Around the world, by car

On a six-month road trip from Melbourne to London, Jon Faine and his son, Jack, manage the impossible in China.

A boom gate guarded by three soldiers, standing stiffly to attention despite the heat, signals we are about to enter China from Laos. There is not a single other vehicle on the road travelling in either direction. I wonder aloud if this is a pantomime performance put on entirely for our benefit. Was there a hidden camera that detected our approach a few minutes ago and they have all sprung to life to impress us?

I tell Jack to sit up in his seat, to turn off the music, to take his feet off the dashboard and put his shoes on. I am nervous and half expecting to be told to go away. Several travellers have warned us about Chinese border checks, seizure of guidebooks and laptops, satellite phones being confiscated and eternal searches for contraband or politically sensitive materials. I am prepared for an argument, determined not to lose any of our gear.

The golden rule is never argue with the man with the machine gun. But what if they have discovered I work in the media and have disguised my profession? All paperwork for China had me declaring myself by my former occupation of lawyer rather than journalist or broadcaster - it just seemed less complicated and more likely to avoid problems. I have no media accreditation with me. I have rationalised the deceit by telling myself I am on leave, I am on a private trip with my 19-year-old son, Jack. Who do I think I am kidding? I could be thrown out of half the countries we want to go through.

The boom gate lifts, the soldier waves us to a parking bay, all tidy and concrete and kerbs and flowers neatly arranged, almost in defiance of the surrounding jungle. The run-down Laotian side of the border suddenly seems a world away as the soldier uses his machine gun to gesture to us to get out of the car.

We walk into a glass and steel office and greet the guards with our typical bravado. ''Ni hao,'' I attempt, trying to break the ice. As will happen throughout China, no one in a uniform will readily smile. No relaxed, easygoing banter; it is all formidably official and proper.

A young woman runs over to us and introduces herself as Tracy, our guide. After hundreds of emails exchanged over half a year, it is a relief that this meeting has come to fruition. Tracy starts negotiating with the authorities on our behalf. It takes more than an hour to get the proper stamps on the various papers, Tracy tearing from desk to desk while we kick a football around. In that time not one other vehicle passes through this immense border post at Mengla, near Yunnan province.

Finally, without even a cursory search of our luggage, we are allowed to drive into China. We climb back into the car, with Jack relegated to the back seat as Tracy guides from the front. I try to offer a high-five but, of course, he duds me - desperate to impress. As we cover our first kilometre on smooth Chinese highway, I am elated - we have finally done what we were told could not be done.

We drive towards Mengla, through a deep gorge lush with jungle, over a suspension bridge crossing a fast-flowing river. Parking by the side of the road, we cross the bridge and hike into the thick trees, the path barely wide enough for two to walk side by side. After an hour, the valley offers up the occasional hut, some animal shelters made from bamboo and rough fences of poles strung together with wire. We wander through the mud into a village of simple timber homes, wary eyes scrutinising us as much as we do them.


Tracy introduces herself and explains our visit; wary hostility is immediately replaced with cups of tea and a tomato-like fruit fresh from the vine offered up with smiles. We are invited to stay for dinner, welcomed into the dirt-floor huts and treated like special guests. Again, those with least in life are the most generous hosts imaginable.

Back on the path, chatting as we head back towards the car, Tracy shrieks and Jack catapults into the air as a snake objects to being disturbed by lashing at his leg. His reflex reaction avoids disaster but for hours we talk about what we would have done, what we should have done, what we might have done and whether our first-aid training months ago in Melbourne would have kicked in if he had been bitten. A more remote place for a medical emergency you would be hard pressed to find.

We are starving and find a small restaurant where the kitchen is also the dining area. Our fish is lifted from a tub of water, hit on the head with a cleaver and butter-fried in a flash. A paste of garlic, ginger, coriander and chilli is stuffed inside the fish, grilled on coals and served in moments.

Together with pork crackling with a tomato-style salsa, beef stew, rice and steamed greens, we eat a feast for our first night in China, for about $10 for three of us. It seems so exotic but as time passes we learn that freshly killed is the norm in off-the-beaten-track China and no one would consider eating all sorts of animals any other way. Home-style restaurants are typical, the middle-aged woman running a kitchen much as she would at home. The cooking is not tucked away in a back room but in front of you and even with you if you want to take an active role.

As we spend a few days heading along the rough mountain roads along the Burma border, lined with stunning terraced rice fields, rubber trees and tea plantations, we visit towns where the children gawp and stare at foreigners.

In Mongman, small boys, maybe eight years old, play at battered pool tables, cigarettes dangling from their broken teeth. The town is so remote there is no school. The children work on their parents' farms or at the market, as they always have for as long as anyone can remember. We are treated warily until Tracy explains what we are doing, whereupon people smile and joke about us to each other, inviting us to share their table and the food upon it. A dentist is working in the main street, the patient's chair brightly lit in the window of his surgery so passers-by can see how things are done.

Our first choice of hotel that night refuses us a room - they are not allowed to take foreigners. As we eat, Tracy tells us more about herself. ''My parents' generation, they wanted just three things in life … a bicycle, a radio and a fridge. My generation, we want a motorbike, a mobile phone and an apartment. This is the new China.''

She is 25 and determined to soon be married. The man she marries must provide an apartment, as he will not be deserving of her if he has not achieved that goal. She saves 500 yuan ($100) a month invested into the stockmarket; she has been taught that if she sticks to that disciplined regimen, by the time she turns 50 she will be able to stop work.

''I am so proud of China,'' she says. ''We are not like Japan where people just work all the time and have no life. My parents worked all the time but now, as we become more rich, we can enjoy life more than they did.''

Massive trucks laden with coal block the roads as they crawl along at irritatingly slow speed. Typically overloaded and belching diesel fumes, they infuriate and frustrate faster vehicles on narrow winding roads and freeways alike. Over breakfast - kerbside noodles and porridge - Tracy seeks directions from the driver of one of these huge, blue monster trucks.

I get her to negotiate a deal - the driver can take our exotic right-hand-drive, relatively luxurious car for a spin if he will let me drive his truck around the block. He slaps his thigh with laughter, welcomes me as I climb up and into the rough cabin and we crunch and crawl our way around a few blocks of town.

As I climb down Jack has fallen in love - he is in earnest conversation with a toddler, a tiny wide-eyed girl just walking and staggering as she trips from chair to table at a roadside breakfast stall. There is something amazing about the little girl's eyes - they are huge and unblinking and it hits me that she is blind.

The girl's mother readily explains that her daughter has an eye disease and she is losing her sight - they cannot afford even the trip to the hospital in Kunming, let alone pay for the treatment she needs. She weeps, sobbing into her apron, embarrassed.

I get Tracy to ask how we can help and we learn that the mother, who is divorced, has adopted the child, who was abandoned at birth. Girls are often unwanted in one-baby China. As we talk, we are plied with tea, sweet corn and biscuits. In the back of the car we have a stash of fluffy toy koalas and I dig one out. Jack squeezes the soft toy into the toddler's arms and I self-consciously press a bundle of notes into her mother's apron pocket to assuage my guilt.

We spend more each time we refuel the car than it will cost to save the sight of this little girl. I spent just as much cash on two antique swords in Laos, static objects that will one day hang on the wall at home. Which is the better use of my money?

We drive away with tears in our eyes, moved by the plight of a total stranger. Jack mutters something about injustice and feeling powerless and useless as we grapple with our conscience. Tracy says nothing at first, then: ''It is so sad.''

What difference does one little girl's eyesight make? There are thousands like her, I tell myself; we cannot go through life feeling guilty about what we have, just because others are stuck with a worse lot in life. Overwhelming us, though, is the deep acceptance that we are so lucky to be who and what we are compared to so many others on this planet. Jack threatens to hit me if I utter the phrase, ''We are the luckiest of the luckiest'', just one more time, but it has never lost its relevance for me.

A licence to go

THE Rough Guide says: ''Driving a car across China is an appealing idea but an experience currently forbidden to foreign tourists.''

The Lonely Planet guide says: ''Don't even bother. Driving around China is impossible unless you have a residency permit.''

Australia's leading travel agency specialising in China travel emailed: ''It is not possible to take a foreign car or for a foreign driver to drive a car in China, we are sorry we cannot help you.''

Countless hours of trawling the internet at different China travel sites confirmed the advice that foreigners are not allowed to take cars into China.

They are all wrong. You can - but you have to really want to. And you have to be very persistent.

In typical stubborn fashion, I looked for a way around these supposed prohibitions. In early 2008, I emailed the Chinese government tour company CITS and, describing our preferred route, asked if it was possible. It advised that we could drive across China if we joined a group and accepted the services of an official guide.

We would need permits from each provincial government along the way, Chinese registration for our car, insurance, security clearances and a Chinese driver's licence. Once we agreed to these conditions, CITS quoted a staggering $26,000 for one month. A flurry of emails saw the price halved. It was still far more than I could afford. But the Silk Road beckoned. The more I looked into it, the more I wanted to do it.

Staying up one night and chasing internet link after link, hour after hour, I chanced upon NAVO tour guides. I looked at NAVO's website and exchanged emails. NAVO told me it caters for groups from Europe, travelling west to east, entering China from Russia or Mongolia. It had never had an inquiry from Australia, had never before collected anyone from the southern borders and dealt only with groups of two or more cars. Over several emails, in which NAVO told me to look for a companion car in order to create a group, I cheekily suggested that we could be a group if that was required - a group of one. The reply came through that my joke satisfied the bureaucrats.

Endless negotiations and haggling saw NAVO quote about a quarter of the original price from CITS - and the paperwork began. It needed 100 days to get all the permits. The local government of every province had to approve our route. Central security in Beijing had to vet our application. The army had to check our intended schedule to ensure it did not threaten national security. NAVO finally contracted to escort us from the Laos border, to Chengdu, north to Xian, then west across the Silk Road to Kashgar and on to Kyrgyzstan.

This is an edited extract from From Here to There by ABC broadcaster Jon Faine and his son, Jack Faine, (ABC Books, $39.99), in stores on Tuesday.