New Delhi (India), 08.07.2013
On a journey like ours there are a lot of factors that can influence the entire project. So far, we handled lost IDs in Serbia, missing visas in Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, two broken tyres, our car’s problems and breakdown, terrible heat and freezing cold, terrorist threat in Pakistan, a Tajik lake that found our car so nice it wanted the Evoque to stay in its mud, and other small and not so small hurdles. In order to keep going flexibility and adaptation are everything, but we need to balance tradeoffs v staying true to the intention of the trip. Unfortunately, some events force us to change our plan for Eurasia 2013 and alter the initially planned route. These changes give the entire project a slightly different touch, but still allow for a completion of the trip through Asia and back to Europe. The new route will lead through some unplanned Asian countries at the expense of others. They will also see the car being exchanged for planes on part of the route unfortunately. Below we explain the reasons for these changes and the new plan.
The first change concerns our planned second crossing through China. We had a lot of expectations for what was an important country on our route. Not only was Beijing one of our milestones, but China in itself is such a huge cradle of global civilization that we were so eager to see, that the second China leg was a major highlight of Eurasia 2013. Unfortunately we will not be able to drive through China a second time. While we strongly regret this loss, there was simply no way to avoid what would have been a foreseeably bad experience.
The problem arose during our disastrous first trip through far western China, the Xinjiang province. To give you some background, we have applied for both trips through China at the beginning of the year through a Berlin based agency, CTS. The agency, officially accredited with the Chinese government, delivered us a travel plan according to our rough briefing. In China you cannot just enter with your car freely and drive through as in pretty much every country we pass. You need to ask for permission, get lots of approvals, agree on a strict travel plan incl. fixed entry and exit dates and have a person with you in the car at all times. Not to mention that we had to pay thousands of Euros for the few days in Xinjiang. You have to basically give some cash to everybody involved: central police, the military general command, border customs, the Uighur autonomous territory of Xinjiang, everybody wants hundreds of Euros. Per person! More hundreds of Euros are needed for entry and exit control at customs, an insurance for the car, and an environmental tax. Then come a Chinese license plate, a Chinese driving license, a guide that you need to pay a daily fee plus his transportation costs, meals and accommodation. And obviously we needed to pay for our accommodation, all arranged in detail in advance. After you have just thrown money at tons of people you expect to be at least treated well and have a trip without hassles, right? No way in China. You can read about our experiences in the posts about those days.
We never had the feeling we were welcome in the country from the moment we arrived with some hours of delay at the border, and not at all seen as customers by the agency or the guide. The fact that our car broke down just before our entry and we couldn’t make the agreed entry date was a major problem, and we had to beg to get two days push back. I think the tipping point for us was our night at the Karakol lake on the KKH. If we calculate the cost per day and compare what we got in return, this has been the worst investment of our lives to date – by far. A BBQ fueled by burning dollar or Euro bills would have been a better investment.
We obviously complained with the agency, and asked for a revision of the second route through China. We wanted to check the hotels again, to get clean ones with at least a hot shower and decent bed. We would even have been willing to pay more for the best hotels in town, there is no need to make an exercise of spartan life and masochism out of this trip. But instead of any move towards us, we received a “take it or leave it” reply and were told that the Chinese authorities were not amused by us. So now we were the problem, not the treatment we received on the ground?!? It seemed that our blogging about the horrible accommodations, the dirt, and especially the completely uncivilised police checking our car at a checkpoint on the KKH as well as the hotel staff’s booze party night at the Karakol lake did not go down well with whoever has read our blog from the Chinese side. (Strangely we see zero visits on our blog from China.) True, I described some policemen as “animals”, a word I have corrected since to not offend anybody. But the behaviour was simply not acceptable. The arrogant treatment by the authorities told us that if China 1 had been a fiasco, China 2 would be a nightmare. Would we have done China 2 we would have given them carte blanche to do with us whatever they wanted. After several mails back and forth with CTS, we decided to cancel.
We want to thank Mr. Kriwet from the agency for his work in all this. We got to know a very helpful person that has to mediate between western travellers and Chinese bureaucracy, and in some cases has to execute things he can’t decide. And of course he works for “the other side”, so there is a natural conflict. Nonetheless he always maintained a professional manner with us so far.
Another country we were very exited to see was Myanmar, the ancient Burma, a country sealed off from the rest of the world for decades. Untouched by western civilisation and full of cultural and natural riches, it lay on the only land route south of China into Thailand. We had received a contact to a local agency that organizes tours through Myanmar. The country was said to have recently opened up to foreign tourism by car. We have been in contact with this agency for months, Putao Trekking House, and before leaving Madrid had agreed on an itinerary and the fact that 1 person from the government would drive with us in our car for all the 8 days we would be in Myanmar. The agency had arranged everything, gotten all government permits, and since they were presented to us as a trustworthy expert in this kind of tours we believed them. Maybe we didn’t do a thorough background check. But how do you want to background check on a travel agency in a country that has almost no contact to the outside world, almost no internet, and where you don’t know anybody?
So, long story short, a few weeks ago we suddenly get an email from the agency that “since our entry date had changed from the initial plan” (we never said so, but anyway) we were now no longer allowed to cross Myanmar since it would be Monsoon season. This is at least what we understood from the email, the English was a little cryptic, googletranslatic. We asked to verify this information since we never changed any dates. Obviously we started to look for alternatives, and there was only one: shipping the car by air from India to Thailand. Since also the Myanmar experience of just 8 days would have cost us thousands of Euros we had little alternative to air shipment, because at the time we still wanted to do China 2 and had a precise date to enter China and therefore little flexibility in timing. Also in Myanmar, we had to pay all kinds of fees to the government probably, but the agency never detailed them and just told us a suspiciously round, four digit USD amount. Plus the charges for the “leader” (that explains the self understanding of the people that drive with you) for transportation, accommodation and meals, some Euros for the Road Transport Authority and an insurance.
After around 2 weeks of waiting we finally got an OK to cross Myanmar and scrapped the air cargo plans. Very happy to finally be able to see the country, we planned accordingly. Then 12 days before the entry date, and right after transferring a substantial prepayment to the agency, suddenly came a requirement to take yet another person with us, and since we have no space in the car, another vehicle was needed. This for us meant killing the trip for various reasons:
– The agency had lost our trust. You just cannot change an agreement so shortly before the agreed entry date, and we simply don’t believe they didn’t know about the government requirements. If they didn’t they are not professional, and if they did, then they want to cheat on us because they withheld the info until after we have transferred thousands of dollars. We are not a travel agency’s ATM. Strangely now that we canceled they want us to come at all cost. After all this, we don’t feel like entering an unfree country with a regime known for human rights abuses galore and maybe have to face retaliation on the ground or harassment.
– Two (!!) government officials for just the two of us is absolutely crazy. The one person forced upon us in Turkmenistan and China respectively had already killed the entire experiences in those countries. A third person per se breaks the harmony in the car while travelling. And if this person then starts controlling us on every step we take, everything we say and other things, then what was planned as a friendly and open minded visit to a foreign country converts into a nightmare. We don’t want to immagine what two controllers would have caused for a situation.
– The needed second car would have been an obstacle to our travel. We doubt that the extra vehicle would have been in conditions like our Range Rover, with all due respect, and we were simply not willing to be slowed down by some other vehicle. Already in Myanmar we had a lot of driving waiting for us, we didn’t want to end up spending entire days to drive behind or wait for somebody else. In Pakistan we spent 19 hours for just 600 km due to slow downs by police in our car, convoy driving and escort vehicles. I would have driven the 600km in no more then 12 hours. 8 days of this ordeal is not what we wanted.
There is a point where we are just not willing to accept all possible constraints that are forced on us by the few governments that don’t understand we want to travel freely. Eurasia 2013 is meant to be fun, adventure, discovery, not a masochist trip burning cash just for the sake to be able to say “I was in this or that place”. If countries don’t like free traveling by car then they should just say so. We have absolutely no problem with that. Vietnam has told us clearly we can’t drive in with our car. It was clear from the beginning and we skipped the country. No time lost for us, no hard feelings with Vietnam, no problem. If it takes a lot of bureaucracy to get our car into places like Korea or Japan? Fine, we knew right away, and decided by ourselves if we wanted to take that burden on us or not. We thought it wasn’t worth it, and moved on. A clear yes or no is far better then the two situations described above.
OK, so no China 2, no Myanmar, and we are in India. A look at the map gives us these alternatives:
– Option 1: drive back through Pakistan and Iran into Turkey. This feels like giving up, and is therefore discarded.
– Option 2: ship the car to Thailand, see Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore. Then ship the car to Vladivostok and continue. Tempting idea. The costs of two shipments and the hassle are huge, and there are big price differences between agencies, so we’re scared of “sudden extra costs” once we decide for one of them. Also, it seems we cannot leave our stuff in the car but need to ship it empty. We have like 30 items of baggage in there, among them 2 20l-diesel tanks, a gas stove and cartridges, books and food, camping equipment etc. How are we supposed to move all this stuff? Twice? No way.
– Option 3: ship the car from India to Vladivostok. This takes a month approx, but if we do this before the end of July the car should be there on time. We have a month to travel by plane to see plenty of places in Asia before flying into Vladivostok, get the car back and continue. Yes, it is a hassle as in option 2, but at least we have to do this only once. And so it seems that this is the new plan. We won’t believe it until we have the car back in Vladivostok, so it’s going to be an interesting next 6 weeks 😉 Stay tuned.