How to go to China with a car (part 1)

(or motorbike, or camper van)

To drive from Europe to South-East Asia, no matter your origin or destination there are essentially two routes: one is to enter India via Iran followed by Pakistan, the second is to cross China (with various routes/exit points into Pakistan, Nepal, or Laos). At the time we planned our trip, the first of these two options was a bit difficult for British travellers, or overlanders with large bikes/rigs due to the ever changing entry requirements in Iran. As a result, the second option was more or less our only option.

To add a layer of complexity, Chinese entry requirements state that an individual entering China with a foreign (e.g. non-Chinese-registered) vehicle, must be accompanied by a tour guide. This blog (and the following posts) covers our experience of visiting China, from the starting point of researching tour operators, to the end point of exiting China and entering Pakistan. An advanced warning – it is fact heavy and humour light (although I will try to add humour where I can).

As its a lot of information, I’ve sectioned it up as follows:

  1. Tour Operators
  2. When to go
  3. Getting a Visa
  4. Booking a tour operator
  5. Pre-border crossing preparation
  6. Day One
  7. Day Two
  8. Day Three
  9. Day Four
  10. Day Five
  11. Final thoughts

Sections 1 – 5 are covered within this blog post, section 6 will be covered in part 2, and sections 7-1 in part 3.

1. Tour Operators

There are multiple tour operators that run guided tours through China for overlanders. Our initial investigations involved making enquiries with two of these: China Adventure Tours and NAVO – companies which we had read about in other people’s blogs.

We asked for quotes for two different routes, one 5 day trip from Torugart (Kyrgyzstan) to Khunjerab (Pakistan), and the second a 14 day trip from Torugart (Kyrgyzstan) to Tingr-Gyirong (Nepal). The prices depend on the length of the trip and the number of vehicles in the group, they ranged from £922 to £3690. The more vehicles in the group the better; a 30 day tour with 9 vehicles would likely be cheaper than a 5 day tour with only one vehicle. There is an extra cost for passengers, but this is not the same as the cost for the vehicle/driver. Some quotes were cheaper if the tour guide was able to sit in one of the vehicles. The prices tended to include most costs during the tour (including compulsory hotel accommodation – saving money by camping wasn’t an option), and excluded things like food, fuel etc during the trip. The tour operators told us about other groups that were making enquiries, asking if our dates were flexible so that two small groups could become one bigger group. The other avenue for finding other vehicles/a group to join is Facebook – we posted on Overland Sphere, Overlanding Asia, and Women Overlanding the World.

2. When to go:

Our chosen route is through the mountains, the Kyrgyzstan-China border at approximately 3500 metres, and the China-Pakistan border at 4900 metres. Therefore, the route is only really feasible during the summer. We were also limited by our Pakistan visa. Annoyingly, we applied for our Pakistan visa just a couple of weeks before the e-visa programme came into place. As a result we had to get our visa before leaving the UK and it had a six month validity, so we had to leave Pakistan by the end of August which meant that our China tour had to fit within this time frame. Now that it is possible to get an e-visa, this is less of an issue. The other time constraint is that the Chinese borders are not open at the weekends. As we had a five day tour, we started it on a Monday so that weekends would not disrupt us.

We could still see snow on the mountain tops at the end of July, but there was none on the roads

3. Getting a Visa

At the time that we applied, the visa for China had to be applied for in advance from your home country. We were told that it was only possible to apply for a Chinese visa three months in advance. We were going to take more than 3 months to drive to the Chinese border, so we had no choice but to apply for our visa 6 months in advance. For detailed information on the application process for the Chinese visa, have a look here.

4. Booking a tour operator

Two months before we planned to enter China, we posted in the aforementioned Facebook groups to see whether anyone else was planning to enter China around the same time as we were. Luckily for us, we were able to join up with Kitty (and her Honda CRF250) and Mathieu (in his Mercedes 208D), who had already booked a tour with West China Expeditions for the end of July. We agreed to join their group (it was a comparable price to the quotes we already had), sent over copies of our passport, visa, driving license, information about the car, photos of the car from front/back/left/right, and paid a deposit (via TransferWise). They claimed to need about a month to process paperwork before the beginning of a trip, so don’t leave it too late when booking.

Our little group ready to face China!

5. Pre-border crossing preparation

Prior to crossing the border, we read as much as we could about what to expect. Unfortunately, even on iOverlander, the information was limited. We emailed our tour operator (twice) to ask for a list of items that we could not take into the country, but got no answer.

Fresh fruit and vegetables, meat (both fresh and tinned), and dairy products are not allowed to be brought into China. Dried fruit, and nuts appeared to be OK, as did dried foods.

When we arrived, our tour guide asked if we had any liquids. We all had water (which was fine), and things like engine oil, petrol for the stove. Our tour guide moaned at us “don’t you know these things are illegal to take into China due to our customs law” – we moaned back – “no we did not. We asked your company what we could and could not bring in, and we got no reply.”

We asked about our cooking oil – our tour guide had no idea. He asked someone else, and then told us we would probably be fined for it. A while later we asked again, and he said it would be fine. I think he had about as much idea around what could and could not be taken in as we did. Later on we completed a customs form, and this did not mention that we needed to declare liquids (other than dairy products).

Knives were a bit of an unknown – we initially read that all knives (e.g. including your bog standard kitchen knife) were not allowed. At multiple check points during our first day we were asked if we had any “large” knives (we had no idea at what point a small knife becomes a large knife), to which we said no. During searches of our car, our kitchen knife, which was tucked away out of sight, was not noticed by the guards, so we don’t know if they would have confiscated if had they seen it. Each time we were asked, we said we did not have any large knives – who knows whether our definition of “large” was the same as the people asking us.

We also read that they plug phones into software that scans them, and, so they say, puts a tracking software on your phone. We have three phones with us, so we kept our personal phones out of sight and when asked (this only happened once on the first day) we handed over our third phone that we use solely for navigation. We also cleared all the files off of our laptop and put them onto a hard drive – we did this not to hide our files, but in case they put something onto our laptop so that we could do a factory reset without losing any files. At one of the many checkpoints on day one (not the customs check point) we were asked for our phones/laptops/cameras. We showed them that we had a phone and a laptop but they didn’t look at them, or plug them in to anything. They had a very quick scan through Kitty’s photos, but again did not plug it into anything. They did not question why we only had one phone between the two of us.

We also read that the car could be weighed and one blog said they had difficulty because their car did not weigh the same as on their car papers (i.e. the factory weight). In preparation for this we emptied the water tank to make the car as light as possible, however they did not weigh any of our three vehicles.

Another user on iOverlander suggested to pack a bag of clothes as “luggage” etc to be scanned at customs as it made things a bit easier. We did this. Mathieu did not have anything packed, and when they asked for his “luggage” to be put in the x-ray machine he literally took two empty rucksacks out of his car and put them through the scanner. They did not question this.

Overall, the searches of our car were very superficial and not as thorough as we have had at many other border crossings. They just had a quick look in the back and inside a couple of drawers, but nothing more.

Stay tuned for part 2…!

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