I’ll be honest. We’ve had a slightly nail-biting two or three weeks, during which we were beginning to doubt that we would ever see China at all. Although the Chinese authorities recognise the benefits of a healthy tourist industry and are endeavouring to make the country easier to visit, their power to enforce changes in law diminish significantly the further you venture from Beijing. The longstanding requirement for tourists bringing their own vehicles into the country to be constantly accompanied by a guide was, except for certain politically-sensitive areas, abolished in 2013, making it – in theory – significantly easier for people to travel at their own pace, setting their own itinerary.
The problem is that, in order to gain entry in the first place, there is a costly mountain of bureaucratic paperwork to overcome, making it essential to employ a Chinese travel agent who, hitherto, has been making a pretty penny supplying guides at around US$250 a day (plus hire car and accommodation), and isn’t about to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. So the ‘requirement’ remains. Now, having a guide in a country where most of us have little hope of communicating beyond the odd pleasantry would probably be a bonus in most people’s eyes. But there are all too many horror stories of unscrupulous agents and guides tricking vulnerable punters into parting with even more cash once in the country, due to ‘changes in regulations’ or some other dubious reason that a foreigner is in no position to argue about.
We hadn’t set about our route-planning entirely blind to the costs of the enterprise, but as it became apparent that riding into China was likely to cost several thousand pounds, whichever way we did it, we decided to knock our return via the United States on the head. It would have been a nice touch to ship the bikes to the West Coast, ride east to New York, and fly ourselves and the bikes back from there but, quite apart from being a logistical minefield, we could no longer justify the expense. We decided that, after some time out for R&R in Beijing and some sightseeing, we would simply turn around and head back the way we came. Even so, we were still no closer to finding that one reliable travel agent to handle the formalities for us.
In slight desperation, I suggested John should contact the one UK-based motorcycle tour operator that we knew had years’ of experience operating tours in the region. They even had an “Ace to Ace” tour running this summer from the UK to China to celebrate the opening of the new Ace Cafe in Beijing; perhaps Globebusters could point us in the right direction.
I’m not actually sure what I expected Globebusters to do for us: put us in touch with their agent, offer to handle our paperwork, maybe? What we certainly didn’t expect was an invitation from Kevin Sanders to join the Chinese leg of their tour …
Granted, the price tag was significantly higher than we had envisaged for our ride from the Mongolian border to Beijing and back. Then again, having had no response to our many emails to reputedly reliable agents, we could only guess at their fees, and time was against us in terms of getting the necessary permits. Globebusters’ itinerary, through Kyrgyzstan, Western China and Tibet, taking in some of the highest and most remote settlements in the world, as well as some of China’s most celebrated attractions, was the stuff of dreams. Not only would our entry to China be assured (as much as these things ever are), but we would be travelling as part of a group with the security of an experienced (possibly the most experienced) tour leader, trustworthy Chinese guides, pre-booked (if sometimes a little basic) accommodation, and a support truck. What fool would refuse?
So there you have it, but if you think that travelling with an organised tour is a bit of a soft option, take a look at Douglas Kearney’s blog from an earlier Globebusters’ trip in 2010: http://www.offexploring.com/dougmk/blog/china/kashgar/2010-05-25%2016:58:04. Luckily, I hadn’t read this before I filled in Globebusters’ Rider Profile form, in particular the question, “What do you consider will be the greatest challenges for you to deal with on this trip?” My response included variable climate, altitude, rough camping and questionable toilet facilities. Looks like I might not be the only one!