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Four wheels, no rules

By Zhang Zihan (Global Times)

09:34, July 11, 2013

Off-road racing gives drivers an adrenaline rush they never feel on Beijing's congested roadways. Photo: Courtesy of Zhang Yajun

The difference between Wu Dianhua's vehicle and other Beijing cars is obvious at first glance. It's larger, tougher and more muscular, with none of the leather seats, fancy paint jobs or Dolby sound systems of city-bound cars. His is simply not made for traveling the same ring roads; his is made for the wild.

Wu, a 53-year-old auto mechanic, has put 800,000 yuan ($130,428) into his off-roading SUV because, he says, "Nothing compares to the experience of driving such a vehicle."

"[Going off-road,] you can experience the feeling of both a plane's take-off and landing," Wu told Metropolitan. "It's exhilarating."

There are around 70,000 off-road vehicle fans like Wu in Beijing. They're addicted to navigating the rocky mountains, deserts, rivers and swamps of rural China.

As China keeps urbanizing, wild terrain has become more scarce. The latest statistics from the Development Research Center of the State Council show the urbanization rate in China has grown from 22 percent in 1990 to 52.57 percent in 2012, and is expected to hit 60 percent by 2020. Strict automobile modification laws and environmental concerns also put restrictions on this freewheeling sport, but the small clan of enthusiasts are still revving their engines.

Fast and furious attraction

According to Zhang Yajun, director of the Beijing Auto and Motorbike Sports Committee, off-roading first took off in Beijing in 1993. At that time, Beijingers used Jeeps and Cherokees (products of a joint venture between Beijing Automotive Group and Daimler), which were all capable of basic off-roading.

The first professional off-road automobile club was founded in 1997, but it was not until 2003, when the inaugural China Off-Road Race organized by the National Sports Authority took place, that the sport gained some official recognition.

Wu was in that race. It was one of the first races in which Wu took his off-road habit to the next level. Though he didn't place in his first event, he developed a passion for racing and has since become one of only a handful of experienced off-road racers in Beijing, and one of about 200 off-road racing participants currently in the capital.

"I started off-road racing at age 43. At that time, many people said I was too old for this tough sport, but when I first experienced an off-road race, I was addicted," Wu said.

So far, Wu has participated in more than 100 domestic off-road race competitions. He says the boundary-free driving experience is something people rarely encounter in urban life.

"You feel the adrenaline coursing through you, especially when you drive in a rocky field and getting air becomes a frequent thing. It makes me feel young again," Wu said.

Unlike Wu, who enjoys the fast and furious aspect of racing, auto mechanic Ren Xuefa, 39, said he's more interested in creating his own off-road adventures.

Ren started his off-road life five years ago. Whenever he has time, he joins trips held by local off-road fans. So far, he's been to the rocky basins of the Gobi Desert in northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the rugged lands in southwestern Yunnan Province and the scenic east in Fujian Province.

"Off-road racing opened a window for me," Ren said. "There's a beautiful China, which has the most awesome scenery. Driving across this country provides an escape from trivial urban life, a chance to enjoy nature's beauty."

Wu, however, confessed that the races may bring damage to the environment.

"The priority in a race is to win. The more powerful the engine is, the better the performance. Eco concerns aren't as important," he said.

Zhang said careful planning can help prevent environmental damage. "Take our events in Inner Mongolia and Tibet, for example," he said. "The routes we select avoid protected zones and we try not to drive on grasslands as much as possible. Showing respect to local people and the environment is a must for off-road drivers."

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