Historic first crossing of Asia's new Highway to the West


My original aim in writing this book was to record one of the more important journeys in the history of motoring. I have made a habit over the last few years of taking long and often adventurous odysseys, mostly to satisfy my own curiosity for travel, but also to raise money for charitable causes.

On this occasion the journey turned out to be different, and this book, instead of being focused on the travelling aspect, turned out to be more about the physical road we travelled and its implications for the UK and Western Europe. It was the Asian Highway, a new road - or specifically, a network of roads - that will reduce the time and cost of travel between the East and West in many fundamental ways.

We completed the Highway journey from Tokyo to Istanbul and then onto London in 49 days at a distance of 10,000 miles. We were the first to do it - and that achievement, plus the glamorous addition that our car was an Aston Martin of the marque made famous by James Bond, Ian Fleming's quintessentially British spy, might alone, in usual circumstances, have produced a book of interest. But this time it was the road itself which claimed the most important role.

Asia's new Highway system is not a product of the economic boom that has now gripped the largest nations of that continent but rather, it has hastened it into existence. The project was almost 50 years in the making and when it finally came "into force" it was under the first pan-Asian treaty ever sponsored by the United Nations through its Commission in Bangkok. At this time in history when Asia has three nations - China, India and Japan - uniquely among world-leading economies at the same time, the need for better road transportation from East to West and vice versa has never been more important or had such significant implications.

The new system is not finished yet. It is part of a grand Integrated Transport Plan that will eventually see all of Asia connected to the West by road and rail, and through improved routes by sea and air. The Highway network is the first instalment.

There are some "missing links" and the whole project is not likely to be totally completed before 2015 but, as we have proved with our pioneering journey, a fast-road passage from Japan to London via China and Central Asia is now open for business.

Unlike the alliance of states in America or the bond of nations in Europe, Asia does not speak often with a commonality of voice or purpose because of disputes and rivalries in the past, widely disparate economies and a diversity of languages, cultures and beliefs. Indeed, it is probably the reason why so little has been heard of the new Asian Highway in Europe, or even in many parts of Asia itself.

But with a population that is collectively more that half of the world's total, many consequences that arise from its new road system are profoundly significant to the UK and Western Europe. For example, experts have warned the Highway will -

- Bring a vast increase in cars, heavy goods vehicles, pollution and congestion onto the roads of Europe
- Act as a conduit for the rapid transmission of disease and epidemics
- Improve the distribution chain for drugs and people trafficking, and
- Provide an easier route for illegal migration to the 'rich' countries of the West.

The story of our journey is naturally included in the book to give a first-hand "Road test" experience of the new Highway, but the main thrust is given to the history and implications of the road.

We felt privileged to be provided with a car for the journey by Aston Martin, whose cars have been owned by three generations of the British Royal family and a host of rich and famous celebrities. In truth, it was not the most obvious choice for a trip of this kind but we knew it would suit our purpose of drawing attention to humanitarian causes which focused on campaigns for Safer Driving and raised money for the victims of road accidents, particularly young children in China. In turn, Aston Martin wanted to prove the car's durability in arduous conditions and, happily for us, their judgement proved to be sound.

By force of circumstance, it seemed at one stage during the planning process that all our efforts might have to be abandoned when Ford, the giant American car-maker which was needing to make economies, decided to put Aston Martin up for sale after 20 years of "paternalistic" ownership.

Thankfully, the Kuwait financial house which subsequently purchased a controlling interest in the company, also bought into management plans which included our trip - and our record-setting journey was able to go ahead without further delay. In the event, there was a certain symbiosis about driving the Aston Martin - perceived as something of a British national treasure, but now financed by Muslim businessmen with money raised under the doctrines of Islamic shariah law - along the new Highway.

The new road network is in many places a resurrection of the 'Silk Roads', the old trading routes that criss-crossed Asia for centuries, and as progress accelerates towards globalization, there seems little doubt that some towns and cities which were once the world's most important centres of trade in the so-called "golden age" of Islam, will again see a resurgence of their fortunes.

Around 1000 years ago, when the Silk Roads were at their peak, ancient cities like Merv, Bukhara and Samakand, which have diminished and decayed in today's Central Asian states of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, were then the cradle of all Islamic teaching, law and culture, and grew prosperous at the crossroads for camel-train merchants travelling back and forth between the civilisations of East and West.

Similarly, the new Highway is destined to bring a renewed focus on the importance of Muslim Istanbul, the strategic "gateway" city where the continents of Asia and Europe will be, quite literally, driven together across the Bosporus. As history begins to repeat itself, the lessons which flowed from those Silk Roads in terms of risk, opportunity, international commerce, and the movement of people, came through clearly time and again in our journey of discovery and have great relevance in today's shrinking world where the inter-dependence of nations grows daily.

It was, I believe, as much of a journey into the future as into the past.

Richard Meredith, Newport Pagnell, 2008

Day One

The salesman in the Tokyo camera shop called himself Ted. That wasn't his Japanese name, of course, but he wore it on a name badge to make foreign customers like us feel more at ease. Thankfully too, he spoke a good range of english.

Pic © Nigensha Publishing, Japan
We met him last night in Akihabara, which is known as the "electronic district" of this vast city of more than 30 million people and is, without doubt, one of the greatest retail concentrations of computerised gadgetry, image recollection and digitalised gismo-nology anywhere in the world.

All we needed was to buy some camera equipment capable of faithfully recording this trans-continental journey of ours back to London.

But to be able to give his best advice, Ted wanted to know our story.

"Drawing world attention to road safety," he said, repeating one of our main ambitions. "Well, here in Japan, you should find that drivers behave themselves with care and caution. It's part of our national psyche.

Proud to be British: jokey bowlers and a final wave as we set off from Tokyo
"But as for your route ... the Asian Highway, you say?" I pulled out my bag with the map and its accompanying booklet from the United Nations.

"M'mm, I don't believe I've ever seen a sign for it. Are you sure there is one?"

On Day One, our departure day from Tokyo, we found that Ted was right on both counts. With traffic so thick in the world's biggest city, there was simply no other way than to drive slowly with caution. And, even with Phil's fluency in Japanese, following the signs to reach our designated highway going south tested his navigational abilities to the full. The UN's map confirmed we were on Asian Highway 1 (AH1), but otherwise: who would know?

Tonight as we reach Osaka, another big city, there is more confusion as we roam round busy streets following signs in an unfamiliar language. But we reach our hotel safely in the end.

Day Fourteen

Foot Patrol: Richard showing the way to go
First real test of the car's durability. An enforced detour - something we are told, rather mysteriously, to do with not being allowed near a "sensitive" military installation - takes us off-route to rural Ping Liang.

The gruelling journey is only about 165 miles but it takes eight hours in grid-lock in heat of 60degrees. After our progress so far on express and highways this rough road has multiple problems. Pounded by trucks shuttling in and out of sand and gravel extraction plants, the surface is frequently broken with repair work,

Dusty deviation near Ping Liang
 mounds and potholes. The car has a ground clearance of approx 6ins and several times Richard has to walk in advance like the flagmen of motoring 100 years ago, guiding Phil on a path through ruts that are twice that deep. But the car survives it all - without a murmur of dissent.

Day Twenty One

Down into the lunar landscape
Turpan is one those places you read about in geography books and then promptly forget - unless you happen to go there. We reach it today on our continuing journey across north-west China and it is, by any standards, a phenomenon of nature. Suddenly, after driving for days through empty plains of sandy nowhereness, we drop right into it, descending mile after mile into a huge basin of a place enclosed by rocky escarpments on all sides and with a floor which has lowered itself, quite inconceivably, well below sea level.

A truck snakes down into the Basin
Because of this geological freakery, the temperature rises to a brutish 50degC by day and plunges to minus 20degC at night - a span of extremes that is unsurpassed virtually anywhere else in the world.

To put it bluntly, it is not a place for the feint-hearted. But then again, nature has a way of being kind as well as cruel. Despite its dangers, the Turpan Basin was on the route of explorers, traders and pilgrims who passed this way for centuries and lived to tell the tale.

And so it was with us, on a day in which nature thankfully decided to throw some thin cloud across the sun and to send a cooling wind from the distant Tianshan mountains that kept the temperature mercifully down to around 40degC.

A group of local Urgur people told us the combination was a rare event - just as it was for an Aston Martin V8 Vantage to make the Turpan crossing. If indeed, it has ever happened at all. Until today.

Day Thirty Four

Humps in the road: a modern camel train
An arduous eight-hour drive along the corridor between the sand dunes of the Garagum desert and the spectacular Kopet Dag mountains took us to the port of Turkmenbashi, where we expected to take a ferry across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan.

The journey was punctuated only by the antics of wandering camels in the habit of sitting on the warm asphalt towards the end of each day, causing a driving hazard in the failing light that Aston Martin drivers would not usually be conditioned to encounter on the roads of England (or most other places for that matter).

Day Forty Nine

Ship ahoy! The ferry back to Blighty
And so, at last, we arrive in London - our final destination.

To begin the day there was another silky run up to Calais across French roads that we both agreed were among the best of the whole journey, but first there is the strangest piece of serendipity.

It happened on the autoroute an hour or two going north out of Paris when we spotted a dark blue Maserati being driven by a man who bore the most uncanny resembalence to multi-times F1 world champion Michael Schumacher.

As readers can imagine this was not the kind of encounter that drivers of an Aston Martin, even those who have been travelling for 48 days, could easily resist checking out most thoroughly.

Reporting on parade: Buckingham Palace, London
And it was he (or so we can surely be certain?), as the face so familiar to racing fans the world over broke into a grin as we pulled alongside and he spotted our Make Roads Safe slogan down the side of the car - a message not lost on our hero, who is himself a commitee member of the campaign and one of its leading supporters.

Courteously (for surely that must have been the reason?) the former world champion then allowed us to pass at a speed which discretion forbids me to mention.

© 2010 Mercury Books and Word Go Ltd.

- Introduction
- On-Road Diary



- Signing
- Speaking


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