The Daily Telegraph - Peking to Paris classic car rally 2013: 'Let’s make a U-turn and do it all again’
July 6, 2013

Michelle Jana Chan reflects on the highlights of her Peking-to-Paris classic car rally journey.

It was a cold and wet afternoon somewhere between Saratov and Voronezh, Russia. As we drove around a corner, we saw an elderly couple standing on the side of the road in the rain. With one hand, the woman was pointing a camera at us; with the other, she was waving and cheering us on. Beside her the man was holding up a yellow banner. As we approached we began to make out the words. It was in English – in the heart of rural Russia – and read in capital letters: FORTUNE FAVOURS THE BRAVE.

It was moments like this, involving supporters and complete strangers, Facebook friends and Twitter followers, that spurred me and my co-driver, Mike Reeves, on in this vintage-car rally of nearly 8,000 miles – from the Chinese capital to its French counterpart. All along the route there was spontaneous cheering, thumbs-ups and blasts of car horns. There was the young man in Lviv, Ukraine, who said: “You are my hero.” A woman in Mongolia told us: “You are living everyone’s dream.” At times we even became superstitious, taking note when a black cat crossed our path in Budca, Slovakia, and when driving under a full rainbow near Bratislava. From all this, we drew strength to push on.

One evening on the banks of Uureg Lake, Mongolia, Evgenii and Boris, Russian competitors in Car 61, a Moskvich 412, presented us, out of the blue, with a pair of shock absorbers that fit our car perfectly. Given our smashed-up suspension, it felt like divine intervention, and it allowed us to drive another day.

Over the first few days the rally went well for us. The flag dropped at the Great Wall of China on May 28 and we headed north on buckled bitumen to the Mongolian border. Our car, a 1940 Ford Coupe we had named Shiner, seemed to be going strong. We could hardly believe we were in first position given that the field included Paris-Dakar drivers, professional mechanics and seasoned rally drivers.

The reverie ended on day six when we strayed into a Mongolian marsh. We had to keep up our speed to avoid getting bogged down, and the car porpoised for a hundred yards. The suspension broke and the rest of the day was unbearably slow.

A broken gear linkage compounded our problems and we fell to sixth position. We cursed the car. We cursed the terrain. We cursed our untempered enthusiasm to drive faster than the car could handle.

We reflected again on our approach to the rally and began to understand that this competition was not only about driving quickly but also about finding the strength and stamina to fix a broken car every night. After we made this mental shift we began to look forward to – even relish – the daily challenge of listening out for unusual taps and rumbles, and distinguishing between the smells of brake fluid and petrol fumes. We started to experience a deep satisfaction from solving any mechanical problem thrown at us.

On reflection, the toughest days turned out to be our best times. I think of Murun, Mongolia. We were holding up a gear stick – completely separated from the gear box – before a crowd of onlookers when one man pointed at it, pointed at himself and gave us a thumbs-up. We found a tractor to tow us to the man’s backyard and spent the rest of the night there as he cut open the gearbox tunnel, fashioned replacement parts and put everything back together. Against the odds, we were off again.

I also think of Novosibirsk, Russia, when we met someone called Andrei in the car park. We went to Andrei’s workshop and spent an invaluable day fixing Shiner (again) after the pounding in Mongolia.

It was strong local support such as this that kept us going, especially at our lowest ebb. One competitor, Emma Wilkinson, in Car 92, was killed in a crash near Tyumen, Russia. Two people in the other car – the driver and a baby – were also killed. It was a shocking and sad day for us all. Nobody felt like driving, let alone competing. Yet we all pushed on in the hope of honouring Emma’s adventurous spirit. We also felt we could not let down all the people who had helped us en route.

They included some we met at night in a garage in Omsk, Russia, where we removed the sump guard to change the oil pump and gaskets. It was trickier than we had hoped, and the task was not made easier by the copious amounts of alcohol and the world’s worst translator, Kat. After she listened to our explanation about the order of removing the sump bolts, she waved her hand at the mechanics and said: “They know what to do. Now, drink cognac.”

Fortunately she was right: they tore the car apart and put it back together again perfectly. As we left, shattered, I pulled out my wallet to pay the owner of the garage. He waved me off. There was no charge, he said. It was his honour.

I imagined how different it must have been more than 100 years ago when the first Peking to Paris rally took place in 1907. Many of the locals en route would never have seen a motor car, let alone been able to offer assistance. Our mechanical hiccups were unending. The throttle cable snapped. There were cracks in the chassis. We lost our brakes. No horn. No indicators. No windscreen wipers. Both windscreens cracked. A side window broke. One cooling fan worked only intermittently. When we traded in our off-road tyres for road tyres in Kiev, the garage mechanics snapped a wheel stud. And we had a dozen flat tyres.

Every day, we drove as though we had stolen the car. Every night, we did repairs. Many of the problems were manageable – until day 28 between Kosice and Bratislava, Slovakia, when we lost both the clutch and the gears. A brilliant rally mechanic, Rob Dominy, set to work under the car, allowing us to drive on within hours. Although we suffered penalties for being late, we managed to retain our third place, thanks to a healthy buffer and the misfortunes of rivals.

I was repeatedly amazed at the performance of 73-year-old Shiner on such a gruelling journey. Yet the strength of other cars and dedication of their drivers was even more immense. Car 3, a 100-year-old Ford Model T that we affectionately nicknamed “The Wheelbarrow”, had two gears: high and low. Its tireless co-drivers, Nicky and Nadja, would put their wheels in the lake (when we were camping) and in the bathtub (when we were in a hotel) to allow the wooden spokes to swell and stop them rattling.

Another extraordinary machine was Car 1, a 1917 La France Tourer, a beautiful 14.5-litre beast with a fire-engine chassis. Its Austrian drivers also fixed their car every night. When I saw Werner, one of them, dressed in black tie at the final dinner in Paris, I introduced myself: I didn’t recognise him, clean-shaven and without the grease.

As we were driving down the Champs-Elysées, placed third, I began to feel waves of nostalgia. I already missed the rally, and this adventure Mike and I had embarked on together. There is a special rhythm to life on the road, where the toughest decision is whether to choose the left track or the right.

I miss the changing landscapes of two continents: from the fields of solar panels near Sizziwanqi, in China, to the Gobi scrubland and the astonishing Altai region of Russia with its snowy peaks, impenetrable forests and glacial lakes. I miss the shaggy camels in Mongolia and the fat dairy cows of Switzerland. I miss the endless groves of silver birch trees in Russia, which were just as I had imagined them.

Most of all, as with any trip, I will miss the locals we met en route and the friends we made on the rally – including the miraculous mechanics, the medical team and the marshals. Fellow competitors were an engaging, eclectic group of people brought together by a shared sense of fun and a very real desire not to put off dreams. Unsurprisingly, many were retired after successful careers and had sensational car collections; many had private pilot licences and sailed competitively. There were bankers, surgeons, lawyers and accountants, as well as artists, a fitness instructor, an orthodontist and a borehole driller. I will miss being surrounded by their zest for life and easy laughter as we shared spanners and spare parts in the car parks between Beijing and Paris.

How I miss the road! When someone in the crowd in Place Vendôme, Paris, asked me whether I would do the journey again, I replied: “This very minute. Let’s fill up the tank, do a U-turn and head back to Beijing.”

Michelle Jana Chan travelled with Abercrombie & Kent (