Overlanding China: what you need to know BEFORE you go

I received a lovely email yesterday, from a fellow overlander who referred to his own recent guided tour of China as ‘the old fashioned way’. It made me smile 🙂 Indeed, China is opening up to foreign overland tourism and although it will still be years before one can simply show up at the border, get an instant visa and just carry on; it is still lovely to think that at the very least, the REQUIREMENT to cross as part of a fully guided tour is now obsolete.

Over the past few days, since news of our independent traverse hit the virtual overlanding world, we’ve been inundated with emails from palpably excited overlanders wanting to follow suit. This is great! For the sake of good time management, however, I thought it best to write separate and more detailed blog posts about all the things Michael, Chris and I have learnt throughout our preparation and journey.

The following are details which you should know even BEFORE you contact Ricard for a quote. Please don’t hold me to them like your life depended on it! Things in China can change sporadically and swiftly, so understand that all of the below-mentioned was correct at time of print and was true for us 🙂

Let’s get started!

K.I.S.S. (keep it simple silly!)

Although I know that many of you are experienced overlanders, I also know that there will be many reading this post who are newbies to the game. The last thing I want to do…is scare them off. So, before you go on reading all the ins and outs, I’ll give you a brief rundown of the procedure so that everyone realizes just how simple this process can be. We may have had 18 months of preparation work, but 2/3 of the time was just spent trying to find an agreeable agent. That’s now done (you are very welcome 😉 )

Here’s all YOU need to do:

Step1:  Grab a world map, decide where you want to enter and exit China and what you want to see along the way, bearing in mind that the country is HUGE. Next, decide WHEN you want to go, bearing in mind again that the best months are August, September and October.

Step 2: 6 months before your intended crossing email Ricard and outline your route & dates. He will tell you if this is a feasible plan. If it’s not (due to closed roads because of flooding or snowfall) he will recommend an alternative.

Step 3: At the same time, you should also decide where you will apply for your Chinese visa. Some places will only issue an extendable 30 day visa whilst others can issue a 3 month visa. For obvious reasons, the more time the merrier. More info on this later.

Step 4: 3 months before entering China, Ricard will ask you to submit your documentation. A detailed list of what you need is outlined below. Await confirmation from him somewhere close to your intended entry point.

Step 5: Enter China. Have a ball!

This is basically all there is to it!

Now….here’s a more detailed account of everything else you may want to know.

China independently: why you still need to go through an agent

It may now be easier than ever to traverse China without a guide…but you’ll still need to get permits to cross into the country, out of the country and for each province you wish to visit. As of now, there is no way for a foreigner to obtain these permits on their own. Perhaps one day that will change, but for the time being, only a registered Chinese travel agency can put in an application.

Legalities of an un-guided tour: why it works

As of Feb 2013 foreigners have been allowed to come into China, rent a car/motorbike/etc and drive through the country uninhibited. Moreover, although there are current restrictions in place which specifically state that foreign overlanders are to be escorted through Xinjiang and Tibet (for security reasons) there are no such official restrictions for ANY of the other provinces. Of all the 32 agencies we contacted prior to crossing, three confirmed this but only China Tierra de Aventura, (although a little reluctant initially to be the first to ‘test the waters’) decided to take on the challenge. CTA also discovered that when you DO need to be escorted by a guide, a local Chinese speaking person will suffice. He/she doesn’t have to be an ‘official’ guide or anyone working for a travel agency.  Essentially, what Ricard organized for us was a team of local ‘friends’ in a few strategic places, who could meet up with us and help us find our way through a major city, a hotel, or anything else we may have needed. This worked superbly and we met some truly amazing people this way!

We chose to have ‘friends’ for the first week or so and then felt confident enough to do the rest unaided.

All other travel agencies in China don’t much care if you have an amazing time or not. They are making way too much money, charging groups $10,000 for a stressful and rather un-fun 30 day crossing of the country, so I gather it will take a while before they also join the party. Oh well…bad luck for them!

Understanding the legalities: how it works

Having said all the above, it would help if you understood a little of how China works. First of all, it’s important to realize that China is a conglomerate of 22 provinces, each boasting its own laws, restrictions and ‘strictness’, if you will. Moreover, all these laws can change at a moment’s notice if something happens and then, usually, only in the area affected.

Eg. When the Muslim Imam of Kashgar was murdered a few months ago, the government decided that all overlanding foreigners must be guidedby a military escort through Xinjiang at all times. Never mind that backpackers were catching buses without a problem; it was a random restriction placed solely on overlanders. This restriction lasted for two weeks.

Border clashes with neighbours also mean that border crossings (especially in Xinjiang) can close momentarily, re-open whenever and shut for good at very short notice. That’s just the way it is…so no matter what you have in mind, or what Ricard can organize for you, there will still be much out of his (and your) control. Go with the flow is the best tip I can give! Deal with delays, re-routes of whatevers as calmly as you can and know that ALL gets eventually resolved, in one way or another.

Will it work the same for all overlanders?

Now here’s a tricky one! When I was first asked this question, my gut instinct was to reply ‘sure, why not?’ yet I have since learnt that a fellow vagabond, on a ‘bad-ass’ camper truck had some issue recently because he was only issued a car driving licence in China and the police made a fuss because he should have had a truck licence instead. So my answer now is: ‘You’ll need to ask Ricard!’ From what I know, motorbikes and cars are same same, but I never thought to ask if there would be issues with larger overlanding vehicles. Best ask him. 🙂

What will your permits include?

Permits for your vehicle for each individual province you wish to cross as well as permits for the specific borders you wish to use. You will also get a Chinese driver’s licence and vehicle number plate at the first major city past the border. You’ll need to organize your own Visa just BEFORE Ricard puts in your application, as your permits must include your visa number.

Michael (1st left), Chris (tallest) and I (shortest!) with a group of foreign overlanders in Kashgar...and our shiny new Chinese driver's licences & plates!

Michael (1st left), Chris (tallest) and I (shortest!) with a group of foreign overlanders in Kashgar…and our shiny new Chinese driver’s licences & plates!

We copied all our permits (38 pages in total) and also had them translated by a lovely Chinese speaking traveller we met. We wanted to understand exactly what they said. They went so far as to specify cities along our route and how much time we were allowed in Xinjiang Province.

Preparation Time & documents needed

Have all of the following ready long before Ricard asks you to submit them. The application process takes about 12 weeks.

-copy of your passport

-copy of your Chinese Visa

-copy of your driver’s licence

-copy of your vehicle’s last inspection report

-copy of your vehicle’s registration

-vehicle details (make/model/colour/rego/chassis number/engine number/year of manufacture)

-photo of your vehicle, against a white background, of each side

-photo of you, against a white background-headshot (do not wear a white T-shirt or you’ll be rejected!)

Cost

I am very reluctant to mention the price the three of us paid to cross China, for one main reason: I’d hate for anyone to hold Ricard (and China Tierra de Aventura) to one specific price, when I know that it can fluctuate depending on how many people are crossing together and, more importantly, which borders they use and provinces they intend to transit. Yes…some borders are more expensive than others, just like some province permits are cheaper. If you are serious about a China crossing, and have done at least some research, you’d know that a 30-day guided tour costs about $10,000 if you go it alone, and less if you can find other vehicles to join your group and share the costs of the guide. Suffice it to say that, for obvious reasons, driving independently will cost much less PLUS it’s the same price whether you stay one month or two!

Time Limit in China

Vehicle permits expire after 2 months and can’t be renewed, so 8 weeks is the maximum amount of time you can stay in China with your own vehicle. I would strongly suggest, if you can, to get a 3-month visa in advance. We could only obtain a 30 day visa in Kyrgyzstan and had to rush to get it renewed in Shangrila (where we got a further 30 days). If you can save yourself that hassle it will be well worth your while.

Restrictions

Once you work out a feasible route with Ricard, he will apply for your permits and will specify the places you want to visit and roads you want to take. These details will be outlined on your permits.

NB. You MUST stick to your permitted route and can’t be found wandering off too far. Sure…if there is a temple, lake or attraction 50kms off-course it’s fine, as long as it doesn’t entail crossing into a province for which you have no permit. That’s the biggest no-no!

Although this takes away the freedom to simply change your course as the wind takes you, we found it to be totally fine. If there was a place we wanted to see, but was not on our permit, we simply parked up the bikes in a hotel/guesthouse for a couple of days and visited by bus instead. This was also a lovely way to break up the bike riding VS touristy days. Consider including as many places as you can on the itinerary you send to Ricard, so as to give you even more freedom of movement. Of course, the cost will increase with each new province you add to your list.

Keep in mind that if you do travel with mates, you will be bound to travel with them the entire time, together. Permits will still treat you as a ‘group’ so you are not allowed to ride alone or cross in or out of the country at different times if the permits are issued to you all as a group. All for one and one for all it is!

Trust the man!

No matter what anyone says (including me!) the only person you should only ever listen to is Ricard. If he says that, for whatever reason, you MUST be escorted by a guide for a particular stretch, then don’t fight the man…but trust him. He’s the only one who knows what’s going on at the time of your crossing and, most importantly, you should know that he has your best interest at heart. All he wants to do is help out fellow overlanders. We all know that every now and then, when travelling, one comes across a pure gem, one of those rare, genuine human beings who just want to help others. Ricard is one of those people. Just trust.

Should you still team up with others?

As I mentioned previously, Chris and I were joined by our motorbiking friend Michael for this traverse. We reasoned that three would be a safe bet: an extra buddy at hand in case of an accident or any trouble can be advantageous, yet any more and we’d increase the possibility of attracting unwanted attention by the police. Although you are in every right to travel unguided through China, it’s safe to assume that it will take years before local authorities get used to seeing large numbers of independent foreign overlanders. For the time being, we suggest you keep a low profile, as we did, and keep numbers to a minimum. We were never stopped, questioned or harassed. Naturally, it is much easier for two or three heads to lay low, rather than 12.

Moreover, one of the main contributing forces behind our insistence to go it alone was that we did not want to travel for two months with half a dozen other overlanders whom we did not know. Travelling 24/7 with the love of your life can be challenging enough! The last thing we wanted was to deal with 12 people, 36 personalities and 1001 different opinions. Personally, I’d say ‘look for a travel partner if you are alone but don’t worry about it if you’re a couple’. You’ll be alright.

Exactly how difficult was it, in the end?

Most of the stress associated with our crossing was due to our own personal uncertainties and insecurities. Due to the fact that we had not known anyone to do this before, we were never really sure of what to expect. For the first week we were riding somewhat on tender hooks. Would we be stopped after 5kms of alone travel? Will the police hassle us despite having all our docs in order? What if we get arrested??!! What if something goes wrong?

In retrospect, the ‘business’ of crossing into and through China was no more difficult than many other countries we have visited. If you have ever gone through the rigmarole of traversing Lake Nasser from Sudan to Egypt (or vice versa) you may also find it all a walk in the park, by comparison.

If you have experiences dealing with highly bureaucratic countries then let us assure you that you will have no problems. If you have never overlanded outside of developed, western countries then sure, China may not be the best place to start. However, as I’m one to dive into the deep end of things, I think China would be actually the ideal first major overlanding experience. Get this under your belt and you will certainly be ready to take on the world! 😀 Moreover, China isn’t exactly just around the corner for most of us: if you can make it to one of its outer borders it means you have travelled far and experienced lots! Be confident that you can handle it well and you will.

I bid you farewell now from tropical Laos and see you soon with another post: ‘what you need to know once you are IN China’

Sabaidii!

Laura x

PS. You can contact Ricard either through the CTA FB page or directly via email (rtomas@chinatierradeaventura.com). Please note that Ricard travels extensively and may be offline for extended periods of time. I know, from experience, that he will always reply to emails…it may just take a couple of weeks at times! 

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18 Responses to Overlanding China: what you need to know BEFORE you go

  1. Laura, I will study all this more carefully later on. Just wanted to express another HUGE THANK YOU for sharing all this. Much appreciated.

    • admin says:

      Excellent, you are very welcome Karin-Marijke…the info will be right here when you’re ready 🙂
      Take care and travel safe

  2. Byron says:

    Very interesting to know, thanks. Laura

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  4. Chad says:

    Great work and thanks for sharing. Fingers crossed I can get something organised.

  5. Ralf says:

    To be honest: at first we´ve planned our motorbike-project “FarAwayTour” along the silkroad to Pamir thru Mongolia to Vladivostok and back on the railroad without thinking of China at all! But the chance to be a trailblazer there changed everything!

    Unfortunately we can not start before 2019 – but hopefully this is will now be a big plus for us and the regulations improve even more until then!

    Looking foreward to all future news and infos from you or other riders in the hubb or anywhere else…

    Ralf

    • admin says:

      Hi Ralf! YES indeed, by 2019 we’ll hopefully see s BIG change in the bureaucratic nightmare that is a China crossing. All he best for your exciting preparations 🙂

  6. Jee Hwan Kim says:

    Apparently you can’t drive on highways?? Is this true? Sounds rather stupid if you ask me

    • admin says:

      Well, if I were to judge every law I’ve ever come across in foreign countries, on their logical merit…I would’ve gone nuts years ago :)) And to be fair, most laws are somewhat logical in their own right, only outsiders fail to understand the logic behind them. Yes, ‘motorbikes’ are not permitted on highways in China, probably because 99% of bikes are small scooters incapable of keeping up with a decent speed, thus causing problems and accidents. We did in fact ride on highways, reasoning that due to the large size of our bikes we would not be stopped. We weren’t 🙂

  7. Jee Hwan Kim says:

    Okay, to sum up, CTA is not offering independent tours, but have said your case was a special one. However, they said if my itinerary was limited to one area, they could have their ‘friends’ accompany me instead.

    As you said, Tibetmoto is not offering unguided tours and they do not think they will for quite a bit. However, it seems Tibetmoto offers the most reasonably-priced service.

    P.S. Also asked NAVO Tours – their service is obscenely expensive.

    • admin says:

      Oh don’t even start me on NAVO! insanely expensive indeed! Wonderful if you can get CTA onboard and thoroughly recommend the ‘accompanying friend’ tactic, we absolutely loved that BUT does one region help you at all?? Are you wanting to actually cross China completely or just travel around a bit?
      For guided trips, then Tibetmoto is definitely the best deal around and Hendrik is a super guy and comes highly recommended 🙂

  8. Andre says:

    Hello Laura!!

    What incredible news you’re giving us after we almost gave up our hopes to go to China without spending a fortune… Actually we’re going to be there in 2 months and 1/2 and we’re in a hurry to contact Richard to discuss with him… To you think that if we’ll get the visa in Tehran in 3 weeks and then keep Ricard posted will be enough time to complete all the applications?

    Thank you anyway for all your precious tips!!

    Andrea & Béa

    • admin says:

      Hi guys! Thanks for your message. Unfortunately, this blog is now almost 2 years old and much has changed. Ricard is no longer taking unguided overlanders under his wings, and although we had found another company which started to offer the services, one colossally bad experience and that too was struck off the list.
      Besides…2.5 months is almost not enough time to organize a transit from scratch, so I suggest you reach out to the overland community online (look up Overland Sphere and Overland to Asia on FB) and see if there is an already organized group looking for more vehicles to join, and share the costs.
      Best of luck!!

    • laurapattara says:

      Hi Andre, how did you go with your China crossing at the end of last year?

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