With the worldwide outbreak of COVID-19 putting all our international travel plans on ice this summer, more and more of us are taking domestic trips. If you’re fed up of sitting on trains or having your temperature checked over and over again at the airport, perhaps it’s time to embark on some truly independent travel. In this article, I bring you a guide to four stellar road trips in China, including routes, duration and attractions you can visit along the way. From the pretty cities of Suzhou and Hangzhou, to the desert scapes of the northwest, road tripping in China never looked so good.
Source: averie woodard
With 130,000 km of largely well-maintained highway, China is easier to get around than ever before. And although expats can’t use their international driving licenses here, obtaining the right Chinese documents to drive in the Middle Kingdom is not as much hassle as you may think.
Getting a Chinese Driving License
Getting a Chinese driving license is relatively straightforward as long as you already have a driving license from your home-country. If you are without a driving license at all, you’ll have to go through the same steps all Chinese citizens go through, including passing a (notoriously easy) practical test along with the standard theory test. Bear in mind that international driving permits cannot be used in mainland China.
Read this for everything you need to know about converting a driving license from your home country into a Chinese driving license — but the short of it is that you must pass a written theory test. This can be completed in English, but the translations of the questions often leave a lot of be desired and some answers go against what you might consider conventional wisdom.
Even if you’ve been driving for years, you will therefore need to study a bit if you want to pass this test. This is best done via China driving theory test apps that can be easily found in your app store. Once you’re ready to sit the test, you’ll need to register with the traffic management department, the driving license bureau or the public security bureau in your city of residence.
When you go to register, take the following with you:
While you’ll likely be able to work all this out for yourself eventually, you’ll also be able to find expat service agents in most big cities to help you process your documents and register if you want the easy life (for a fee of around 1,000 RMB).
Once registered for the test, save the date in your diary and… well… make sure you pass!
Renting a Car in China
Feel free to skip this part if you’re lucky enough to have your own car.
In China’s first-tier cities you may be able to find well-known Western car rental brands like Hertz and Enterprise. Otherwise, you’ll have to go for a Chinese brand such as Shenzhou Car Rental, known as shénzhōu zūchē (神州租车) in Chinese.
In terms of prices, here’s what I found searching for car rentals from Beijing on the Shenzhou Car Rental app: On a weekday, one-day rental of a five-seat 4x4 ranges from around RMB470-790, while a five-seater saloon ranges from RMB220-780 per day. On the weekend, prices go up, amounting to around RMB526-800 per day for 4x4s and RMB270-800 for saloons.
Be sure to have your Chinese driving license and your passport when you go to pick up the car. As with many places in China, those serving you may have limited English, so unless you speak Mandarin, also be sure to have a translation app at the ready.
Time to get started with your China road trip! The following are merely suggestions of tried and tested routes that I think offer some appeal to expats. Across such a vast network of roads, however, the possibilities are endless, so do some research and plot a route that suits your interests.
Route 1: Shanghai — Suzhou — Hangzhou
An easy road trip for China novices. Perfect for expats living in Shanghai.
From Shanghai, take the Jinghu Highway for about 1 hour 45 minutes towards Suzhou.
From Suzhou, take the Changtai Highway and then the Shenjiahu Highway. The second part of the journey will take around 2 hours 40 minutes to 3 hours 15 minutes, depending on traffic.
Suzhou and Hangzhou are renowned for their gardens, lakes and historic structures. The former is in fact known for the “Four Famous Suzhou Gardens”, namely Lion Forest Garden, the Humble Administrator’s Garden, the Lingering Garden and Canglang Pavilion. Also worth a visit while you’re in the area is Tongli Ancient Town, a pretty water town around 18 km outside of Suzhou. Here, visitors can see buildings dating back to the Ming and Qing Dynasties.
In Hangzhou, road trippers can experience a modern bustling city alongside serene natural scenery. Especially worth a visit is the famous West Lake, where visitors can hire rowing boats or bicycle around its banks.
Route 2: Beijing — Jinshanling Great Wall — Inner Mongolia
A step up in terms of adventure, this is a trip to do over four or five days. Perfect for expats living in Beijing.
From central Beijing, take the Jingcheng Highway, Daguang Highway and Jingmi Road to reach Jinshanling Great Wall. This part of the journey will take around 2 hours 20 minutes to 3 hours, depending on traffic.
From Jinshanling, take the Jinghuanxian, Shouduhuanxian Highway and then Guodao 239 to reach Zhenglan Banner in Inner Mongolia. This part of the journey will take 4 hours 45 minutes to five hours 30 minutes, depending on traffic.
From there, take Shengdao 308, Haizhang Highway and Yihaixian to reach Inner Mongolia’s Taibus Banner. This final part of the journey will take around 1 hour 15 minutes.
Let’s start with the Great Wall. Of all the sections around Beijing, Jinshanling is generally considered a little more suitable for adventurous types and a little less touristy than sections like Badaling and Mutianyu. Its original appearance dating back to the Ming Dynasty has been largely preserved.
In Zhenglan Banner, visitors can experience the renowned Xanadu Relics Site. The attraction, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was the summer residence of Kublai Khan, grandson of Ghengis Khan.
And when finally arriving in Taibus Banner, visitors can go hiking up the Jinlian and Shitiao mountains. Those who want to extend the road trip farther should consider exploring more of Inner Mongolia.
Route 3: Guangzhou — Yangshuo — Guilin
Perfect for those who want to see southern China at its best. Ideal for expats living in Guangzhou, this trip is suitable for those with a thirst for outdoor activities.
From Guangzhou, take the Erguang Highway, Shankun Highway and later the Baomao Highway to reach Yangshuo. This leg of the journey takes around 5 hours 15 minutes to 6 hours, so prepare for a long day of driving.
From Yangshuo to Guilin City, take the Guilin Raocheng Highway. The final leg of the journey is a mere 1 hour 30 minutes.
The small county of Yangshuo has been a Chinese tourist hotspot for many years. Its mountainous landscape and winding rivers make it the perfect place to experience China’s great outdoors. Visitors to the county can go rafting on the Yulong River or hiking and rock climbing on Moon Hill. If you’re feeling exhausted after a long day of driving, however, simply relax in the bars and restaurants of the famous West Street.
The city of Guilin is perhaps most famous for its rice paddies, layered against the mountainsides. A tour of the Longji Rice Terrace, where villages inhabited by the Zhuang and Yao ethnic minorities are located, is particularly recommended (a cable car is available if you don’t feel up to the trek up or down the mountain). Equally popular is a boat tour on the Li River, from which visitors can gaze upon the Yellow Cloth Shoal, the piece of scenery featured on the RMB20 note.
Consider extending your road trip further west towards Yunnan province if you want to see more of southwest China.
Route 4: Hami — Turpan — Urumqi —Kashgar
Following the ancient Silk Road, this route through the far western region of Xinjiang is perhaps more suitable for established China drivers. Given the sensitive political situation here, you should also be prepared for multiple police stops.
Starting from Hami City, head west on the Lianshan Highway towards Turpan. This will take around 5 hours 20 minutes.
From Turpan to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, take the Jingxin Highway and then the Lianshan Highway. This part of the journey takes about 3 hours and 10 minutes.
Urumqi to Kashgar is the longest part of the journey at around 15 hours, so you’ll want to split this up into two or three days. The smaller cities of Korla and Aksu may be good options for rest-stops.
Xinjiang is rich in history and culture, most notably that of the Uighur Muslims, a Turkic minority group. In Turpan, visitors can see the red sandstone formations of the Flaming Mountains in the Taklamakan Desert or visit the city’s Grape Valley. As well as tasting the speciality local fruit, you’ll also be able to experience Uighur singing and dancing.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Gaochang City, a former garrison town, allows visitors to see ancient desert ruins, among other delights.
The north of the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi is like a typical Chinese metropolis, while the southern area is more dominated by Uighur culture. At the Grand Bazaar, visitors can purchase a variety of authentic snacks and souvenirs including dates, nuts, silk products and more. The hand-crafted knives are aesthetically pleasing, although buying one is not advisable given the heightened security situation here.
The ancient city of Kashgar, the last stop on the road trip, features a plethora of top visitor sites. The Id Kah Mosque, the largest mosque in China, can be found in the main square, although the removal of religious motifs have left it a shell of its former self. The city’s old town features more buildings in traditional Islamic and Uighur styles.
Located just outside the city is the Tianmen Scenic Area, where a walk through the desert will bring visitors to Shipton’s Arch. At 370 metres, the natural arch was once featured in the Guinness Book of Records as the tallest of its kind in the world, although the entry was later removed because record keepers could not determine its exact location. Hopefully you’ll be able to figure it out, though.
General Tips for Driving in China
As with anywhere in the world, make sure you’re familiar with the country’s traffic laws before you set off on a road trip in China. Also make sure your car has had a recent safety check, you have emergency supplies and you know who to contact in the event of a crash or a breakdown.
Beyond the above essentials, here are a few general tips for driving in China:
- Beware of bikes! Including cyclists, delivery drivers, mopeds and more. Many do not wear helmets and most do not conform to traffic regulations in the same way as cars and other vehicles. Within urban areas, bikes heading down the road towards oncoming traffic and suddenly pulling out at junctions are common sights.
- You’ll hear a lot of horns. This may be different to your home country where excessive use of the horn might be considered rude. In China, the horn may be used to vent frustration when waiting in a traffic jam, to warn pedestrians stood in the road, or just to let a fellow road-user know that a vehicle is approaching.
- Be prepared to have your ID checked. For expats in China, this means your passport and your Chinese driving license. This will likely happen more often when driving through China’s more politically sensitive regions, such as Xinjiang province.
Have you done any road tripping in China? Tell us about it in the comments section below.
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I have done a few including a couple of big ones. The good thing about the China Highways is they are pretty well done although the signage can be a bit round the bend. I have done Shanghai - Qingdao (8hrs), Shanghai - Nanjing (3.5 hrs) and Shanghai to Guilin - twice - (2 days). It is possible to drive from Shanghai - Hong Kong along the eastern seaboard which would take roughly 4 to 5 days. If planing a long road trip it is better to take advantage of the free toll roads that are in place at national holidays. Tip: set off in the very early a.m. to avoid the mad rush that happens on day 1. Another tip- GPS. A free map and GPS app that does not require internet is called maps.me
Sep 09, 2020 11:20 Report Abuse