Tag Archives: Cars

I have been working for On the Road Experiences since 2013. I started as a host…

What does a “host” do? As a journey host I oversee the whole journey from greeting guests on the first day until we all say goodbye on the last. I am responsible the service we provide and for the experiences guests enjoy; our aim is to make each journey enjoyable for all parties involved.

Happy times during hosting!

Happy times during hosting!

My role has grown over the years, and now I enjoy researching new itineraries, enhancing our existing journeys, and meeting guests before they join a trip and developing the German market. Peter gives my colleagues and I the chance to grow – sometimes it seems that every day I find myself with a new project, which makes me busy and happy! 

On the way to Mount Everest Basecamp on our "Roof on a Top of the World" journey

On the way to Mount Everest Basecamp on our “Roof on a Top of the World” journey

Looking back at all the journeys I have hosted, I remember a lot of laughter and happiness, and my hard-drive is full of pictures of sunsets, beautiful landscapes and people. Two things that I can’t capture on film, though, are the hard work and long days that go into making each journey a success.

Explaining my job to friends isn’t easy, because it is not at all like being on holiday, and neither is it “just” being a tour guide. We have to work with the fact that on each journey there will be many unforeseen events along the way – hopefully these will be fun things, such as yaks on the road or coming across a colorful local festival, but they might include road closures or even landslides.

In March, for example, we got held up by market day in a small village on the way to Puzhehei, where all the roads were gridlocked with trucks both big and small. 

Making the best out of the traffic....

Making the best out of the traffic….,

Nobody could move until the stallholders began to clear up two to three hours later. Thinking of it now, the pictures it brings to my mind are of our guests sitting on the side of the road, relaxing – one smoking a cigar, and chatting with the market-goers.

Making new friends...

Making new friends…

Our drivers got stuck in, handling and coordinating the traffic while the policemen lolled about drunk on the pavement!  I love that our guests and my colleagues managed to make the most out the afternoon and still find something good in a situation that wasn’t so good. It was very hot that day. As I tried to get cold drinks to keep us all refreshed, I ended up going from shop to shop as I discovered that none of the fridges were working! Finally, in a tiny shop I found cold beverages and local snacks, which I took back for us all to share.

This kind of experience is a good reminder for everyday life – of course I had all sorts of worries going through my mind: “What if we’re stuck here forever? “How long will this traffic jam last?” “What are our customers thinking?” “Will it get dark before we arrive?” “Are there any short cuts we could use?”, and so on and on… And I wished that we might have had a smoother journey on that day, but the reality is that life doesn’t always go to plan, and sometimes you just have to make the best most out of whatever happens!

Curiously, almost without fail, it is the unforeseen events, well handled, that our guests remember the most after we return home. Sometimes it’s the bends in the road that are the most memorable and meaningful!

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Europe is the cradle of the motorcar and private motoring. Ever since Karl Benz’s 1886 Motorwagen, people have taken pride in owning a car and being in its driver’s seat. Driving in a beautiful car bespeaks privilege, freedom, privacy, and, especially in an open-top car, allows one to be in communion with the elements and natural beauty: soak up the sunshine, feel the wind in your hair, smell the fresh air and the scents of freshly cut grass. Besides, there is the sheer pleasure of being in control, of directing the course of travel: to turn, to go, to stop where and when you feel like it.

These are pleasures that Europeans were the first to enjoy. Most evidently, these are pleasures that can be shared by couples. While it is often the gentleman who takes the driving seat, it was in fact Bertha Benz who undertook the first driving journey (with their two children) in the world. Driving journeys in a cabriolet are something that women have enjoyed ever since, whether as companion or driver.

On the Road in EuropeAdd to this the many other delights of a driving holiday in Europe – private concerts or car museums, the dazzling sights of sparkling Alpine lakes, the smell of sweets freshly baked, a home-cooked meal in a restaurant in the middle of nowhere and time together with friends or family a driving holiday in Europe is the perfect blend of sweet adventure and world-class comfort!

Visit our European journeys page for itinerary ideas. And remember: soon we will introduce our first scheduled, European journey for 2017.


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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!


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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!


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