong Kong on 26 March and spent two days recovering from jet lag and the exhaustion of getting away on our travels. We spent Sunday with friends John and Ann McPherson, NZers working in HK who kindly spent a day with us and showed us some of the sights of HK. Then we were picked up at our HK hotel and driven to Shenzhen, through HK and Chinese immigration to our next hotel and the long process of securing the cars.

One morning Steven took us to the Shenzhen Museum, a beautiful large edifice that would be the envy of any NZ museum curator. The temporary presentation was very appropriate for us – findings along the Silk Road in the days before it became an important trading thoroughfare. Because of the dry desert conditions, items of clothing, household goods and mummies had been very well preserved. The permanent displays concerned the history of Shenzhen and the economic miracle that has taken place there in the last 30 years. In 1977 Deng Xiaoping visited Shenzhen, concerned at the number of Chinese escapees to HK. His words had a tremendous impact on the future of the area. ‘It is not a question of control effectiveness; it is a question of our policy.’ By 1979 changes were in the wind and Shenzhen became a special economic zone with rights to sell land and operate in the share market. Today Shenzhen is a rather beautiful city with a modern varied landscape and lots of trees and gardens.
To return to the vehicles on the back of trucks – Martin and Maurice were unable to drive them because we couldn’t get the right licence plates for them – apparently a computer failure. The Nissans are now in the hotel car park and the guys are away working on the licence plates, while Anne and I drink coffee and write blogs.

Posted by Silkspin 19:11 Comments (0)

Committing to the adventure

Hong Kong to Poland

We heard about Maurice and Anne’s latest travel plans through our son Andrew, whose friends were renting the O’Reillys’ apartment ajoining their beautifully renovated Victorian villa, and when we were next together, we wanted to know more. They were going to ship a vehicle from Auckland to Hong Kong and drive via the Silk Road to Europe. They already owned the ideal vehicle they said, a Nissan Terrano from 1998, before the days of too much computerisation in cars. Hong Kong, they thought, was the best Chinese port as English was reasonably widespread. The lands between Hong Kong and Poland were reasonably open to travellers and they wanted to do it soon as the cultures were changing so quickly, particularly in China, where the old life styles were disappearing rapidly under the government’s strong drive towards modernisation. They had hoped to go in 2010 but had run out of preparation time and now had their sights on March 2011.

We listened with disinterested curiosity as one does to friends’ travel plans. How exciting for them, we thought. Then came the catch. They were looking for another couple to accompany them. Would we be interested?

Over the next few weeks we could not forget the conversation. Our thoughts kept returning to the possibility of travelling the Silk Road and we discussed it back and forth. We could not leave it alone. We have always been ones to take an opportunity offered and this one would not come again. I was planning to retire in late 2010 and Martin would follow not to long after. We had the time; the money? That was an unknown quantity, but we had some available cash that could be used. Another plus was that we owned a car very similar to the O’Reillys that would be ideal for the trip.

But was Maurice serious when he invited us to consider joining them? “Maurice,” I asked over the phone, “were you for real when you asked us to join you?” They conferred and agreed they were. It was a deal and we were committed.

Although we had both travelled widely, including to some off-the-the-beaten-track places like the Kachar Mountains on the Turkish border with Georgia, neither of us had been to China, Central Asia or Russia. Our geographical and historical knowledge was very sketchy and inaccurate. At least eighteen months preparation would be necessary.

Posted by Silkspin 14:05 Comments (2)

An Adventure

And an Invitation

Bilbo Baggins, of Hobbit fame, and I have several things in common. Fortunately for me, it’s not the soles of my feet covered in hairs or a very short squat stature. For a start we both have a particular dichotomised attitude to adventures. When invited to go on an adventure which he later found included accompanying thirteen dwarves on a dragon raid, he was heard to mumble: “We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t see what anybody sees in them.”

When my sanity returned, after agreeing to join this Silk Road adventure, I wholeheartedly sympathised with Bilbo. Who would want to leave the security of home and hearth, for uncomfortable beds with the definite possibility of bed bugs, for the dust and dirt of third world towns and villages in post Soviet autocracies and for all those squat toilets that you could smell long before you entered them. Definitely nasty disturbing uncomfortable things, adventures were.

On the other hand Bilbo had inherited part of his grandfather’s personality. Bilbo was the grandson of Old Took, about whom there was something not entirely hobbit-like, for he and other members of the Took clan would once in a while pop off and have adventures, discreetly disappearing, hushed up by the rest of the family.

Somehow I must have inherited a yen for adventure from forebears who had left the other side of the world to travel to unknown shores, inhabited by warring locals or anarchic whalers and sealers. One great grandmother, Jemima by name, travelled out to NZ on her own at the age of 14, to join her mother and newly acquired step father. Another female ancestor, Hannah Singleton, elected, as a free citizen, to accompany to Australia her incarcerated husband, found guilty of stealing 27 yards of calico. Perhaps she took seriously her vows to love, honour etc ‘till death us do part’.

Perhaps that was why I was sticking to the agreement to the do the Silk Road. Where he goes, I go. For one thing I didn’t want to be left at home on my own and for another I was afraid I might miss out on something. For Martin, with his Danish-Viking blood lines, adventuring has always been part of the scheme of things. When I met him in 1968, he had not long returned from travelling overland from London to Bombay, in those days via Kashmir and Afghanistan, and he was planning to disappear off to South America, tackling it from one end to the other. His interest in me sidetracked his attention and that adventure is still to take place.

Our version of Gandalf, who orchestrated Bilbo off to the Lonely Mountain and Smaug the Dragon, was a couple, long-time friends, Maurice and Anne. Martin and Maurice were friends in a Waihi church Bible class and we had kept in contact over the years, sharing dinners and coffees as our paths crossed. Maurice and Anne were into adventures par excellence, driving north to south through Africa in the 1980s, including through Idi Amin’s Uganda, and years later travelling by rail across Russia and Mongolia. They invited us to travel the Silk Road with them.

Posted by Silkspin 00:41 Comments (2)

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