Overlanding China: what you need to know when IN China

Hi again everyone, hope this finds you well, happy and (half-way) informed about the ins and outs of overlanding in China independently. With this post I hope to answer all the remaining questions you may have about your own adventurous escapade through the fascinating Middle Kingdom 🙂

Before I go into greater details about crossing China, I wanted to take a moment to answer three very, very important questions I am still receiving on a daily basis.

1)     Can you cross Tibet unguided?


You will still absolutely and unequivocally need a guide with you for these two provinces. I thought I was clear in my previous post but obviously I was not 🙁

Whilst Tibet is pretty constant and no-one envisages the restriction there to end any time soon, the situation in Xinjiang is a little murky. Guidelines here fluctuate sporadically depending on the latest ethnic clashes. Ricard will tell you what restrictions apply at the time of YOUR crossing.

Xinjinag: straight & flat for over 1,500kms

Xinjinag: straight & flat for over 1,500kms

2)     How much can you expect to see during your trip?

China is absolutely HUGE so you should be realistic about just how much of the country you can visit. Two months is still the maximum time allowed by all your vehicle permits, so you must plan accordingly.

I’ll be the first to admit that Chris and I travel at snail-speed compared to 99% of fellow overlanders. On average, we cover a distance of 1,000kms a month. Nevertheless, a traverse of China is a mammoth task even for the speediest of Gonzaleses! One of the major turn offs of a standard 30-day guided tour (in the past, many overlanders on a very tight budget booked an even SHORTER tour, i.e. 14 days for 7500km, in order to save on the guide’s daily fee), is the incessant need to travel 400, 500 or 600km every single day in order to follow a set itinerary. That’s just insane! On top of the kilometres, one must find time to sightsee, absorb the atmosphere, learn a little of the culture, chill out with locals and, of course, eat and sleep. What usually ends up happening is that all that one does is eat, sleep and drive. That’s it.

If for whatever reason you only have a month to cross China when driving independently, then – sorry to say this – but your itinerary will STILL feel as rushed as on a guided tour. The benefit of an unguided self-drive however, is that you can extend your visa by an extra month for only $20, double your time and halve your speed! THIS is what makes it priceless.

**Our story: we entered China from Kyrgyzstan at the Torugart Pass border, and exited at the Mohan border into Laos. We covered 7,500kms in 8 weeks BUT over 5,000km of that was in the first month alone. This was due to the fact that the first place on our route where we could easily get a visa extension was Shangrila in the south-west. The ride from Xinjiang to Yunnan Province in such a short time was tough and felt rushed, even though we had no guide to push us onwards…we had to push ourselves! Of course, having a whole month to explore Yunnan Province, considered by many to be the most beautiful, was just bliss in the end 🙂 **

If you have the chance to get a 3 month visa than DO so and avoid having to rush to the first city where you can get a visa extension. Note that you can’t extend in every major city! If you can only get a 30 day visa like us, then ask Ricard about extension options along your intended route and choose wisely!

3)     Why are we doing this (what’s in it for us)?

When I first received this question I was a little put off. I thought it was obvious: doesn’t everyone have the same travel philosophy of ‘paying it forward’ as we do? Perhaps not…

Chris and I have, between us, a combined travel history spanning 28 consecutive years (18 for him, 10 for me) If we have learnt anything in the last few decades it’s that as overlanders, we get NOWHERE without help, advice and counsel from those who have come before us. Yes of course you can be a pioneer in a certain country but how blissfully easy is it when someone has done it before and can give you some hints? I love unpredictability and adventure as much as the next globetrotter…but not when it comes to logistics and bureaucracy. Those are two things I wish to spend as little time and effort on, as I possibly can.

We have both certainly benefitted from other’s help innumerable times, so we see our China crossing success as a chance to ‘pay it forward’. We just want to give something back.

(PS. On this note…if anyone has any info about how we might be able to get our 650cc motorbikes into Vietnam WITHOUT a guided tour, please message me! 😉 )

And there is one more reason why I am so keen to get all this info out there and shared.

Ricard, as I have mentioned before, is an extremely successful businessman who runs about half a dozen companies simultaneously. He runs his China touring business almost as a hobby. He’s not in it for the money or the glory…he’s a die-hard adventure motorbiker who loves nothing more than to help out fellow travellers, that’s all. What I fear, however, is that if he is inundated with countless requests and questions (half of which are sent merely out of curiosity rather than serious intent) he may just shut up shop and consider it all too much hard work. This would be a tragedy for the overlanding world! We’ve just managed to find ONE agent happy to open up China to us…let’s not scare him off!

So, lovely peeps, it looks like you’re stuck with me for the time being! Ah!

IF, after reading ALL my posts about China, you are still unsure of HOW it all works, then please message me, OK? When you are ready to receive a quote and make your plans, then go ahead and email Ricard.

Now let’s get show on the road…here are the most important things to consider once you are IN China.

1)     Get a local SIM card

Your first order of business, once you have successfully crossed the border into China, will be to while away a whole day at the Traffic Authority Offices of the nearest city, getting your driver’s licence and vehicle number plates. You will be with a local agent for this part, so you won’t have to do much except get a little bored.

Your second priority will be to get a local SIM card for your mobile phone. This is imperative to keep in touch with Ricard and anyone else you’ll meet (and need assistance from) along the way. There are several companies to choose from; we found UNICOM to be sufficiently good. We paid 100RMB (about $16) for a month’s unlimited use.

2)     Don’t think of China as one nation with uniform regulations

Each province (there are 22 in total) is an entity onto itself with its own regulations. They care only about what happens within their invisible borders, so in effect it makes China, as a whole, a rather lawless country. What does it mean for you? That it doesn’t really matter what Beijing says or your paperwork states, if you find an asshole policemen who thinks you should pay a fine or fee for this or that, then HE is the only one you must convince to let you go. He is the law, or at least he is as long as you are standing in front of him. This is not especially unique: many, many countries operate like this around the world. If you’ve ever been on a road-trip through Africa, Russia or parts of Central America, you will know what I’m talking about.

3)     You can pretty much ignore the police. Everyone else does

As a Westerner we are quite used to showing respect and reverence to police men and women. In China, that is an almost laughable concept. We’ve seen people speed over the limit, make illegal turns and do whatever on earth they wanted right in front of patrol cars, without suffering an iota of repercussion. No matter how ‘fearful’ you may be thanks to our own western media’s perception of China’s authoritarian rule, let us tell you that the reality is quite different.

China is an enormous country with over 1.3 billion people. There is no government on earth that could ever reign over the whole lot with an iron fist. From a visitor’s point of view, this would have to be one of the most relaxed countries I have ever experienced. People seem to do whatever they please, wherever and whenever they want to do it. It’s totally bizarre and it was a lovely surprise!

By law, motorbikes are not allowed on highways, yet we found this to be an overlooked restriction in every province we crossed except for Yunnan. Bikes, scooters, donkey carts and herds of cows use the highway constantly, simply bypassing the toll gates on the curb-side. Even the cows do this, it’s so crazy!

After the first few days, when we realized this was happening (we saw everyone entering and exiting) we simply followed suit. The only time we ever got yelled at was by the side of a toll booth in Yunnan, near the city of Kunming. We just waved hello, kept riding, and took the first exit off the highway. Perhaps they are stricter in certain areas, we don’t know for sure. Actually, for all we know the toll-booth lady could have just been calling us over for a photo…that’s always possible in China 😉

Posing for pics with locals. This happens only about 175 times a day!

Posing for pics with locals. This happens only about 175 times a day!

Of course, this does not mean that the penalties for causing an accident would not be severe.

4)     Chinese authorities are really not all that efficient

Whilst you’re starting to get a clearer (I hope!) picture of how China works, it’s also wise to remember that the Chinese may be a bureaucratic lot, but they never came across as overly officious. Every single time a policeman or border guard was faced with three foreign motorbikers who spoke no Chinese and played dumb, they soon gave up trying to ask us questions and just let us carry on. Personally, I think that they just did not know what to do with us and wanted no hassles themselves. This translated to no hassles for us J

5)     Surprisingly, you may have an easier time WITHOUT a guide

On this point, I wager a guess that travelling WITHOUT a local guide was to our benefit. The only true issue we had was when we tried to cross the border into Laos. The guard requested a $500 exit fee (WTF?) and argued for hours. Of course he could only argue because he had someone with whom to argue, namely a local agent who was sent to assist us, even though we had insisted on going it alone. Had we not been accompanied, I think we would have been let through much faster. There is also a chance we simply got unlucky on our last day and scored a dodgy border guard.

6)     Be prepared for last minute changes/restrictions/conditions etc

The fact that China is essentially a conglomerate of different laws means that no two country crossings will ever be the same. YOUR situation, YOUR price and YOUR restrictions will very much depend on where you enter China, where you want to go and where you wish to exit. It will also depend on what is happening at the time in the provinces you wish to cross.

I’ll give you our example: we wanted to cross into China from Kyrgyzstan and exit into Laos. We wished to take the southern route, along the Tibetan Plateau and well away from all major cities.  Due to the ethnic tensions in Xinjiang just a few weeks prior to our entry, the local authorities were quite strict. We had to be at a specific border crossing on a specific date, meet a specific fixer there, and exit the province of Xinjiang again on a specific date at a specific provincial border post. It made no sense, really, but it mattered not: these were the conditions imposed upon us when we put in our application through Ricard, and that’s what we had to do. If you happen to get a different person processing your application, then you may get a different set of rules (and price!) to adhere to. That’s China. No hard and set rules for all; just whatever the guy who processes your application feels he needs to do.

No matter what, understand that things can change at the last minute (for whatever reason) and you will just have to adapt.

7)      Steer clear of well known, touristy hot spots

As I mentioned in my previous posts, the three of us did not visit any of the internationally renowned places of interest in China. We did not ride to Beijing or Shanghai, did not visit the pandas (still sobbing!), the terracotta army, the Great Wall blah blah blah. We did none of that and chose to spend most of our time traversing remote wilderness areas instead. Firstly, because that’s what we actually love most and, secondly, because we figured that as long as we kept away from big crowds and big cities, then we’d potentially have fewer problems.

We spent 6 out of 8 weeks riding through the countryside which, by the way, changed dramatically in every province. Only during the last fortnight did we join the ‘tourist trail of Southern Yunnan. It is here that we met the first westerners on our trip, and here is where our experience changed. It was great to eat a hamburger and speak English with fellow nomads, but the “mystique” we had encountered for a month and a half had suddenly disappeared.

China has many big attractions, granted, but major cities and places of interest might be best done on a back-packing trip, and not whilst driving a foreign registered vehicle. Due to our “nature-first” itinerary we also never, EVER, felt like we were in a country with a gazillion people. We bush camped for 42 out of 60 days, in insanely picturesque spots…by rivers, lakes, forests, plains and behind sand dunes. It was pure magic in that regard. If you want to read more about our nature-filled trip, then click here

8) Never feel intimidated

Experienced overlanders know that foreign police or army guys are very much like grizzly bears: they can smell fear a mile away. Chinese police are no different. From the moment we took hold of all our paperwork and tucked it away with our Chinese driver’s licence and number plates, we knew that we had every right, legally, to be riding unguided through the country. We acted like that too, never faltered and never faced any problems.

 (Extra hint: the Chinese are about the least aggressive or intimidating people I have EVER come across. We found them to be polite and quite submissive, especially when faced with tall, strapping Westerners. Of all the ‘authorities’ I have ever met, they would have to be the least scary. Trust me…I’m a short-ass!)

Believe it or not…I think that’s it!

Really? Could it be that I’ve told you everything? Well I think so, I really do…

I’m quite sure you can fill in the rest on your own now.

I wish you a fantastic time planning your trip and discovering this incessantly fascinating country. Proceed with just a little caution, and much common sense and we know you will have an equally priceless experience.

And now off you go to conquer China!

Travel safe and happy (and don’t forget to pack two spare petrol canisters 😉 )

Ciao for now

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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19 Responses to Overlanding China: what you need to know when IN China

  1. william tarzan says:

    Really a great read on China Laura . I duly forwarded your piece onwards to myriad other fellow friends and aquaintances with a similar interest .

    As for Vietnam on moto larger than 150 cc…..well in the past this was nigh impossible without a lenghty paper trail . However things do change…I have heard from fellow travellers that it is indeed now possible to enter with nearly any moto . Infact my friend Big Tom Degenfeld from Austria and his lovely Dutch gf got right in on his 1200 gs and her 650 Africa twin . You might email him
    directly for first hand info ……bigtomsride@gmail.com He spent several months there riding all over . Just now Big is in Lompok going for his dive instructor endorsement . I as well have done some 20,000 kms there but on a local Sym scooter 150 that I bought there last year . The riding is basically great but if at all possible avoid the so called Hwy 1 , Ho Chi Minh trail along the coast and choose the mountain / highland routes whenever possible . Get accustomed to incessant hornblowing as well….

    Have fun ,


    • admin says:

      Hey Will,
      Thank you so much for the feedback, it’s appreciated AND for the tip on Vietnam. I’ll get Chris to email Tom now and enquire as to how they sneaked into Vietnam.
      I am taking (what I consider) a well-deserved few months off logistics 😀 After China I think a whole year off may be in order, ha!
      Thanks for the highland tip and as for the horn-blowing, well you know I am Italian originally so perhaps I can teach ’em how to do it right 😉
      Cheers for now and safe travels to you too

  2. Steve says:

    Great article, Laura. Good on you for getting right off the beaten track and avoiding those useless pandas…

  3. Helen says:

    Hi. These posts couldn’t have come at a better time for us. We are looking to travel through Europe in to Asia and have been looking for people who have driven a successful route. We had discounted going through China because as you said it was previously impossible to drive a foreign registered car through China without a guide. Now we can re think our plans.
    Thank you
    P.s we are a family of 4 two young children who are hopeing to drive a motorhome across europe and Asia. Do you think it’s doable in a motorhome? How are the roads? Thanks again

    • admin says:

      Hi Helen,

      But of course you can do it in a camper!! Over the years I’ve met so many families travelling the world on homes on wheels and with bubs in tow 🙂
      Of course, the larger the vehicle the more off-road restrictions you will have, but by and large you can drive from Europe to SE Asia in just about anything. Our Caucasus mountain crossing would probably not be doable in a camper, and parts of the Pamir Highway may be tricky too…but all these are ‘side trips’ which can be easily avoided if one must.
      Fear not intrepid mum…you’ll all be fine and have a blast in the process!
      What kind of motorhome do you have? is is 4WD? Feel free to use the ‘Contact Me form to write and I’ll get your email address too.
      Cheers for now and happy planning

  4. Neil says:

    Hi Laura. I’ve emailed Richard at the address you provided (as well as yourself via the HUBB). I don’t know if these emails arrived successfully as my phone is being temperamental!). I am very serious about crossing China next year and if you are able to help me contact Richard to help set it up, I would be extremely grateful. Cheers.

  5. Paul Moody says:

    Hi we too are extremely serious about following your route across China in our 4wd in September and are waiting to get a response from Ricard.
    I have just seen a negative response on Hubb about Ricard…is he kosher?

    Would love to know your exact routing…..

    Paul Moody

    • admin says:

      Hi Paul, thank you for the message. I’ve actually just seen the message about Ricard in the HUBB and my only responsible is that I can’t possibly comment not knowing the full details. He was nothing but professional and caring towards us, so am not too sure what happened there, but I have an inkling there’s much more to that story.

      Anyway, as for our route, grab a map and connect the dots! These were our main ports of call, with many camping spots in between. OK? Here goes!

      Torugart Pass-Kashgar-Urumqi-Korla-Huatugo-Golmud-Nonton-Xining-Gongha-Madoi-Litang-Shangrila-Tiger Leaping Gorge-Shaxi-Dali-Kunming-Mengla Border-LAOS!

      That’s it, hope it helps. Cheers from Cambodia 😀

      • Mike says:

        Hi Laura!

        Thanks so much for all the information and the _incredible_ story so good to hear a tale of hard work paying off. I’ve taken the liberty of plotting your route through the country – mates of mine and I intend to do a similar journey and are currently looking at the logistics of purchasing motorbikes once we arrive in China.

        I think this map is roughly accurate although the route is automatically generated so I’m sure you will have taken different roads along the way, but it gives an overview. Perhaps some other travellers will find it useful too.

        All the best,



        • admin says:

          Thank you Mike!!
          I’m sure plenty will find it very useful so thanks for being considerate.
          Have a GREAT time and enjoy the at time agonizing planning…very worthwhile efforts in the end 🙂

  6. Guido Schmidt says:

    great news from China and a real interesting summary.
    How did you manage the get che Chinese paperwork done?
    Is there an agency we can refer to?

    Thanks a lot

    • admin says:

      Hi Guido, thank you for your message. Yes, we used an agent to get our paperwork as it’s still impossible to do that on your own. We used an agency called China Tierra de Aventura and I detail everything in the following two blogs. Hopefully more agencies will jump on board and get with the independent programme!

  7. John says:

    China Tierra de Aventura Facebook page looks decidedly out of date and Ricard doesn’t seem to be responding to emails. I hope all is well.

    • laurapattara says:

      Hello John,

      I assume you’ve caught up with the rest of the blogs on China and are now updated of the happenings of the last year. Tibetmoto is probably the best bet now and I assume with a bit of persuasion, one could find others to agree to an independent crossing. Safe travels!

  8. Shandy PT says:

    Hi Laura,

    thanks for the post. It is tonnes of useful stuff there. What i wanted to know, how did you plan your routes. Motorcycles are not allowed on Chinese highways. So, how did you figure that? I dont know any chinese, so its critical for me.

    • laurapattara says:

      Hey Shandy, the route is determined by yourself in combination with the agent that’s handling your paperwork, who will know which areas you are allowed to ride on and which ones you’re not.The main point is once the itinerary is set and permits applied for (the permits specify the route you intend to take) you must never veer from it too much. We literally used Google to make a nice route for ourselves, the agent agreed and applied for permits for all the different areas, which were all granted. We had no probs riding bikes on highways by the way (there are many bikes in China doing same) and only took secondary roads near big cities, where we could’ve drawn attention to ourselves. Good luck!

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