Authored by Christopher Many
Beyond Kyrgyzstan and the 3,752 metre high Torugart Pass is China, a country where everything – and I do mean everything – is completely different from what most travellers are accustomed.
Laura and I are so-called “permanent overlanders”. We’ve been non-stop on the road now for many decades; our most recent venture a six-year motorcycle journey from Europe to Australia. And like so many other road-warriors who cross Asia with their own vehicle, we encountered a couple of hurdles along the way.
The greatest logistical challenge, by far, was obtaining legal permission to ride through China without a guide. Very, very few overlanders have managed to achieve this. We may have even been amongst the first, who knows?
But we certainly weren’t the last. A handful of vagabonds on wheels have transited China independently since our crossing in 2014/2015.
This is the story of how we did it …
Travel China Overland Without a Guide
Christopher & Laura’s Route
#1 You NEED Permits to Overland in China
A world trip by car or motorcycle requires very little preparation as long as you have a passport, sufficient funds, and no baggage tying you down at home.
If your journey is open-ended, like ours, then visas can be procured along the way, shipments organised once you reach the harbour, and all other logistical problems solved as they arise. However, my statement is only true if you’re NOT intending to cross China with a foreign-registered vehicle.
China is a bureaucratic nightmare for overlanders. Unlike most countries, you can’t just show up at the border, show the immigration officers your passport and visa, and then politely ask to be let in.
You also can’t access much of the internet once you are in, for information and planning, as it is heavily censored by the Government (though this has become less of an issue in recent years with VPNs – just be sure to pick a VPN that actually works in China).
Before you can embark on a Chinese road-trip, you need to obtain dozens of permits through a time-consuming and costly application process. So why not save ourselves the hassle and take an alternative route east, you ask?
Answer: we can’t.
Not if we want to travel the full length of Asia by land.
Why Overland Through China
The world’s third largest country holds the key to one of only two existing doors opening up to Southeast Asia. The other gateway leads through Myanmar.
Anyone who wishes to drive from Europe to Thailand, Laos or Vietnam must knock on one or the other. We opted for China, a country that has always fascinated me. But I want to journey my way: leisurely and free.
I want to wild-camp wherever it pleased me, and stop at any attraction that takes my fancy – though here is where the difficulties started.
Categories of Country For Overlanders
For motorised overlanders, the world can be divided into four categories. Group A consists of nations where you really can show up at the border and have your visa issued on the spot, sometimes free of charge, along with the customs documents for your vehicle.
Group B includes all countries requiring a Carnet de Passage – a customs document allowing the temporary import of a vehicle. Group C currently lists only four countries where special restrictions apply. These are North Korea, Myanmar, Thailand and our next destination, China.
Group D includes nations such as Vietnam, which haven’t made up their minds yet as to what to do with overlanders. Sometimes you’re allowed in, sometimes not, depending upon the political situation or whether the border guard spilt his morning coffee and is in a foul mood.
The Restrictions in China
The restrictions in China are particularly severe. Just as the famous Great Wall was built over 2,500 years ago to repel unwelcome intruders, today’s bureaucratic machine serves the same purpose with equal efficiency. Only now, the “undesirables” are not invading nomadic tribes, but overlanders.
When we first started to collect information from websites and travel blogs, we were sitting on a beach in Turkey. Our hearts sank like a stone. They all declared that crossing China as a foreigner with a foreign-registered vehicle was only possible by partaking in a fully guided group tour booked through a Chinese company.
To begin with, you need to inform the tour company of choice about your intentions: where/when you want to enter/exit China and what you want to see along the way. They will reply with a set itinerary and a quote.
If you find the tour to your liking and make a payment, the company will ask you to submit your documentation so they can set the bureaucratic machine in motion.
Required are scanned copies of your passport, Chinese visa, international driving permit and medical travel insurance policy. Details are needed about your profession and your vehicle.
The tour company can now process your border-entry permit, temporary customs import declaration and re-export certificate. Separate approval letters are needed for each province through which you wish to pass, from their Regional Department of Immigration, police department and Regional Tourism Bureau.
But the process is far from over.
More Bureaucratic Hurdles
Months later, once the tour company informs you that all documents are ready and you can finally cross the border, you’ll have more bureaucratic hurdles waiting on the other side.
Your vehicle still needs to pass inspection, and you need to undergo a medical examination and pass a driving test. Only when you have your Chinese licence, number plates and third-party liability insurance are you really set to go.
This is of course your guide in tow, who won’t leave your side for the duration of your sojourn. According to some travellers’ blogs, he’ll only sleep, assist at police posts and check you into a hotel every night, but otherwise tend exclusively to his own needs.
Exceptionally rare are guides who are willing to wild-camp or cook meals over a camping stove.
The Costs Were Mindboggling!
Once Laura and I had understood the ins and outs of our intended China crossing, we looked at each other and shrugged. The bureaucracy didn’t overly annoy us; we’d been through similar situations in the past. As for the guide, he’d need to travel in a rented car complete with hired driver, since he couldn’t sit on our bikes.
Most worrying for us was the thought we probably couldn’t wild-camp, and that all tours were limited to a single month. How in the world would we manage to cover a distance of 7,500 kilometres, between Kyrgyzstan and Laos, in only 30 days?
We’d planned to stay much longer, so the trip wouldn’t just consist of riding, eating and sleeping. We wanted to spend a few nights here and there, sightsee leisurely, absorb the atmosphere, learn a little of the culture and chill out with locals.
Nonetheless, we contacted and received quotes from 32 reputable Chinese tour operators specialising in overland travel … and almost fell off our bikes. The costs were mindboggling!
Companies typically quoted US$10,000 for a group with two vehicles. The greatest expense by far was the guide and the car we would need to hire.
Most guides charged $80 per day and the rented vehicle, including driver and petrol, was an additional $170 per day. That’s a huge sum for a “service” we didn’t even want!
After a quick estimate, Laura and I concluded that a 30-day crossing of China would cost nearly $6,000 per person, since on top of the fees for the tour company we would have to pay for our own petrol, food and accommodation.
That’s more than I earned in a year!
I almost envy backpackers and cyclists: they don’t have to deal with any of these issues.
The Importance of Entering Legally
We still had time to come up with alternative options. For a millisecond we considered entering China illegally (only for a millisecond).
Tales circulated of overlanders who’d managed to cross the border with their motorcycles by dismantling them, hiding the parts on a Kyrgyz lorry bound for Kashgar and reassembling the bikes on the far side. More than a few of them also spent a fair amount of time in a Chinese prison.
No, that’s not us, no matter how adventurous such tales sound when swapping stories around a campfire. If we cross, it must be by legal means only.
In the same way that I expect tourists who come to Europe to obey European laws, I believe we must obey local laws abroad. Nobody is helped by engaging in illegal activities, least of all the overland community.
Countries might be inclined to enforce even stricter restrictions upon future travellers, and that’s the precise opposite of what we desire most: freedom of movement!
It was at this point – 18 months before we wished to enter China – that we vowed to visit every single Chinese Embassy on our route and write to every Chinese government customs office that would listen to us.
Some of the staff were more than happy to make inquiries on our behalf. What we were told sounded promising: effective since February 2013, foreigners without residency are allowed to drive any vehicle uninhibited through China provided they have a valid Chinese driving licence.
Guides are only mandatory for Tibet and, in times of unrest, Xinjiang Province. These were the new “de jure” regulations from Beijing. The problem, it appeared, was not Chinese legislation per se. We STILL needed to apply for the permits through a tour agency, but the agency could – if they wanted to – allow us to travel guide-free.
With this information, we contacted all 32 tour companies again and asked for a quote: same as before, just without the guide. Of these, 29 refused flat out to help us.
Most said they had never heard of the change in legislation, which in my ears translated to “didn’t want to hear about it”. A few stated clearly that they were a tour company that provided proper tours, and not a “border assistance firm”.
I had more sympathy with them; after all, why should they forfeit $10,000 and support us for a fraction of that amount? Fortunately, the three remaining companies were prepared to listen.
Success With China Tierra de Aventura
Three companies of the 32 we contacted were familiar with the new regulations, but were afraid to be the first guinea pigs to test the waters.
In addition, there was an important issue of trust: if we broke ANY laws while riding through China the company would carry the responsibility and could lose its guiding licence!
Finally, the company China Tierra de Aventura, owned by Ricard Herrero, gave us a thumbs up. He trusted us to pull off the first fully legal, unguided trip through China.
Ricard organised all the documentation and arranged for an agent to escort us from the Torugart Border to Kashgar, the first city where we could get a local driving licence and number plate. After that we’d be sent on our merry way alone for the next 7,500 kilometres.
We were to arrive at Mohan on the Laotian border exactly 60 days later – that was the deadline. The trip would still cost a substantial amount due to the authorisation letters we needed for Xinjiang, Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces.
We also signed up Michael, a friend of ours from Denmark, who wanted to head in the same direction. The price was $2,000 per person, still expensive for a 60-day transit, but at least we would have our freedom and that, for me, is priceless.
Driving into China
Many months later, we meet Ricard in the Kyrgyz village of Naryn, a day’s ride from the Chinese border. He brings our Beijing-approved paperwork, a 38-page stack of documents, and wants to make sure we understand every word.
Our route will lead us over the Tibetan Plateau, just outside the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Our temporary driving licence can be issued for the full two months, and our 30-day Chinese visa can easily be extended in the city of Shangri-La.
We must travel more or less in a straight line between the cities mentioned in the permit. If there’s a temple, lake or other attraction a dozen kilometres off-course it’s fine to visit, but under no circumstances are we to cross into a different province.
Above all, we must stick together.
We mount our bikes and ride towards the border. Despite my years of travel, I do have slight reservations.
What if the local police have not been informed about the legal niceties regarding foreign motorists? What if we get arrested?
With an effort, I push my insecurities aside. Whatever happens, our unguided, pioneering attempt promises to deliver a once-in-a-lifetime experience!
60 Days Later …
60 days later, and the barrier swings shut behind us. I can’t believe we made it to Laos! The whole unguided journey went without any noteworthy problems.
Dare I say it was as easy as riding a bike through Mongolia, Bolivia or even Australia?!
Yes, we had to pass numerous police and military checkpoints along the way, especially in the provinces of Qinghai and Sichuan. But since our paperwork was in order, we were always greeted with smiles.
We camped in the wild on most nights, and encountered many Chinese motorcyclists doing the same thing – overlanding within your own country is highly popular amongst Chinese outdoor enthusiasts!
Our only regret is that we didn’t have the time to explore more of China. Two months barely allowed us to scratch the surface; we’d need years to understand the heart of such an immense, beautiful and complex country.
Overlanding in 2019/2020
Our big hope at the time was that more companies would permit overlanders to transit independently. Because even now, in 2019, ONLY a Chinese tour agency OR a well-connected Chinese citizen can apply for all the necessary permits on your behalf, regardless whether you wish to travel with or without a guide.
However, most of these companies are not inclined to let you to travel without an escort. I fully understand why: just a few weeks after we left China, another agency offered “guideless” tours for overlanders directly on their website. Regrettably, the good news was short-lived.
The company’s first clients, who wanted to transit China from Laos to Mongolia with their 4x4s, were also its last. The group behaved irresponsibly, ignored their permits, intentionally left their preordained route, and soon found themselves illegally in a sensitive area.
They were caught by the police, almost had their vehicles confiscated, and the Chinese tour agency nearly lost its licence … so they justifiably pulled the offer from their webpage.
It’s sad that the stupidity of a few irresponsible travellers can affect the whole community. As I said earlier: one cannot stress the importance of adhering to the laws in one’s host country. Laura, Michael and I were so cautious!
But not all is lost.
You Need to Be Both Patient and Stubborn
Once in a blue moon a stubborn and patient overlander with too much time on his/her hands (like us) manages an independent crossing.
It is – in theory – still possible to transit China guide-free today, if you’re willing to spend a year or so writing letters, establishing meaningful contacts and building trust.
Sadly “China Tierra de Aventura” no longer operates in China. But there are more than 100 other firms (and 1.4 billion citizens, some of whom might have the right connections), and you only need the approval of one.
And if it doesn’t work out for you, hey, don’t feel disappointed. Group-travel can be great fun too, with the right people and a good guide!
If your group is large enough, let’s say upwards of five or six vehicles, then the costs become more manageable, and you might be able to transit China for LESS than $2000 per car/motorbike: the cost of a guided tour always depends upon the number of participants.
I wish you a safe and fascinating journey through China. It is one of our favourite travel destinations, and maybe it can soon be yours too.