Rallying: Meals on wheels at the Cafe Xinjiang: Jeremy Hart reports from Hami, China, on the home-away-from-home comforts for competitors in the Paris-Peking Rally

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The Independent Online
IT COULD have been any cafe serving breakfast anywhere in France on post-Maastricht Monday morning. The air was full with Gallic gossip, the smell of baguettes and coffee, the horizon was bordered by a vineyard in which ripe grapes hung heavily on vines. The scene was quintessentially French.

Only the little matter of 6,000 miles spoiled the effect. The 600 or so Frenchmen on the Paris-Peking Rally who sat nibbling freshly baked bread in a corner of a desert airfield in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang, covered the full spectrum of the political rainbow.

Rally breakfast is on the run, taken at 5.30 while deflating air beds or tightening the last bolt under the bonnet. Breakfast is also the time for filling the latest in hi-tech titanium Thermos flasks (every gadget is in a competition of some sort) and receiving a handout of an unimaginative lunch box, a selection of sugar in various guises.

Rather than the saccharine snack boxes, it has been delicious dinners of typically French fare prepared by an army of 50 chefs under a big top, which has given the rally its harmonious air of entente cordiale. Boeuf bourguignon and steak frites pulls in the crowds. As a result, a big top restaurant in the heart of the nightly bivouac is the social focus for a mixture of 1000 self-proclaimed adventurers.

Riding around the camp on a mini motorbike, his considerable love of food made evident by the resting of his stomach on his lap, the French haulage contractor, Georges Groine, announces into a megaphone the opening of his desert restaurant.

In the temporary showers, people stop scrubbing; under their cars, mechanics stop doing whatever mechanics do and in the press tent, where they charge pounds 12 per minute on a satellite telephone, hungry hacks leap up in mid-sentence.

Le bivouac is a mini-village set up in the most inhospitable corners of far flung foreign airfields, chosen for their logistical benefits, not their beauty. In the Commonwealth of Independent States, each town was paid pounds 17,000 for the pleasure of our company. In return scorpions and snakes share the same sand as the human invaders who arrive in a dozen planes, 10 helicopters and in hundreds of battered vehicles at which some new-age travellers would turn up their noses.

Each nightly bivouac is as different as one town from another. Looming over the airfield at Hami are the snow-capped Kangai mountains in nearby Mongolia. In Jiayuguan tomorrow the western- most fort of the Great Wall will dwarf the assortment of 250 cars and trucks which gather nightly at four or five hundred mile intervals.

There are certain tricks quickly learned when selecting a spot in the bivouac. First is the position of the toilets, second is the direction of the wind and thirdly is to avoid anywhere within half a mile of the big teams like Rothmans Mitsubishi and Citroen, whose pounds 1,000 a week mechanics have a habit of revving roaring racing engines at three o'clock in the morning.

The Citroen navigator, Fred Gallagher, the only Briton in the rally, has learned to cope with the nightly noise. 'I slip into my tent, switch on the world service and read two or three pages of my John Irving book,' he said. 'Then it's in with the ear plugs.'

Gallagher was one of the few professionals to opt for his tent in favour of spending last week's rest day in a Russian hotel. 'It would have to be of a good European standard to get me to leave my tent,' the 40-year-old from Edinburgh said. 'This is the best bivouac ever on one of these raids, even though they might look a bit crude to outsiders.'

While everyone else meets under the big top, the Citroen team are kept in their own compound (even for meals), almost forbidden from mixing with the rest of the rally. 'It is very sad the way they stay away,' Jacques Amiard, a logistics expert for the organisers, said. 'The French are surprised by Citroen's attitude. It doesn't put across a very good image.'

During the day, when the competitors, television crews and journalists are out following the stages, some mechanics and support crew never see anything but the bivouac and its boundaries.

Pierre Lartigue, of France, driving a Citroen, has maintained his lead in the rally for over a week and with the last timed stage on Friday it looks unlikely that he will be overtaken by the three Mitsubishi drivers who are holding the next three places.

A Chinese official working on the rally was killed early yesterday morning when his van was in collision with an unlit truck on a road near Shanshan. It was the third fatality of the rally.

PARIS-PEKING RALLY 16th stage (Shanshan-Hami, 416km, 316km special sections): Cars: 1 B Saby (Fr) Mitsubishi 57:58 penalties; 2 E Weber (Ger) Mitsubishi +3:49; 3 D Auriol (Fr) Citroen +7:24; 4 P Lartigue (Fr) Citroen +7:54; 5 B Waldegard (Swe) Citroen +11:08. Overall: 1 Lartigue 25hr 48min 07sec; 2 Weber +1:21:47; 3 Saby +1:42:53; 4 K Shinozuka (Japan) Mitsubishi +1:48:54; 5 Auriol +4:29:53; 6 Waldegard +8:29:18. Motorcycles: 1 T Magnaldi (Fr) Yamaha 3hr 39min 13sec; 2 S Peterhansel (Fr) Yamaha +1:00. Overall: 1 Peterhansel 78hr 39min 01sec; 2 Magnaldi +09:28.