By Bill Woodard

In the end the China Classic Rally lived up to its billing: “An authentic adventure.” Initially, almost everything that could go wrong DID go wrong, but led us to a fascinating view of an emerging nation.

My son Jake and I were scheduled to cover a two-week, 2,500-mile rally through some of China’s most beautiful cites, behind the wheel of a vintage car. A Beijing collector was going to let us drive a 1939 Mercedes-Benz 170 Cabriolet, 1950 GAZ ZiS 110 (a gift from Stalin), a 1952 GAZ Chinese police car, and a 1963 Volvo 122S.

Promised cars had disappeared

So far so good. But when Jake and I arrived in Hong Kong in March for Chinese licensing, we learned that the promised cars would not be forthcoming, as the collector had had second thoughts. After seeing the Chinese drive, I can understand his concerns, but we were disappointed.

Worse was to follow. We checked in at the Plaza Harbor Hotel to learn that cars, cash, and the necessary Chinese trip permits were missing. The entire rally was in danger of collapsing. At this point, the ten participating car owners staged a coup, extracting the remaining funds from the incredibly inept promoter.

Participants acquired permits and travel visas with the help of Shanghai businessman and participant Jim Rice, and the Hong Kong Automobile Club. Under the able leadership of car owners Jim Taylor and Tom Hamilton, the event was reorganized to depart Hong Kong two days later.

Participants graciously offered to take us along, but we gave up our seats to a pair of Germans who had paid their entry fee but were also without a promised car. We planned to catch up with the group in Shanghai a week later and had seven days to discover China.

Past sacrificed to the future

Our first discovery was that no matter where we went, we were choked by horrendous air pollution, caused primarily by coal-burning electrical generation plants and automobiles. In China’s rush to modernize and prepare for the 2008 Summer Olympics much is being sacrificed; air and water quality,
and China’s history.

Our first stop was Shanghai’s historic waterfront, the Bund. Shanghai is home to 14 million people and one of the most modern cities I’ve ever seen. Nearly everything is new and architecture is varied and spectacular. Technology is embraced as in no western city I have visited. We saw cell phones and ipods with nearly every young pedestrian; flat screen TVs with schedules and advertising at bus stops, and stadium-size reader boards on the freeways mapping local driving conditions. Young shoppers on the Nanjing Donglu, Shanghai’s mile-long pedestrian shopping extravaganza, could have come from a major American mall. But this was not the China we sought, so we caught a flight to the old walled city of Xi’an.

Finding a Muslim quarter in Xi’an

Xi’an was the terminus of the Silk Road linking Persia to the Far East and through the centuries the Muslim faith found its way here. Surprisingly, nearly 90 percent of this region is Muslim. Our four days in Xi’an included a trip to the Great Mosque, the Shaanxi History Museum, Imperial tombs, and of course the spectacular army of terracotta warriors.

While in Xi’an we learned of an intact Ming walled city, Pingyoa, just a few hours away. This was the old China we were looking for. Walking the walls, we gazed over a city unchanged for 500 years. The dirt streets (many now being paved for Olympic tourists) lead to intriguing alleys and walled court yards. It’s a giant maze.

Returning to Shanghai and the rally, I was stunned by the traffic, as congested as a major American city. The Chinese are buying cars in numbers exceeded only by the U.S., but they flat-out don’t know how to drive. Most depends on intimidation and their bicycle skills; driving conditions are downright dangerous.

The cars are an interesting mix of colorful mini cars, including the Cherry QQ (the most popular), VWs, Citroens, Scions, Peugeots, Fiats, and my favorite, the Honda Odyssey. That’s correct – the Chinese Odyssey is a stylin’ car, looking more like the Dodge Magnum than our U.S. van.

Toyota has competition for #1

The emerging middle class seems to drive Buick La Crosses, produced in a 50-50 venture between GM and Shanghai Automotive (owned by Shanghai city government). Prosperous businessman use sevenseries BMWs and Mercedes of any kind. Government and military personnel – identified by red license plate letters – favor the black Audi A6 with tinted windows. My pick for the car to watch is the Chinese-made Roewe 750, from Shanghai Automotive. It has style, luxury, and a huge advertising campaign. I left China sensing that Toyota may soon have competition for the world’s #1 manufacturer.

By this point the rally had turned into a freeway cruise and the group wanted to spend two days in Shanghai as tourists, so Jake and I headed for Beijing. It’s as big as Shanghai but seems to be more manageable, due to the large parks, historical sites, and traditional single story court yard neighborhoods – hutongs – that break up the city. We toured the city by bicycle and it’s a wonderful way to sightsee. The variety and quality of the food was wonderful, no matter where we ate and we visited the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Tienanmen Square, the Summer Palace and the Great Wall.

Our three weeks in China were full of surprises and in the end, the 2007 China Classic Car Rally WAS an adventure – just as billed.

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