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The China Syndrome

Posted by TravellingStrom on July 23, 2012

Mayan Prophecy Countdown

I am still in Moscow, and now have something to talk about, other than about which beer I have drunk today and which monument I have seen. Although they are interesting and I am glad I did them, my mind had been pre-occupied with the lack of a passport, which means I cannot travel anywhere until I get it back. Well, late last night I got back to the hostel and it was there, so now I can continue my journey πŸ™‚

I have bad news on the journey front, China has moved the goal posts.

Now for those that are unaware, my whole trip was designed around the principle of riding from Europe to Australia overland. It has been done many times in the past by other riders, but they all have this non-negotiable country of Myanmar(Burma) right in the middle, where it is impossible for western bike riders to ride through. Just so you know what I am talking about, Burma is the red bit on this map.

So, 99.99999% of them ship/fly their bikes from India to Thailand and continue that way, this is the common procedure.

Well, as many of you may be aware, early this year Myanmar became a bit more open with their borders and it looked like things may change. For tourists it meant better deals but for the overland bike rider it was still not possible to import a vehicle, transit the country and export it to the neighbouring country which is Thailand(this was in January). Now, every bike rider who I have spoken to or read about, who has ridden through India/Pakistan have all said the same thing, do not do this on a big bike. So, what other options were available to me? Well, the obvious one was to transit China, but this was a very time consuming paperwork nightmare and extremely expensive, so most riders shy away from it as an option.

But, early this year an opportunity came up, a chap called Neil Munro from London had decided he also wanted to do an overland ride so asked for others to come along to share the costs. Now, the costs are huge for one reason only, you cannot do a self drive tour through China WITHOUT a guide. And this guide needs to be paid for the length of the journey, plus he needs transport, so add in the cost of a vehicle, but he also needs a driver(why he cannot drive himself is not known, this is China, these are the rules, but it is more likely a milking procedure), so the driver needs to be paid as well. Plus all their food and accommodation needs have to be looked after as well!! China is a big country, so we were looking at massive costs to start with, then on top of that you have your normal day to day costs for yourself, food, accommodation, fuel etc etc etc, so you can see, the wallet will take a beating! Most people give up on this option at this stage.

On top of that is the paperwork and this is substantial. It is not just the normal paperwork either, you cannot ride/drive a foreign vehicle in China unless it is registered in China and has Chinese number plates. You also cannot ride/drive in China as a foreigner without a Chinese Drivers licence. These are the barriers that are in place and they are very high and very wide. But, with the right tools and knowledge, they are not insurmountable. Neil took it upon himself to get this nuttted out, for himself, but he needed other like minded people to share the costs. The conduit for this was Horizons Unlimited and within a short time, there were 8 other bike riders on board, but more importantly for the cost side of things, an added couple in a 4WD put their hands up and said they will come and transport the Chinese guide, this was a major win as it dropped the cost of the car and driver. So now, the whole cost of what the tour company was charging could be divided by 10, which made it expensive still, but more affordable

The actual transit of China was going to take some time, and of course, the whole route had to be planned out and agreed on by the tour company supplying the guide and signed off by the Chinese government. Our transit would start in Kyrgyzstan, enter China and follow along the border with Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar skirting the Himalayas all the way, and after 35 days exit into Laos, which is to the east of Myanmar, you can see the planned route on this map

This was going to be 7,000km of transit but it was not going to be a strenuous journey, most days around the 2-300km mark. But it would be fun and different. Neil had done all the hard yards, he had the time(more than me anyway, I was working 15hour days/10 day fortnights just so I could do this trip) and he did the homework as to which tour company offered the best deal, were more reliable etc and in the end we had a workable situation. Of course we had to pay up front for some items, so US$1,000 deposit was paid. We also had a number of paperwork items to fill out and supply the tour company, plus photos of the bikes/car etc and for me this was an easy way to go about the journey, I did no research because all my spare time after work was spent sleeping due to the long days. Whenever Neil sent an email suggesting route changes or whatever, I just agreed with whatever was on the table, I trusted him, and still do by the way πŸ™‚

So, to actually follow this plan I now had what I really despise on any trip, a DEADLINE, these can often lead to being DEAD, because of speeding, taking chances when you shouldn’t and things like that. But, that was the way of it I had no real choice if I wanted to do what I am doing. So, back in January I made my decision, I now have a deadline of 28th August to meet the other adventurers in Bishtek, Kyrgyzstan. The next issue was visas, if you have followed my blog you will understand what I went through to get the visas at the correct times, so that I could proceed from Europe into Russia, then Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and then China. Getting into Laos was not going to be a problem apparently. So, I started my journey, picking up the visas I needed and once I had them all I could sort of relax.

Then, just two days ago, we got the devastating news from the Chinese tour company, we can NO LONGER transit China the way we planned. It is now not possible due to changes made by the Chinese government. Here is a transcript of what we all received:

Dear All,

Thank you very much.

I’m writing to keep you updated about the new policy about Xinjiang.
We get the notice about the new policy last Friday afternoon.
And I confirmed this news today.
Sorry to tell that it’s impossible to get the national permits issued for any self drive groups who will visit Xinjiang in (August) September and October, even though we have handed the application in June.

Based on current situation, it’s available to Trans-Xinjiang but impossible to cross China via Xinjiang in September and October.

We have to make plan C:
C-1: Enter from Erenhot in Inner Mongolia, and exit via Mohan. You can design the route and I will study on it and give you more details.
C-2: Put off this tour – enter China via Xijiang in November or later. (Maybe it’s OK to visit Tibet as well.)

Sorry again about the policy change. Hope you kindly understand that it’s out of our control.
All we can do is to keep you updated about the news.
Hope we can work together to get things better.
If we have to cancel this tour at last, refund deducted the occurred amount will be guaranteed.

Anything we can do for you, please don’t hesitate to let me know.

Best regards
Ms. Liu

So, this blew me away as you can imagine, and even now, after 3 days it is still a nightmare, what is tougher is that so far only 5 people have responded to this email, which means there are other riders out riding not knowing what has happened. So what can we do about it, well, just to make it clear about what the above email means, check out this map first:

So, the state/province that is the issue is a very large one and borders Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Pakistan, India on one side, and other Chinese provinces on the other. What we cannot do is enter China via Xinjiang and then exit that province into another Chinese province, how frigging stupid is that!!! What makes even less sense is that this only concerns the months of August, September and October, these are the PRIME travelling months due to weather conditions etc. Apparently if we wait around until November we can do the planned route as shown earlier, this makes no sense and we have still not been told the reason for this change in procedure. Of course, waiting until November is not an option for a number of reasons, but weather conditions during that month will be a big issue. Also the change in policy it makes no sense because there is no stopping us from travel throughout Xinjiang, we can do that no problem, so I cannot fathom the reasoning behind the decision, but it seems to be an internal problem between Xinjiang and the rest of China.

So, back to the issue at hand, by November, our 60 day China visas will have expired, so we could not enter anyway. Where do we sit around and wait until November, our current visas for whatever country we are in or near will not last that long, most are 30 day single entry. I am unsure about the others, but I have checked and there is NO way for me to get another Russian visa unless I send my passport back home to the Russian embassy there, I cannot extend this current visa. I cannot apply for a second Australian passport unless I send my birth certificate, that is in a container in a paddock of my friends property back home in Oz, so if I did send my current passport home I would be illegal here because you MUST carry your passport on risk of expulsion! [I have heard of a 10 day transit visa for Russia being given out but not sure where and how yet still trying to find out more about this option]

OK, what about the other option given in the email, well at this stage I cannot get back into Russia(so far), so that is out right now. What else can we do?

1. Put the bikes on a train and pick them up on the other side of Xinjiang province and fly ourselves over to pick them up? Nope, apparently because the bikes will be transiting Xinjiang, they must be accompanied by all the required documents for import/export etc and no permits will be issued for the transit of Xinjiang, so that is a no go!

2. The tour company say we can ship our vehicles to Beijing, then they(the tour company) can take us on a tour of Xinjiang and then return us to our vehicles! WTF, we don’t want a tour of anywhere, we want to transit, so this option is a nothing idea.

3. Enter China via Xinjiang as normal, ride north and exit into Mongolia, ride through Mongolia to the east and enter China again on the other side of Xinjiang to the province called Inner Mongolia. This is a work around solution that has some merits, for this we would need Mongolian visas(easy to get in Kyrgyzstan) then we would also have to apply for another China visa(we all have single entry visas). This can be done in UlaanBaatar, the capitol of Mongolia, but is very hard to do from what I have heard. Also, what about carnets for the bikes/car, will this be a problem, not sure yet, still exploring?

4. Enter China via Xinjiang as before, turn south and ride the Karakoum Highway or KKH, into Pakistan and then do the normal silk road route via India and fly the bikes to Bangkok. Visas for this area will need to be sought plus the carnet issue as before. This option still on the table.

So, where am I and what am I going to do? I am in Moscow still, I just got my passport back and I have 5 days to get into Kazakhstan, due to my Russian visa running out on the 30th July. I will be riding tomorrow as fast as possible just so I do not overstay my allowed time or it will be major dramas. I should have enough time to get to the border barring any problems.

What to do about the travel part, well, that is a whole different kettle of fish. Until we all get into an email loop, we cannot make an informed decision. It is a bit of a worry, but I cannot do anything more about it here in Russia.

Once I enter Kazakhstan I will have 30 days on that visa to think about further options to get around the problem. One of them is to fly me and the bike back home and cut this trip short, a viable but expensive and unwanted option but it is on the table, I am not a quitter, so this will be the very last resort. I could work my way back into Europe and continue my travels there, but cost wise this is not really viable as I would still have to get the bike home. The whole idea of shipping it over was to ride it home, otherwise I would have bought one here and sold it before I left.

I may have to ship/fly the bike from Kazakhstan into Laos or Bangkok, then continue from there, a possibility, a lot cheaper going this way than Europe, as the living costs are a lot lower, but the shipping costs would chew my leftover budget to shreds.

So, that is where we are at today. In the meantime I have done some Chilling out and relaxing at the ChillaxHostel here in Moscow. I have seen a lot of sights, met some great people, imbibed a large quantity of beer and vodka and eaten some great food.

With my passport back in hand, it is time to move again, so keep an eye on the SPOT tracks of where I am and see if I make it out of Russia in time, or make a return visit to the Lubyanka in chains πŸ˜‰

I will endeavour to do a touristy thing update with sights I have seen and places I have been shortly, but if I do so, it will be a compact one as I now have to concentrate on my route out of here

Cheers from Mockbah, Russia

5 Responses to “The China Syndrome”

  1. nacho said

    That’s it, today I’m going to a Chinese restaurant…

    Oh, and I’ve been thinking about something. I think the isolation of Xinjiang province is to avoid people bringing news of unrest to the rest of China. If we do ride into Xinjiang and then out and then try to reapply for a visa, it may be even more difficult… just a thought (which I hope is just in my mind).
    Sorry for saying this outside of the email loop but it just came to my mind while reading your post.

  2. Al & Ann said

    Ann & I wish you luck, it would be a real shame if you have to cut your trip short but we know that you will succeed in your endeavor. We really enjoy your blog and we look forward to your continued travels. Now get out of Russia and get on with the next part of your adventure.
    Ride On, my friend!

  3. Clive Thomas said

    f@#$%,what a bummer,even if you go the kkh route do you still have to go through xingjiang or is that another provence?,from krygzstan to pakistan
    cheers clive

    • Hi

      Nothing has been resolved yet, the tour company is playing hard to get

      We can go through xinjang but only to exit another country, not into another state of china. So, we could enter Pakistan, if we can all get visas and carnets sorted out in time

      Another group of bikers have been told they will be OK as their group will transit xingjang in August and so that is OK

      We are trying to get the tour company to bring our transit dates forward

      Cheers Richard

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