Our arrival in China in Xinjiang province with three European overlanding cars has required a degree of fortitude that was totally unexpected. We knew to expect more security and police checks but the whole experience was much more of everything than we had been warned about.
Landy potters along the mountainous road to the border in convoy with our new friends, although there are still concerns about the gears, but Landy performed adequately on the good quality Chinese roads leading up to China Gate and immigration. Plus the 60km speed limit was just up our street.
Despite the support of Chinese guides the entry process was lengthy, inexplicable, exhausting and totally unforeseen. We had left Kyrgyzstan on 28th August and three days later we were still not through all the Chinese entry related administrative requirements and had eaten little and suffered from insufficient sleep.
To be fair, as individuals we had got through Chinese immigration and customs in one exceedingly long day. We reached China Gate (immigration) at 1pm Beijing time, and left customs at around 10.30pm, leaving our cars in the customs pound for 24 hours, as foreseen.
The weather across the border was cooler than Bishkek and Chinese customs was a two hour drive past immigration through the mountains, so we were keen to be processed at Immigration before their legendary long lunch break.
However, we were supposed to have been met at China Gate at 1pm by our local guide and he was late and we were refused processing without him and officialdom promptly shut up shop for lunch at 1.30pm, 20 minutes after our arrival, and said that we could sit outside in the hot sun in our cars till they opened again at 4pm.
We found a small bit of shade against the building and our cluster of three cars got out the picnic tables and chairs and raided our fridges to find food and drink to share whilst we whiled away the time. We were not happy with our Chinese local guide who had failed to meet us at the time agreed.
The 2.5 hour wait became 3 hours as Immigration did not open until 4.30pm and it was then that our local guide appeared. It was going to be a very long day and though we did not know it yet, a very long week.
We needed to get through immigration and then drive on for two hours into China to reach their Customs which closed at 7pm. The requirements at Immigration were long winded and onerous and on this occasion our mobile phones were confiscated for inspection and disappeared for more than an hour whilst we waited.
Our cars were X-rayed but there was no other internal inspection. Gas bottles were undisturbed and fresh food in the fridges remained untouched. Most of our time was spent just waiting.
We were not in a huge queue, but we were really just required to wait for inordinate amounts of time while the officials waited for permission to allow us to proceed.
As time ticked by, we did not get out of immigration till nearly 7pm, that was about 6 hours after our arrival.
Once released from Immigration we were obliged with our cars in convoy, to follow a taxi containing our local guide to reach Customs.
Our gears were once again noticeably failing and the mountainous drive to Customs was quite stressful. It was not helped by the fact that the small bus transporting our guide, stopped and told us, without explanation, to return back up a steep pass, to immigration. Both ourselves and our car went into a tizzy and the gears jammed and we were stranded on a steep upward incline as the customs closing time passed and we were driving back to the dreaded immigration.
Getting the car into or out of reverse, involved stopping the engine, turning it on again and coaxing the car out of jammed reverse. Try this on a steep incline in the mountains under the pressure of watching eyes.
Again without explanation we were told to stop our cars and drive back in the opposite direction towards Customs once more. We arrived there at around 9.30pm Beijing time to find that the Customs officers had stayed open especially late to process us, (very tired as it was 11.30pm Kyrgyz time) in the dark and in a thunderstorm.
The security was tight and we were endlessly checked as we made our way to the Customs building, which was indeed open, even though the parking area was dark and wet. (Jim managed to fall into a puddle banging his head and getting soaking wet. The soaking of his UK mobile phone was to have repercussions.)
We were asked for money to “clean our cars” because they were old. We refused this and eventually the demand went away. (The following day we were told that it was for disinfection, but the cars were neither washed nor dipped).
When we had passed efficiently through the empty Customs facility, which was in a vast modern hall and all our biometrics had been taken, were were told to leave the cars in the dark pound and to collect them the next day.
There were no hotels locally and our guide had a coach ready to transport us another 60kms to Kashgar. (He told us there were no hotels booked so we had an hour or so of additional stress as we tried to figure out where to stay. This turned out to be an error and just added to the stress of the day).
It was 10.30pm by now but felt like 12.30am because of the time change. The 60km drive in a coach to Kashgar for our first night took 2.5 hours because of the many police checkpoints we had to pass through in this highly militarised semi autonomous region. These checks involved disembarking and lining up and having our passport details and mobile phone numbers recorded in a book on at least two more occasions. We arrived in Kashgar at around 1.30am exhausted, without cars and having had no meals or refreshments offered in China. (Luckily at lunchtime, we had foraged in our vehicles for emergency rations to keep us going).
The second day we were told we could take a coach back to Customs from Kashgar and we were promised that our cars would be released. Before breakfast time, we were driven the 2.5 hour return trip through multiple checkpoints back to the car pound. And there we sat, not talking to a soul from 11-9 pm when we were finally told that permission from Urumqi, the Provincial Capital, for our cars to be released was not forthcoming and we should return the next day.
So again we had had no food all day and no dinner as we did not arrive back in Kashgar on the bus till nearly midnight. We rendezvoud with our Navo guide, Green who was waiting for us and Jim found a late night restaurant open whilst I fell asleep.
We were told to return again to Customs for the third day and to try once more to release the cars. Our days in China were slipping by and we still had no cars, licence plates or driving licences.
We left the hotel by 8.30am which was before breakfast, and then were taken to wait for an hour and a half at another hotel where some bikers were having their breakfast! We were very disgruntled given the lack of food for several days. We then arrived at the Customs car pound shortly after 12 following a couple of extensive police checkpoints. This time at least we knew where to find the toilets!
On this occasion, permission had been granted and the vehicles were released within an hour of our arrival, without being checked or searched.
Once the cars were released, we still had to have the vehicles road tested and checked to obtain driving licences and Chinese licence plates. This was to be the biggest challenge of our trip to date. We turned up at the centre with two guides (one local and now our NAVO guide) and a group of bikers and found the centre was closed for lunch. We were told to grab a snack in the street and that we would be fast tracked soon. There were many local vehicles waiting, that looked like they may have been hoping to be assessed for days. We were shunted to the front of the line but even that looked daunting. At this point, we had no idea what we were in for, but it was clear that we were not going to get through it on the first day. Whilst I shunted the car around with hardly any gears, Jim wandered around seeing how the place might be better organised, with a sort of supervisory air! It made absolutely no impact but made him feel like he was doing something. Just before lunch our guide was approached with a marriage proposal for me from a Chinese trucker in the car park. Jim took exception to this idea and sauntered forward proprietarily showing his wedding ring!
Eventually, the testers checked our lights and looked for triangles and fire hydrants. They also wanted rubbings of our chassis numbers. In our case they found it tucked behind the front wheel and I was ordered to clean it so they could get a decent print. Wire brushes and WD40 were deployed in the dirty dusty heat of the sun under my car!
Then the fun really started when we were told we needed to be weighed. Even though we did not exceed the maximum permitted weight for our vehicles we all failed. We were totally bemused and they would not tell us the numbers or indeed what the objective was. After much hassling and frayed tempers we worked out that the vehicles all needed to correspond to their as built weight, before adaptations with pop tops, bull bars, side rails, roof racks, leaf springs, winches etc. So it was hours before we realised that we could never pass this test and the test centre closed with our cars failing to make the grade.
We were told we would have to come back the next day and unload them entirely and to remove every item. We were told that Landy needed to lose 1000kgs! This was impossible as our loose contents weighed 300kgs maximum. I cannot really explain what the next day was like, but it was really hellish. We took everything out and off the roof in a crowded car lot of jostling lorries hoping to inch to the front of the chaotic lines. It took about two hours for each car. We were weighed endlessly watched by irate lorries who had been waiting much longer than us. We were failed many times. We could never comply. Eventually the scales were adjusted to reduce the excess and we had our brakes and lights tested several more times. Money exchanged hands again for some mechanical adjustments to some brakes which had failed.
Their long testing centre Lunchtime came and went again and all our belongings were scattered on the ground and we were massively tested.
When we thought we had finished, we were told to leave the belongings on the ground guarded by the non-drivers whilst we drove the cars to another test centre run by the transport police who were due to issue licence plates and driving licences, as long as the data entered onto the system in the previous centre complied with their requirements. We thought we were home and dry. Needless to say we were all failed by the transport police and told to go back for weighing again and by now tempers were frayed all round. We could never comply. Our local guide had been changed and we were told that all the Senior management of every organisation was now involved. There was a lot of shouting and head shaking and it looked pretty grim. 4 days in and we were still not embarked on our trip - and we were hot, filthy, tired and very hungry!
We were on day 4 and the road trip had not started and the authorities were threatening to fail us all for something we could never comply with and never knew was required.
It was now a Friday night, the sun was setting and the testing centre was about to close for the weekend.
By then bigwigs from every company had become involved and we were told that even the Mayor of Kashgar had told them to get the numbers right.
More weighing took place and by much sleight of hand, miraculously we were all told to repack our cars and leave. This repacking took us 2 hours and at 8pm on a Friday night, we were then led to a Kashgar garage for our gears to be checked out, because we could barely drive forwards or backwards and were limping along painfully. They pronounced we needed a new gear box even though the one we now had was 7 days old! Needless to say we left the garage. Despair. Our trip was several days late and Jim and I decided to pull out and let the others go without us.
We sat down for dinner with our new companions and made our announcement to them and the guide. The car would not travel and was unsafe. I wanted to leave China and go back to Bishkek and get our gears fixed. Jim wanted to either stay in Kashgar or get a trailer to take the car to Chengdu. It was another low point after days of stress. Imagine our shock when the guide announced that basically if would take 3 weeks for us to get permission to leave from the border we had just entered! Plus we would have to pay for the original trip, the extra cost of new permissions for the main trip, new permissions to leave plus an extra guide for us whilst we hung around Kashgar. Basically it was impossible.
Then one of others (David and Jenny) offered to take us in their car whilst our car was transported. This was a possibility. So we asked our guide to source a transporter and we went to bed not knowing what to expect from the next few weeks. We were so disappointed after having spent some 4000$ on the gears in Kyrgyzstan, to find ourselves so disabled.
When we got up the next day, one of our travelling companions (Mélody) had been trawling the Internet late at night and suggested that we change the new gearbox oil to an older type. We limped and bumped off to the garage again and they sourced old gearbox oil in a Bazaar and changed it for us. Amazingly afterwards we were briefly able to change the gears, but it was still very random.
Rightly or wrongly, we decided to try and limp on with the group and cancelled the low loader. And finally at 4pm we set off.
The car performed ok on the motorways for the next two days and was fine in third, fourth and fifth. What was still very random was reverse, second and first. Driving around town resulted in the car grinding to a halt and getting stuck at junctions! Nightmare. I was terrified at the thought of tackling mountain passes with jamming gears.
Because we had set off so late, we were seeing very little of real China and much of their impressive motorways and lots of their police checks as we sped through the windy dusty desert with little to see but vast wind farms and rocky views across desolate landscape. Here there were no animals or villages. Simply vast scrubby dusty open spaces (the Taklamakan) and occasional hills through which the motorway swept.
Then miraculously on day 6, the gears started to work. We arrived in a real place in a new province, Guangzhou and the town of Danghuang (home of the Buddha caves and scrolls) now on schedule.
We drove into town through grape vines, sweetcorn, people on small motorised vehicles and even a few cyclists amongst the many cars. Here the balance between old and new seemed to be in perfect harmony.
Landy glided into her car parking space on the banks of the river overlooking the dunes and for the second night running, we were finally wondering if perhaps the gearbox oil may have been the culprit.