Rally to shadow of Great Wall

CHINA'S open-door policy will extend to its roads later this year when many of the world's leading rally drivers and their navigators chart a course from Hong Kong through the country's vast interior to the very shadow of the Great Wall.

The 3,800-kilometre odyssey will leave competitors with little opportunity to see China's stunning interior or mingle with the people, as they dash out of Hong Kong on October 23 and six days later roll up to the doors of the Forbidden City in Beijing.

It's undoubtedly a metaphor for the collision between the old and the new, the modern and the antiquated, which is certain to fray the peaceful fabric of rural China.

But rather than spurn the ear-splitting mechanised column of 50-plus rally cars, plus a gaggle of support vehicles, China's country folk and officialdom in the five provinces through which the event will pass, have clamoured to be part of it.

But it is not the first time China has been linked with an international car rally. In fact the first was more than 80 years ago when a dedicated band of be-goggled enthusiasts did the impossible - drove from Beijing to Paris - a feat that took more thantwo months and was somewhat euphemistically described in the press of the day as an ''epic adventure'' - a caravan of discovery, more like it.

That gung-ho spirit was rekindled in 1985 when the first 555 Hong Kong-Beijing Rally was staged after close links were forged between the Hong Kong Automobile Association (HKAA) and the China Motor Sports Association (CMSA).

It was an epic undertaking that was spawned from the vision and enthusiasm of two men; the HKAA's chief executive Phil Taylor and CMSA vice president, Qi Jincheng.

Between them they worked tirelessly to realise that same spirit of adventure that drove the first competitors in the Beijing to Paris event.

Thirty-six competitors set off on that landmark rally in 1985 to a chorus of scepticism that it couldn't possibly work in a country lacking the infrastructure or genuine interest to sustain such an event.

While Taylor candidly admits that the first rally wasn't without its logistical hitches and problems with accommodation it was a thrill of a lifetime for all who took part.

And it was an even greater thrill for the largely rural populations of inland China who lined the route in their thousands to catch a fleeting glimpse of a disappearing exhaust pipe.

Officials in the major population centres marshalled thousands of police and other government workers to ensure the competitors came and went without problems.

A measure of the success of the event led to it being staged again in 1986 and 1987 with more competitors and a vastly swelled audience along the way. An estimated nine million people lined the route during the last race.

The largely unknown outside world had arrived in rural China in the most dramatic fashion.

But the passing of time precipitates change, and the tempo of change in China, particularly since the last rally in 1987, has been staggering - at least in Taylor's eyes.

Since he mapped out the first event in 1985, Taylor has been ''up the road'' (to Beijing) 15 times, a remarkable feat in itself.

He has logged just under 9,000 kilometres this year alone in preparation for October's event.

''Of course it was all new and exciting when we first did the route in 1985 but I suppose it's a little passe to me now,'' Taylor joked.

''The beautiful mountain scenery of Henan Province remains but I couldn't help but be stunned at the amount of progress in the south of China.

''Roads have been ripped up and towns grown up in the space of six years since 1987.

''And it's not as though that development is just around Hong Kong, it extends 700 to 800 kilometres north of Guangzhou,'' he added.

In fact Taylor believes it would not be all that difficult for an average motorist to now drive all the way to Beijing ''with the necessary permits'' if he or she took care.

''Progress brings improved communications and that includes roads, but the traffic flow has also risen significantly which is a new problem we have to deal with on special stages,'' he said.

Taylor and his 110-strong crew of volunteers will harness the latest technology to ensure everything runs smoothly over the 3,800 kilometres circuit.

Taylor said satellites may be used to relay information and plot the rally's progress at the control centre in Beijing.

''On the timed special stages where we want to know if a competitor reached the other end, hand-held radio communication is fine over shorter distances,'' said Taylor. ''But we were restricted to phone and fax from hotels for longer distances in the pastwhich is limited.'' The satellite link will also help speed up rescue team response in the event of an accident.

Taylor is convinced competitors will find the 21 special stages which span about 650 kilometres ''challenging''.

Timed stages will be much shorter than in 1987 to satisfy FIA (motor sport's governing body) regulations, but no less demanding. This move means the race could be included as a leg of the Asia-Pacific Rally Series next year, and win the significant boostof international recognition.

TV coverage, with five camera crews following competitors around the clock, could bring live action and highlights to 400 million people in China alone, as well as homes across the region and Europe.

Co-ordinating the television coverage is Mao Mao, a director of Hong Kong-based SportsPlus Promotions.

He is also a veteran of the event having covered various aspects of the first three races for British-America Tobacco, the marketers of 555 cigarettes.

Because of the huge task of television coverage planned for the event, Mao Mao accompanied Taylor on the latest reconnaissance along the route earlier this month.

''We were eating lunch on the side of the road in Hunan province when an old man in his 70s passed by carrying a load of fire wood. He asked me if the area was going to be a special stage for the rally. We were all amazed he knew what a special stage was,'' Mao Mao said.

''The country people were very friendly all along the route and seemed genuinely interested in what we were doing. Going through the villages it was interesting to note that doors were invariably always open and never locked.

''There's just no stealing in these communities.'' Former world rally champion and competitor in 1987 and again this year, Finn Ari Vatanen, typified the reaction of most competitors when he commented before the start last time: ''This is very different from any other rally, anywhere. It is a jump into the unknown; it will be a great adventure.'' Fitting words from a man who has done four Paris to Dakar events, widely regarded as the world's toughest rally.

Brian James of The Times was also suitably moved when he wrote ''. . . an event in which motor sport is stretched to the edge of impossibility and which ended with due drama in the shade of the Great Wall.'' Fine words of praise for a unique event that has successfully woven a modern thread into an ancient tapestry.

China has taken bold strides to shedding its inate inscrutable nature through broader commercial and cultural contacts with the West but, significantly, it is by means of a sporting event where outsiders can still get a glimpse of the real China where little has changed in hundreds of years. Something rare in a shrinking world.