Planning – China wants you … but wants your money even more.
I often wonder what Captain Cook took along when he decided to cruise around the globe. I do know that he left his wife at home – so that probably freed up the cargo hold a bit. I imagine he would still have had to take copious quantities of spare underwear because his wife would have packed his bag and had a pretty good idea he would get into a few scrapes that would have resulted in likely involuntary soiling. I understand he took his trusty sextant and made his own maps as he went along. I doubt he required Visa’s and probably sailed all around and right up rivers without so much as a “Please or May I?” He did take a canon. That’s where we have gone wrong.
Back in the gloomy days of winter, Flypaper and I decided to drive from Hong Kong to London via a few dusty and potholed roads. We thought it prudent to have a 4WD. Research among my mates suggested a Unimog or an APC would be good but we settled on a 1998 Nissan Terrano Diesel. Not too ostentatious – we didn’t wish to upstage the local Mafia. Not too old – it has some work to do and comfort is becoming increasing important. Not too new – it must be repairable with old cans and fencing wire. Not too big – one needs to feed the beast. Not too small – room for a few tools, clothes including the quick drying smalls, shoes for every occasion – and the Washing Machine.
Lifelong friends Martin & Jeanette heard about the purchase and, given they had an almost identical car, decided that was an alignment of the stars. They suggested it would be prudent for them to join us if only to ensure the reputation of New Zealand travelers didn’t become too tarnished. I considered that a couple of sacrificial representatives may come in handy – so we teamed up and started planning.
Deciding on a route from Hong Kong to Europe is impossible for a committee. It’s also a huge task requiring lots of research, good co-ordination and planning skills and plenty of time … so we gave that job to M & J. They suggested an excellent route that included lots of China’s more ancient and spectacular stuff, the best part of the ancient ‘Silk Road’ and a little used route between the Aral & Caspian Seas where we're not sure if anyone has bothered to make a road yet. This leads across through Southern Russia into Ukraine and on to Poland - after which the two cars will part – M & J traveling to family in Denmark while Flypaper & I spend time playing with racecars in Germany before traveling on to friends in the UK.
Planning travel in these parts isn’t like zipping around Europe or across the US. It requires the assistance of professional agents to circumnavigate an unimaginable amount of bureaucratic and political nonsense. For the first Month / 8,000km in China we took the advice from a friend who owns a business called ‘Rally Tours’. He runs professionally guided tours across various routes from here to there and hasn’t yet caused any international incidents or lost clients. He recommended ‘China Tour Services’. Good choice. They instinctively knew we wouldn’t be allowed to go to many of the places we wanted and put in a completely different itinerary to ours for approval by the many prefectures we were traveling through. Yes – you must obtain permission from the Police in each county to cross their land. Again, some routes and destinations were disallowed and we were told to go from this place to that by their 'tourist approved' roads – and they would provide a guide at our expense to ensure we did as we were told. They also insisted on booking flash ‘tourist’ hotels for every night of their section of the journey. These are registered and approved 3 or 4 Star + and cost around 12 times as much as the locals pay for adequate sleeping facilities. That took 3 months to organise. They also informed us they would make the arrangements for us to take our cars – NZ$10,000 application & Service fee. They would ‘clear’ the cars from the wharf into Shenzhen (across the bay from Hong Kong) – NZ$2,500 (10 times more than bringing a car into NZ). They would also apply for the Visa’s (the worlds most expensive), book all the hotels – 3 star wasn’t good enough for them (we wern't consulted) so we ended up with 4 star at outrageous cost. They arranged the guides at NZ$90 per day - and we must purchase them lunch and provide the approved tips when they leave us. (We’ll take daily turns at having the guide in our cars). Then there’s the small matters of having to have Chinese driving Licenses at NZ$100 each for the month, compulsory insurance NZ$60 each car, boarder departure fee NZ$650 per car. Finally, there will be an unknown refundable bond on the vehicles payable before we leave NZ for something in excess of the cars values to be held for 3 months after we depart China. I’m certain the rumour is correct – China won’t be poor for much longer.
Given one can’t get the Visa’s issued until within 3 months of arriving in China, this couldn’t be achieved until the New Year – the same time as every other country along the way needs our passports. It’s not an easy exercise and one I think Captain Cook would have dealt with in a much less subservient way to us. "Load - Aim - Fire ... hoist the sails my good man".
Since the cars left on the ship we have been informed that the authorities have scrutinized our ‘declared contents’ and there are some illegal goods in the cars. We are also told we will need to pay a penalty wharf storage fee and expect some other creative funding issues before we have been guests of the Peoples Republic of China for very long.
I’ll tell you about the next stage of planning in the next blog. Right now I’m out looking for part time work for Flypaper and trying on my balaclava before visiting the bank.