Finding the Great Chinese Campervan. And Quelling Doubts.

With only six short frantic weeks left on the countdown clock before the start of our upcoming six months of adventure around China, cold creeping panic was starting to set in because we still lacked the single  non-negotiable ingredient for a campervan trip around China. 

The campervan. 

In a trip that will see us explore back roads, small villages, and a multitude of places thankfully totally devoid of hotels, having somewhere to sleep a family of four comfortably was going to be pretty essential, plus it was going to be much more difficult to blog about The Great China Road Trip if in fact we had to take trains, buses and taxis instead. 

But our attempts to source one before now had all ended fruitlessly. Camping is not a 'thing' in China, although its popularity is very slowly taking hold. And campervanning? 

According to a China Daily article on March 23:

"The RV industry in China is in its infancy. Out of a population of 1.3 billion, ownership of the multipurpose vehicles totaled just 6,000 by the end of 2011. Conversely, the number is 8.9 million in the US.

..there are just a few dozen camp sites in China. The official number of camp sites around Beijing is 20, but only four are actually operational. Some of the land was developed as camp sites so the developers could claim government subsidies."

What I wanted to know was where those 6,000 RVs were, who owned them, and who was willing to rent one to us.

So now, time ticking away, I can report that after three months, hundreds of phone calls, hours of negotiations and many moments of self-doubt later, we finally have.......drumroll please...... The Great Chinese Campervan!

OK, it's not that Great, but it is definitely Chinese and a Campervan. And two out of three, as they say, ain't bad. 

I know our original plans had been for a frankencamper, a kind of DIY version of a home on wheels complete with handmade curtains and cushions, but the more we looked into it the less attainable it became. 

Basically, it boiled down to this - fitting out such a vehicle would have been fiddly but totally do-able if one is handy with power tools, cabinet-making, upholstery, plumbing in tight spaces and so on (we're not, just so you know, but we know people who know people who are). 

But a minibus large enough to convert into a campervan requires a special licence to drive, and anything over seven seats qualifies as a minibus, even if you take out all the seats and put in a bed, a stove and a media room. And minibus licences are even harder to get than a regular licence, requiring supervised tuition, logbook hours of driving practice, and then a written and practical test. I might be motivated, but I'm not that motivated. 

So it was with an enormous sigh of relief when we heard from our Chinese friend (who had been roped into helping us with the adventure from the start) that he'd found a campervan that might suit us right here in Shanghai. Frankly, it seemed too good to be true, and I didn't want to get my hopes up too high. 

But find one we did.

Happy to see an actual engine sitting under the hood. 

In a grey, gritty disused gravel parking lot behind some lowrise apartments in the middle of Shanghai north-nowhere, we met with a Mr Chen, standing beside his six rental campervans, all of them in varying stages of disrepair and peeling paint.  

This being China, there wasn't actually an office as such, and none of the vans had actually been, you know, washed or cleaned as such, although it's possible Mr Chen was using the inside of one of the campervans as a kind of convenient home office.

We'd brought reinforcements in the form of two male Chinese friends, who between them knew bugger-all about campervans but could kick tyres with the best, and were able to translate all the high-tech questions we asked. Most of which we made up on the spot, because we also know bugger-all about campervan engines. 

I could see a steep learning curve looming menacingly on our horizon. 

Even better, though, one of our Chinese friends smoked like a chimney, and everyone knows you can't seal a Chinese business deal without the two sides smoking together. 

So we looked, and chatted, and occasionally thought up semi-useful questions to ask Mr Chen, some of which yielded surprising answers.

Me: If there are no camping grounds or public water how do you find a place to fill up the water storage tank?

Mr Chen: You should negotiate a price with a farmer and he will do it for you.

Me: Does the toilet operate on a chemical or biological waste management system?

Mr Chen: (looking sheepishly at the ground and kicking small stones with the toe of his shoe)'s like this. You just open the outlet valve.

Me: What? On the side of the road? 

Mr Chen: It's more beneficial if you do it near a farm. For the um....fertilising effects.

Me: Oh. Right. Ummm...have you driven the vans anywhere?

Mr Chen: Oh yes! This one (pointing to a decrepit vehicle covered in dust) I drove all the way from Qinghai (back of beyond) to Shanghai! 

Me: Oh. Did you have any probems with the local authorities along the way?

Mr Chen: (looking quickly sideways then avoiding my gaze altogether) No! Not even once! (in a very unconvincing voice).

After that we decided to take a look inside the three least decrepit of the six. One revealed teak panelling, dark red velour plush seats, and a few surprising features for a campervan, like two televisions and a DVD player. Possibly unnecessary. 

Eventually, out of the three, we chose the simplest and smallest. On the side door was a picture of a white rabbit, which seemed like a good omen because it reminded me of the world famous Chinese milk candy, and also of Alice in Wonderland. Now there's a great travel adventure story.

White Rabbit. And also, the other kind of White Rabbit.

Steering wheel? Check. Seats? Check. Large roll of toilet paper in glovebox? Check.

The interior was simple, clean and basic and seemed to have everything we might need, with two bunks, a table that folded down into a very small double bed, and a tiny cubicle bathroom with a shower and toilet. There was also a kitchen nook with a sink, a tiny refrigerator, and a place where you could plug in an induction hotplate. Not bad.

So I probably shouldn't have looked up on the roof, because it was not in good shape. But hey - this vehicle was already way better than our wildest dreams could have hoped.

Cigarettes were smoked, test drives around the gravel carpark were taken, further investigations were made of the generator, the engine, and the cupboards, and more tyres were kicked. I knew that nothing so concrete as an actual binding agreement would be made until both parties had smoked a few more cigarettes and had time to think about it how they could leverage a reduction in price (us) or an increase in price (Mr Chen). But The White Rabbit? As good as ours.

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