On the main route survey in September 2006, Mike Preston and his team came across major road works on the route for Day 10. Negotiating these took seven hours, for a stretch of route that would normally take two hours, and would be impossible for classic cars.
As a precaution, Mike surveyed an alternative route, which joined up with another part of the 2004 Great Tour of China. Then we had confirmation that the road works would still be in full swing in May 2006, so decided to switch to this. The new section was every bit as interesting and scenic as the original route, which included a rest day at China’s most beautiful National Park, the great Ta Er Buddhist monastery, and two days crossing sweeping open steppe, sandy desert and the Tibetan plateau (including the world’s highest paved pass).
* Mid March Vehicles shipped from European ports
* Late March Vehicles shipped from USA west coast port
Towards end of April participants arrived at Beijing, some taking advantage of the special hotel rate and stay a few extra nights pre-even, giving time to shop and to see this ancient city's sights. Not missing the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven, or extended walks on the Great Wall, not to mention the superb shopping, from fine stores to traditional markets.
The Great Tour began with registration at our superb new Beijing hotel, the Kunlun where we issued Chinese drivers' licences. From here we looked after your accommodation and dinner. Welcome dinner in Peking roast duck restaurant. Kunlun Hotel *****
Tuesday 25 April Travel by coach to collect vehicles from Customs bonded warehouse near Beijing with help of experts from our Agents. Issue of Chinese vehicle licence plates or stickers. Pre-start dinner in top quality Chinese restaurant.
Kunlun Hotel *****
Part One: Glimpses of Old China
The event started gently, with short daily runs on relatively easy roads across busy but often beautiful rural landscapes, giving many glimpses of old China along the way. Each day we were able to visit scenic and historic places seen by relatively few tourists.
Day 1: Wednesday 26 April: Beijing to Datong
Chinese Dragon, dancers, musicians and firecrackers wished us bon voyage at the ceremonial start in front of the Great Wall of China at Juyongguan (60km from Beijing). Initially we travel north west on a fast modern expressway, then from Xuanhua wend our way on country roads to the amazing Xuankong Si, the Hanging Monastery. Our overnight halt is at Datong, where steam locomotives were made until 1989; a number are displayed in a museum. HongAn International Hotel ****
Day 2: Thursday 27 April: Datong to Wutaishan (216km/134mi)
Just 16km from Datong, the Yungang Shiku, or Cloud Ridge Caves, contain over 10,000 statues - we have time for a brief visit before the relatively short day's drive to Wutaishan. En route we were able to lunch in Yingxian, where we visit the oldest wooden pagoda in China. Wutaishan, high in the hills, is an important centre of Buddhism and boasts many temples and monasteries, the Xian Tong and Pusading being well worth seeing. Wufeng Hotel ****
Day 3: Friday 28 April: Wutaishan to Pingyao (303km/188mi)
A chance to do a short tour of some of Wutaishan's most glorious Buddhist sites before taking the scenic mountain road to Shahe. Fast highways then get us to Pingyao in time to explore the narrow streets and ancient buildings of this amazing walled town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site as yet unspoiled by modern tourism. Lizeyuan Hotel ****
Day 4: Saturday 29 April: Pingyao to Xi'an (550km/342mi)
Time to see a little more of Pingyao before taking fast highways to Xi'an, where we relax in our luxury hotel. Shangri-La Golden Flower Hotel *****
Day 5: Sunday 30 April: Rest day in and around Xi'an
Coach excursion to the Terracotta Warriors, a truly awesome sight. Archeologists estimate that over 8,000 men and horses form this underground army, although only 3,000 have so far been excavated and (in some cases) restored. Dumpling banquet in local restaurant. Shangri-La Golden Flower Hotel *****
Part Two: Into Panda Country
South through the valleys and gorges of Shaanxi province into Sichuan (the Heavenly Kingdom), a province famed for its excellent spicy food and its abundance of natural and cultural resources. Here we see the work that's being done to save the rare and emblematic Giant Panda.
Day 6: Monday 1 May: Xi'an to Guangyan (550km/342mi)
There's a short run on the expressway before we turn south through Shaanxi Province to take the Mt Qingling mountain road, with many narrow gorges and wooded valleys, en route via Hanzhong to the city of Guangyuan. Guangyuan International Hotel****
Day 7: Tuesday 2 May: Guangyuan to Chengdu (260km/162mi)
We take the expressway towards Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. This is the home of the world renowned Giant Panda breeding and research centre, where we will spend two or three enchanting hours visiting the museum, watching the WWF video and of course seeing the pandas in their 280 hectare site. In the evening we have a poolside barbecue with Sichuan specialities. Homeland Hotel *****
Day 8: Wednesday 3 May: Chengdu to Jiuzhaigou (355km/225mi) We leave Chengdu via the expressway to Dujingyan (famed for its 3,000 year old Irrigation System), then northwards passing Songpan (an ancient walled city) climbing into the mountains en route to Jiuzhaigou, our overnight stay. Sheraton Hotel*****
Part Three: Across the Roof of the World
We now headed west on the ancient Tea Horse Road to enter Tibet. The roads became more sinuous and more challenging as we took the remote northern Sichuan - Tibet Highway, a lonely route little used by tourists, crossing many high passes en route to Nagqu. Then we tackled the highest pass of the tour, Xuegu La, one of no less than eight climbs to over 5,000m on our way to and from seeing the highest place on earth. Known to the Tibetans as Qomolangma, Mount Everest made an unforgettable sight as the dawn sun strikes it. Finally we head back east to the ancient Tibetan capital of Lhasa.
Day 9: Thursday 4 May: Rest Day in Jiuzhaigou The National Park here is a lovely area of lakes and mountains. No cars are allowed inside the park, so we take buses around this UNESCO World Nature Heritage and Biosphere site. There are several small Tibetan villages to explore, and you can stop en route to photograph the beautiful ancient lakes, waterfalls, valleys and wooded hills, or take a peaceful walk in this scenic place. Overnight Sheraton Hotel*****
Day 10: Friday 5 May: Jiuzhaigou to Lanzhou (530km/330mi) We drive east along a new highway before climbing into the Min Shan mountains to Wudu, and then head north through fertile valleys and hills to the major city of Lanzhou. Sunshine Plaza Hotel*****
Day 11: Saturday 6 May: Lanzhou to Xining (420km/260mi) We now join the ancient Silk Route westwards from Xi’an for an easy run up the valley of the Yellow River. The day’s highlight is the great Ta Er Buddhist monastery, with its many colourful prayer flags, golden topped stupas and (yes!) yak butter sculptures. We overnight in the important town of Xining (**** Hotel to be confirmed).
Day 12: Sunday 7 May: Xining to Golmud (760km/475mi) A long day on empty modern two-lane highways, through great vistas of steppes fringed by snow-capped mountains. We run along the shores of Qinghai Hu, the third largest saltwater inland sea in the world. At over 3,000m (10,000ft) it is also one of the highest, and is famous for its beautiful scenery. Yaks and cattle graze and herdsmen tend their sheep on the endless open grassland. Some now start to feel the effects of the altitude as we cross the Qinghai Nan Shan mountains and the Tsaidam desert to Golmud. Tianlong Hotel***
Day 13: Monday 8 May: Golmud to Nagqu (836km/520mi) Our second long day takes us onto the Tibetan Plateau where views are the order of the day; sweeping grasslands, steep mountains, dry river beds, nomadic yak herders and very little habitation. The brand new railway alongside, from Xining to Lhasa, is the world’s highest main line; construction is now completed but it does not come into operation until 2007. Meanwhile, goods for Lhasa will continue to be carried by the many blue trucks that are our principal travelling companions. We enter Tibet across the world’s highest paved main road, the 5,220m (17,120ft) Tanggula Shanku pass, whose windswept summit is suitably adorned with Buddhist prayer flags and surrounded with snowy mountains, before descending to the small mountain town of Nagqu (4,525m/14,840ft). Grassland Telecom Hotel***
Day 14: Monday 9 May: Nagqu to Shigatse (492km/306mi)
This morning it's back to asphalt for an hour or so as we pass through the ‘big country' scenery of the Tibetan Plateau, and get the chance to see the amazing engineering feat of the Golmud to Lhasa railway, the world's highest main line, due to open in July 2006 - it will then be possible to travel by train all the way from London to Lhasa. We see the famous Chorten Rang-po stupas (Buddhist monuments) on our way to lunch halt at Yangbajing. As we head up the gravel road, make time for a revivifying swim (remember your swimwear) in the warm baths of hot springs before we cross the highest pass of the tour, Xuegu La (5,431m/17,819ft). Like every Tibetan summit, it is decked with colourful prayer flags, but here there is also the more macabre sight of traditional sky burials, in which people's corpses are dismembered to be taken by vultures. From here our road descends through valleys where every spare piece of ground is farmed with oxen and wooden ploughs It's been a tough few days and we will have earned our rest day in Shigatse. Shangdong Hotel ***
Day 15: Tuesday 10 May: Rest day in Shigatse
Time to catch your breath, or to explore at a leisurely pace the town and most dramatically the Tashilunpo Monastery, the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama, the second most important spiritual leader in Tibetan Buddhism after the Dalai Lama. The high point is the Chapel of Jampa, housing the world's largest gilded statue. Shandong Hotel ***
Day 16: Wednesday 11 May: Shigatse to New Tingri (232km/144mi)
We are now on the Friendship Highway, linking China to Nepal. The scenery now is constantly changing, with many traditional villages. After passing through the small town of Lhatse, the road becomes a bumpy gravel track wending its way up a valley, a couple of times crossing small tributary streams through muddy fords, taking us across the 5,220m (17,130ft) Gyantse La pass. From here we descend to the plains, passing lonely monasteries and the camps of nomadic herders, to the small town of New Tingri, jumping off point for many mountaineering expeditions.
Everest Hotel **
Day 17: Thursday 12 May: New Tingri - Everest Base Camp - New Tingri (223km/139mi)
One of the highlights of the tour is the privilege of driving the restricted road to the Everest Base Camp - the real thing, not the place other organisers have called by this name. We leave before dawn so as to reach the top of the narrow winding gravel Pang La pass (5,207m/17,086ft) in time to see the first rays of the sun strike the tip of the giant Qomolangma. Then we drop down to follow the upper Dzaka valley, a lost world of small villages and farms, with just the occasional glimpse of its snow covered peak. The famous Rongphu Monastery is the highest in the world, and worth a visit. From here, 's just an 8km drive through moraine to Base Camp itself - don't believe Michael Palin, you don't have to take a yak! It's an unforgettable experience to be so close - stop and take it all in for an hour or so, before heading back to New Tingri. Everest Hotel **
Day 18: Friday 13 May: New Tingri to Lhasa (490km/305mi)
Leaving early, we go back across the Gyantse La pass to Lhatse and Shigatse, and then take the improved main road direct to Lhasa. Lhasa Hotel ****
Day 19: Saturday 14 May: Rest day in Lhasa
Your chance to rest a bit, and to explore this ancient city, buying souvenirs, visiting sights such as the magnificent Potala palace (the seat of the Dalai Lama in previous times), the Jokhang temple and the bustling Barkhor market or just enjoying a yakburger in our hotel. Special restaurant meal. Lhasa Hotel ****
Part Four: Into Shangri La
We now travelled through one of China's remotest regions, the deep green valleys and the beautiful misty mountains of eastern Tibet and Yunnan province that parallel the country's southern border, through the real Shangri La and on to Lijiang, the old world town depicted in the compelling British TV series ‘Beyond the Clouds'. The new asphalt highway that was being built in 2004 is now largely completed, so we are able to travel quicker and further each day, and still pause to marvel at this wonderful country, a byword for Paradise. Some new local hotels will also ease our journey.
Day 20: Sunday 15 May: Lhasa to Linzhi (Bayi) (425km/264mi)
From our rest in Lhasa we make our way along the southern Tibet Sichuan Highway. Initially we run along the valley floor on long straight roads lined with trees protected from yaks by stone ring walls. After a couple of hours we pass Buddhist monuments as we climb towards the Mt Milha pass (5,021m/16,470ft). The route then passes an area settled by followers of the Bon religion en route to our destination of Linzhi. Linzhi Hotel ***
Day 21: Monday 16 May: Linzhi (Bayi) to Basu (452km/281mi)
Today we drive through gorges and over passes to Basu. The route is largely new asphalt as we climb to the summit of Serkyham La pass (4,562m/ 14,970ft), giving good views of Namchak Barwa mountain (7,756m/25,446ft). Then we descend through valleys with Swiss-looking chalets to negotiate a short but spectacular gorge. After a lunch stop in Bomi, we pass Rawok's beautiful lake surrounded by woods, glaciers and hot springs, and then take the newly upgraded road to our overnight halt in Basu.
Quanxing Hotel*, Qingbiju Hotel*, Yingbin Hotel*
Day 22: Wednesday 17 May: Basu to Deqen (579km/360mi) This will combine the previous Days 21 and 22 itineraries, eliminating the overnight halt in Mankang, where the expected hotel improvements have sadly not materialised, but where the completion of road works and the new paved highways make the longer day more practicable.
Day 23: Thursday 18 May: Deqen to Lijiang (458km/285mi)
An early start for a great day's motoring. The climb out of Deqen to 4,350m (13,910ft) will remind old Alpine rally drivers of leaving a Dolomite town, even including the surface of stone setts - although the spectacular line of Buddhist stupas after 8km is less typical. The parallel continues as we drive dramatic gravel mountain roads reminiscent of the Gavia or Vivione in their prime. At Zhongdian, which claims to be the original Shangri La, we pause for lunch in a restaurant facing the great monastery. This was devastated during the cultural revolution but its sumptuous restoration is now well advanced - it's worth a visit. In the afternoon we take a newly improved road through the lovely fertile countryside to the spectacular Tiger Leaping Gorge of the Upper Yangtse. Finally winding asphalt roads through gentle green hills bring us to Lijiang.
Guangfang Hotel *****
Day 24: Friday 19 May: Rest day in Lijiang
Within this bustling modern town, the capital of the Naxi people, lies the ancient and picturesque Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage site famous for its canals and its old wooden houses. The restored portion is photogenic but consists mainly of shops and eating places aimed at visitors - worth checking out in themselves, as not too many western tourists come here - but if you explore you will also find fascinating unimproved neighbourhoods, including a wonderful local market. Tonight there's a special meal in a characterful local restaurant.
Guangfang Hotel *****
Part Five: The Warm and Fertile South
Leaving behind the barren majesty of Tibet and the green mountains of Yunnan, we finish our tour by crossing southern China, a land of varied landscapes, warmer and softer than the area around Beijing a thousand miles to the north, a difference reflected in the people, their culture and their food. It's a countryside of terraced rice paddies cultivated with wooden ploughs drawn by strong and docile water buffaloes, of small traditional villages where the way of life has been unchanged for generations, finally contrasted with China's economic powerhouse, the highly developed Guangdong province.
Day 25: Saturday 20 May: Lijiang to Kunming (540km/336mi)
From Lijiang we take country roads - expect to see crops spread on the road to be threshed by your wheels. We pause at Dali, capital of the Bal people, to see its celebrated Three Pagodas and the old walled town. After lunch, we take the new expressway to Kunming, a modern city of 3.8 million people.
Kai Wah Plaza Hotel *****
Day 26: Sunday 21 May: Kunming to Huangguoshu Falls (455km/283mi)
A new expressway road speeds us to Qujiang before we take the country and mountain roads towards Huangguoshu. Huangguoshu Hotel ***
Day 27: Monday 22 May: Huanngguoshu Falls to Kaili (450km/280mi)
There's time before you leave to take a motor trishaw ride to China's biggest waterfall (and to walk behind it), as well as seeing the splendid Bonsai garden. We then drive directly on a mixture of main road and expressway to Kaili.
Grand Dragon Hotel ****
Day 28: Tuesday 23 May: Kaili to Guilin (490km/305mi)
A long day's drive which takes you off the beaten track, through beautiful landscapes of deep river valleys and high alpine passes, at a season when the terraced rice paddies which cover the hillsides are busy with ploughing and planting. You may also spot river fishing with captive cormorants. As you approach Guilin, you will have your first sight of the area's famous Karst ‘eggbox' hills.
Lijiang Waterfall Hotel *****
Day 29: Wednesday 24 May: Guilin to Zhaoqing (538km/334mi)
A long day, thanks in part to a wonderfully scenic loop through traditional villages where the small fields are irrigated by ancient-looking water wheels. Starting with the amazing Karst hills, we travel through some lovely landscapes of wooded hills, rice fields and lush subtropical vegetation. Star Lake Hotel ****
Day 30: Thursday 25 May: Zhaoqing to Shenzhen - coach to Hong Kong
An easy run on expressways through the area that is the powerhouse of China's economic miracle brings us to its fastest growing city, Shenzhen, at the gates of Hong Kong. Here we'll enjoy a wonderful ceremonial finish and a barbecued meal together before delivering our vehicles to the Shenzhen Customs compound for shipment home. Then we transfer by private coach to Hong Kong and our world class five-star hotel. In the evening we take a short boat trip to enjoy a final celebration in a characterful and famous fish restaurant. Harbour Plaza Hotel *****
Friday 26 May:
The Great Tour is over, but many before flying home stop awhile, taking advantage of our special hotel rates, and enjoy the pleasures of one of the world's most beautiful cities, famed for its restaurants and shops!
Total driving distance: 10,319km/6,413mi