Monthly Archives: May 2016


Date of writing: May 2016

In many desirable driving holiday destinations (Switzerland, the US, Australia, New Zealand, Japan) renting a car is worry-free; everything from insurance to the quality of the cars is, more or less, guaranteed. China’s rental car market is, by comparison, still underdeveloped and there are many things to consider before renting a car. But as my essay “Be sure to return it empty” shows, things are improving…

In what follows, I summarise the current state of affairs from the point of view of an individual traveller interested in renting a car in the remoter regions of China.

Rental Car Companies – International car rental companies (for example, Avis and Hertz) have presence in China. There are also several local, large, and reputable companies such as 1Hai in the market. But you will also find thousands of operators who call themselves ‘car rental companies’ but usually hire out privately-owned cars.   Beware of these: they may not have a car rental license. If you’re stopped by the police, you may face enquiries and delays. If you have an accident, the insurance company may refuse to pay up.

Arriving at Mt Everest Basecamp

Arriving at Mt Everest Basecamp

Choice of cars – The choice of cars is limited. Most large car companies focus on the mass market and provide only very basic cars. Renting a nice SUV or a sports car is, especially in remoter regions, very difficult if not impossible.

Insurance – Insurance coverage levels are, by international standards, low and it is difficult to know in advance how much the insurance company will pay under what circumstances. Certain insurance coverage common internationally is impossible to obtain in China. CDW (‘collision damage waiver’) coverage – whereby you as the renter pay a bit extra to lower the insurance excess – is an example. Overseas it is a matter of course that the car rental company will handle the claims processing on your behalf. Don’t count on this in China.

Driving License – In order to drive in China, you need a Chinese driving license. For overseas tourists, China offers a so-called ‘temporary driving license’. Car rental companies assume you have a valid Chinese license, permanent or temporary and will not assist you in applying for one.

Near Baima Snow Mountain in Yunnan

Near Baima Snow Mountain in Yunnan

Crossing Borders – In Europe, crossing borders with low-to-mid-range rental cars is in many cases possible, especially if one is willing to pay a top-up insurance. Very few European rental car companies allow you to take upmarket cars into the remoter regions of Europe. In China, none do.

Deposit – Depending on the location and the company, you may be asked to pay a security deposit in cash.

GPS & Maps – While China’s GPS navigation systems are improving rapidly, they do not incorporate real-time information about traffic conditions and road closures.  If you travel in remote regions, you might drive hours only to discover that you have to turn around. Printed maps in Chinese language are good and easily available; English language maps are available, too, but not very detailed.

Along the Red River in Yunnan

Along the Red River in Yunnan

One-way rental – One-way rental services are common overseas, at least for common, popular cars: you can pick up a car in one location and drop it off in a different one (sometimes you have to pay extra, of course). In China, this service is still very rare.

As you can see, there are many obstacles that stand in a tourist’s way of renting cars in China. At On the Road Experiences we have removed all these hurdles. All you need to do is come and enjoy a fabulous driving journey in China or one of its neighbouring countries!

Peter

Please follow and like us:

The first car I ever drove in China was one I owned. This was bug-eyed Miss Daisy (or 小黄 in Chinese). A Caterham Super 7 R300, she was the granddaughter of Colin Chapman’s Lotus 7, a car meant for the track that had somehow finagled a public road worthiness certificate. The R300 was sold as a kit you could assemble yourself; for less mechanically minded drivers, Caterham also sold a fully assembled version.

Miss Daisy in Beijing

Miss Daisy in Beijing

Getting this car into China and equipping it with a proper (no-funny-money) Beijing license plate took a year. When the customs official laid eyes on her at the port in Tianjin, he laughed, saying, “That’s not a car, that’s a toy!” (这不是个车,这是个玩具). It took six months to convince him otherwise.

Next came the ordeal of going through what in the UK is called “single vehicle approval”, that is, the procedure of registering an unusual car. (At the time there was only one Caterham in China, mine.) I was prepared to hear many official reasons why Miss Daisy might not be licensed, except for the one that I was given: that she did not meet the city’s emissions standards. Yes, Beijing, one of the world’s more polluted capitals, has stringent emissions standards in place. It took another six months for her to pass the test. (You can read about my journey through China with Miss Daisy here.)

As a result of this prolonged and stressful experience, I concluded that renting cars – even though they might not be as special as Miss Daisy – was the way to go.

In Daocheng Yading - without 4WD

In Daocheng Yading – without 4WD

And so when I had the opportunity to drive in Sichuan, my friends and I rented a car in Chengdu. Back in 2005, this was my first lesson in renting cars in China. I got myself in trouble on day one when I found myself being pulled out of some mud by a tractor. There are many reasons – including my own stupidity – why this happened, but the main reason, to my mind, was that the letters “4WD” were emblazoned on the rear door of the SUV. Surely a four-wheel drive could tackle a bit of mud? Perhaps, were it not for the fact that the “4WD” was an expression of the carmaker’s aspiration – mere decoration, rather than a statement of fact.

No comment

No comment

Not long after this I rented another SUV in Chengdu. I had arrived a day earlier to take care of some business, then the following day I picked up the car and raced to the airport to meet my wife. The car ground to a halt shortly after the tollbooth on Chengdu’s airport expressway. “What the hell?” I grumbled, “How on earth can I be out of petrol after less than 15km?”

After a kind gentleman helped me fetch a canister of petrol, I picked up my wife – who was fuming – and drove straight back to the rental car company to complain. The store manager looked at me as if I came from another planet. “You pick it up empty, and you return it empty, that’s how it works,” he explained.  “Not where I come from!  You pick it up full and return it full!” He looked at me with an expression that said “Well, you’re in China, not wherever it is that you come from…” and was about to move on from the incident when he decided that I needed an explanation. “We can’t do it like that, Sir. Actually, we tried. But it didn’t work. Many cars would be returned with the fuel gauge needle showing that the tank was ‘full’.” I smiled, thinking smugly, “See, it works!”, but he continued: “Yes, the tank was fuel, but what was in it wasn’t petrol!”

A Borrow Car

A Borrow Car

For our first few journeys with customers, we used “rental SUVs” we had procured for our guests. The trouble was, I later discovered, that the “rental SUVs” where, in fact, not rental cars, but private cars that the owners had made available to the “rental car company” to be let to customers. Luckily, we were never stopped by the police to check, and we didn’t have any accidents – the insurance would promptly have refused to pay, I was told.

Avis Prado great...but long-term lease not viable

Avis Prado great…but long-term lease not viable

How do you start a driving holiday business in an environment like this? In 2008 we decided that we needed good, properly licensed cars: it was the beginning of our good relationship with Avis China. We got what we wanted – new Toyota Prado 4.0ls, rental license and all. But there was one snag: we had to lease them for five years. This was good for our guests and good for our reputation, but bad for the company’s pocketbook as we didn’t have enough business to utilize these gems fully.

By 2013 Hertz (but sadly not Avis) began to purchase Toyota Highlanders for their short-term rental fleet in Kunming. We have been using these ever since, but now there is another snag: while overseas rental car fleets are frequently renewed (usually in less than six months, in some cases in as little as three), the Hertz Highlanders from two years ago are still in the fleet, and they show it. Everywhere in the world we humans has been equipped with a mental switch that flicks between two positions; “I own it, I care”, and “It’s a rental, for Christ’s sake, who cares?” In China the two switch positions – while gradually approaching each other – are still very far apart.

Audi Q5s...yeah!

Audi Q5s…yeah!

Last year, the boss of Avis China moved from Avis to DCH (大昌行) Motor Leasing, a subsidiary of one of China’s largest listed companies. He called us and said “I’ve got news for you!” As a result of his move and our long relationship with Avis, we’re now able to offer our clients the option to upgrade to brand new Audi Q5s.  一步一步 (“one step at a time”) things are getting better indeed!

Peter

Please follow and like us:

I’ve been running photography journeys with On the Road Experiences since 2011. Over the last six years parents have brought their children along on several journeys, which led me to think about organising a family-orientated photography trip.

The children I’d worked with always impressed me by how quickly they learned technical concepts, by their enthusiasm and by the quality of their work. Wouldn’t it be fun for families to enjoy learning about travel photography together? Taking throwaway photos is such a part of everyday life now – think of Instagram and Snapchat – that I thought it would be great to try and inspire young photographers (and their Snapchatting parents) to create images that they would treasure for a lifetime.

Xizhou, taken by a 11 year old

Xizhou, taken by a 11 year old

Buoyed by these experiences, we put together a special itinerary and recently ran our first family photography trip. Despite past successes, I was still apprehensive how the photography element would work with a full group of 8- to 13-year olds. Perhaps they would be bored – what if the activities we had planned didn’t seem new or special enough? Please click here for detailed itinerary.

These doubts quickly dissipated and I found myself busier than usual as I coached both kids and parents out in the field, and answered a host of questions on different topics. One afternoon after photographing Yunnanese snub-nosed monkeys in a nature reserve outside the remote town of Tacheng,

Photo by Sean Meng

Photo by Sean Meng

I had planned to stay in the lounge of our beautiful lodge to help guests review their photographs. The afternoon turned into a four-hour long introduction to Adobe Lightroom, spurred on by endless questions from parents and kids about how to edit and manage their photographs.

It was wonderful to see the kids sharing their photos with each other and their parents,

especially when they managed to capture a particularly special image, and to watch the older kids helping the younger children. More than once, I noticed a child taking their parents’ camera hostage and refusing to give it back! Parents commented happily that their children were spending more time looking and seeing things more closely, as well as less time playing games on their iPads.

Photo by our customer, JaQ Lai

Our final night wrap-up session brought both hearty laughter and amazement as we all shared our favorite images from the trip. When I hear comments from parents such as “I can’t believe that a trip with children happened where nothing went wrong!” or when a child tells me that it was the “best trip I’ve ever had in my life”, it makes all my work worthwhile. Now I’m just looking forward to the next one…

On the Road Team!

On the Road Team!

Ron-Signature_white

Please follow and like us:

In November 2010, Peter and I spent a few weeks in Qinghai and Tibet researching new itineraries – routes that became Roads on the Roof of the World and the Qinghai version of Tibetan Highlands.

Lovely day for a picnic

Lovely day for a picnic

We had enjoyed an adventurous start to the trip, including an attempt (quickly abandoned) at winter camping in Tuotuohe, and what must have been one of the longer picnics in Qinghai’s history as we waited for an over-ambitious lamb stew to cook 5,000 metres above sea level. But, as we arrived in Lhasa, fatigued but at least thoroughly acclimatised, the trip’s highlight – Mount Everest – still lay ahead.

After a few days in Lhasa, we set out for the mountains. As we drove west of Shigatse, human settlements thinned out dramatically and the landscape grew steadily more otherworldly. Bands of ochre sediment jutted out at strange angles, hinting at the violence of the collision that forced the Tibetan Plateau three miles into the sky – and pushed the mountain peaks higher still. Eventually, we came to Baiba.

Baiba is a rugged little town that sits beside the highway to Nepal. Nobody would choose to stay here, except for the fact that it is conveniently close to the turn-off for Mount Everest’s North Base Camp. We stopped here one evening, four days out from Lhasa. After looking at hotels and restaurants and an hour spent sitting wrapped in blankets, talking and playing cards by candlelight, we called it a night.

The following morning our alarms rang well before dawn. Bundled up like onions in thick layers of clothing, we loaded the cars and set off. The beginning of the journey was stop-start as we passed through checkpoints and turned onto the gravel road (now paved) to Base Camp. As we climbed through a long series of switchbacks, suspense grew. We were climbing up to Pang-La, the first pass from which Everest is visible – would the peak be clear?

Dawn breaks...

Beautiful, but where are the big mountains?

I was sitting in the first car in our two-car convoy. As we crested the pass, I used the walkie-talkie to report, incisively, that, “Oooh,it’s beautiful!” Dawn had painted the smaller peaks with a rosy glow, and there was a gorgeous arc of white-capped mountains before us. But the larger peaks were shrouded in thick cloud, as we used a signboard to work out where Everest, Lhotse, Makalu and Cho Oyu ought to be.

Good thing there's a sign post...

Good thing there’s a sign post…

It is a long drive from Pang-La to Everest, and it seems even longer when you can’t see the mountain in question. We drove on in hope that the weather would clear, but the mountains stayed locked in behind the cloud as the morning wore on. Early that afternoon we arrived at a deserted Base Camp and scrambled up a huge and crumbly lump of moraine that is used as a viewpoint when there’s something to view. A wall of mist swirled before us, as we tried to imagine how huge the mountain would be at such close quarters.

Eventually, even Peter – usually the most optimistic person in such situations – conceded that we might as well turn back. So we turned around and began to drive back to Baiba, disappointed and empty-handed, for we had hoped to come away with some photos of Everest for our new journey dossiers. Seeing Everest was one of my top travel ambitions, and it seemed such a pity to have been to Base Camp without getting so much as a glimpse of the north face.

Finally! A glimpse!

Finally! A glimpse!

Late that afternoon, as we were climbing back up to Pang-La, my car’s walkie-talkie crackled into life. “I think the clouds are clearing,” came the message. And they were. One by one the mighty 8,000 metre peaks emerged, looming twice as high and more massive than we’d imagined. My disappointment evaporated and – just as suspense had mounted that morning – excitement began to mount as we zig-zagged back up to the pass.

A Pang-La sunrise at its best

A Pang-La sunrise at its best

Since that first trip I’ve had brilliant luck with the weather in these mountains. And while it’s an incredible experience each and every time – I always end up gazing at the highest peaks for minutes on end – nothing compares to the thrill of that first sighting. The clouds never completely cleared and we only had a short while before the weather closed in again, but it was enough to create an indelible memory of just how magnificent our world is. And that is the point of travel, is it not? Well, that and being able to say you’ve eaten lamb casserole at 5,000 metres above sea level…

Jo_white (1)

Please follow and like us:

Batelina. The restaurant’s name came up three times in the span of three days while we were preparing for our research trip. A wine maker, an olive oil producer and a business school friend from Croatia, had all mentioned it in response to our enquiries about where we could enjoy the finest seafood in Istria. “Book well in advance”, I was told. A month before our trip, I dialled their number from Hong Kong. Greeted by a recording in Croatian, I decided to call back later. Which I did on the same day, the next day and quite a few more times. Never did I succeed in speaking to a person. “I can’t reach them,” I told one of the referrers. “They’re only open in the evenings,” he told me.  Given that “in the evening” in Istria means midnight or later in Hong Kong, for me, a morning person, that wasn’t going to work out any time soon. I could have asked referrers to help, but they had helped enough already, so I didn’t want to bother them further. I decided to wait until I was in Europe.  When eventually I called around 6pm Croatian time, I was greeted by a friendly voice, “How can I help you?” “I’d like to make a reservation,” I said, adding that there would be two of us on April 4th. “That’s a Monday night,” I tried to be helpful. “At night we sleep,” came the reply, “but in the evening we’re open. Would you like to book?”

Konoba Batelina

Konoba Batelina

While I still love printed maps, when it comes to finding a specific place, GPSs beat maps hands-down. When the GPS said “you’ve reached your destination”, we didn’t concur: finding ourselves on a residential street, we didn’t see anything that looked like a restaurant. We circled the “destination” once. With still nothing obvious in sight, we called Batelina and described what we saw around us. “Park your car on the lawn in front of you and walk around the hill to the house with the lights on…that’s us.” We did as we were told, trudging up the hill, still slightly doubtful that we were heading in the right direction until we spotted a sign leaving no doubt that we had arrived.

Batelina StartersSince it was a chilly evening, we opted for a cozy-looking dining room with a fireplace.  We were served by Ilya, who spoke excellent English. This came as a surprise – we had thought that we were coming to a very local restaurant – and almost put us off. Perhaps Batelina was no hidden gem after all, and that perhaps we were in for a meal of “tourist fare”. As became quickly apparent, this was an unnecessary worry: we had the finest seafood dinner of our lives.

I believe that one’s enjoyment of any experience in life depends at least as much on the setting, the circumstance, and your expectations as it does on the raw nature of the subject itself. The subject in this case was, first, the recommended starter selection – on this day, ten small dishes featuring the day’s catch, each one a culinary jewel coming out of the treasure chest of the chef’s imagination. For our main dishes, we chose scallops and clams. For desert, we picked mascarpone cream with wine-cooked figs and homemade biscuits.

Batelina - MainWhat made this evening such an utter delight? Was it that every bite enchanted our palates? Yes, indeed. Was it the complete absence of pretension? Was it that there was no Michelin, no Gault Millau, no Falstaff, no accreditation whatsoever in sight?  Was it the story of Danilo, the fisherman owner of Batelina, and David his motorcycle-loving son and the current chef who joined us after dinner for a chat? I don’t know except that this evening has engraved itself forever in my memory.

“How do you find a place like this?” I’m often asked. In our world of search engines, there is a belief that “you can find anything on the internet”. By now, I assume you will have googled “Batelina” and, voila!, there it is, you found it and with that “About 46,700 results (0.73 seconds)”. But Donald Rumsfeld comes to mind:

Batelina - Desert“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

The magic of travel is that of turning some of the world’s unknowns – whether known or unknown – into knowns, the process of discovery that begins with a hunch, stops along the way at points of reference, and ends with an experience you’re dying to share. It’s that feeling of wonder about what “lies around the corner.” The hunch gives you the feeling that there is something out there waiting to be discovered. The points of reference, otherwise known as “friends”, are lighthouses that guide you along.  And the discovery ends with your personal experience, which is when you know whether your hunch was right, whether your friends know you well. Sometimes, the answer is no and you move on. At other times – at times like Batelina – the answer is a resounding yes and you linger to tell the story.

Come and visit Istria while I feel it to be true that “rarely have so few known so little about a place that offers so much.”

Peter

 

 

 

P.S. My research was for a new On the Road Experiences itinerary: “Austrian-Hungarian Lands: A driving holiday (Part I)” that will wind through the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia and Croatia. E-mail me (peter@ontheroadexperiences.com) if you’d like to be among the first to hear more about our newest European journey.

 

Please follow and like us: