The hotel travel desk was not being particularly helpful. Run by the ubiquitous government agency CITS (China Tourist Bureau), when I explained I wanted to go to Xanadu I was met with big smiles and an enthusiastic “Yes”. I got quite excited. Unfortunately they thought I wanted a car and driver to take me to the Great Wall, a common request from most tourists staying there. When I returned with a map of China, pointing to where I actually wanted to go, they told me:
This is not possible.
It would cost me at least $2000 for a car and driver, but they were still not sure if it was possible.
There might be an organised tour in three months I could join, possibly, but they were not sure. Come back then.
I had a back up plan, and asked a local work colleague, Allan, if he could help. He also had never heard of Xanadu, but had always wanted to go to Inner Mongolia to ride horses on the steppe and wanted to join me. Excitedly he rang that evening, telling me he had secured both a car and driver who would go anywhere for 600RMB (US$100) per day. I had to be ready and outside my hotel at 5:00 AM the following morning.
Early the next morning I was standing waiting for my car, idly watching a 4WD Emergency vehicle with flashing lights speeding in traffic towards me, wondering what calamity it was heading towards at this early hour.
It stopped. Allan and the driver, Mr Wong, jumped out and grabbed my bags. Mr Wong (not his real name) had ‘borrowed’ the emergency vehicle for the weekend from Beijing International Airport. I noticed immediately that the speedometer was stuck at zero, despite us clearly breaking the speed limit as we flew down the 3rd ring road in the fast lane. It had been unplugged so as not to register any of the mileage as we traveled to and from Inner Mongolia.
Mr Wong and Allan were both excited and were laughing and joking as we sped through the empty streets of Beijing heading north. Me, I was hoping that that there would be no accidents at the airport this weekend.
* Note. Before the Chinese authorities start a manhunt, that is the author at the wheel in the above photo. I got to drive when Mr Wong got bored, which happened a fair bit.