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GO-60 Expedition Malcolm’s diary

Leg 4 of Land Rover GO60 Expedition, July 2008

Tue 8th and Wed 9th July

After all the planning, and ups and downs of the first 3 legs, Leg 4 is finally off – or at least Leg 4 is finally leaving in readiness for the ‘off’.  As I arrived at Heathrow to meet the rest of the team, I felt quite excited but also recognised the significant challenges ahead in making the handover from Leg 3 to Leg 4.  It remains one of the most unpredictable and therefore risky aspects of the whole GO60 project.  Which country will the handover take place in? Where will the border crossing be?  Will the vehicles be allowed across?  Will we be allowed to drive them?  Will we be on, or near, schedule?  A lot of uncertainly, the result of which is that I still can’t get too excited.  However, as a natural optimist, I’d like to think it will be ok on the day.

Six of the team were already there: Steve Fallon, Anna and Alex Speed, Mark Rathbone, Pete Waitland and Charlie Spencer.  Ian and Rachel Foston are already in Hanoi, and Mel Wade is on Leg 3, to continue on Leg 4 with us.  Ten of us in five vehicles.

Having gone through to Departures, we grabbed some breakfast before going off in search of that vital last bit of kit we knew we should have remembered. 

The 12½ hour flight was on the massive Airbus A380 (I’m not a plane spotter but even I can recognise this ‘double-decker’ as being something quite different).  None of us slept much, perhaps an hour or two at the most.

As we arrived in Singapore, dawn was breaking on what should have been a new day, but with the overnight travel and the time zone shift, everything was inevitably merging together.  The heat and humidity were the first things to strike us as we stepped out of the air-conditioned airport.  The impact of the tropical climate was just another step towards feeling that we’ve actually started.

After the taxi ride to dump bags in the hotel, we headed straight into town to find the Laos embassy.  Occupying a few offices in an office block, the staff were pleasant and efficient in processing our visas and it took little over an hour.  We were there because we’d learned that travelling through Cambodia may be difficult due to forthcoming political events, and that Laos could be a more reasonable option. 

Visas complete, the next priority was caffeine.  A triple shot latte was needed to get going again, whilst update phone calls were needed and plans made for the rest of the day.

The team spent the afternoon sight-seeing and shopping, enjoying the clean and efficient metro system, the modern architecture and the friendly people.  It was then back to the hotel for the usual telephone conference with Ian and Rachel Foston. 

After our admin session, we walked into town about a mile or so, to China Town.  The place was buzzing with activity with food, clothes and all sorts of things being sold.  We found a restaurant and had a great meal (avoiding the helpful recommendations of the patron towards the two most expensive dishes!)

By 10pm, the hot humid walk back to the hotel seemed quite long and finding our air-conditioned room was a welcome relief.  This has been a long day but I think we’ll crack the jet-lag pretty quickly as a result.

Thu 10th July

I awoke early to some far-off thunder and heavy rain, so got up and wandered down to enjoy a simple breakfast whilst reading a novel.

Today was largely for sight-seeing and highlights included visiting the Stamford Hotel (an impressive 741ft building with a rapid ascent lift to the a panoramic bar on the top floors) and the famous Raffles Hotel where we felt compelled to try a ‘Singapore Sling.’  Raffles Hotel goes back to 1887, and has an amazing history.  I felt that the pink punch-like drink seemed quite frivolous in a place where 300 Japanese soldiers committed suicide, and the last Singapore Tiger was shot to extinction.  No doubt about it though, the place still has lots of character and one was one of those ‘had to be done’ moments.  Ironically, as I sat in the bar, Dave Houston phoned from work and said, “You’re probably sat in Raffles drinking Pimms” – what a ridiculous suggestion, Dave!

Late in the afternoon, we headed down to the marina area where we waited on the quayside for a telephone conference (being the quietist place we could find).  Whilst waiting for the call, a couple of us kept occupied trying to photograph the large angry looking ants that ran in a constant stream back and forth along the wire cable of the railing.

Dinner this evening was in Little India where we had to wait an age for food, but were rewarded with some delicious dishes served straight onto banana leaves.  By the time we got back to the hotel, I was glad again to be going to bed, deciding to get up early to check my email and pack.  The taxi is due to pick us up at 7:45am.

Fri 11th July

Well my alarm was set for 5:00am but when I blearily opened my eyes and casually glanced at my watch, it said 7:15.  I woke Steve Fallon, with whom I was sharing a room, and fifteen hectic minutes later we were back on schedule, packed and ready for a quick breakfast with the rest of the team.

Our flight to Hanoi was comfortable and uneventful and I felt some excitement at going to a country I have never been in before.  Having got through customs with a very useful but unrequested visa extension, we were picked up by a taxi minibus and driven into Hanoi. 

Gone were the clean modern streets of Singapore.  We had entered a new world – hotter, smoggier, more hooting of horns, bikes, poverty and general sprawl.  Many of the team haven’t been to somewhere like this with such different driving than we are used to at home.  Bizarrely though, the natural chaos in the traffic system nonetheless seems to produce a surprisingly efficient traffic flow.  Cars flying in all directions at junctions, pedestrians wandering across lanes of busy traffic and push-bikes laden with comedy-loads of bizarre items; we knew we were into a different phase of our trip.

Our hotel is right in the middle of town and once settled in we went to meet Ian and Rachel Foston.  They work in China and hadn’t met most of the team, despite months of regular phone calls and emails.  It was good to meet them at last and the team is now nearly complete (Mel joining us soon, we hope).

We all went for ‘a wander’ to absorb the sights, sound and smells of this incredible place.  We visited the Ngoc Son Temple built on an island in Hoam Kiem Lake, and then headed into the old city, meandering through endless streets of markets.  These were incredible with all sorts of creatures, most of them technically alive, awaiting the next customer.  Numerous street vendors tried to sell us fairly random things, but unlike other places I’ve visited they weren’t excessively pushy and would actually take only two or three ‘no’s to get the message.

We had supper in a restaurant and had some great food at incredible value.  Compared to Singapore where prices are reasonable but not cheap, this was amazing where the whole bill for nine of us added up to £8 equivalent.

Later in the evening we met Lam, the Vietnamese Land Rover dealer who is joining us for a couple of days to facilitate our move through his country.  A lot still rests on being able to get the team smoothly over the border and onwards in Laos and it may represent the crux of the whole expedition, for a number of reasons.

Dr Malcolm Russell