When Dina Bennett’s French-born husband Bernard first proposes that they sign up for the Peking to Paris Motor Challenge, she is less than enthusiastic. The road rally, which was to take place in 2007, would be a duplication of a similar car race organized a hundred years before along the Silk Route by Italy’s Prince Borghese. In that first race, five cars set out from Peking, as it was then called, to “prove that man and machine could … go anywhere, that borders between countries were irrelevant.” And here’s the kicker: in the spirit of the first race, the rally organizers only permit those driving vintage cars to take part. Dina and Bernard, who live on a ranch in Colorado, do not own such a car, and even if they did, she tends to suffer from motion sickness. Also, she is introverted, and doesn’t want to deal with the hundreds of other participants. But she also has an adventurous side which 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?” Plus, Bernard is keen to go. So she says “yes.”
In addition to having been married for over twenty years, Dina and Bernard ran a software firm together, and later sold it to take up cattle ranching. They clearly get along well. According to Dina, however, the preparation for the road rally and the race itself put their marriage to the test. They buy a 1941 Lasalle, which they name “Roxanne,” and spend the next several months making it rally-ready. The car will have to travel 7,800 miles through the Gobi desert and Russian potholes, and service stations will be few and far between. Bernard assembles a team of mechanics, and Dina tracks down spare parts. However, as the months slip by, they discover that “the mechanics assigned to strip Roxanne to her chassis are more interested in drinking and dreaming than in rebuilding her.” The ensuing tension causes a bit of marital discord, which Dina recounts in less than a paragraph:
Bernard explodes. “You’re not doing anything,” he rages at me. “Why don’t you do something so I don’t have to do it all!” He shoves me aside and storms out of the house. He’s never said anything that could wound me so deeply. At the same time, I know he’s right. What happened to the woman he married twenty years ago, the one who seized every opportunity to learn something new, no matter how foreign that something might be?”
When the car is finally ready, they ship it off to Beijing. Once they arrive in the city themselves, Dina proves to be the more adventurous eater, ordering the mysterious “crispy duck parts” from a restaurant menu while her companions stick to the tried and true Peking duck. And it is Dina who wants to mingle with the locals and learn about other cultures, while Bernard is all about the driving.
As a reader, I, too, wanted to learn more about the people and customs along the way Unfortunately, once the race begins, there are few opportunities for sightseeing. Although we get glimpses of “maroon-robed monks in Crocs” and Bactrian camels, like Dina, we “have to be satisfied with…limited interaction with the Mongolian camp staff and random village mechanics.”
Much of the drama in this book comes from the various automotive breakdowns along the way. Although Dina alludes to fights with her husband, we don’t get to see or hear them. I’m assuming that the author is protecting her husband’s privacy and insuring that she stays married, however, I would have liked a little more tension. The couple seems a bit too companionable. Did they really get along as well as she portrays while being in a car together over almost 8,000 miles? Well, maybe.
The parts I liked best were when Dina has a chance to meet the natives, like when she ends up watching “Pinocchio” with the wife of a Siberian mechanic, or when she and Bernard go off course and attend a performance of the Bolshoi ballet. Dina’s writing style is lively and engaging, and she makes an enjoyable armchair traveling companion. Although I doubt that I will ever embark upon such a journey with my own husband, I was glad to go along on the ride with this intrepid pair.