Under normal circumstances, Kashi is one of the last places on earth in which you’d expect to find a Ferrari. This bizarre little town is to be found at the western edge of China, close to the border with Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan, but it’s far removed from the contemporary image of China. Islam, not communism, is the dominant religion and the majority of the people don’t look or speak Chinese. Arabic characters sit side-by-side with the more familiar Chinese alphabets and you’re more likely to eat a lamb kebab than Beijing duck. It’s an extraordinary place from which to begin a drive across China… in a Ferrari. Waiting outside my hotel are a pair of 612 Scagliettis, dressed in red and silver and daubed with ‘Ferrari in China’ motifs.
For the next five days I will call these cars home as I follow the Silk Road, the old trading route between east and west. It’s still dark at 8.30am as we pick our way through the town centre towards the highway. Despite being geographically closer to Turkey than it is to the Chinese capital, Xinjiang still adheres to Beijing time. Its residents, therefore, live in a bizarre world in which it doesn’t get light until mid-morning and then stays light late into the evening. We tack southeast, picking a route along the edge of the Tarim Basin and in the shadow of the Kunlun Shan mountains. Dusty desert wastelands are interspersed by tiny oases of paddy and cotton fields. China is home to 1.3 billion people, but few of them live out here. The scene is far removed from the high-rise, first world extravagance of contemporary Shanghai, but there are still signs of China’s rabid economic growth.
Mobile phone masts are dotted across the horizon and the buzz of my Blackberry provides a link, both literally and metaphorically, with the developed world. So too does the rich timbre of the Ferrari’s 5.7-litre V12.
Five weeks and 9000 miles have passed since this engine fired for the first time in Beijing. And 6000 more must be completed before it reaches the finish line in Shanghai. Part PR stunt and part durability test, the ‘15000 Red Miles’ was the brainchild of Ferrari’s after-sales director Luigino ‘Gigi’ Barp. “To secure the support of the Chinese authorities, we have packaged the tour as a sporting event,” he says. “This is the first time any manufacturer has attempted such a feat in China.” The logistical challenge should not be underestimated. Just to secure a temporary driving permit for China, I had to submit a copy of my CV and eight photographs to the highest authorities.
There could be no flexibility – an Italianate laissez-faire attitude wasn’t going to work. The Ferrari caravan consists of seven full-time support staff, which includes two engineers and a truck full of spares. “We are the red squadron,” says Barp, who used to be a member of the Italian air force. “We have clear rules and strict discipline. People must know and trust the boss – me.” A Fiat hatchback performs a reconnaissance role, relaying information on the road ahead. Its role proves invaluable on the first day, when the newly-laid highway momentarily ceases to be. We’re forced off-road onto a surface for which this car was never designed. The nearest most Ferrari owners come to such a surface is a pebbledash drive. The cars have been modified for the trip, but only slightly. They’ve been raised by 100mm and their underbody wears protective cladding. There’s a larger fuel tank, the headlights boast a protective grille and the snow tyres do battle with the desert sand.
Ferrari’s technicians are also carrying spare ECU’s in case we’re forced to use poor quality fuel. But the quality of the fuel and of the roads is not nearly as bad as the quality of the driving. The highways are not so much roads as tarmac strips upon which the locals see fit to travel. Officially, you drive on the right in China, but no-one seems to care. It’s not unusual to find a horse and cart trundling towards you on the wrong side of the road; motorbikes scurry every which way and no-one stops at a junction.
At first this seems like organised chaos – drivers slow down and take evasive action and there’s none of the horn-tooting aggression associated with driving in the developed world. But it doesn’t take me long to discover the darker side of such anarchy. On three occasions, we pass trucks that have rolled off the road and Barp admits that “an accident is my biggest fear.” This, more than anything else, controls our speed. On clear roads, we settle for an 130 km/h cruise, with only brief spurts into the upper reaches of the 612’s ability.
Even with this revised set-up, Ferrari’s most grown-up car makes a fine grand tourer. The engine is almost too quiet and the ride cosseting enough to make 500 mile days a pleasure. You also never, ever tire of the effortless thrust afforded by 540bhp and 588Nm of torque. Even if an F430 could have coped with the terrain, it would have been a painful companion on such a long haul.
By the end of the second day, we’ve arrived in the small town of Minfeng, on the edge of the Taklimakan desert. The town has one central high street, which is littered with tiny cafes and stalls. In the centre of the street, a local butcher wheels a still warm carcass of mutton past busy shoppers – there’s no refrigeration, so the meat must be sold fresh. I park the Ferrari and it immediately draws a crowd. The locals peer through the windows and grab at the door handles. With the help of a translator, I snatch a word with a bystander called Uquili. He claims to have seen ‘Fellarli’s’ formula one car on television, but has no knowledge of the road cars. “I have no money,” he says, “but I am confident that in the future I will afford a car.” His words go some way towards appeasing concerns about the ethics of driving such a conspicuous symbol of wealth through such a poor area.
Ferrari sold 90 cars in China this year, but they are to be found in downtown Shanghai or Beijing, not Minfeng. Ferrari’s PR guru, Antonio Ghini, is dismissive of such criticism: “Italy was poor in the post-war period,” he says, “but a Ferrari was a stimulating message, an inspiration. I believe it can play the same role in China today.”
Next morning, we leave Minfeng and head due north, dissecting the desert. Covering an area of more than 330,000sq km, the Taklimakan is the second largest in the world, and it’s on the move. Fierce sandstorms blow the desert sandhills from the north and in the last millennia, the whole desert has shifted south by 100km. The road is surprisingly good and we push on.
I’ve spent time over the past couple of days swapping between the silver car, which boasts a manual shift, and the red car, which has a semi-automatic F1 gearbox. Having initially been hugely sceptical, I’ve been won over to the concept of an F1 ‘box. On long journeys such as this, it’s ultimately the more fulfilling companion. I’ve also warmed to the 612’s styling, even though I still think the ‘Scaglietti scallops’ look contrived. There’s also no place for such cheap plastic switchgear in what is otherwise a spacious and beautifully finished cabin.
The locals call the desert the ‘sea of death’ and it’s easy to see why. While the natural beauty of the dunes is undeniable, it is difficult to think of more inhospitable environment. The anonymity of the sand is broken only by the occasional Camel train and a sprinkling of houses that derive their subsistence from god knows where.
Only after 200km are we afforded some relief in the form of the desert’s only fuel station. Its name, appropriately, is ‘mid-point’. But the Taklimakan is not without its treasure. On its northern edge, we pass through a Sinopec installation, sucking oil from the desert floor and driving China’s economic renaissance. Its arrival has stimulated the development of a makeshift village and as I drive east towards my final destination of Jiayuguan, we encounter more nomadic communities, servicing the railroad or highway construction. In a few months’ time, the new highway will be complete, but for now we are forced to drive for more than 200km on rutted dirt roads that cause the whole car to cry in anger.
Pushing on in near zero visibility, we rely on our reflexes and the strength of the 612’s suspension. Eventually the battering sounds the death knell of the silver Ferrari’s left rear tyre, but the cars emerge otherwise unscathed. Ferrari’s build quality really has improved dramatically in recent years – it would have been inconceivable to imagine such a journey just a generation ago. Jiayuguan lies in the Gansu province, beyond the Tarim Basin.
We’re now less than a thousand miles from Beijing in a much more affluent environment. Historically referred to as the ‘mouth’ or China, it holds a symbolic location at the end of the Great Wall. On my final morning, the Ferrari and I pay homage to one of man’s most famous and enduring achievements. For me, this marks the end of what has been a fascinating few days, but for Barp and his team, this is just another landmark in what is proving to be an epic tour. I return to town in a taxi as the red squadron takes flight once more.