December 09, 2013

In the middle of the Gobi Desert, by Mistake.

The benefits of traveling in an emergency vehicle were becoming quickly apparent. Apart from the comfy leather seats and air conditioning, having sirens and flashing lights gave us the the ability to evade the many tolls on the road heading north. The method Mr Wong used was to slow down as he approached the toll booths, and then turn on the sirens and flashing lights as he sped up past the astonished booth employee. Every time he did this the grin on his face got larger and larger, he was enjoying this even more than us!

About 100 kilometres past the Great Wall, guarding the northern gateway to Beijing, we reached the end of the highway and the road became single track, increasingly sandy and bumpy. The Gobi desert is really encroaching on Beijing, and within an hour massive sand dunes appeared either side of, and often on, the road. The four wheel drive was well suited to this terrain.

Not many tourists venture up here, and the arrival of foreigners into a small village, and traveling in an emergency vehicle, was met with much excitement. Every time we stopped to ask the way, which was frequent as Mr Wong only knew that Xanadu was north and unfortunately a lot of many small roads seemed to lead north, we were surrounded by local villagers peering with great interest at us, and then giggling and moving swiftly backwards when we got out of the car and they realised we were not actually under arrest.

Mr Wong was, how do I put this kindly, an exuberant driver. He would basically floor the accelerator pedal as often as he could, not withstanding the fact that we were not driving on sealed roads. We were going fast, how fast I could not tell, thanks to the disconnected speedometer (see Part one of the journey). The roads were mainly badly maintained gravel strips, and the brakes were shocking. When I got to drive (much more slowly than Mr Wong I might add) it felt like we were gliding on marbles and pressing the brake to the floor often took a few seconds to actually slow the car down. This might have been less of an issue were we not driving on roads with hairpin turns and no crash barriers. 

Luckily the only fatality was a village duck who foolishly stepped out in front of Mr Wong, all that was visible from the back window was a flurry of feathers accompanied by the manic laughing of our driver. I was surprised he did not stop and pick up the roadkill, perhaps the fear that the villagers might not be so happy prevented him.

After driving seemingly in circles for a few hours, we got out of the Gobi desert onto another poorly kept and rutted road, which eventually took us to Zhenglan, the closest town to Xanadu. Arriving late in the evening it looked pretty empty. A long dusty main street populated by a few basic restaurants, hardware shops and one four star hotel (the Jinlianchuan Hotel. Tel 0479 4222 2676), which looked rather incongruous in this setting. Tourism had yet to take off, but they were getting ready for it, although at this stage we were comfortably outnumbered by about twenty to one by hotel staff. We were the only guests.

The Journey to Xanadu:

Part 1
Part 2

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