How to go to China with a car (part 2)

As the title suggests, this is the second part of the (not so) thrilling and very long tale of our 5 day trip through China in our British registered car. The trilogy 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 in “How to go to China with a car (part 1)“, section 6 is covered here, and sections 7 – 11 are covered in part 3.

6. Day one (29/07/19)

Start location: Wild camping “Torugart” (N 40.87186, E 75.14196), Kyrgyzstan
End location: Tarim Petroleum Hotel, Kashgar, China
Miles driven: 80

We were told by our tour operator to arrive at the Chinese border at 11:00 local time. Not knowing how long the Kyrgyzstan side would take, we got there for 10:00. At 11:15 we arrived at the Chinese side of the border and were instantly told by our tour guide (way before he told us his name) that we needed to “hurry hurry” (we soon discovered this was his favourite phrase) and we were late. The Chinese border was due to close at 11:30 for lunch until 14:00. This was our first annoyance (of many) for the day. Our guide (whose name we later found out was Agi, a name that I thought was very fitting considering it is an abbreviation of agitate) told us we should have been there at 09:00, claiming that the email had been referring to Beijing time rather than local time. This argument did not stand well when we showed him our email that clearly said “11:00am local time”. It then transpired that he had only been at the border since 10:40, so even if we had arrived at 09:00, we wouldn’t have been able to go anywhere until he got there.

So a crucial piece of advice for future travellers of this journey – no matter what your tour operator says, insist that you will meet at the border as early as possible to give you as much time as possible for what is a very long day.

Our first (of many) checks was a quick look at our passport and visa, and the drivers had to complete a green form. It is essential that you keep hold of this form (apparently), as no one will ever look at it again.

We then drove (“quick quick hurry hurry”) about 5km along a gravel track to the next check point. Here we had to take our phones, laptops and cameras into a building. We showed them to the guards. For us, they just waved us on without looking on anything. They looked through some of Kitty’s photos. They did not plug any of our phones/laptops/cameras into anything. We then had our passports properly scanned and photos taken.

Next, (now 11:30) the drivers took the vehicles into the x-ray machine. After they were x-rayed, the border closed for lunch, and our guide told us we needed to wait 50 minutes for an email to be sent approving the x-ray images. Unsurprisingly, we did not wait 50 minutes. We were given a customs form to complete in preparation for the next checkpoint. This form listed items that needed to be declared, including fresh fruit/veg, dairy products, meat products and cash in excess of $5000. Every half hour or so we asked our guide how long it would be, to be told that it’d be “6 minutes” or the person was “just coming now”. At 14:00 the border opened up again for the end of lunch time, and at about 14:30 we were told there was a “problem” with the x-ray images.

The guard came over to look at the cars but they did not appear to know what they were doing – for a start, they could not tell which x-ray was of which car (which didn’t give us much confidence in their ability to do their job). We asked them what/where the problem was but got no answer. The guards randomly and very briefly searched the cars and that was all.

At 15:00 we left this check point and were told it would be a 100km drive to the customs office, so we had 100km to eat any fruit/veg/meat/dairy that might be in our car, and that if any was left, we would be fined. The first quarter (if not more) of this road was a mixture between a corrugated gravel track and heavily pot-holed tarmac. Much to our tour guide’s dismay, we drove slowly, not willing to damage our car by “hurry hurrying” in case the customs office closed before we got there – especially considering the only reason that we were “late” was because we were told to arrive at the border half an hour before they closed for lunch.

Eventually the road turned into half decent tarmac and we were able to drive at a more normal speed. Our tour guide had not informed us of the speed limits (other than to say that if we drove less than 60kmph we would be fined), and shot off into the distance. There were regular cameras which sometimes flashed, sometimes didn’t – this didn’t seem to correspond with our speed, so we have no idea what the flashing meant. Throughout the entire 100km, our tour guide left us for dust and we did not see him again until we got to the next check point – so much for needing to be guided through China. Luckily, there was only one road so we weren’t able to get lost.

After this point we started to lose track of time a bit, especially as they were working on Beijing time (2 hours ahead) rather than the “local time”. It was gone 17:00 by the time we arrived at a long queue of traffic for another check point. We were way behind the others due to driving so slowly along the bad part of the road, so drove straight to the front of the queue to join them. The guards did not seem happy about this, but Agi waved us through, complaining that we drove too slow and we needed to speed up. At this checkpoint, our passports were checked again. I had to walk through (without going back to the car), whilst Chris went back to the car to drive through. Here I caught up with Kitty, who had been told by Agi that the customs office would now be closed for dinner for two hours, and that we wouldn’t make it to our hotel in Kashgar until at least midnight. Chris was told to drive to the other side of the checkpoint, and then as soon as he started driving he was told to stop. Then he was told to turn around, so whilst doing a three point turn, he accidentally reversed over several of their road cones and squashed them. We don’t think this helped international relations, as following this they did a bit of a brutal check of the car; aggressively pulling out the drawers and letting things drop onto the floor. However the squashed cones did help to alleviate some of Chris’ annoyance, frustration and boredom.

20km further along the road was the customs check point. This, we had been told, was where the more thorough check takes place. Our guide was somewhere behind us (so much for “hurry hurry”) so we waited until somebody came and told us what to do. The drivers had to go into yet another building for yet another passport check. This was then followed by a short drive to the customs building (by this time our guide had caught up with us). We were told to take our “luggage” into the building for it to be x-rayed. As mentioned, we had already packed a bag for this scan. Mathieu had not, so took in his “luggage”: an empty rucksack.

The huge building had around 9 staff who were all seemingly waiting for our arrival before they clocked off for the evening. It must have been all of their first day on the job, because they had absolutely no clue what to do with us. They told us to go to a desk, then when we were halfway there we were told to stop walking and go back, only for the same start-stop cycle to be repeated again. We had to give our passports to our guide, but then our passports were also needed at the desk. Immediately after every instruction they gave us, they changed their mind and instructed us to do the opposite. As I did not have the green arrival form, I had to complete a white and yellow arrival form. Whilst I did this, the drivers went back to their vehicles to be searched. They had a very quick look inside the car, and were more interested in our bag of rubbish than anything else. Chris tried to offer it to them as a gift, but they were not accepting bribes. Once our passports had been returned, we went to a desk (like at an airport) for them to be scanned (again) and our finger prints taken. They took my white and yellow form, and one of the sheets from the driver’s green form.

Once we had all had our passports checked, fingerprints taken, and luggage scanned, we left our cars in the customs building car park and got into the car with the guide for the 80km drive to our hotel in Kashgar. Between the customs building and our hotel in Kashgar, there were two more checkpoints. The first one, we waited in the car whilst our tour guide took our passports into a police station. The second was a toll booth/checkpoint. We went into a building with our tour guide, but before our passports were properly looked at, we were told to wait outside whilst our tour guide waited for our passports to be returned.

Throughout the day, with the exception of the staff at the road side check point, all of the guards had been respectful. In discussion with one, she said to me “we are just doing our job, I respect you, and you respect me”.

We arrived at our hotel around 20:00 (22:00 Beijing time). Our tour guide checked us in, and directed us to a man with whom we could exchange Kyrgyzstan Som/US dollars for Chinese Yaun on the black market (as the ATM in Kashgar is only open 6 hours per day, and was closed by the time we arrived). His rates were poor, so we did not convert our cash. We found a restaurant for dinner, Agi had disappeared before making any useful tour guide recommendations. Despite having a card machine, our cards did not work. So another piece of advice would be to change some money before arriving into China. After dinner we collapsed into bed, exhausted by the days events and apprehensive that we still had four days to go. What could they possibly throw at us next?!

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