Almost three weeks after arrival in Shanghai Yangshan Deepwater Port, our car is still in the container

April 26th, 2014, 2pm

It was 18°C with broken clouds.

The world is full of redundancies, waste and duplicates. You sometimes may think you are struck by an original thought or idea, but chances are, someone somewhere else on this planet already had exactly the same thought or idea. Just Google whatever thought or idea you have right now and chances are you’re not the only one.

The same holds true for travel. Unless you have planned a trip to some place out of this world, your plans probably have been drawn up or done before. To me it’s quite a discouraging thought.

But also a comforting one. Because when I started my research into how to drive a car from China to Europe, I was expecting to find tons of accounts of exactly such a trip. Surely, there must be people among the seven billion on this planet who have done this before. But I was surprised to not find a single account or report by someone who HAS done this before.

Yes, I found people getting into China with their own foreign licensed cars and exiting again and even more accounts of travellers driving from Europe to China to eventually ship back their cars to Europe. But I didn’t find a single account of fellow adventurers who did what we are planning to do: travel from China to Europa in our own car and not come back.

I came to China almost seven years ago as the China-correspondent for the newspaper I was working for in Amsterdam for the last ten years. After three years in Shanghai I met my (Dutch) girlfriend, who just founded a tourism consultancy. We both experienced seven great years in China, but decided about a year and a half ago that it was time to leave China and head back to The Netherlands.

Now, we could return the easy way. Load our things into a container, ship it to Rotterdam and sell off our remaining things and book an one-way ticket to Amsterdam. But we decided to do it differently.

Since China has been such a huge part of our life we feel leaving the place should be an event in itself to say proper goodbye. So we decided to travel back to The Netherlands over land. We want to drive in our own car through China, Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, Bulgary, Romania, Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Italy, Slovenia, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, Czech Republic and Germany, before arriving in Holland.

We never thought this road trip was going to be easy. Deciding which car we should buy and more importantly where, already was pretty complicated.

Originally we planned to buy our car in China and import it in Holland once we arrived there.
 But this option quickly turned out to be very expensive and bothersome. Buying a car legally in China is only possible in the city where you have your residence permit – which in our case is Shanghai. To discourage the frenzy car buying in China to reduce the consequent pollution, authorities here restrict the number of new cars that are allowed on the road.

There are numerous ways to accomplish that and the government of Shanghai has gone for the license plate auction-method, which means that every month only a limited number of license plates are auctioned off to prospective car buyers. Since the demand for those licenses is much bigger than the supply, prices for these precious car real estate have sky rocketed.

A license plate now costs about anywhere between 8000 – 10.000 euros, which is more than our budget for our car. For us this therefore was not an option. So that left us with very limited possibilities to own and drive a car in Shanghai. We could buy a car outside Shanghai and get a non-Shanghai-license plate, but officially this can only be done if we have a residence permit for the city we are buying the car in, which we don’t have, because we are living in Shanghai.

That left us with one more option: temporarily import a Dutch car into China. Transport from Europa to China was less costly than I expected and having a Dutch registered car compared to a Chinese one, has the added benefit of less bureaucratic hassle once we arrive in Europe.

And so we did. Or at least tried. Because, here we are. Still without a car, just six weeks before we want to leave Shanghai to start our Great Return back to Holland.

On April 7th our car arrived in the port of Shanghai after 30 days sailing, right on schedule. But after a couple of days we got a worrying call from our agent that there was a huge problem at the customs. We were told we needed at least two, but possibly three licenses and some other documents to get the car cleared, documents we were never told about before we shipped the car. Of course we checked numerous times if all our documents were in order before we shipped the car and every time our agent reassured us they were.

Now with our back against the wall, we were facing some tough choices. Those licenses would cost thousands of euros each and take at least a month to arrange. We didn’t find that acceptable, especially since no one still wanted to guarantee anything, let alone the clearance of the car. What followed were a lot of calls to customs in Shanghai, middlemen, agents, contacts, local governments, Dutch customs and more to see whether there were other ways.

Instead of clearer, everything became even more confusing, since different authorities told us different things. At some point a person at the Shanghai customs told us it would never ever be possible for a foreigner to temporarily import a second hand car, something we know for a fact is not true.

Anyways, our mood quickly began to deteriorate to the point where we felt we should sue someone for emotional damage. We’ve been preparing for this adventure for more than a year now and the idea of shipping the car back to Holland was just too agonizing. At some point after another disappointing call and talk we came to the conclusion that the only option left was for our car to be shipped back to Holland.

But among all the distress, one company/agent in Beijing stood out and was able to reassure us at the very last moment he could guarantee clearance of the car with all the official stamps and licenses for an acceptable price. So we signed a service agreement with him and are very confident our car will be cleared in the end. If it doesn’t we don’t have to pay.

It will take at least another couple of weeks and still will cost quite a bit of extra money we didn’t originally expect, but we still have that time and that money.

This new clearance ‘route’ though does have some consequences for us. The most annoying one being that we now are required to travel with an official guide in the car as long as we are in China. Don’t ask why, but it’s mandatory apparently for foreigners who travel in their own vehicle in China. I’ve rented cars in China numerous times without the need for a guide and can freely roam all over China, but as soon as I step in my own car a guide needs to be in there as well. Even if you’re living in China for seven years, ‘Beijing’ still thinks you’ll need a guide.

Now, our car only has two seats, so were hoping to be able to skip the guide after all, but no. China will now provide us with a very small guide with a maximum height of 1.50 meter who can sit/lie in the back of our car. We’ll have to provide the pillow.

Since we have to pay a guide fee every day and also need special permits to drive in Xinjiang, My girlfriend and I decided to change our route and skip the Xinjiang-part from our itinerary. So instead of re-entering China from West-Mongolia, we now will try to cross into Russia in the far west corner of Mongolia.

All this rerouting will probably not have an effect on the total days we will be travelling. I still expect to be able to do the whole road trip in 99 days. Instead of 24 countries, now we will cross 25 countries.

I feel we were close to falling into the abyss, but am hopeful now we have overcome our first major obstacle and are back into the game.

Chris and zan said thanks.

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Bert van Dijk

Former China correspondent for Het Financieele Dagblad and De Tijd, the leading business newspapers in The Netherlands and Belgium. Now back at work in Amsterdam as a journalist after driving from Shanghai to Amsterdam through China, Mongolia, Central Asia, Iran and Eastern Europe.

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