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'Are you sure you want to do this?' - Our experience of the worlds Visa's and Permits

6 March 2017

‘Are you sure you want to do this?!’ … this was the reply we were met with when enquiring about driving across the entire country of China in a UK minibus as foreigners.

The man who works for the only tour operator we could find who said they can ‘deal with any entry visa requirement for China’, laughed and said ‘Are you sure you want to do this?!’. At first I thought he was a little quick to rule out my enquiry as a joke, that was until he stopped laughing and explained the process and costs to take on a challenge of this nature.

We are often told China is one of the most closed and bureaucratic countries to visit and being born adventurers, we can sometimes take these comments lightly and revert to the tried-and-tested lesson of ‘where there is a will, there is a way’; it seems that even that theory will be tested on this adventure.

As you may well have guessed, this blog post is written to give you an insight into our busy and frustrating world of paperwork!  We require visas, permits, licenses, certificates, declarations and every other type of form you can imagine for this trip to work and more importantly, they all have to be perfect.

East-bound and down…

Europe, for its faults, is easy to travel. Visa-free travel, The Schengen area, common driving licenses, common vehicle insurance policies and European registration plates make it merely a minor thought to board a ferry and drive into the sunset across Europe! (see blog post 3 http://bit.ly/2kUGDM1)

The rest of the world is different.

Actually getting into each country can be tricky, being able to drive into that country in your own vehicle, is a another kettle of fish altogether!

Russia and Belarus present their own challenges, letters of invitation, internal passports, accommodation addresses and a range of other things that can cause a slight twitch in even the most practiced traveller - the only silver lining is that they are beautiful countries that have a well-practiced and fairly efficient visa services.

Russia and Belarus will not accept UK driving licenses but for the cost of a round of drinks, international driving permits (IDPs) can be granted by the UK Automobile Association which are accepted there – great news.  Motor vehicle insurance and road use permits can be purchased at the border for little cost.

We are then into Kazakhstan, a country not very similar to the UK – a surprisingly helpful agreement is in place between Kazakhstan and the UK, which means that British nationals are currently awarded visa-free travel for reasons unknown to us. Insurance and other necessities can be bought at the border.

A third of the way through our planned route and fairly smooth sailing so far with paperwork.

Then our planned route gets a little grey here, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are both options here and there are many pros and cons to each route, but in essence Kyrgyzstan has a similar agreement to Kazakhstan and is relatively easy to travel. Uzbekistan has similar arrangements to Russia and Belarus.

I’m sure there will be another blog post coming soon to talk about the options for this section of the route and hopefully, we will have chosen before July!

After leaving Kyrgyzstan and driving a couple hours up to the Chinese border from Kazakhstan we seem to hit a brick-wall. 

The China Question?

This is where the only information online states quite clearly, foreigners cannot drive into China and even if they could, they shouldn’t.

This information came a slight surprise and long after we had launched our project and plastered our route all over the web… With unfaltering pride, we can’t simply avoid China, that’s the easy solution - It has to be done!

‘Are you sure you want to do this?!’ … The words that still make my blood-pressure rise.

After hours of searching and calling out-of-service numbers we managed to find two tour operators who stated they could potentially tackle a project like this, one based in Europe and one based in China. 

Both thought our idea was crazy and didn’t know of any Europeans doing this in a minibus (an issue as it could carry fare-paying passengers).

We talked through our plan and they both took a deep breath and went away to figure out if we could actually do it and come up with a reasonable price but ultimately, our obstacles are:

  1. We are British, not Chinese
  2. Our vehicle is Belgian, bought from Germany and now registered in The UK
  3. None of us speak any Chinese
  4. None of us have Chinese driving licenses
  5. China do not accept the International Driving Permit

Other than that it is straight forward!

Tour operator 1 came back to us and said yes, in theory, it is possible for a small fee - the same cost as an off-the-forecourt Volkswagen Polo!

Tour operator 2 says yes, I think there is a way to do it and I can do it for a fraction of the other tour operator.

With a 21 page visa application for each crew member, a 2 day border-wait, a local police station visit to have number plates made, limited driving hours, Chinese driving licenses and a full-time guide is all it takes!

The limited driving hours increase our China leg to 15 days but at least we have answered the China Question – yes, if you're willing to pay!

Mongolia is our final destination, and after the ordeal in China, a simple visa and insurance ticket at the border – this will be a pain-free ending…. We hope!