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Driving Around China: The Nuts and Bolts (but mostly the nuts)

Little campervan, I miss you!

I’m sitting here in Shanghai waiting for the call from the mechanics in Chengdu telling me our campervan is fixed and thinking, what can I write about?

The travels have been suspended for over a week now while they work on the damage caused by months of shaking and rattling on Chinese roads – the popped welds on the water tank, the leaking sink, the cupboard doors that unscrewed themselves and fell off.

Driving through Aksu, Xinjiang: dustiest town in China

Not to mention the damage caused by weeks of driving in high-dust desert conditions – the clogged spark plugs, the blocked exterior locks, the shrivelled windscreen wipers, the floor that continues producing its own volumes of dust every day from unseen reservoirs, so when we lift the carpet we find an even layer of pale silt thick enough to sweep into small hillocks.

Then there’s the damage caused by none of these things – the bathroom roof vent smashed when a tyre mechanic was up there ‘just having a look’ and put his foot straight through it, the extractor fan splintered when a branch fell into it from a nearby tree.

Worst of all, we have somehow sheared off the two outlet valves underneath the van for clean waste water and dirty waste water (er….sewerage), so now the waste goes straight through onto the road like a Chinese train toilet. Not good. Certainly we can’t use the toilet whilst parked anywhere, and using it while moving is logistically difficult on very bumpy roads. We don’t even know when or how it happened, but probably a rock was involved, or bottoming on a huge pothole.

The wily Mr Chen tells us over the phone this is definitely not covered in our insurance policy:

‘It’s an accident if you hit a car, yes. But not if you hit a rock.’

It seems unnecessarily specific, but then, I know nothing about Chinese insurance policies. Is it OK if you hit a cow, for example? Or a fence? But not a telephone pole? He doesn’t come outright and say it, but I know what he’s thinking – that we got under there and sawed off those outlet valves ourselves with a hacksaw, then claimed it was an accident. Foreigners are sly like that.

So as I sit here waiting and waiting I think: I haven’t written much at all about what it’s really like driving around China. And this is definitely something you need to know, should you ever decide to let go of your good sense and drive around this country.

So here it is: the no holds barred, bumpy truth.
I advise you to do as the sign says:

1. The Roads

Mountain road with snow, for added difficulty. Sichuan.
Imagine you’re climbing a steep mountain pass, a precipitous drop to your right with no barrier to guard the plummet downwards should you stray too far to the edge.

Just as you near a blind uphill hairpin bend, the three-wheeler truck behind you (an unusual breed of small cheap blue conveyance beloved of Chinese farmers) overtakes you towards the hairpin. At that moment a passenger bus full of people overtaking a petrol tanker rounds the bend from the opposite direction on your side of the road. It looks grim. It’s a narrow two lane road and there are no less than four vehicles battling for space between the mountain and the drop-off.

But something miraculous happens – instead of a major collision and a fatal fall down the mountainside for one or more of you, the tricycle truck zooms into the space in front of you created when you moved as far to the right as possible, the bus slides into the small space left by the tricycle truck, and the petrol tanker, having pulled on the brakes a little for good measure, gives everyone involved a friendly toot on his horn as he rolls past down the mountain. After all, he’ll repeat this scenario every few minutes on his journey.

This is just a normal day on country roads in China. Character building. You’ll get used it.

The roads themselves are a different matter. Graded into national (guodao 国道 – G), provincial (shengdao 省道 -S) and county roads (xianxiangdao 县乡道) the number of lanes and quality of the driving surface decreases accordingly. Most maps fail to include my own grading – mud trails (B – for bog risk) goat tracks (C – for carnage, as in when you run into one of those critters) and corrugated potholed dirt roads (T – for tractors only).

What I’ve come to enjoy is the sheer novelty value of some of China’s roads – like this dirt track in Inner Mongolia. For reasons known only to the locals, a 2.8m height barrier was necessary right here in the middle of nowhere, preventing trucks and buses (and campervans) from passing. 

Then they just went and made a barrier-free side road, for everyone else. Does it make sense? Of course not. Did it make me laugh? Yes.
2. Tolls
Every decent road – and despite what I’ve said there are quite a lot of them in China – has tolls. Every time you come to a provincial border or a highway intersection there’s a toll booth. Charge depends on vehicle size and distance travelled, as well as road quality (a new bridge will have a higher toll than an old highway, for example) and which province you’re in.

It varies from the cheapest at 6 yuan (Qinghai) to the most expensive at 33 yuan (Shanxi) for every 100km travelled.

The toll booth operators have usually never seen a campervan before, so we’re used to a protracted Q&A before the correct toll amount is assigned.

‘Are you a goods truck?’
‘No, a campervan.’
‘A what? A bus?’
‘No, a campervan.’
‘A what??? Let me see your vehicle registration licence.’
(now on radio to friend in next tollbooth) ‘Xiao Wang! Get a load of this! It’s a CAMPERVAN!!!’

3. Road Signs
Road signs on all major roads are usually helpfuly bilingual, although this gets less helpful in places like Inner Mongolia where the two languages are Chinese and Mongolian and the signs look like this:

Can you read this? I didn’t think so.
In Xinjiang, far western China, the road signs are bilingual in Chinese and Uyghur and look like this:
Still can’t read it. But there is something coming in 11km, then nothing for another 251km.

China also has the best road safety signs in the world:

And sometimes the message is the same but the Chinglish differs:

4. Police

To be honest the one thing I was really worried about, like, waking up at night worried, was Chinese police. I had heard dreadful stories about unprovoked police brutality, about bribes, about deaths in custody. Custody was one place I had tried to avoid all my life, and I didn’t want to find out if the rumours about police custody in China were true.

So the first time we were pulled over by the police I was understandably anxious. We were diverted off the highway in Inner Mongolia into a lay-by filled with policemen and women. A senior officer approached the driver’s window and looked at us with a stern face, his eyes narrowd, his posture ramrod straight.

‘Licence’ he requested, briskly.

My husband handed over his licence, a small navy blue plastic holder with the licence inside behind a clear plastic cover.
He took it with his white cotton gloved hands and tried to open it, but the gloves were too slippery and he couldn’t get a grasp on the edges of the smooth plastic. He sighed.
He handed it back to my husband, who was about to put it away.

‘No! Wait! Let’s try that again’ he said.

‘Pardon?’ I said.

‘Hand it to me again.’ he said, taking off his gloves and putting them in his pocket.

‘Licence’ he requested again. I wasn’t sure what the hell was going on.

Then I realized we were being filmed by a three man film crew. We weren’t in trouble – we were part of a police training video for highway patrols.

We did one more take, all smiling this time.

Then the entire film crew and all the police took a tour of the campervan.

I’d like to say this has been our only experience of police in China, but in fact we’ve now been pulled over dozens of times for licence checks or vehicle registrations. The police presence in Xinjiang is impressively oppressive, with bunkers, camouflage gear and gun-toting batallions of police manning every checkpoint, of which there are many. At these points, you must complete a registration (dengji 登记)and show your passport as well as your licence. Spot vehicle inspections are common.

In other parts of China there is a lack of manpower in the police force, made up for with these:

Police Officer, Inner Mongolia

5. Fuel

Fuel stations are magnificent entities in China. The best are in the east and north, where they span both sides of the highway and encompass acres of grounds, a restaurant, a supermarket, a souvenir shop, a motel, public toilets and a place to buy petrol. Giant hot water canteens dispense boiling water for all your travelling tea and instant noodle needs.

In other places, the fuel stations sell nothing but fuel. They’re so remote the staff usually live on site, and behind the fuel pumps is a vegetable garden where they grow vegetables when they’re not pumping gas.

Prices are pretty fixed across all of China, given that most fuel stations are state owned.

Some handy fuel phrases:

Petrol = qi you 汽油
Diesel = chai you 柴油
Fill ‘er up = jia man 加满

6. Water
I never thought that our biggest problem with the campervan would be finding water. The van has a 120-litre capacity water tank for showers, washing, and flushing the toilet. Divided by four people, 120 litres doesn’t go very far and we usually need to fill our tank every day.

At home, and in other countries, this would be accomplished with an outdoor tap and a hose, available at every single fuel station. Right?

But this is China. After finding that only tap in most fuel stations is indoors, inside the manager’s private bathroom, we often manage to convince staff to run our hose from it to the van by parking close to the building like this. It doesn’t always work, but mostly the staff are terribly helpful and only too happy to oblige.

We have to disconnect if the manager wants to use the bathroom though.

In drier parts of China where rain is scarce we usually have to buy water, from a roadside jiashui 加水 (add water) stall. These take many forms, and the water might be trucked in, pumped from underground reservoirs, or from nearby canals. The well water is best and technically drinkable. Canal water is usually dirty and undrinkable. The price for 120 litres varies with demand – the cheapest is 5 yuan, and the most expensive, in the deserts of western Gansu, is 20 yuan.

Roadside Add Water, Xinjiang
Cave house Add Water, Shanxi

Satellite Add Water, Hebei


7. Mechanical Assistance
What exactly do you do if you break down in the middle of nowhere?

Luckily for you China has a system of roadside assistance as complex and provincial as you might imagine. Here’s how it works:

Roadside assistance is tied to your insurance policy, so the first thing to do is call your insurance company’s 24 hour assist number – if they have one – and get them to help. If you don’t speak Chinese, you’re stuffed. They will then contact the local roadside assist provider to come and help you, usually a guy in a minivan with a few tools. One of the worst possible places to break down is on an elevated highway, where there may be an emergency parking lane but you’ll be sitting in the baking sun for hours while you wait with no way to get off and find food or water.

If you’re on a smaller road help will be available close to a fuel stop, and China is absolutely riddled with vehicle mechanics in little shacks just like this.

Mechanic’s shop, Inner Mongolia
Please don’t be put off by the ramshackle appearance of these mechanic’s shops. They can fix anything, and they manage to keep all of China truck fleets going from one end of the country to the other. 
For the sake of simplicity, when we’ve had breakdowns (not many, thankfully) we’ve kept insurance companies and roadside assists out of it and just used what’s available nearby, like this tyre repair tent on the road from Xinjiang to Qinghai. The tent is spray-painted optimistically with the characters for ‘shop’.

It sure didn’t look like much but but when we had a tyre blow-out and couldn’t get the hydraulically-tightened wheel nuts off the wheel, the tyre shop tent mechanic could and did. Repairs are also inexpensive: the standard rate for a tyre change across China is 50 yuan. 

Once the flat tyre is removed you can then take it to a different kind of shop – a butai 补台 – tyre patch -shop like the one below inside a cave house in Shanxi, and have on-the-spot repairs in the middle of nowhere….
….by these guys, the tyre patch men. They’re just sitting around highways all over the country waiting for your business. 
Makes you want to go right out and get a flat, doesn’t it?

So there you have it. All the helpful information you might need for a road trip in China. Should you be going on one, I happen to know where you can get a campervan reeaaal cheap. Call me.

See How Easily You Can Camp in China!

So I thought camping in China was supposed to be difficult, right? Isn’t that what I’ve been telling you? 
We spent last weekend taking our recently hired Great Chinese Campervan for a test drive and I can tell you that after two days, ten hours of driving, four hundred renminbi in tolls, a sleepless night on a bed the width of a plank, and one minor accident (no casualties), I honestly don’t know what I was worried about. 
Forget the doomsayers. Road camping in China is a piece of cake. 
Here’s how it’s done:
1. Find a campsite:
Happy Hipster Campers. They could do with a feed.
Shanghai has no camping grounds, not a single one, so I knew we’d have to accomplish our test drive weekend further afield. Actually, there are only thirty functional camping grounds in all of China. Thirty. That’s one for every….let me see…..43 million people. Not likely to be crowded then.
The closest camping ground to Shanghai is in Suzhou, only a couple of hours away, and it certainly has a beguiling website full of soft, clean city types promising all kinds of comfortable camping options. The campground – less of a nature reserve, and more like an adult playground – lists attractions such as: 
Horse riding! Fishing! Go karting! Simulated warfare! Outdoor KTV! 
Now I don’t know about you, but I find the sound of intermittent gunfire quite soothing when I’m trying to get to sleep. But I absolutely draw the line at open air karaoke. 
So we needed to find somewhere else, somewhere quiet, somewhere off the beaten track (because there are so very few campsites, those who do camp tend to find a clear spot of ground and set up there, and it’s still uncommon enough to be quite acceptable).

Mr Chen, who owns the Great Chinese Campervan, suggested we hang out in the carpark of his RV rental business for the weekend, turning all the campervan gadgets on and off to see how they worked. It was a tempting offer, but I suspect he was just worried about letting us out onto the open road. After all, he knows we’ve only had our Chinese Driving Licence for six weeks. But I wanted to get out into the countryside and hear birds. Not in cages. And no traffic.

So we picked a spot randomly on one of our maps, based on the fact that the villages in that spot seemed further apart so there was a slim chance there might be a length of road with no people at all. An extraordinary concept for this part of China. 
2. Plot your route:
The Minhang Interchange, Shanghai. We survived it.

Shanghai is a mind-bogglingly large city. Huge. And we live right in the very, very heart of that tangled congested metropolis, a place with a population density similar to Sao Paulo or Mumbai. Just getting to the outskirts of Shanghai can take two hours on a good day, through the kind of spaghetti junction interchanges and confusing ring roads that would send any normal person insane.
Getting to a quiet little spot in the countryside means driving for several hours through this choked traffic via any one of fifty different routes offered up by Google maps. All of them unattractive. And don’t even think about using a paper map, because as soon as they’re printed they’re already out of date, such is the relentless pace of development and new roads.
Personally, I find Chinese maps like the one above waaay too easy to read, so as Chief Navigator I like to increase the degree of route planning difficulty by suggesting a few wrong turns that require reversing down one-way streets the wrong way or off bridge on-ramps. Drivers like a challenge.

3. Start Your Engine:
This, theoretically, should be the simplest of all these steps. Mr Chen had clearly said:

Put the key in the ignition.
Press the black button to activate the power.
Turn the key to start. 

But when we sat in the driver’s cab of our campervan the dashboard was lined with rows of black buttons, some of which had once been labelled with Chinese characters but were all now invisibly rubbed away by many fingers over many years. And when we tried the above sequence with all of the different black buttons, none of them worked. The engine, as they say, was kaput.
The only non-black button, a very large, bright red dangerous looking button was clearly labelled 严禁按压 or “Pressing Button Strictly Prohibited.” 
God knows what it did. Emptied the fuel tank. Short-circuited the electrics. Ejected the driver through the roof. Who knows.

But after only four minutes of not being able to start the engine, guess what my husband did. Yes.

And then we had one of those predictable domestics no one ever wins.
‘Did you just push that red button?’
‘No’
‘Why would you push the red button?? Our ONLY instruction was ‘Don’t push the red button’!’
‘How will we know what it does if we don’t push it?’
‘WHAAAT? You couldn’t hold back? What if the engine blew up??’
‘Don’t be ridiculous.’
‘Ridiculous? Now the engine’s broken, and you pushed the red button that broke it.’
‘THAT is ridiculous. It was already broken when I pushed the red button. The red button doesn’t mean anything.’
‘Oh yeah. That’s why Mr Chen, who neither speaks nor writes English, went to all the trouble of placing a sticky note over the top with a MESSAGE FOR YOU in ENGLISH. What did it say?’
‘I took it off.’
‘I know you did. But what did it say?’
‘Um….I forgot’
Here’s what it said:
Bit ambiguous, right? 
4. Get driving. Try not to get killed.

Shanghai elevated highway, 8 floors off the ground. Helpful lane division barrier.

So, two hours later we were still sitting parked outside our house in Shanghai while various men stopped and helped, the local noodle guys took interior tours of the campervan, and bought our kids icecream. Still the damn thing wouldn’t start. Dozens of phone calls were made, lots of futile attempts were made to follow the engine-starting instructions, tempers were frayed, blame was apportioned, and then suddenly –  it just started. Just. Like. That.
It was pretty exciting to finally be on our way, but now the real difficulties began. I think you may already suspect the major challenges of driving on Chinese roads – but there are two important things to know.

1. Imagine drawing an invisible horizontal line across your headlights and continuing it to the left and right. You are responsible for everything in front of that line, no matter how many rules it breaks or how stupid it is.

The drivers behind you are responsible for everything in front of their line, including you. So if you suddenly brake, change lanes without indicating, or reverse on the highway, it is up to the guys behind you to swerve, brake or get out of the way. And if they don’t – their fault, not yours.

And when that wedding entourage of six red Audis in front of you suddenly careens across your lane with the passengers hanging out of the window filming the whole mess, then it’s your responsibility to brake and swerve like a demon.

2. Everybody breaks the rules, but they do so in an entirely predictable way. For example, everyone continues to go through a red light for three seconds after it has turned red. If you stop on amber it will create mayhem. May-hem.

5. Find a camping spot:

Amazingly, once we moved from big highway to smaller and smaller roads and headed into the hills south of the pretty town of Shaoxing, this little culvert in the midst of a lush green bamboo forest  presented itself. Across the road was a small tree-fringed reservoir with water of the most intense (and admittedly slightly unnatural) jade green. It was perfect. 
The culvert was shielded from the road on the downhill side, and farmers coming up the hill in their lawnmower tuk-tuks were unable to stop on the slope, so no-one bothered us.
Or perhaps no one bothered us because we were camping directly beside a grave.
Either way, for ten long quiet hours we listened to nothing but the music of nature – frogs and crickets, and the rustling of wild bamboo in a breeze. 

It was beautiful. We tested out our generator, and all the lights, and everything that opened and closed. We played scrabble until we ran out of battery power and went happily to bed.

6. Get home safely without breaking the campervan:

The next morning, buoyed by our overnight success at failing to attract any attention from the local Public Security Bureau, we set off back to Shanghai. 
But as any seasoned Everest adventurer will tell you, it’s the climb down the mountain that’s the most dangerous.
Driving into the pretty town of Tingyuan, sun shining, we noticed a square entry arch across the roadway,  decoratively  trimmed in black and yellow diagonal stripes. There was an outdoor market up ahead which diverted our attention when suddenly an almighty BOOOMM!! ricocheted through the vehicle. 
My husband slammed on the brakes and I swore like a navvy under my breath. We both thought we’d hit something, like a motorbike, and felt sick to the stomach.
We got out of the car and looked around. No motorbike. No bicycle. No wheelbarrow we’d run over. No one lying injured on the road.
Then we both looked behind us at the decorative entry arch, which now clearly presented itself as the 2.5 metre height-limited warning barrier it so obviously was. There was a scraped-off area on the underside of the cross bar where we had hit it at full speed. 
We looked up at the front of our 2.8 metre high campervan where the airconditioning unit now stood on a very strange, loose angle. And a look passed between us that said ‘I won’t tell Mr Chen if you don’t.’
And we didn’t.
In fact, despite swiping an archway and getting lost several times and nearly being killed by the crazy wedding entourage in red Audis, I consider our test drive an unqualified success, don’t you? Bring on the real fun. Twenty-five days to go!