Book Review: “Peking to Paris” by Dina Bennett

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Pekingto ParisImagine you are participating in an auto rally.  A rally is not a typical race, but it’s a drive from point to point, with specified start and stop locations, where you are supposed to arrive within a certain time range.  There was a movie called “Gumball Rally”, where they drove from coast to coast in the US, for example.  But your rally is a little different.  In this rally you:

Depart from Beijing (formerly called Peking). How you get there is your problem.

Drive north through the Gobi Desert to Mongolia.  Not such great roads in the Gobi Desert.

Cross Mongolia.  This is mostly a desert country, and it’s really, really big.  It might take a week just to get across Mongolia. Roads may exist on maps, but maybe not so much on the ground.

Enter Siberia, which is a veritable garden spot after the Gobi desert and Mongolia.

Cross Siberia, and become familiar with the Russian approach to pothole repair, which seems to consist of making giant potholes even bigger.  Oh, by the way, do you speak Russian?

Drive across European Russia, all the way to St Petersburg.  Do you know Russia has 11 time zones?  Fortunately, you don’t have to drive through them all. Unfortunately, they have some internal police checkpoints, where corruption opportunities abound.

Then you cross the border into Estonia, where you can taste the freedom in the air.

Traverse the Baltic States, Poland, Germany, and enter into France.

Finally reach the end of your journey at the Place Vendome in Paris.

Great stuff, isn’t it?  Oh, I left out one minor detail.  This rally, the  Peking to Paris, requires you to drive antique automobiles, in as close as possible to their original configuration.  Your automobile is a 1940 La Salle.  GM quit making them in 1940.  If you watched the old TV series, “All in the Family”, you may remember Archie and Edith leading off the show with the song, “Those Were the Days.”  There was a line “Gee our old LaSalle ran great”.  Your LaSalle runs great too, on level pavement.   (More info on the LaSalle  here.)

Dina Bennett, an American woman, and her French husband, Bernard, live in Colorado and decided to do this rally, despite Dina’s tendency towards carsickness.  Bernard is very capable mechanically, which was crucial to their success if not survival.  Dina is hyper and Bernard is preternaturally calm. It works for them.

When you read “Peking to Paris” by Dina Bennett, you’ll learn a lot.  A lot about China, the searing air pollution in Beijing that sickens nearly everyone.  A lot about Mongolia, which is still very primitive and very uninhabited.  Dina is of Russian (Jewish) extraction, with her ancestors having fled to avoid pogroms in the early 1900’s, so she has an affinity for Russia and knows some of the polite expressions in Russian.  So you’ll learn quite a lot about what it’s like to be driving a really old car in Russia.

You’ll learn more than you ever thought you would care to know about shock absorbers, and about an obscure piece of metal called a leaf spring.  You need shock absorbers; Bernard had to re-attach them half a dozen times.  But you really need a leaf spring, although I have to admit I’d not heard the term before.  It’s a really important part of the car’s suspension, and without it the car can’t decide which way it wants to go. But of course what you are really learning about is how it affects Bernard and Dina when these various mechanical problems hit.  Bernard is up to fixing more things than just about anyone, but a leaf spring is a job for professionals.  Part of their time in Russia, their car, nicknamed “Roxanne”, rides in the back of a truck.

Lots of human interest about the other rallyers.  They started out with 134 cars, and maybe 75% of them made it to the finish line. Some of them traveled in relative luxury and some of them didn’t bring enough of anything, especially tools.  There’s a nice story about ordering a meal in a Siberian restaurant using nothing but smiles and gestures, and a really interesting story about the border crossing from Russia to Estonia, where knowing some of the polite phrases and knowing how to pronounce numbers in Russian were keys to success.

This book was a joy to read and mixed personal and travel very well.  The only complaint I have is that it doesn’t have a map showing the route.  But the map would have to be pretty big.

Dina and Bernard have been bitten by the car travel bug and this trip was only their first big auto adventure.  I hope there’s another book or two in the works.

Disclaimer:  A free copy of this book was given to the volunteer with the expectation that a fair and honest review would be written of it.

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by Jim McDonough

Jim is a life insurance software guru and sometime world traveler, although the world seems mostly to be Europe. He lives in Texas with his wife and two felines.

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