In this thrilling journey from “Peking to Paris,” a woman tries to save her car, her marriage, and her confidence from breaking down.
In May 2007, leaving China’s Great Wall is Car 84, one of 125 antique autos racing in the Peking to Paris Motor Challenge. The 1940 LaSalle is guided by Dina Bennett, the world’s least likely navigator: a daydreamer prone to carsickness and riddled with self-doubt. She’s married to the driver, a thrill-seeking perfectionist who is half-human, half-racecar. What could go wrong?
Funny, self-deprecating, and marred by only a few acts of great fortitude, Peking to Paris is first and foremost a voyage of renewal. As Dina and her husband, Bernard, nurse their car across the Gobi, Siberia, and the Baltic states and south to Paris, she wrestles with nuts and bolts, along with the absurd hope that she can turn herself into a person of courage and patience.
Writing for every woman who’s ever doubted herself and any man who’s wondered what the woman traveling with him is thinking, Dina brings you with her as she ducks rock-throwing Mongolians and locks horns with Russians left over from the Intourist era, endures a sandstorm facial, and is reduced to tears of joy over a bottle of red nail polish. It’s a rollicking ride, one that shifts the line between possible and impossible, and gives new meaning to the phrase “off the beaten tourist path.”
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About the Author
Dina Bennett was born in Manhattan. After five years as a PR executive, she joined her husband’s software localization company as senior VP of sales and marketing. The two worked side-by-side until they sold the firm in 1998 and abandoned corporate life for a hay and cattle ranch. Since then she has untangled herself from barbed wire just long enough to get into even worse trouble in old cars on over 50,000 miles of far-off roads. She resides in Bend, Oregon.
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Peking to Paris
Life and Love on a Short Drive Around Half the World
By Dina Bennett
Skyhorse PublishingCopyright © 2013 Dina Bennett
All rights reserved.
Beijing: Take One
It never occurred to me that I would spend so much time in a car — any car — and in places a GPS has to think twice about pinpointing. I'm just not suited to this. I get carsick. I live in a perpetual state of anxiety. And I hate not knowing what comes next. I've done a lot of things in life because I didn't think carefully enough beforehand, didn't know to turn tail and run. When I'm in trouble, I rue this major defect in my character. Once I'm out of trouble, I thank goodness for my ability to use fantasy to pull me into escapades for which I'm utterly unsuited. Without that ability, what follows could never have happened.
We've barely set foot in China, and already I'm feeling the familiar twinge of panic that I might get lost. Knowing how to find my way is a skill of more than ordinary importance to me. In a matter of days, we'll be idling at the Great Wall in a seventy-year-old vehicle and waiting for a checkered flag to wave downward, releasing us on a 7,800-mile car race to Place Vendôme in Paris. My husband Bernard will be driving. And for the next thirty-five days, I'll be telling him where to go.
At the moment, I am plowing my way through the crush of people jostling to meet arrivals at Beijing Capital International Airport. I walk as my mother taught me when, as a small girl, I struggled behind her, bucking the rush-hour crowds in New York's Grand Central Station. "Put your hands on your hips, darling," she said in her lilting French accent "comme ça," her manicured hands placing mine properly, so my elbows stuck out. "When people are too close, just poke them," she told me, tossing her head with laughter at her own daring. The trick worked for her, but I suspect it had nothing to do with arm placement and all to do with her glamour and perfume. I was five years old. My head barely reached the average commuter's waist. No one gave way for me, leaving me struggling to keep up, face reddening with panic, rubbing my bruised elbows.
Here in Beijing, my mother's crowd-tamer trick is once again deficient. Buffeted by hordes of happy greeters, I watch Bernard swiveling his hips through the mass of people like a retreating rumba dancer. So sure is he that he's breaking trail for me, helping me along, that he doesn't even glance back to see I'm falling further and further behind.
To keep my carry-on bag from sliding off my shoulder, I scrunch my neck to keep the strap in place. But my neck, already cocked at an odd angle from eighteen hours in a plane, refuses to maintain the position. The bag, loaded with maps, chargers, a handful of my favorite lemon Luna bars, and a Radio Shack-worth of spare batteries, slams to the floor. I stop to readjust, looking up just in time to make out Bernard as he dodges into a small taxi. By the time I duck in beside him, I'm a sweaty mess. I'm also a happy mess, ready for the relief offered by this safe, though sadly too temporary, mobile haven.
Despite being jet-lagged, with eyes shriveled to hard little raisins from too many hours on a plane, there's one thing I do notice: there are a lot of people here, more people in one square block than in the entire 2,400 square miles of my Colorado county, where the resident population barely breaks 1,400 souls on a day when everybody gets out of bed. Millions are going about their business as our taxi driver wends his way through traffic, stopping now and then to let a flood of pedestrians flow across the clogged streets. When a gap appears at the curb, new pedestrians swarm to fill it, backed by countless more. Peering through the window, I alternate between stunned gratitude that I'm here and a fretful anxiety at what this implies. Everywhere are street signs in Mandarin, a language I've been unable to learn. Since I'm stupefied with lack of sleep, I actually believe if I stare hard enough at them I'll learn the language by osmosis. If I don't, how will I ever understand signposts to get us out of the country once the race begins?
Our driver swerves around pedestrian obstacles in a marvel of brakeless daring, his body a universal symbol of diligence with hands clenching the steering wheel, back ramrod straight. As for me, normally so impatient I'd like to personally press a cab driver's foot on the gas pedal, I feel a distinct yearning for him to slow down. I'd be delighted to live in this cab forever, if it meant avoiding the moment when I have to don the mantle of navigator-in-chief to Bernard's role as driver. If someone were here to listen, I'd say, "This is all a big mistake." Yes, I know Bernard is next to me, but he's not in any position to understand my longing to flee. He's a man with limitless faith in himself. I don't mind a risk or two, but only if I can control the outcome. As surely as I know my long hair and deep-set eyes are brown, and that while I'm not plump I will never be skinny, I know the Peking to Paris Motor Challenge is a runaway horse charging downhill with the bit in its teeth. I've ridden such a horse so I can tell you: control is not one of the things you feel in that situation.
What perplexes me is how in the past 700-odd days I never found the courage to tell Bernard I don't really want to do this. Of course, that would have meant bucking the trend of our marriage. We're a couple who generally does everything together, accommodating each other's foibles in a way many people never manage. We created a successful software company together, built our dream home, turned our backs on it all, and took on the ranching life. Any one of those would have shredded a relationship more fragile than ours. Yet here we are, still married.
Let's be clear, though. This race is Bernard's dream, not mine. Cars for me are purely a functional means to reach a pleasant end, like a friend's house, a good restaurant, or my favorite nail salon. And then there's that other issue, that small matter of getting carsick. The nausea wells up as soon as I try to read in the car and it lasts for hours after I again set my feet on terra firma. Equally dire for any car-related enterprise, I can barely tell a car jack from a jackass. How could I have been so spineless as to agree to this enterprise or so deluded as to think it would go away on its own?
Giving up on learning Mandarin from the back of a cab, I rest my head on the nubby fabric of the back seat, a spot marked by so many resting heads that the gray upholstery is darkly stained with hair grease and scalp sweat. When I close my eyes, the lids become a screen for a movie trailer, an endless loop I've been rerunning for months now. It starts with clonking Chinese percussion, shrill violins, trilling flutes, then the booming bass voiceover:"When their car collapses, stranding them in the Gobi, fun and fireworks erupt. Will they make it? Or will one of them walk home alone? Follow this manic duo as they feud their way through Siberia and beyond. ..." We're in the starring roles, and this sounds like a comedy preview, only none of it strikes me as humorous.
The whining din of those devil violins fades away as I drift back to a warm September afternoon on the courthouse lawn of my tiny ranching town. Sizzling elk burgers spatter their juices onto charcoal. Tantalizing riffles of meat- and fat-scented smoke drift into the heavy branches overhead, where robins twitter their fervent hope that they will not become bird-kebabs on that grill.
As days go, that one was benign and rustic in its charms. I saw no sign saying "Caution! Anguish and marital discord ahead," had no inkling I was about to descend into a realm of merciless travails with the swiftness of a barrel over Niagara Falls. All for one thing: to drive the Silk Route taken by Genghis Khan and race against 125 other teams, using a classic car most people would have left in their granddad's garden shed.
It's a day I'd reviewed in my mind countless times, wondering if that afternoon could have had a different ending.CHAPTER 2
Picture this: fifty exquisite classic cars parked haphazardly under the flickering shade of tall cottonwoods. They're the crème de la crème, the sort that make you gasp with admiration. I'm talking Shelby Cobra, Bentley, Lagonda, Aston Martin. Drivers and their navigators wander among plastic-clothed tables. They're sniffing, salivating, and waiting with good-natured impatience for the local Lion's Club to declare lunch ready.
This is the Colorado Grand classic car tour, a week in which the most beautiful old automobiles in the world are invited to drive through our state's small towns and breathtaking scenery. On this route, my beloved county is the smallest and poorest of all, a mere splash on the map, with only one town. That town is a ramshackle collection of buildings straddling the state highway, itself just a two-lane blacktop connecting Wyoming with ski resorts to the West and South. It's a place you'd drive through and wonder aloud who could possibly live in this cluster of lackluster clapboard houses. Look past those boarded-up buildings, and it all becomes clear. Our valley has wilderness areas on three sides as well as gold medal trout streams. Soaring over it all is that cerulean sky for which Colorado is famous. This is the place to drive through if you have an old car and want to use it. As these people do.
I wend my way through the crowd, pausing now and then to inspect a vehicle. I know even less about old cars than I do about new ones. Even if I had an iota of connoisseurship, I'd hardly dare touch the gleaming paint on any of these. Far be it from me to blemish a six-figure vehicle with a finger smudge.
When I finally spy Bernard, he's unconsciously bouncing up on his toes. His strong, five foot six frame is like a hot air balloon barely tethered to the ground. I grab his arm to prevent liftoff. Bernard's an effervescent man anyway, but now he's bubbling in a way I haven't seen in years. His green-blue eyes are framed by a mass of crinkles, his eyebrows are waggling, and his French accent is getting stronger, as it does when he's truly excited. "This is Matthieu and Amélie," he says, gesturing to a slender, sandy-haired gentleman with piercing blue eyes, his arm sweep including the classically groomed woman at the man's side. I take in their studied casualness, their creased khakis, no brand name visible. Around here the only time pants are pressed is when you wear them out of the store, the name Carrhart or Wrangler prominently displayed on your back pocket. With barely a pause for me to say, "Pleased to meet you," Bernard launches into the cause of his excitement. "Remember the book I have about the Croisière Jaune? Well, they've done something just like it, following the old Silk Route. It's a rally. For old cars." He spears me with a passionate stare. "There's another one in 2007."
Bernard takes barely a moment to swallow and catch his breath, but it's enough to give Matthieu an opening. This he fills with the most extraordinary information. "It's called the Peking to Paris Motor Challenge," he says in faintly accented, slightly off-kilter English, though whether his origins were Swiss, Dutch, or German I couldn't have said. He studies me in a professorial way, interested in me perhaps, but more interested in what he's about to tell us. "You know, this is a redoing of a car race organized by Italy's Prince Borghese a hundred years ago. So 2007 will be the centenary."
As he now recounts, in May 1907 five cars set out from Peking — as it was called then — to prove that man and machine could indeed go anywhere, that borders between countries were irrelevant. They left Peking with no passports; these had been confiscated by Chinese authorities on the pretext that the drivers were spies. The Chinese had no interest in seeing the success of the motorcar, having just invested in shares in the Trans-Siberian railway. On this first-ever endurance rally, there were no marshals or officials. Fuel was transported by camel. The person who went to Peking to drop the flag at the beginning of the race caught the ship back to Paris and arrived just in time to flag drivers across the finish line sixteen weeks later. Of the intrepid five, four made it to Paris, arriving to a tumultuous welcome and worldwide fame. The fifth, maneuvering an awkward motorcycle-automobile hybrid called a Contal cyclecar, bogged down in the Gobi desert. "The crew was lucky to be found alive by locals," Matthieu informs us. Arching an eyebrow, he continues ominously, "Their car was never found."
Wiping his hands on a clean rag and carefully closing the long hood of the exceedingly elegant car behind him, Matthieu offers a sop to calm the agitation that must be evident on my face. "Things are better organized these days, of course. But the Chinese still don't seem too happy to let us drive through their country." He doesn't appear to be someone's mechanic, so with my customary insightfulness I deduce that the vintage vehicle he's been working on belongs to him. It's massive, but, dare I say, artistic in its design; if it were a sculpture, it would be a Rodin, not a Calder. The vehicle itself seems unusually big, perhaps as long as our extended cab, full bed, one-ton Ford pickup. Its long, sloping front fenders bring to mind a springing cheetah. A steel-spoked spare wheel adorns each running board. The black convertible top is folded back, allowing the black leather seats to warm in the sun. "When I did a similar event in 1997," Matthieu continues, "we drove for thirty days. It was a completely different route. Quite difficult, very tiring. But fascinating."
"What did you drive?" I ask in a sociable, chatty way. It still hasn't dawned on me that someone with a car as splendid as that Mercedes would be willing to submit it to the rigors of Mongolian sands, Tibetan plateaus, or Siberian anything. If one had such a rare and beautiful vehicle, why would one court the possibility of smashing it on rocks, dredging it through rivers, or, even worse, flipping it over? I would like my expression to convey how intent I am on delving into the drama and the rigors of what he's done, but my line of questioning is halted by the need to fuss with stray strands of my hair, which the plucky breeze has just blown over my eyes and into my mouth.
Matthieu looks at me, tolerant and bemused. "This car, of course. Built in 1927. Runs very well." Then he exclaims, "Bernard, this is the thing for you! You will love it." It seems in the moments before my arrival he's discerned Bernard's love for remote places, his pleasure when in deep vehicular trouble, his intense knowledge of all things automotive. Matthieu has no idea that I get panicky at the thought of car breakdowns, that my automotive knowledge fits into the small vinyl pouch that holds my car's outdated first-aid kit. While I have long wished to be at ease in remote places, the truth is, not knowing if I'll reach safe shelter at the end of the day makes me intensely nervous. Why in the world would I want to subject myself to what he's described?
Then Matthieu drops the gauntlet.
"You must have an old car in order to go. Yes, the rally organizers allow only old vehicles to register. Prewar, if possible. Because, you see, they want to create an event that will use cars as close as possible to the originals." His eyes twinkle when he says this, relishing the fact that he clearly has the sort of car they're after. "Do you have one?"
Bernard and I look at each other, speechless. Do we have an old car? What on earth for? What we have are vehicles that can handle six months of winter snows, the deep powdery stuff others pay a fortune to ski in but that we have to drive through. Where we live, if you're waiting for a wintertime roadside rescue, you want a well-sealed, comfortable cab and a fanatically dedicated heater to keep you company during the cold hours it'll take for a tow truck to arrive. Two-seater convertibles with spoke wheels? Sedans with ribbed leather bucket seats and whitewall tires? These are not the conveyances that'll get us home from town in a blizzard.
The bird chatter seems to grow in urgency, while the buzz from the burger line dims into the background. I turn to Bernard and see him standing there, so eager he's almost vibrating. I think, "Well, if you're with him, how bad could it get?" "Bad," I answer myself.
"Go," my adventurous side pleads. "It'll be wild, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Consider it this way: two years from now, would you rather be driving through amazing Mongolia, or fixing a barbed wire fence?"
"Forget about it," retorts the cringing side of me. "The entire concept is too far-fetched. It's everything you hate about travel. Too many people around. Too many unknowns. Stick with what you're good at ... which is not reading in a moving car."
Matthieu is staring at us, a slight smile playing on his lips. If I could stop arguing with myself I'd have a chance to engage this gracious European in clever, meaningful repartee — that is if I could think of anything to say. Thankfully, Matthieu interrupts my baffled reverie, "But, you may not be able to register anyway. Because I think they are already full."
Excerpted from Peking to Paris by Dina Bennett. Copyright © 2013 Dina Bennett. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Preface: Flirting with Disaster 1
Beijing: Take One 3
Courthouse Revelations 7
Why I Said Yes 13
Beijing: Take Two 17
Grill That Beaver, Ride That Ditch 23
Car Troubles 29
What I Learned 41
Beijing: Take Three 51
In Which I Make Friends 57
Finding Roxanne 63
Three, Two, One 71
Into the Chinese Countryside 79
Borders: Take One 89
Time Trial 97
Giving Up Gold 107
Ulaanbaatar Pizza 115
A Good Day 121
The Nature of Things 125
Trouble-Free Day, Troubling Evening 129
What Women Do 137
Circus Elephant 141
Morning Rituals 147
A New Country 151
Our Private Heaven 157
Siberian Cartoons 171
Police Procedural 179
Going Solo 199
Borders: Take Two 205
Race Bunny 211
Post P2P Blues 227
Epilogue: Are We There Yet? 237
Appendix 1 Roxanne's Rebuild 245
Appendix 2 Peking to Paris Motor Challenge 2007 Route 248
Appendix 3 Peking to Paris Competitor Vehicles 252
Appendix 4 What Roxanne Carried with Her 257
Appendix 5 Rally Terminology 260
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Some books are written to be instructional; others serve to stir the senses - creating joy, agony, passion, misery, love and raw emotion. Peking to Paris… is all of the above and more. The story of Dina Bennett and her husband, Bernard, tracks their 7800-mile odyssey as they endure the long, treacherous, uncomfortable and, at times, beautiful journey that commemorates the 100th anniversary of the famed Peking to Paris 2007 Motor Challenge. Dina has difficulty reading while riding in a car (which anyone who is prone to car-sickness can appreciate) and given her long history of motion sickness, it seems outlandish that she will agree to go along with her husband’s plan to be the navigator to his driver for this Rally. For Dina, it is the sacrifice she is willing to make to re-connect with her husband after 20 years of marriage; for Bernard, it is the thrill of a lifetime to compete in this august Rally. Their commitment to the Rally is tested on each segment of the nearly 35-day expedition. Freezing nights and stiflingly hot days, a 1940 LaSalle 52 Coupe (dubbed Roxanne) that breaks down constantly throughout the Rally, and people who are avid racing enthusiasts, automobile devotees and reluctant companions make for a revealing, eye-opening adventure that will delight the novice and motor enthusiast, alike. Dina writes with integrity and humor, sharing her challenges, fears, hopes, disappointments and ultimate victory with the reader, as she chronicles her naiveté at the beginning of the trip, balanced against the stark reality that enfolds her and Bernard as the journey progresses. She paints beautiful pictures with her choice of words on every page. The final chapter is heart-warming and satisfying. Appendices offer details referencing Roxanne’s rebuild list, what the couple packed in their car for the journey, a list of vehicles that participated in the Rally, the daily Rally distance and overnight stops, as well as Rally terminology. For every woman who wonders if she can stretch beyond the fear of facing down the greatest challenge before her and every man who dreams of participating in the adventure of a lifetime – obstacles be damned – you’ll find something to love about this book.