The China Road Trip: A Progress Report


Just in case you all thought I might have let the whole campervanning around China thing fall off my radar, because it was too difficult, costly and just too nuts, here's the first of a series of updates to whet your appetite for the almost-certain disasters, embarrassing language mess-ups and map confusion to come.

After deciding that the second half of this year would be as good a time as any to pack up the Shanghai house, the family, and the dictionary and set off for a six month road trip around China's less-travelled roads, we soon realised that this was going to be a logistic nightmare needing to be broken down into more do-able monthly tasks.

The two tasks assigned for February (because it's a short month and we didn't want to set ourselves up for failure) were:

1. Get our Chinese driving licence

2. Find a campervan, motorhome or minivan

I'm sad to report I have already FAILED on both these counts, China not being the easiest country in which to organize anything in a short time-frame (except having a suit made, which can happen overnight, or demolishing a historic building, also possible overnight).

Let me explain these miserable failures to you.

The Chinese Drivers Licence Failure

In theory, it should be a piece of cake getting a Chinese Driving Licence because all you need is:

1. An existing international driver's licence (check)
2. Healthy body and mind (check)
3. The ability to get 90% on a multichoice exam on Chinese road rules (not impossible)
4. 90 days or more remaining on your Chinese residency visa. Really??

Apparently I only have 68 days remaining on my residency visa, because I only have 68 days remainng on my ten-year old passport. It's kind of coming back to me now that they informed me of this when I last applied for a new visa, but it may have conveniently slipped my mind.

So before I can apply, I need a new passport, and a new visa. And a lot of luck with those multichoice questions. The only positive thing to come out of this whole circuitous paperwork drama is my new passport photo, in which I have failed to age at all over the last ten years thanks to Wally at the photo shop who did a bit of photoshop on me.

Maybe not so easy as I thought then. This may explain the fact that I've only seen two foreigners driving cars in three years in China. That's called a clue, but I choose to ignore it. Next month, with my new passport and visa, I will be reporting Chinese Drivers Licence SUCCESS.

The Chinese Campervan Failure

The vehicle, on the other hand, is going to be much more tricky. I think I may have explained in my last post that a culture of camping, caravans and motorhomes doesn't really exist in China. I can't just pop down to the local motorhome display yard to take a look at the latest models, or check the second-hand pages of the China Daily for a bargain minibus. Unlike London and Byron Bay, Shanghai is not littered with the carcasses of fouth-hand campervans left behind by backpackers.

So I started my research on campervans at the place where every Chinese person researches a new purchase - Taobao, the Chinese website/temple to capitalism where you can buy absolutely anything from popcorn to a ten metre neon sign customized with your name. My search for 'campervan' however, yielded exactly one match, shown below.

T-shirt 39 yuan, from Kumao Co
Even broadening the search field to 'motorhome' yielded only 4 results, and 'camping' a measly 820, most of which were children's books in English (Curious George Goes Camping, Bailey Goes Camping, Amelia Bedelia Goes Camping, Tiny Goes Camping, Maisy Goes Camping etc etc. They have all of them gone camping, just apparently not in China).

I decided to go further afield, this time to Alibaba, an Aladdin's cave of large hardwear, machinery and stuff you make big stuff out of, like pipes and panels and so on.

My first search for a campervan turned out to be pure gold!

This snappy modern vehicle was made by the Shenzhen Speed Sources Technology company, which sounded extremely professional, reliable and high-tech. 

Then I saw the specs: Length: 17cm. The lifelike photo had me completely fooled. This was nothing but a cheap Chinese homebrand Barbie Camper. Bugger.

Next I discovered the Yiwu Chufeng Commodity Firm were selling 'Foam Antistress Campervan Shaped Stress Balls', suggested under the category of 'Corporate Gifts' What mid-level executive wouldn't benefit from squeezing the hell out of a foam campervan? I thought. But if squeezing one doesn't sufficiently relieve your stress the same firm also make electric cigarette maker and tobacco rolling machines for times when only nicotine will do.

Unfortunately, their minimum order is 3000 pieces. That's a lot of stress relief right there. I bet you could use 3000 of these to make a giant executuve sress relief campervan pit that you could dive right in to, like those plastic ball pits in the kids' playroom at Ikea.

Personally, I was most taken by the 'Hotselling Wooden Motorhome' from the Hangzhou Hklong Arts and Crafts Co Ltd. A small Swiss chalet on wheels wasn't exactly what I had in mind for six months on China's backroads, but it would certainly be a conversation piece whenever we stopped and laid out the white picket fence with the letterbox, birdbath and swing set each night.

At last I found something that appeared to be a real, actual campervan/motorhome/RV large enough for real people and not likely to burn down when I used the gas cooker. This full-sized, non-combustible, non-squeezable campervan from the Qingdao Fe Dora Co Ltd also had a very detailed description of its interior fittings.

Inside, it apparently contains a lot of Luxury Items: 

*Luxury Bathroom *Luxury Lamp *Luxury Furniture

and also a lot of Advanced Items:

*Advanced Sink  *Advanced Sofa  *Advanced Toilet  *Advanced Sound System

then a whole pile of stuff I really don't understand:

*Warm Wind  *Big Shoe Tank *Protector for Charging and Discharging

and a bedding arrangement that speaks for itself:

*Double Men Bed *Two Double Deck Single Man Bed

Clearly, this is not a family camper.

Also, it's $30,000 for the basic model. Sigh. The search for the perfect (extremely cheap) camper continues. More next month....

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