Driving to China - The Route

Published: April 21st 2015
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I should sheepishly admit that when I first thought this trip up, I imagined that any route from the UK to China would be a toss-up between the hot sands of the middle east and bleak snowdrifts in Siberia.

With a little bit more digging of course, it's easy to blow away those stereotypes. Also, whilst it would be great to be able to just set off towards the rising sun one day, the reality is that various practicalities remain:

What is the shortest route (old car!)?

Can a standard front-wheel drive travel those roads at that time of year (old car!)?

What restrictions are there for tourists with a vehicle at the various borders (foreign driver with a foreign old car!)?

Is any region too dangerous to risk (not an old armored car!)?

My first thought was to go through southern Europe, moving through Turkey, Iran and then Pakistan. It seems however that Iran and Pakistan are quite restrictive when it comes to transiting with a vehicle, but far more than that, there's no clear path from Pakistan to China......... Kashmir and the Hindu Kush stand in the way, the snow-covered mountain tracks would probably be impassable to anything other than a rugged 4x4, and there's little in the way of an open border into China, if at all.

The latter reason turned out to be immaterial anyway, but I'll go into that later. So, avoiding areas of conflict, the alternatives were to cut from Iran through Turkmenistan/Uzbekistan/Kazakhstan, or to go north altogether through Russia.

I was talking about this with Dave F, before he came onboard, and he suggested passing into Russia through Latvia to take advantage of the lack of restrictions in Europe for us Brits, and then simply cutting down through Kazakhstan to the Chinese border. Sensible guy!

A quick internet check discovered that this would only require visas for Russia and China (Kazakhstan recently changed it's rules to allow entry without a visa to certain nationalities, including the UK). Some further checking found that the roads should be in reasonable condition, being part of a major freight route from Moscow to China, and that there wouldn't (famous last words!) be excessive snow, mud or heat in the month of May 2015.

Incidentally, I picked May to travel because the MOT runs out on the car shortly after, and because 2 bank holidays have meant that by using just 14 working days of holiday, we could have a 24-day window to make the trip.

So the route was set: France - Belgium - Netherlands - Germany - Poland - Lithuania - Latvia - Russia - Kazakhstan - China.

Approximately 5000 miles, and 100 hours of driving - or, put another way, about 6.5hrs on the road per day with rest-days. Easy.


.......and it's a huge 'but'....... I found out that China does not accept any other driving licence than it's own, and does not accept the International Drivers Permit (IDP) either. In order to drive a car in China as a tourist therefore, you need to pass their test. If you're lucky, you'll be exempted from the practical test, and may even be given the mandatory theory test in your own language. The real problem however, is that the licence would take at the very least a week to be processed, which totally ruled out any possibility of organising one at a land border.

However, the challenge is to drive TO China, so I'm more than happy to consider it completed by reaching the border itself. By not going into China, it cut our visa requirements in half. It also opened up the possibilities of visiting the mountains of Kyrgystan, with it's 2500m high passes and vast clear lakes.

So here's the final, final route (until it changes again): France - Belgium - Netherlands - Germany - Poland - Lithuania - Latvia - Russia - Kazakhstan - say hi to the Chinese border - Kyrgystan

The car, if it's made it that far, stays there. If you're wondering what will happen to the car, I'm currently going to have to be evasive. Sorry. Flights back from Osh or Bishkek are around £200.


ps. That post was a little dry, I know, but if you want some jacobs cracker with your peanut butter, I'll go through some of the details about visas, paperwork, preparations, etc in another post, for the benefit of anyone who wants to have a go at a similar trip.


22nd April 2015

nice one!
All the best mate. Good luck and I look forward to reading the next instalments in your travels! How exciting!
3rd July 2017

Just wondering if you had made the trip
Ihave been thinking to drive to China for a while and the route suggested in your blog is really helpful. Thanks
3rd July 2017

Hi there, yes, we made it to the Chinese border. See the later days in the blog. We didn't cross I to China, because they require foreign drivers to pass their local driving test, and we didn't have the time for that. Some advice.... take some copies of your whole route with you, to show to customs officials.... we found it the easiest way to explain why we were entering each country. Most of them smiled, and seemed to think we were a bit mad :-)
14th July 2017

Same plan
Hi David, I am planning almost the exact same route but with a twist. I'm an American and will be purchasing a car in England. I would totally love to pick your brains about some of the finer details. I've done the trans Siberian a couple of times and have traveled long term several times but never with a car. Please contact me through my email if you have the time/inclination to help me make my dream come true:). Thanks so much. Look forward to hearing back from you.
14th July 2017

Absolutely -.
I'll send an email to you shortly
17th March 2018

WOW, amazing
I think you need help from a local agency for driving into china, several fb overlanding group mentioned it. ------- adventuretourchina.com/tourcat/china-crossing/
16th April 2018

I was thinking about a similar trip as well. if you can send me some info about getting visas thats will be great :)

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