To Beijing by Panda

An ordinary car for an amazing journey

Two friends, sitting at a table in their usual bar, decided that since they were about to turn thirty, the time had come to do something really unprecedented: to travel right across the world in a Fiat Panda.

The Panda is an icon of its age. The car of a generation, of people who are in their thirties today. The car owned by their relatives and friends, even if they don't have one themselves. The car was one of the most common at the time, the model everyone had driven at least once.

And the Panda is also the star of this incredible journey. Two friends, Giovanni Cipolla (age 32) and Francesco “Ciccio” Ponzio (age 28) hang out at the same bar and share a passion for on-the-road adventures. Partly for fun, they started to plan an extraordinary trip. They chose China because it was one of the most distant points which could be reached by road, and the Panda because it was the most common car amongst their generation.

Since they didn't have one of their own, they began to look for a Panda to use for the journey. They advertised and put the word out, and thanks to a friend they found a 1992 Fiat Panda 4x4 Trekking 1100, with Milan plates, abandoned in a warehouse at Brolo, near Messina.

It had been someone's granddad's car and had never been used since, and was in a terrible state. They took it to Palermo on a rescue truck. Here the car was cleaned from top to bottom and carefully restored. The costs were very high, but the interest attracted by Giovanni and Ciccio's plan had already won them their first fans. And one of them, the owner of their favourite bar, decided to pay for the restoration work. After this a young woman, Silvia Calcavecchio, decided to join them on the journey.

A few weeks before they left, they opened the "A Pechino col Pandino" ("To Beijing by Panda") Instagram page, and soon its contents had gone viral. The page's 400 followers had soon increased to 40,000. Now all they had to do was set off.

On 30 July 2018 the Panda 4x4 Trekking 1100 left Palermo without a definite route plan. Apart from a few key points they wished to visit, the three friends wanted to let the journey surprise them, and be led by their spirit of adventure.

After leaving Palermo, the Panda crossed Apulia and caught the ferry to Greece. Once in Turkey, it travelled on to Georgia and then Azerbaijan. Here it caught the ferry across the Caspian Sea to Kazakhstan. Once in Uzbekistan, Silvia had to bid farewell to the adventure. The Panda set off again towards Tajikistan, then back to Kazakhstan, where this time Ciccio had to drop out. Giovanni, on his own, continued his journey into Russia and crossed Mongolia, but at the Chinese border the car was stopped by the tight, strict rules China imposes on the use of vintage cars on the public highway. Giovanni had travelled for 3 months, climbed mountains, crossed deserts and steppes, forded rivers and withstood snow and ice, travelling 16,200 km. He was only 500 from his goal. He absolutely had to get the car, or at least a part of it, to Beijing. So he dismantled the rear-view mirror and took it with him to Beijing, where it was able to "reflect" the marvellous Temple of Heaven.

The stresses and strains of the journey took their toll, but the car's simple construction facilitated all the repairs needed en route.

On the return journey, which took a week, Giovanni headed straight home by the "shortest" route: Russia, Poland, Austria and Italy. On its arrival in Palermo, the Panda was greeted by about a hundred people celebrating outside the bar where it all began.

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