Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Chinese roads - full of Old NACers?

Sadly, dear reader, the motoring observations don't stop with the end of the rally. Indeed, after 32 hours on the slow train from UB down to Beijing, I was desperate for any fix of car geekery. Thankfully (for me at least - I can't say the same for my travelling companions) China provided a surfeit of same. In both of my guises - to whit, a British car nerd and an experienced navigator of the Central Asian vehicular peculiarities - China was an odd one. Not necessarily worse or indeed better; but odd.

The first thing to mention is the road quality, which was superb, even by European standards. Granted, my visit encompassed just two wealthy cities, but I daresay investment there will eventually be matched in all the big cities. Mongolian, Kazakh or (particularly) Tajik drivers would have thought they’d landed on Planet Smooth, had they swallowed the (ruinous) import taxes and put-putted their motorbikes eastward. Yet it seems that this is a relatively recent development, as the vast majority of the traffic bounces around on comedy 70-section balloon tyres; a surefire sign of a populace weary of losing rim after rim to man-eating potholes. A certain city beginning with U and rhyming with Goolan Hataar comes to mind.

Speaking of traffic, it falls into two main categories – those with four wheels, and those with more, or less. The cars, which mostly fall into the former category, were on the whole pretty well behaved, but we quickly learned to treat the cyclists and moped-ists as big, unwieldy pedestrians. Not only were they to the traffic as a toddler’s fingers are to the sweety jar (i.e. everywhere, all at once) but they were also seemingly ungoverned by either traffic laws or common sense. No alleyway was too small, no pavement too congested, and no shrubbery too dense for these two-stroke death-traps: perhaps they didn’t quite rival Iranian motorcyclists for sheer lunacy, but they ran them close.

The reason for this dichotomy can, I feel, be found in the prestige attached to the motor car out there, even when the car in question was a vaguely-facelifted version of the 1980s Audi 100 – a Daudi, if you will. Allow me to put it this way: traffic outside our hostel was still gridlocked at 2am, at which point your average mopedist would have been at home for six hours. The fact that an increasing number of Shanghainese choose to pay through the nose for a car just to sit in such jams, rather than spend just 2000RMB (about £200) on an infinitely more convenient scoot, demonstrates that the Chinese are coming more and more to see the car as a status symbol, rather than a tool to enhance mobility. Reminds me of some other countries that I can’t quite put my finger on...

Anyway, this being the case, and given the well-documented taste the Chinese have for aping Western products, you’d expect Roewe (née Rover) and MG products to be selling like hot steamed buns. The old Rover 75 was about as British as a mid-range saloon gets – surely a Sino-spec example would be as appealing to local tastes as an English slogan t-shirt? Well, SAIC shifted about 13,000 750s in 2008, according to official figures, which is about 185,000 fewer sales than VW enjoyed with its ancient Santana, so you’d hardly call it a runaway sales success...*

The simple fact of the matter is this: in Beijing I saw just one MG – one of the Streetwise things – and a smattering of 550s, which look like up-spec Corollas and come on little piddly biscuit wheels. In Shanghai – the home of SAIC, remember – I counted five Roewe 750s, but as three were black and I can’t decode Chinese number plates, they may well have been the same car. It’s a shame, because the mildly facelifted Longbridge relic looked rather good among the restaurants and posh shops of the French Concession. But it seems these cars are being bought for their exclusivity rather than on merit, and in a marketplace dominated by the mid-size saloon this is both puzzling and troubling. True, a big posh bruiser like the 750 will never compete with the sales of, say, the Santana: but to be out-sold three to one by the more expensive Mondeo is a serious cockup. And if they can’t even establish a presence on their home turf – where, by the way, I failed to spot a dealership despite a brief sally into the relevant district – then where can they do so?

I’ve been to China for only a short period of time, and I’m not pretending to be an expert on the industry: for that, you need to head to China Car Times. But my suggestion for SAIC and NAC would be as follows: take Peugeots lead from the Champs Elysees and establish a ‘lifestyle’ showroom on the Nanjing road, between the Rolex shop and... erm... the other Rolex shop. Play on being a lifestyle Western brand until the story becomes so paper thin that you can see through it with a torch; and then play on it some more. Only by gaining a foothold in the ‘aspirational brand’ section of the Chinese motoring conscience are you going to make inroads into a market dominated by a mixture of cheap cars and desirable cars, when you are currently peddling neither of the above. Perhaps the launch of the upcoming MG6, based on the 550, might help.

If, however, SAIC/NAC do not gain a foothold in a market expanding faster than Kevin Howe’s waistline, then a) they’re just not trying hard enough and b) they would have to rely more on export. Which means they’d need MG’s UK arm to build up the brand, and the benevolence of the press corps to reinforce it. In other words, they’d be dead in the water.

* I couldn’t find figures on the sales of the MG7. I’m not actually convinced it even exists outside the pages of car magazines and mg-rover.org.

Rules of the Iranian Road

Rule 1: Be in a lorry. If you cannot be in a lorry, be in a blue pickup. If you are in either of these vehicles, not only are you impervious to all Earthly laws, but more complex ones like physics and relativity as well. Be advised that colour selection will not be a problem as all Iranian pickups are blue, for reasons that are probably significant but not immediately apparent.

Rule 2: If you cannot be in a lorry or blue pickup, ensure you are in either a Peugeot 405, a Kia Pride or a Paykan, which is sort of like a stretch Lada, with similar build quality. Disregard for these two simple rules will see you riding a Honda 250 motorbike, which is an unattractive prospect (see below).

Rule 3: Ensure that a novelty horn is fitted. The standard horn on your vehicle, even if it is a sodding great truck, simply will not do. Length of tone and volume are the key factors to bear in mind here. Standard badging, too, should be removed wherever possible, and replaced with items which indicate that, against all empirical evidence, your Kia Pride is actually an Audi A6 with FEUL INJECTION and a TURBO.

Rule 4: If you are in a lorry or a blue pickup, fill your vehicle with as many goods as is physically impossible. Extra points are gained for sheer improbable height of your stacked goods. If you are in a car, replace 'goods' with 'people', but keep the bit about improbable height. Seven passengers should be considered an absolute, baseline minimum for passage on the Iranian road.

Rule 5: Having chosen and correctly populated your vehicle, it is time to venture out onto the road. To do this, you must first pick a piece of road on which to drive. Don't worry if somebody else has already chosen this piece of road - they will vacate it, somehow, or you can share. Ensure you change both road positioning and speed at least every five seconds to ensure maximum disruption to the free flow of traffic. For tips on successful road positioning, visit your local funfair and spend an evening studying the way dodgems 'interact'.

Rule 6: Right of way: there is no such thing. Priority, therefore, goes to the pushiest bastard, or certainly to whoever is in the largest, most solid looking vehicle (see Rule 1). If you find yourself in a vehicle which is somewhat lower down the food chain, you can temporarily elevate yourself by making liberal use of your novelty horn (see Rule 3).

Rule 7: Generally speaking, you should at least attempt to drive in the same direction as other traffic on your side of the road. Exceptions are made for Honda 250 motorcycles, lorries and blue pickups (see Rule 1) and those prepared to make liberal use of their novelty horn (see Rules 3 and 6).

Rule 8: Speed limits. These are generally as fast as your vehicle can travel, even if in so doing your lorry or blue pickup belches out enough carcinogenic fog to suffocate the whole of Rasht, and granny has to cling on to the haystack that you have balanced on the load bay (see Rule 4). However, these speeds must only be maintained for short periods of time, and should be followed by sudden, unexpected and violent bouts of
deceleration. Swerving should accompany these wherever possible. This is to ensure that the driver of the Paykan next to you is awake, and will give the seventeen people on the rear bench something to point at.

Rule 9: If you do see a police radar trap, don't worry: although these are numerous, your speed, road position and general sanity are of no concern to the Iranian constabulary. These checkpoints are for the bored policeman occasionally to practice his English by admonishing foreigners for driving slightly over what could, in theory, be the speed limit.

Rule 10: Don't queue for anything.

Friday, 11 September 2009

From the Mongol Rally blog: "Finally Finished"

Our Mongol Rally 2009 is officially over.

We crossed the finish line about 5pm this evening, and received our certificates, so I suppose that means we've completely done what we set out to do. We're 1500 miles over our scheduled mileage, we've had a hatful of experiences, one sensor failure, two spring failures, three tyre failures, and crucially, the best set of story-topping anecdotes a pub-goer could wish for.

Thanks to everyone who sponsored us - we visited Eamon at Christina Noble today and emptied our cars out, and it really does seem like they're doing an incredibly good job. They're having a "sponsor a child" day tomorrow, where the local urchins come in to collect their allowance - for every $30 given to the foundation, $25 goes directly to the kids. We'd love to visit their Ger village (which acts as a kind of mixed orphanage/school arrangement) but we're leaving for China at 8am tomorrow morning, so it's not going to be possible. Hopefully I'll be back and will be able to help out in a more practical sense.

In fact, I'm running out of different ways to be nice about human nature in general, which could be due to the fact that I'm sat in the bar having been on the receiving end of a surprising amount of Chinggis beer. Our landlady for the past three nights has taken "motherly" to new levels - her brother is giving us a free taxi to the station at 7am, and has charged us $8 each per night for a whole apartment with kitchen. The Adventurists have been amazing, despite being hit with an unexpected $400,000 customs bill. Pebley Beach Cirencester deserve a special mention for being for being on our side throughout and shipping our sensor flawlessly to Samarkand, the story of which is well documented earlier in this blog. Even the cops are on our side; we got stopped for an illegal U-turn 100 yards from the finish line, but they got bored after 15 minutes and let us go without a fine.

We've bloody done it. Unusually for me, I'm a bit lost for words. What now?!

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

From the Mongol Rally blog: "Don't Keep Me In Suspense"

The new suspension worked!!!

Well, sort of. The car still sits right on its arse, but the transformation over the bumpy roads has been incredible. Who would have known that a tiny garage in a two-thirds-of-a-horse town like Ayakoz would keep, as its only spare part, a pair of springs that only needed a bit of hacksaw-based adjustment to be a perfect fit on our car? And who could have predicted that they'd relieve us of just $25 for the privilege?

So with our new Audi-based suspension system, we have been transformed (as Pepe put it) from the QE2 to a Q7. We glide over the "undulations" in Kazakh roads (some of which are up to 6 foot deep, you could lose Tom in them easily) with the greatest of ease, and consequently have been making swift progress since Almaty.

Kazakhstan is notable for a select group of things. Firstly, the women are almost all drop-dead gorgeous, knocking the female population of Hungary into a distant second place (although obviously neither Usget nor Pepe noticed this themselves, it had to be pointed out to them). Secondly, there's often more than 100 miles between villages, which can become boring. Thirdly, as previously mentioned, some of their roads are utterly, utterly appalling. And finally, the population of Semey were some of the friendliest people we've met since leaving Iran - parking our cars up in front of the park led to an all-out assault by balloon sellers, ice cream vendors and passers-by, all wanting to try out their English, have photos taken with the cars, and give us gifts. Two hours later we finally managed to drag ourselves away, not wanting to see candy-floss again as long as we all lived.

Incidentally, Pepe and Tom claimed that wolves came around our tents that evening. James and Usget heard nothing, and don't believe them.

From Semey we headed over the Russian border, where we met a couple of Romanian bikers who were quality, and which was, in border terms, painless (and free!) Russia itself has so far proved to be quite a lot like England - bloody cold, rainy (we're at 53 degrees North, our most Northerly point on the trip), and difficult to get things done. Barnaul, though, has been a bit of an improvement: it's a sprawling great university city with a young population and plenty of shops, bars, and indeed a solitary Net cafe (from whence we write). We'll not be spending much time here, though, because it's a bloody long way to the Mongolian border and The Adventurists website is already expressing incredulity that anyone should still be on the road...

8 days to go, and this may be the last full blog until UB. Wish us luck everybody.