Eight Thousand Miles in a 1940 LaSalle
Peking to Paris: Life and Love on a Short Drive Around Half the World
By Dina Bennett
Dina Bennett was born in Manhattan. After 5 years as a PR executive she joined her husband’s software 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 high in the Rockies.
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 on nearly every continent. She resides in Walden, Colorado.
In Peking to Paris: Life and Love on a Short Drive Around Half the World Bennett recounts the story of the mother of all road trips: a 7,800 mile race in antique cars. Her husband is driving, a man who’s half-human, half-racecar. Bennett, the navigator, is GPS-challenged, gets carsick and is riddled with self-doubt. The one bright spot in the ordeal: for the 35 days of the race she gets to tell him exactly where to go.
In their 1940 LaSalle, the couple limp across the Gobi, Siberia, and the Baltic states as they head to Paris, while Bennett nurses the absurd hope that she can turn herself into a person of courage and patience. She writes for every woman who’s ever doubted herself and any man who’s wondered what the woman traveling with him is really thinking, in a voyage of renewal that is funny, self-deprecating and marred by only a few acts of fortitude.
Bennett’s book arrives in bookstores May 1st. In this excerpt, the couple have managed to get across China and Mongolia, and are now making their way through the immensity of Russia.
Excerpt from the book: Siberian Cartoons
Having nursed Roxanne over Chinese tarmac and the rutted despair of Mongolia’s Gobi Desert and Asian Steppes, we just may be undone by the Trans-Siberian Highway. Even worse, we can’t find our friends. When we were in China, everyone stayed in the same huge hotel each night. Once into Mongolia, the only hotel available to us was in Ulan Baatar; other than that, we’d all camped together outside small towns.
One way or the other we knew where everyone would be at nightfall. They were either working on their car or in the dining tent. There was no other place to be. In a bizarrely contradictory way, that was reassuring. Here in the Russian gulag, we are again in hotels, except that none are big enough to house the entire rally, so we’re split among three or four lodges every night. With people so scattered, sometimes we don’t see our friends for days.
Since we’re now driving mainly on the highway, and my navigation job requires me giving Bernard a direction about every 30 miles, I have ample time to gaze at the Siberian scene outside my window. We’ve left behind the bucolic greenery of Siberia’s southern borderlands and are entering the heart of Solzhenitsyn’s gulag archipelago.
Gulag is an acronym for the agency that was officially created under the auspices of the secret police on April 25, 1930 and dissolved on January 13, 1960. It stands for Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps and Colonies. According to official Soviet estimates, more than 14 million people passed through the gulag from 1929 to 1953. Some were political prisoners. Others were imprisoned in a gulag camp for crimes such as petty theft, unexcused absences from work, and antigovernment jokes. In 1940, the year Roxanne was built, there were 53 separate camps and 423 labor colonies in the USSR.
The scenery around me gives no clue to that history. Day in and day out there’s a continuous field of growing wheat, the green flatness relieved only now and then by a copse of green birch trees. In its monotone texture and color it feels much like Mongolia, though I’m still grateful to see green instead of brown. It’s early summer and the air is fresh, moistened each day with several hours of drizzle. It all seems benign and cultivated, but I can see how this flat landscape, when whipped by winds during Siberia’s subarctic winters, would be a more impenetrable barrier than anything man made.
In areas such as this, more than a quarter of the gulag population died of cold and starvation during World War II. In this massive monoculture landscape, there’s no animal life to see, no shaggy Mongolian goats chased by skittering motor bikes, no stately, shedding Bactrian camels. The only life along the road is an occasional black and tan raven scavenging road killed bunnies. For all the greenery, this landscape feels more empty than Mongolia.
Occasionally we whiz by a tired Russian hamlet. Just a huddle of low, bedraggled wood cottages with filigreed shutters whose blue or green paint is cracked and peeling. Overgrown weedy yards line each narrow dirt lane. No general store, no personable fuel station, no family run cafes, dilapidated or otherwise.
Sometimes I glimpse a round babushka, tight black wool dress hugging her hunched back, black kerchief over her hair. As she shambles slowly up the street she reminds me of a tiny, earthbound dirigible. These are places that the twentieth century forgot. If they’re any indication of the might of Russia, we have nothing to fear.
Russia is huge and we have correspondingly vast distances to cover each day if we’re to get out of the country in the allotted two weeks. There are no amusing distractions like time trials planned for Russia. The Organizers guessed rightly that no one would be in the mood.
The only times we stop are to register our existence at a passage control and to fuel up at one of the many brightly lit, modern Yukos gas stations that dot the Trans-Siberian highway. Even with keeping our out-of-car time to a minimum, it’s all many of us can do to complete each day’s route in time for a late dinner.
The Set of Dr Zhivago
The Trans-Siberian stays well away from towns, but I sometimes see one on the horizon. From a distance they look like a set from Dr. Zhivago, with whitewashed houses and the gold-clad onion domes of a Russian Orthodox church glittering in the sun. One day, though, our route takes us through the center of one such town and I see something I’m not prepared for, not because I didn’t believe such a thing still existed, but because I never expected to see one myself. It’s a prison, whether a gulag relic or not I couldn’t say. For once I don’t implore Bernard to stop so I can ask.
This is one place I want to get away from. Fast. The rot I see on the outside speaks of the conditions in which those who are inside live. Nothing about the structure tries to disguise its intent. I see guard towers jutting up from the inner courtyard and small blackened windows piercing the long building behind, like vacant, beseeching eyes. A skin of graying paint peels off concrete walls stained with black mold and topped with tangles of rusting razor wire.
The concrete may be crumbling and the whole thing may speak of decay, but the armed guard at the gate makes it clear that once you go through those menacing doors, you’re not getting out without their say-so. He’s alert, at attention, and fierce in his gaze. Usually the sight of Roxanne makes people smile, but this guard’s mouth doesn’t even twitch.
We have three more weeks of intense driving to complete before we reach Paris. Roxanne’s formerly roomy quarters are starting to feel cramped, though I’m certain she has not changed physical dimensions. When we reach our hotel each night, Bernard and I become two dogs fighting over a bone. I want to look around whatever city we’re in, if only to stretch my legs and move about in a space wider than five feet, after which I want to flop on the bed in our room and not move. The main thing on Bernard’s mind is checking Roxanne, and then he wants to have a beer at the bar.
Early evening, after reaching Omsk, I sit next to a majestic white marble stairway in our hotel lobby, happily alone in the swirl of rally check in, while Bernard gets the key to our room. Sybil walks by and gives me a high five. It delights us both to see that the other has made it in for the day. “Doing all right?” she asks.
“Fine. Just sitting still for a few minutes. You know. Not moving.”
“Sounds lovely. I’d join you, but my hair has been screaming ‘wash me’ for days. I better get to it.”
Perched on my marble step, doing a fair imitation of a sphinx, I zone out, not daydreaming, but not paying attention to anything. I’m pleasantly sated with caffeine and sugar, courtesy of the wife of an auto parts shop owner.
New Shock Absorbers
We’d pulled up to their shop before dusk, in search of replacement shock absorbers and the heavy metal mounts that attached them to the chassis. While the owner and Bernard discussed car parts, his wife invited me into the back room to relax. Like many Russian women below the oligarch class, she was portly, her rotund body squeezed into beige polyester slacks, the short sleeves of a size-too-small apricot sweater pinching her arms and stretching across a chest made pointy by a 1950s-style push-up bra.
Her broad face was full of friendship, and after setting the omnipresent kettle to boil, she motioned me to sit on a dark brown love seat pushed against the wall, its cushions stained and misshapen from too many heavy buttocks resting on it. A small color TV was on, with a talking head delivering what I assumed was the evening news.
Handing me a cup of tea, she sat down, then jumped back up and began changing channels. Even in Russia, the news isn’t very entertaining. At each station she turned to look at me. I shook my head. Finally something I recognized, something truly international made me nod. “Pinocchio,” I said, smiling broadly to show how much I love cartoons.
“Pinocchio!” she replied and clapped her hands together with pleasure.
Even as a child I couldn’t understand what Geppetto was saying so it was no loss to me that he now was speaking Russian. My hostess grabbed her own plastic mug and plopped down next to me, the couch sagging noticeably as she settled her plump self on the cushions. Immediately she was up again, bustling around her desk, tugging open drawers.
I thought maybe she’d make popcorn, but no. It was even better. Extracting a large, flat box from the bottom drawer, she lifted off the lid, rustled aside gold tissue paper, peered inside with obvious relish, then offered me first pick from the precious box of chocolates. She took one herself and we both bit in at the same time. Then we both laughed with delight when, like old friends, we simultaneously held up our half-eaten chocolate to show each other what was inside.
The next half-hour passed too fast, eating candy, sipping tea, laughing as Donald and Daffy, then Bugs, followed Pinocchio on the screen. For once, I hoped Roxanne’s suspension problems would take some time to repair.
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