Can you buy and run two V8s from the UK, across Europe and into Vietnam? We join Ben Coombs on his epic adventure taking a budget Chevrolet Corvette and a cheap Rolls-Royce across some of the roughest roads on the planet
The simplest ideas are the best, and road trip concepts don’t come much simpler than V8Nam. Get a V8, and drive it across Europe to Vietnam. Who wouldn’t be inspired by such a gloriously daft idea? I certainly was. And so, it was that in the spring of 2013 I found myself setting course for the far side of Asia in a gloriously unsubtle Chevrolet Corvette, which sounded very much like a warzone.
In the first two weeks of the trip, the Corvette and its travelling companion – a 1978 Rolls Royce, naturally – covered 2800 miles from Britain to the Ukraine, the familiarity of Western Europe slowly falling away until we found ourselves dodging potholes on the shattered road to Kiev, our steeds already feeling somewhat out of their comfort zone.
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Despite initial impressions, the Ukraine turned out to be a rather pleasant place in which to travel, and we notched up nearly 1000 miles on the perma-potholed tarmac, taking in cold-war missile silos and the Chernobyl museum as we went, and almost running out of fuel several times – V8 problems – on our way to the Russian border.
We crossed the border late at night, and were immediately welcomed by a Lada which entertained us with several minutes of tyre-smoking doughnuts, before wheelspinning away into the night. On first impressions, we decided we quite liked Russia.
Daylight revealed Russia’s Volgograd Oblast region to be an empty land of sweeping grasslands with a long, straight strip of tarmac slicing through the landscape to the city of Volgograd; better known for the carnage it endured under its previous name – Stalingrad.
From Volgograd, the landscape gradually turning dustier as open grasslands gave way to the empty steppe of Central Asia, the Kazakh border being marked with an explosion of potholes, and the occasional camel.
Once we were in Kazakhstan, the road gradually deteriorated until we were crawling along over the undulating, broken surface, the Corvette’s lack of suspension travel meaning it was often balanced on three wheels as it tiptoed through the dips and troughs. These terrible roads soon resulted in the Rolls banging its exhaust, which snapped at the manifold and caused us to turn tail and beat a retreat to get it repaired – a piece of welding which lasted all of 50 miles before failing.
While the Rolls was being welded, we’d taken tea with some locals, who advised us to loop around the bad road by heading 300 miles north to the town of Oral, then carrying on east to rejoin our planned route. So that’s exactly what we did, in the largest detour of my life, with the Kazakh police force hassling us all the way.
The road across the Kazakh Steppe was next; a road we’d driven seven years previously behind the wheels of a pair of classic Minis, during the 2006 Mongol Rally. The recent improvements to the road all too clear. Whereas the road surface was once littered with gargantuan craters, we were now able to sweep along perfect new tarmac.
The most dramatic transformation came in the final 200 miles leading to the Aral Sea, which had previously been a nightmare of disintegrating tarmac, slowly being reclaimed by the steppe – hence we were most surprised to find that a brand new road had been built, enabling us to cover the distance in about three hours, compared to the two days it took to drive the road in our Minis.
We then passed the Baikonur Cosmodrome and spent a few days amid the soaring snowpeaks and bureaucratic incompetence of Kyrgyzstan, before setting course for the next stage of the adventure.
China’s border grew in our windscreens as we crossed no-man’s-land. Beneath the nation’s blood-red flag, four immaculately turned-out young soldiers stood unflinchingly to attention. Trucks rolled past the unblinking guards, who maintained their rigid stance as if their life depended on it.
Then it was out turn to pass.
As the V8 rumble reached their ears, the guards began to twitch, desperately trying not to turn their heads. However it was all too much, and the order and discipline of the border post rapidly fell apart as we passed, with drillsquare uniformity quickly being replaced with dropping jaws and an aura of confusion. We were well past them before the guards finally gave up any pretence of order and broke ranks, running after us to find out who the hell we were.
And so began our time in China.
China is not an easy place to enter with a car, and preparations for this leg of the journey had begun five months earlier, when we’d presented the communist government with a full itinerary of our planned route, along with details of the cars and passengers. An intermediary company helped us to negotiate the complex red tape, and also supplied a guide for the duration of our stay – a legal requirement for self-drive visits to China.
Meeting us at the border, our guide – who hailed from Chengdu – set about the getting the cars through the bureaucracy and into China, a thankless task by anyone’s standards, and one which ended up taking four days.
However eventually, the cars had passed their Chinese MOTs, we had Chinese driving licenses and number plates, an inch-thick dossier had been assembled on each of our vehicles, and we were free to hit the road.
And so we got stuck into the 3,500 miles to the Laos border. Our initial impressions were of a country still under construction, and for days our view was seldom without the skeletal outline of a tower block, railway or power station being built, as the government strives to develop the country’s poor West, harvest its abundant raw materials and bind the nation together through infrastructure and migration.
For day after day we crossed empty deserts dotted with building sites, the temperature soaring ever higher. A crowd formed around our vehicles whenever we parked, while on the chaotic highways every third car we passed had a camera phone blinking at us.
Nearly a thousand miles into China, the temperature passed 40°C as we dropped down to the desert town of Hami, known as China’s Death Valley thanks to its location 80m below sea level. Fortunately, the cars took the temperature in their stride, which was just as well as we were locked into our pre-agreed itinerary and couldn’t afford a delay – both in terms of time, and the fact the cars were subject to a £20,000 customs deposit which we wouldn’t see again until the cars left China. Breaking down in-country was not an option.
We then passed the Great Wall of China’s westernmost outpost – the ‘Last Gate under Heaven’, before heading into the mountains which rise up to form the Tibetan plateau; a world of yaks and monasteries, prayer flags and battlements. The landscape retained its barrenness, but acquired a drama which increased with every metre of altitude we gained. Craggy, rough set mountains shadowed the smooth tarmac as the road swerved its way to a highpoint nearly 4,000m above sea level.
After overnighting on the 16th floor of a tower block in the uninspiring regional capital of Xining, we carried on through the mountains, passing the source of the Yellow River before arriving at the Labrang Monastery. Today, this is one of the most revered sites of Tibetan Buddhism and is home to around 600 monks – all of whom seemed rather excited by the noisy red Corvette.
After a few days of Buddhism overload, we headed on through the mountains, passing through lands devastated by the brutal earthquake of 2008, before dropping down into the flatter lands around Chengdu. Smooth tarmac then took us to Kumming, where the Rolls Royce suffered its first Chinese breakdown - a stuck carburettor float which resulted in fuel being pumped overboard through an overflow pipe whenever the engine was running.
Following some head-scratching, we ran the engine without the fuel pump for a while, dropping the level in the float chamber sufficiently for a hammer blow to release the stuck mechanism, allowing the Rolls to reach the border without haemorrhaging half its fuel in the process.
And so we were free to hit the road to Laos, and China celebrated with one last change of landscape, the rolling green hills of further north growing more verdant to the point where we could almost be in the jungles of SE Asia. And following a surprisingly easy passage across the Laos border, we were.
After a month immersed in the obsessive pursuit of infrastructure and capital which is inescapable in modern China, northern Laos felt frozen in time. To the sides of the road, the jungle bulged intimidatingly, full of unfamiliar noises.
The broken tarmac followed a tortuous path through the domed hills and steep-sided valleys which dominate the landscape. People stared blankly at our unfamiliar steeds as we roared past their wooden shacks, while a few folk cruised around on mopeds with the ultimate rural status symbol – an AK47 machine gun or French-era flintlock rifle – draped casually across the handlebars.
After two days’ driving we arrived at one of Laos’ most significant towns – Luang Prabang, a pleasant place on the Mekong River which once served as the nation’s administrative capital. Luang Prabang marked the end of the road for the Rolls Royce, being sold to a hotel to begin a new life as an upmarket airport taxi, and so with 12,000 miles completed, V8Nam was down to one car.
After Luang Prabang, I continued along an incredible stretch of tarmac which swept left and right around limestone karst towers and river valleys, while rising and falling at the whim of the mountains which continued to dominate our Laos experience.
The road passed through the idyllically located town of Vang Vieng and Laos’ capital city of Vientiane, before crossing into Thailand, where we headed for the city of Udon Thani. Here we carried out some work on the long-suffering Corvette, including an oil change, a repair to the cooling fans, and most challengingly, new rear tyres – for some reason, 275 40ZR17 isn’t a very common size in pickup-dominated Thailand, and we certainly needed them.
Next stop was Siam Reap in Cambodia – a city groaning under the weight of tourists. It was inevitable that the place would experience an influx of visitors however, as one of the greatest sights this planet has to offer lies nearby – the incomparable temples of Angkor, which offered a fine photo opportunity for the mighty ‘Vette.
After Siam Reap we headed east to the Vietnamese border, and completed the’V8Nam’ dream with a round of sunset mojitos in Saigon. Instead of driving in, we elected to celebrate our arrival in ‘Nam by buying motorbikes and riding the length of the country, because to really experience this nation of 20 million bikes, two wheels is the way to go.
Following our Honda-mounted interlude, I carried on towards Singapore – still 2,000 miles away. The Corvette slotted into its role as a slightly gaudy addition to the South East Asian backpacking scene effortlessly after so long on the road. Phnom Penh, Bangkok, Krabi and Penang rolled beneath its wheels, before pulling into Kuala Lumpur late one evening, over a third of a year after leaving the UK.
This was one of the most memorable arrivals of the trip. The sun was setting as I dropped out of the highlands, the vast city stretching to the horizon, punctuated by the Petronas Towers which grew larger in the Corvette’s windscreen as I drove, and eventually towered directly overhead, framed in the Corvette’s glass roof.
Kuala Lumpur represented the beginning of the end of the trip, for land was running out. A few hundred miles down the road lay Singapore, where this corner of Asia ends. And so the trip ended there too, 14,000 miles, 22 countries and 5 months after our unlikely cars left England.