Day 18 - Wednesday 19th - Luang Namtha (PDR Laos) to Mengle (PR China) - 80k

We have only 80k to travel today, but no idea on how long its going to take us. The 40k to the border will take about an hour and the 40 k after the border will take less. But the crossing – who knows?

The 40k to the border was a jostle with trucks, pot holes, unpaved patches, mud and lots of raw red earth being moved about for some unexplained reason. Before the border we stopped and took out our CB radios and GPS in preparation for the crossing.

Arrived at the Loa departure gate around 0900, after doing what we had done previously, anddrove around the lengthy queue of trucks to the head of the line. Exiting Laos proved fairly uneventful until they asked to see our import documents for the cars, so that they could process an exit. You may recall that when we came in, no one seemed to check anything on the cars and we had no approved paperwork. In the end the problem was very creatively rectified by the Customs Officer putting his chop on the front cover of our Carnet (similar to a passport for a car, but not every country recognises it). A unique solution, but it seemed to help him feel that he had completed his paperwork and allow us to set off the 5k across no mans land to the Chinese border.

The personal immigration process went smoothly with our crisp new visas stuck in our passports. The navigators had to exit one way, while the drivers had to then double back through the entry and pick up the cars and take them around to the customs man to bring them through.

As usual we ignored the lengthy queue of trucks and drove around them. Not sure whether we are below their range of sight or they just can’t work out what we are doing, but they let us barge in without a murmur. We were greeted by the Customs Officers broad smile, a Good afternoon sir and Welcome to China, a wave, found the Navigators standing by the roadside and we were on our way somewhat shocked that it had been so straight forward, or so it seemed. In reality our Chinese agent had been there for 2 days working through the paperwork with the local people. And it worked.

Drove down a tree lined freeway with gardens full of bright bloomed Bougainvillia wondering what planet we had stepped into, and onto our hotel in Mengla.

It was early afternoon and we were off to the Police Station to get our Chinese drivers licenses and then on to the motor registry to get the cars checked and their Chinese registration.

The drivers license thing was humorous more than anything else. We completed the paper work – in Chinese and the first 3 went in for their eye tests. A bit of a challenge as we had no idea what the characters were, and the examiner could not understand a word we said. But given the first 3 got 100% correct, or so we assumed, they abandoned testing the rest of us and processed the paperwork.

Next stop the Motor Registry. We assumed, on the basis of our Police Station experience, that this was a formality as well. They took one look at the cars and told us that we would need to wait 3 days for them to get an expert down from Beijing who knew how to drive old cars. In China, if the vehicle is more than 7 years old it gets scrapped, so a convoy old 50 year old MGs is quite a rare sight.

After much discussion, the local Motor testers felt they were up to the task once we taught them how to drive the cars. Then we were perplexed with their testing. There were 4 rubber pads on the ground and the testers were driving the cars very slowly (3 mph) onto them and firstly slamming on the foot brake and then the hand brake. The second test involved switching on the head lights as this robotically controlled arm hovered around in front while the lights were switched from low to high as the engine was being revved vigorously. We were lost as to what they were doing. Results 4 cars passed and 4 failed because of brake and / or light issues.

What we worked out was that the 4 rubber pads were very sensitive and were actually measuring the braking balance between each of the wheels to check brake effectiveness and  whether there was any skewing. This was a challenge for some of the hand brakes as there is no adjustment and in an MG they never really worked very well in the first place. With the head lights it was a matter of cleaning the lenses, changing globes and in the case of Shiraz removing the wire stone protectors.

4 cars back for retesting. One passed and 3 failed. More adjustment of brakes and head lights. By this stage it was heading towards 6.00pm and the place was deserted, except for us and a couple of the testers. 2 cars passed and one failed on head lights. The recommended solution for Shiraz was that since the head light on the right hand side was good and had passed, if we swapped it over to the left then they could pass the left as well – simple!

Our expectations were somewhat changed after this, from what looked like a basic test to something that was far more sophisticated than the cars could handle. At 6.30 the tests were complete, we received our China number plates along with our drivers licenses which the police had hand delivered to the Motor Registry along with new Chinese names.  Beat that – service with a smile and creativity!

We were ready for beers - even if they were served warm in Chinese style.

It feels as though the journey has just begun.