How to go to China with a car (part 3)

As the title suggests, this is the third 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 it’s 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 in part 2, and sections 7 – 11 are covered here.

7. Day two (30/07/19)

Start location: Tarim Petroleum Hotel, Kashgar
End location: Tarim Petroleum Hotel, Kashgar
Miles driven: 73

Day two involved getting the car paperwork so that the cars could be taken from the customs house to the hotel. As a passenger, I was told I was not needed today, so stayed at the hotel. It quickly became apparent that Chris, Kitty and Mathieu were also not needed and might have well stayed in the hotel with me.

Chris, Kitty and Mathieu went with Agi back to the customs building and collected the cars. The reason they’d been left there (so we were told) was due to the paperwork that took 24 hours to process. However Agi did not go in to collect any paperwork, the cars were not searched again, and (most surprisingly of all) the passports were not even checked – they simply arrived, collected the vehicles and left.

Smiling on the outside, screaming on the inside.

After this they drove to another building and started the waiting game. Before leaving, we were told that they each needed to bring five essential items: passport, driving license, car papers, car license (aka the car papers), and car key. None of the documents were asked for the entire day. After 8 hours of sitting outside this building, Agi was given a piece of paper, and they drove back to the hotel. After being told by Agi over and over the previous day that the minimum speed limit on all Chinese roads is 60kmph, Chris ensured that he drove legally (on the now excellently surfaced road) the entire way back to the hotel, bypassing our useless guide and guiding himself.

8. Day three (31/07/19)

Start location: Tarim Petroleum Hotel, Kashgar
End location: Tarim Petroleum Hotel, Kashgar
Miles driven: 10

Our third day was a spare day, which I presume is scheduled for in case the border crossing/document processing takes longer than two days – we did read a blog where this had happened. Our tour guide (a different person to days one/two) was keen to completely leave us to it this day, but when we suggested that we would top up with fuel in preparation for the following day he told us that it is impossible to enter a fuel station without Chinese ID, so we needed to go with a tour guide to do this. As a result, we agreed to do this during the morning of our spare day. This was a very good decision, as it took a couple of hours to get fuel – the first place had no fuel and then the second place initially refused to give Kitty fuel because she was on a motorbike. After a bit of discussion with the tour guide, they agreed to let us in.

We also went to an ATM. Our tour operator told us via email on day one that we needed to pay the remaining amount either day one or day two of the tour. Gmail does not work in China (along with Facebook, Instagram, Whats-app, Google and basically the whole internet), so we did not receive this email, but instead were told on day two that we needed to pay now in Yuan (they wouldn’t accept dollars). As we had presumed we would be paying the remaining fee online (like the deposit) we did not have the cash and had to go to an ATM to take this out.

Three hours later, we got back to the hotel and had a free afternoon. We walked to the old city of Kashgar which was a nice change from the grimy and overly secure ‘new’ city. Although we initially thought this spare day was a bit of a waste, it was good to have a rest from the chaos, and to see a (albeit very small) bit of China.

The place was full of Chinese tourists, and the streets were laden with souvenir stalls. We were the only Western Europeans around and quickly became quite a spectacle. The aim for all was taking a selfie with the white people, however very few were willing to ask for one. This led to literally hundreds of Chinese people slowly walking past us making very poor attempts to surreptitiously take photos of us. When we made it obvious that we’d seen them by posing or jokingly asking for $1 a photo it was somewhat amusing to watch their internal struggle of embarrassment that they’d been caught, mixed with a burning desire for that all important photo.

A rare moment for two reasons: 1. we have very few photos of the both of us and 2. this is the only time we have been out for a drink on our trip!

9. Day four (01/08/19)

Start location: Tarim Petroleum Hotel, Kashgar
End location: Ben Lei Xin Hotel, Tashkurgan
Miles driven: 186

A driving day! We left the hotel around 09:30 and drove from Kashgar to Tashkorgan. This was an 300km drive, going up to 4000m high. All the way up the road was in good condition and not too steep.

Just outside of Kashgar there was a checkpoint. We had to park up and walk through with our passports. We stood around for about five minutes whilst our guide chatted with the guards and then we left – without our passports being checked.

Our tour guide (yet again a different person to the previous days) stopped us at the last village between Kashgar and Tashkorgan so that we could buy some lunch. Just before the mountains started there was a second checkpoint. At this one the drivers had to go in with their passport, driving papers and number plate – again these weren’t checked. After this it was pretty enjoyable mountain driving – not as stunning as the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, but much more interesting than the flat plains of Uzbekistan.

Chinese tourists everywhere!

At the top, Kitty got a puncture. Luckily she had everything needed to fix it, but this delayed us by about an hour. The road from the top to Tashkorgan was under construction and not in the best condition, so it was slower going in the afternoon. It was tarmac’d but there were diversions off of the tarmac onto a dirt track for most of the journey to Tashkorgan. When we arrived at Tashkorgan we had another checkpoint where our guide took all of our passports in whilst we waited in the cars. From here the road got better again. Just before we got to the hotel we went to the last petrol station before Pakistan. There was a huge queue for this, and it took about another hour or so to get fuel. We arrived at our hotel around 18:00. The hotel in Kashgar had been a fairly nice 4 star hotel. To give this hotel 1 star would have been generous. It was filthy. I dread to think how much we paid for this accommodation, whatever it was, it absolutely was not worth it.

Kitty was determined to fix her tyre without the help of the men

10. Day five (02/08/19)

Start location: Ben Lei Xin Hotel, Tashkurgan, China
End location: Wild camping spot “Gravel Area” (N 36.57754, E 74.82658), Pakistan
Miles driven: 139

For our final day we were told that we would go to the customs office in Tashkorgan (less than 2km from our hotel), have our passports checked and cars x-rayed (which would take about an hour), and then from here to Pakistan (120km) we would no longer have our guide but instead drive in a military convoy. Simple.

Despite the rest of China operating on Beijing time, the customs office worked on local time, so we couldn’t get there until 11:00 (09:00 local time – yes it’s ridiculous). When we arrived, a group of what looked like teenagers who were wearing casual clothes started opening and closing the car doors searching the car. We had no idea who they were, or whether they were supposed to do this or not, and told them to stop – which they were not happy about. We then joined the queue for the x-ray machine. Our guide told us that they wanted us to empty our cars completely but we refused – for us, this would take at least a couple of hours to completely unpack and repack the car, and with a long drive ahead of us and the Pakistan border still to cross we did not have time (or the patience) for this. They decided that we did not have to do it and were’t asked again. There was only a handful of vehicles in front of us in the x-ray queue, but each vehicle took around 10-20 minutes to do the x-ray, so we were not x-rayed until 12:00.

We were then told to leave the cars and walk over to another building with our passports. Our guide was not able to come into this building. We had our passports checked, and I was given mine back with an exit stamp. The drivers were not given their passports back and were told that they needed to drive their vehicles to this building and then they would be given their passports. There was a barrier between the two buildings that did not open when we drove up to it. Kitty, being on a bike and a bit of a rebel, drove around the barrier and was given back her passport.

When we returned to our car we found that it had been keyed – we suspect by the teenagers who we had told off for going through our car. We reported this and were told that they would review the CCTV footage to see who had done it. After being MIA for around an hour, our guide appeared again and told us we should not drive over to the other building because at this building they needed to check the driver’s passports first.

Of all the stupid situations we experienced in China, this was probably the highlight. Kitty, her bike, and 3 passports were on one side of the barrier. Chris, Mathieu, me, my passport and our cars were on the other side of the barrier. The people on Kitty’s side of the barrier kept telling Kitty to phone us and tell us we needed to go to that side. Not wanting to pay for an international phone call she told them to go over and tell us. They refused to go over to the other side of the barrier, or communicate with the guards on the other side (both sides were in China, and all officials were Chinese). Our tour guide kept telling us that we needed to wait on this side of the barrier for some paperwork to be stamped but that it couldn’t be stamped because Kitty had “broken the rules” and gone to the other side of the barrier. We waited for two hours.

During our waiting time, Chris complained to our tour company about the damage to the car and after a lot of different conversations and phone calls, the tour company gave us 1500 Yuan to cover the cost to repair the car. The CCTV footage was not reviewed – when Chris questioned this he was told by the border people “You have been paid. It didn’t happen here, it happened at your hotel”. Had we just been bribed?

Eventually our tour guide told us to walk back to the building on the other side and for Mathieu and Chris to get their passports. I went with them. They were given their passports back and able to walk back to their cars. I then wasn’t allowed to leave this side of the fence and waited with Kitty, who had absolutely no idea what had been going on for the last 2 hours.

The guards on this side of the barrier kept telling us we could go, and didn’t understand why we had been waiting this whole time – to be honest, neither did we. Chris and Mathieu (now with their passports) went into the building on the other side, showed their passports, and were immediately let through the barrier with the cars. Once they had come over Kitty then had to go with her bike to the first side to do the same. When she got back we were able to leave – completely on our own (so much for a military convoy/escort) to Pakistan. The final border/checkpoint being the Khunjerab pass at 4900m.

3 dollars for a photo!
Quick coffee break at the side of the road before we entered Pakistan

11. Final thoughts

We didn’t much care for China. We were expecting the days to be long, frustrating, tiring and just plain pointless. Our expectations were met and then some. Although it might have been completely different, we were pleased we did not book onto a longer tour, as we are not sure we could have coped with it. Our tour company was useless, however they don’t need to provide excellent customer service, or be nice people – there will always be overlanders needing to cross China who have to have guides, so the companies can charge whatever they want and provide whatever standard of service they can just about get away with and they will keep on profiting. Would we recommend them? No. But we doubt that the other companies are much better, so our recommendation is to book the cheapest, whoever that may be. Would we visit China again with a car? Not if we can help it. We would however visit other areas of China without a car on another trip. Are we glad we did it? Yes, the Northern areas of Pakistan were spectacular, and without crossing China we would not be able to complete our London to Singapore journey. It is a necessary evil, and at the end of the day, it’s all part of the adventure right?

4 thoughts on “How to go to China with a car (part 3)

Add yours

  1. Congratulations on surviving what seems to have been the most difficult part of your trip… so far. Have a great time now without guides and so many restrictions.

    Like

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