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China 2018 Photo: The cars (and LSEVs) of Zhongwei, Ningxia

Outstanding local snacks and LSEVs: that’s the Zhongwei vibe for you.

This is Part 9 and the last iteration of our 2018 China exploration. You can check out Part 1: The cars of Beijing and using the Didi app herePart 2: Renting a car in China here, Part 3: The cars of Yinchuan, Ningxia province herePart 4: The cars of Bayanhot, Inner Mongolia herePart 5: The Gobi and Tengger deserts herePart 6: The cars of Alashan Youqi, Inner Mongolia herePart 7: The Badain Jaran desert here and Part 8: The cars of Jiayuguan, Gansu province here. For this last section we are headed back east towards Yinchuan where I must return my rental VW Lavida, and we stop on the way in Zhongwei in the Ningxia province, a full day, 750km (466mi) southeastern drive. Yinchuan is then a quick 200km (125mi) north.

After a near-miss, a providential servo and a Zhongwei hotel not quite used to English yet.

But first, drama almost strikes just before I arrive in Zhongwei after nightfall. Incorrect highway signage announcing one last petrol station that ended up not being completed yet means I almost run out of fuel after exiting the highway, as the “Around me” app on my phone failed me not once, but twice, leading me to venues where the actual petrol stations had long closed down and gone bust. So between the servos that weren’t there just yet, and the ones that had disappeared by the time I arrive, I watched the “Refuel soon” alarm on my rental Lavida go from a casual ICYMI alert to a “drop everything and feed me!” scream that monopolised my dashboard screen and anxiously wondered how many additional km I was allowed to drive “dry”. It all ended well with a providential servo inside Zhongwei.

Cars in the Shapotou parking lot included a yellow BAW Jeep and a pink VW Sagitar.

Shapotou is the reason why I stopped in Zhongwei. On paper, it sounds like a fantastic place: 17km (11mi) west of town, it lies on the fringes of the Tengger Desert at the dramatic convergence of sand dunes, the yellow river and lush farmlands. But in reality it’s a tourist circus with zip lines, overcrowded rafting “boats” and off-road buggy rentals. Very far from the calm and serenity of the Badain Jaran desert we visited a couple of days ago. I don’t stay long, and choose instead to snap pictures of the most interesting cars parked in the gigantic tourist parking lot.

Foton SUP, Great Wall Wingle 6 and Wuling Mini Truck in Zhongwei.

Although it is home to 1.041.821 inhabitants, Zhongwei remains a Tier 4 city – . This means a few things in terms of car landscape: Chinese carmakers have a strong dealership network here, local crossovers fuel the national surge we have seen in the past 5 years, pickup trucks remain the surefire choice in town and the most popular foreign manufacturers are the ones offering affordable options, not the premium Germans dominant in the largest cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.

Zhongwei taxis are mainly Skoda Rapid and VW Jetta.

We are now definitely back into civilisation with a large town and a strong need for cheap public transportation. The taxis are mainly Skoda Rapid – a first in the Chinese towns I have visited so far – and VW Jetta, and the Wuling Hongguang and other mini- and microvans are back atop the sales rankings, as is the Wuling Mini Truck whose popularity never really faded during this 2018 exploration, except in Bayanhot.

Nissan Kicks and Lifan Myway in Zhongwei

As expected local crossovers have convinced many buyers in town, with the Geely Vision SUV once again among the favourites – it has been in every city I visited, the FAW Besturn X40 being one other notable success here. The VW Bora is the favourite sedan in Zhongwei and the Chevrolet Cavalier has already established itself solidly here. Venucia as a brand is also strong here.

Red carpet for Traum and Geely at the mini Zhongwei pop up Auto Show…

But without a doubt the most interesting element of my Zhongwei visit is the mini pop up Auto Show that suddenly appeared in one of the town’s main street on the morning of my departure, complete with street food vendors – notably one of the local delicacies, a delicious spicy tofu. There were “traditional” carmakers, and the list is telling for a Tier 4 city such as Zhongwei: Traum, a new brand by Zotye which wasn’t at the Beijing Auto Show, and Geely the current #1 Chinese brand at home.

One of the main streets of Zhongwei was transformed into a mini pop up Auto Show when I visited.

However to me the most interesting element of this pop up Auto Show is the dominating presence of LSEV carmakers (Low-Speed Electric Vehicles). And it’s a great opportunity for us to start covering LSEVs on BSCB. Sales of LSEVs in China surged 79.1% from 688.000 units in 2015 to 1.232 million in 2017 and probably over 1.5 million in 2017, but these sales aren’t covered in the monthly statistics we publish on BSCB as these vehicles, which don’t require a driver licence to be operated, are not considered “real” cars. With a top speed traditionally limited to 50 to 60km/h (30-35 mph), LSEVs are not authorised to leave the city centres.

Yogomo 330, X350 and Han Tang brochure

Absent from the largest cities in the country, LSEVs are more and more frequent in smaller towns such as Alashan Youqi. Clearly, Zhongwei had been deemed a perfect breeding ground for LSEVs judging by their overwhelming presence in this pop up Auto Show. Note our Exclusive Guide does not currently include LSEV carmakers as it would add a staggering 50+ brands to the 174 currently active, but we do keep a close eye on LSEV makers as at least four of them have already “graduated” to so-called high-speed EVs such as Levdeo, Senyuan, Yogomo through the YGM brand and Zuojun.

Baoya Yabei and Levdeo D70

Among the LSEV carmakers present at the Zhongwei pop up Show were Levdeo which seems to stand out as one of the leaders in the category, showing its D70 hatch but also its V60 sedan and S50 crossover which aren’t LSEVs but high-speed EVs, Yogomo showing off its 330 and X340 hatches, Baoya propping no less than three examples of the Yabei. Here is the list of the 54 LSEV makers we have been able to compile to date: AGSEV, AIMA, Baoya (宝雅), Bidewen, Bodo, BYVIN, Conors, Dayang, Dexing, Dojo, Entu, Fulu, Henghe Fuxing, Hongdi, Hongri, Inmax, Jiayuan, Jijie Tule, Jingcai, Jinpeng, Jinxiang, Kaiyun, Levdeo, Lewei, Lichi, Lishededidong, Longqi, Luxing, Qianli, Qifeng, Qingqi, Rainchst, Rattle, Reiters, Sendi, Senyuan, Shaolin, Shenghao, Shifeng, SUNRA, Tieke, Today, T.R.P, Weikerui, Xinyuma, Xinyuzhou, Xuanyu, Xuzhou, Yadea, Yogomo (御捷), Zhonghui, Zhongjue,  Zhongxin and Zuojun.

The Haval H6 is one of the cars I was able to test drive in Yinchuan before flying back to Australia.

In the few hours I have between my return in Yinchuan and my flight back to Beijing I managed to test drive the Baojun 510, Haval H6 and Geely Boyue. See the Test Drive reports and videos here. We end the trip with my rental VW Lavida displaying 31.021 km on the odo, that’s 2.565 km (1.593 mi) in 6 days in what will remain my very first driving adventure in China, and hopefully the first of many to come. If you are wondering how it is possible to rent a car and drive (almost) anywhere in China as a foreigner, all the steps to do so are here. I hope you enjoyed exploring the lesser known parts of China with me this year, it’s over for this year but we will take it where we left it in 2019 for the Shanghai Auto Show. 谢谢你,再见! Xiexie Ni, Zaijian! Thank you and good bye!

China 2018 Photo: The cars of Jiayuguan, Gansu province

Geely Vision SUV in Jiayuguan, Gansu province

This is Part 8 of our 2018 China exploration. You can check out Part 1: The cars of Beijing and using the Didi app herePart 2: Renting a car in China here, Part 3: The cars of Yinchuan, Ningxia province herePart 4: The cars of Bayanhot, Inner Mongolia herePart 5: The Gobi and Tengger deserts herePart 6: The cars of Alashan Youqi, Inner Mongolia here and Part 7: The Badain Jaran desert here. For this next iteration we leave the desertic regions of Western Inner Mongolia and travel 350km south-west to Jiayuguan in the Gansu province.

Our itinerary from Alashan Youqi to Jiayuguan, the only Lynk & Co 01 of the trip

To reach the Gansu province from the Badain Jaran desert we must first zig zag down a barrier of mountains where goats happily roam the highway. Then, it’s a high speed valley all the way through a lunar landscape. It’s on this highway that I spotted the only Lynk & Co 01 I would see in my ten days in China. You can check out my exclusive test drive of the Lynk & Co 02 here. On the way back from Jiayuguan to Yinchuan to the east, I also scored my very first Chinese speed ticket!

The Jiayuguan Fort

Jiayuguan is located at the western extremity of the Great Wall of China – you can see our 2013 exploration of the Badaling section of Great Wall located near Beijing here. The main attraction in town and one of the classic images of Western China is the grandiose Jiayuguan Fort, dating from the Ming dynasty and built out of tamped earth in 1372. It stands like a full stop at the end of the Great Wall. Then, it was seen by the Chinese as the last outpost of civilisation, beyond which lay barbarian country reserved to banished criminals. The fort thus gives the town a very significant strategic importance, even if outdated.

English translations err on the romantic side in Jiayuguan Fort.

Exploring it confirms the imposing nature of the structure, and a clean and pure architectural style, as well as very well restored buildings following a refurbishment in 2015. But what makes the location awe-inspiring is its surroundings, with a horizon of snowy mountains overhanging in the distance. There are no cars to be observed in the close vicinity of the fort as it is a pedestrian-only area, but I still found a way to amuse myself with a couple of approximative English translations of warning signs, probably word-for-word from Mandarin, revealing the romantic nature of the Chinese language…

FAW Xiali N7, FAW Senya R7, Leopaard CS10 and Wuling Mini Truck in Jiayuguan.

Notwithstanding its cultural significance, Jiayuguan is also a relatively sizeable town of 231.000 inhabitants, however in China this doesn’t lift the town higher than Tier 4 level, the lowest of all Tiers. . This Tier level dictates which carmakers operate in town, strongly skewed towards Chinese brands such as Leopaard, Great Wall, FAW and Wuling, relatively rare in the largest cities in the country.

Haval H6, Haval H9 and Changan CS55 in Jiayuguan.

As it is the case in almost all secondary Chinese towns we have visited in the past 5 years, SUVs are the visible engine of growth in Jiayuguan. Changan is particularly strong in town with its CS75 SUV and its sedan lineup as well as the Chana CX70. Contrary to the previous regions we have visited this year, the success of the Haval H6 in Jiayuguan hasn’t really spread towards the rest of the brand’s lineup, except perhaps the H9. Also of note are the Haima S5 and Geely Vision SUV.

Hyundai Elantra and VW Santana taxis, Maxus T60 in Jiayuguan.

Hyundai (Tucson, ix25, new ix35) and Kia (KX3) seem to be the most popular foreign carmakers below Volkswagen. In fact, the taxis of Jiayuguan are mainly various generations of Hyundai Elantra and VW Santana. Pickups remain dominant in town with the Wingle still topping the charts but it is much less frequent than in Bayanhot and Alashan Youqi in neighbouring Inner Mongolia. The novelty is the stream of obscure pickups: JMC, JMCG and JAC brands are frequent.

Geely Vision in a service area, and my rental VW Lavida near the overhanging Great Wall in Jiayuguan.

Confirming our observations in the more remote areas of this exploration, as soon as we return to more densely populated regions, the Wuling Hongguang reclaims its rank near or at the top of the local charts as it is used as an intercity mini bus. The Wuling Mini Truck, a mini pickup derived from the Rongguang microvan, however has my vote as the best-seller in Jiayuguan, a city focused on manufacturing and small businesses which is the perfect environment for this type of vehicles.

Stay tuned for the last iteration of our 2018 Chinese exploration ending in Zhongwei, still in the Gansu province. 

China 2018 Photo: The Badain Jaran desert, Inner Mongolia

This is the Badain Jaran desert in Inner Mongolia.

This is Part 7 of our 2018 China exploration. You can check out Part 1: The cars of Beijing and using the Didi app herePart 2: Renting a car in China here, Part 3: The cars of Yinchuan, Ningxia province herePart 4: The cars of Bayanhot, Inner Mongolia herePart 5: The Gobi and Tengger deserts here and Part 6: The cars of Alashan Youqi, Inner Mongolia here. After exploring the car landscape of Alashan Youqi, we are now headed deep into the sand dunes of the Badain Jaran desert, without out a doubt one of the most stunningly beautiful places I ever got the luck to visit in the entire world.

Badain Jaran Temple lake approach and satellite view of the myriads of lakes in the desert.

Mostly unknown to the rest of the world, the Badain Jaran desert is one of the natural wonders of this planet as far as I am concerned. In Chinese, the desert is called 巴丹吉林沙漠, pronounced Bādānjílín Shāmò, but it comes from a Mongolian expression meaning mysterious lakes. Indeed, the one characteristic that makes this desert unique in the world is the more than 140 lakes peppered throughout its southern part, visible on Google Map imagery (see above).

The large lakes are nested within sand dunes “valleys”.

The explanation as to why there are so many lakes in the middle of one of the driest deserts in the world has long been, well, as its Mongolian name suggests, a mystery and is still debated today. The belief nowadays is that the they are fuelled by a vast underground reservoir replenished by snow melting on the northern Tibetan plateau to the south of the desert, notably the Qilian Mountain in the neighbouring Gansu province. This is where the debate resides as some Chinese scientists have suggested tapping this reservoir for drinkable water. Mike Edmunds, research director of the Oxford Centre for Water Research in the UK says the source of the numerous lakes is fossil water and there is no evidence that the water levels are being topped up by melting snow – which could indicate the lakes are ultimately doomed.

Other-worldly landscapes in the Badain Jaran desert

The contrast between the deep blue hues of the lakes, the green ring of vegetation around them and the towering dune cliffs makes for unbelievable scenery, heightened by the silence only broken by the cries of birds circling above. Magical. I try to search my memories to find a similar place in the world and I’m hard pressed to see anything, except perhaps the Nile valley in Egypt that in a handful of areas had a comparable mix of high sand dunes, water and greenery all in the same place.

The Badain Jaran sports some of the tallest sand dunes in the world.

Covering an area of 49.000 square kilometres (19.000 sq mi), the Badain Jaran desert is home to the tallest stationary dune in the world, Bilutu Peak at 500m high (1.600ft) from the base, which is taller than the Empire State Building. This is a real sand dune desert similar to the Sahara in northern Africa, with the dunes averaging a whopping 200m (660ft). There are also so-called mega dunes averaging 400m (1.300ft) and these ones are stationary and made of solidified sand underneath with only the top layer of sand shifting. The smaller dunes are constantly shifting according to wind patterns, which makes desertification a problem as the Badain Jaran desert is progressively merging with the Tengger desert to the east as we showed in the previous iteration of this 2018 Chinese exploration.

Driving through the desert

How did I get to explore the Badain Jaran desert? As it is basically hardcore sand dune driving all the way, access to the desert is strictly regimented and as a private person I can only explore these magnificent landscapes with a rented 4×4 and driver. Even though Alashan Youqi is the base for the exploration of the Badain Jaran, organising a 4×4 for the same day proved a little bit of a challenge as the region has not yet cottoned on to international tourists (for the better!). I did manage to organise one from town though, but at 2000 yuan (255€ or US$299), it seemed a tad overpriced and I had the distinct feeling of getting ripped off. I would be proved wrong, so wrong.

My driver Yung Run

At the spectacular tourist info center at the entrance of the desert 75km (50mi) north-east of Alashan Youqi, I gingerly ask whether it’s possible to take the wheel of the 4WD at some point to hone in my (poor) sand driving skills. A curt and definitive “No!” cut short all my hopes. And indeed, repeatedly climbing and descending 200m+ dunes at full speed isn’t yet part of my skillset and in hindsight I was actually glad this opportunity wasn’t allowed to me… Yung Run my driver is from Mongolian descent and does not speak English, but the tourist receptionist thought of everything: “You won’t be able to use your online translator in the desert as there is no wifi signal, so please let me know of any requests before you leave”.

Open gate to the desert!

Good idea. I have two requests: I want to see the tallest stationary sand dune in the world, the Bilutu Peak, as well as the incredible Badain Jaran Temple lost in the middle of the desert. “No problem!” And off we go. Our workhorse for the exploration is a bruised and battered Toyota Land Cruiser 80 that has seen many a dune indeed. Yung Run steadfast refuses to turn the ignition on as long as I haven’t buckled up my seatbelt and would repeat the endearing manoeuvre each time we stop for me to take snaps which is many dozen times in the next five hours.

Bitulu Peak (pics 1 and 3) and the cars of the Badain Jaran desert.

The Bitulu Peak turns out to be underwhelming: it is surrounded by dunes almost as high and therefore isn’t really giving the impression of grandeur I was expecting. Never mind, the lake directly down from it is arguably the most beautiful in the entire desert so I make the best of our break to snap every inch of landscape that is opening up before my eyes. At first I had asked the driver to stop there so I could climb the dune. But it’s shaped more like a mountain with a relatively gentle but long slope (in dry, deep sand) and the climb looks like it would take hours so no climb it is. It is there that we first encounter the contestants in a 3-rally geolocalisation amateur 4WD rally headed, like us, towards the Badain Jaran temple. Interestingly, the participating cars include only a few nameplates, such as the Toyota Land Cruiser, Prado and FJ Cruiser as well as the Beijing BJ40.

Badain Jaran Temple

One does not get to the Badain Jaran Temple, one deserves it. It is a 100km (60mi) 5-hour return trip of continuous hardcore sand dune 4WD driving to reach it, and its isolation explains why it is so well maintained: “protected” by a barrier of desert, it escaped the Mao purges that destroyed almost all Buddhist temples in the country. The full contingent of the 3-day desert rally was there complete with drones when I visited which dampened my enthusiasm a little, but I enjoyed exchanging experiences with the one couple that spoke English. All-in-all, the price I paid blind before getting there turned out to be well worth it. Apart from a couple of venues, we basically had the desert to ourselves for five hours. I do warmly recommend it, but shyly, as a massive affluence of tourists would ruin the experience…

Stay tuned for the next iteration of our China exploration to the Jiayuhuan Fort.

China 2018 Photo: The cars of Alashan Youqi, Inner Mongolia

Wuling Mini Truck and tricycle in Alashan Youqi, Inner Mongolia

This is Part 6 of our 2018 China exploration. You can check out Part 1: The cars of Beijing and using the Didi app herePart 2: Renting a car in China here, Part 3: The cars of Yinchuan, Ningxia province herePart 4: The cars of Bayanhot, Inner Mongolia here and Part 5: The Gobi and Tengger deserts here. After having crossed the now merged Gobi and Tengger deserts mainly on a freshly-minted brand-new (but rather useless) highway, my rental VW Lavida and I set camp in Alashan Youqi, also known as Badanjilin in the Alxa League Right Banner, the least populated region of one of the least populated counties in China, home to only 25.430 inhabitants for a resolutely desertic 0.35 inhabitants per km².

Alashan Youqi is located at the confluence of 3 deserts: the Gobi, Tengger and Badain Jaran.Alashan Youqi, Inner MongoliaThe Alashan Youqi U-Smile service station: ultra-modern and professional.

Visiting the region as a foreigner has recently been made much easier thanks to the removal of travel permits that used to be mandatory to reach Alashan Youqi and the Badain Jaran desert due to the proximity of the heavily militarised Space City, the location where Chinese satellites are launched. These could take up to one week to organise, rendering the exploration of this part of China something that had to be planned well in advance. Not any more since 2018, which is a welcome move by the Chinese government.

Toyota Prado and Tundra in Alashan Youqi, Inner Mongolia

Alashan Youqi is the accommodation base and jumping board to explore the neighbouring Badain Jaran desert with its sumptuous lakes and static dunes, the highest in the world. So somptuous in fact, that it deserves its own Photo Report which will follow this one. The proximity of this desert playground has an influence on the car landscape in town, with an over-representation of hardcore 4WDs such as the Toyota Prado or Tundra pictured above.

Great Wall Wingle 5 in Alashan Youqi, Inner Mongolia

But as it was the case in the two previous regions we visited (Bayanhot and the Gobi and Tengger deserts), the most popular vehicle in town is the Great Wall Wingle 5 with its younger brother the Wingle 6 a lot rarer.

Haval H5, H2 and H7 in Alashan Youqi.

Similarly to the neighbouring regions as well, this Great Wall pickup hegemony comes along a long heritage of the brand’s desert-capable SUV, the Hover which has become the Haval H5, of which many examples with blue Haval logo were seen across town. In turn, this popularity has trickled down to less capable but even more successful crossovers the carmaker has launched since, such as the H6, H2 and H7 by order of preference in Alashan Youqi.

WEY VV5 (top) and VV7 S (bottom) in Alashan Youqi.

The most recent move by Great Wall has been the launch of a semi-premium brand, WEY, and it is already very well represented even in the more remote corners of the country. After spotting one in the parking of my hotel in Bayanhot, I managed to snapped in Alashan Youqi the two WEY models pictured above.

Wuling Mini Truck and Hongguang in Alashan Youqi.

One difference in the Alashan Youqi car landscape compared to our past two stops is the return in form of the Wuling Mini Truck while the national best-seller, the Wuling Hongguang, is starting to point its bonnet a little more frequently due o the fact that we are approaching more densely populated regions in the Gansu province to the south. That’s the cue for the popularity of bare-bones MPVs used as inter-city buses.

Zotye T700, Geely Vision SUV and Roewe RX5 in Alashan Youqi

Chinese SUVs are particularly popular in Alashan Youqi, with the Changan CS75, Geely Boyue and Geely Vision SUV the most frequent across town and Geely Emgrand, Zotye and Roewe nameplates also well represented.

Changan Yuexiang V3 in Alashan Youqi, Inner MongoliaVW Santana in Alashan Youqi

Changan is also strong in the sedan aisle, notably as taxis, which the Chery strong is very strong in Alahsan Youqi across the entire lineup. A few very well maintained VW Santanas were also roaming in town such as the one pictured above.

Levdeo D50 LSEV in Alashan Youqi

Finally as a Tier 4 remote city, Alashan Youqi is the perfect breeding ground for Low Speed EVs, (or LSEVs), these no-permit electric vehicles that are banned from taking the highways. Over 50 brands of LSEVs, distinct from “normal” car manufacturers, already operate in China. Their popularity would go growing as I travelled towards the Gansu province so a proper update will be published then. Above is an example of LSEV: the Levdeo D50 – thanks to our reader AleX who identified this vehicle.

Stay tuned for the next iteration of our Chinese 2018 exploration to the stunning Badain Jaran desert…

China 2018 Photo: The Gobi and Tengger deserts, Inner Mongolia

Haval H6 in Bayan Nuorigong, Gobi desert, Inner Mongolia.

This is Part 5 of our 2018 China exploration. You can check out Part 1: The cars of Beijing and using the Didi app here Part 2: Renting a car in China here, Part 3: The cars of Yinchuan, Ningxia province here. and Part 4: The cars of Bayanhot, Inner Mongolia here. Today we remain in the Alxa League in western Inner Mongolia, linking the Left to the Right banners – located counter-intuitively to their name looking at a map: the left being on the East – and more precisely Bayanhot (aka Alashan Zuoqi) to Alashan Youqi via a northern arc (see map below). If Inner Mongolia as an autonomous region counts 25 million inhabitants, the Alxa League only represents less than 1% of its total population (231,300) and within this the Right banner is the least populous at just 25.430 souls which equals to a very sparse 0.35 inhabitants per km², a figure particularly low for China.

Our itinerary for today: Alashan Zuoqi to Alashan Youqi.I took a brand-new cross-desert highway dotted with service areas every 55km.Camel statue in Bayan Nuorigong, Inner Mongolia

23% of the of the Alxa League population or just under 45,000 inhabitants are of Mongol ethnicity, and this is visible in the area I traversed with many monuments celebrating the symbolic animal in the region: the two-humped bactrian camel. The road I took is for half of the distance a brand-new cross-desert highway dotted with service areas each 55km/35mi and of course surveillance cameras every 700m/2300ft with implacable regularity. In actual fact what we are crossing is mainly nothingness, and the place where two deserts have been expanding towards each other to the point of fusing together: the Tengger desert to the south and the Gobi desert originating from neighbouring Mongolia to the north. We also explored the Gobi desert on the Mongolian side extensively back in 2013 so be sure to click on the link to relive that experience.

Animal herding in the region: advancing or mitigating the desert? The debate is open.Herd of camels in the southern Gobi desert, Inner MongoliaThe region is where the Gobi and Tengger deserts have started to fuse together.

A little-known statistic is that 20% of China is desert, and the desertification of this particular region of the country is a long-term issue that has triggered the Chinese government to impose resettlements towards the area’s towns. It is such a common phenomenon here that these populations have been called “ecological migrants”, forced to move within their own country, which The New York Times covered in two separate articles and . In the Alxa League alone, the government has relocated about 30.000 people because of desertification. Some Western scholars question the necessity of these resettlements, instead pointing at a will by the government to control ethnic minorities – the region is also home to the Hui Muslim community, citing environmental reasons as a cover. Environmentalists also question the efficacy of relocation policies: officials say that animal overgrazing on the edge of the desert contributes to the desertification of the region and justifies the relocation of herding families. But according to the New York Times, “some experiments suggest that moderate grazing may actually mitigate the effects of climate change on grasslands, and China’s herder relocation policies could be undermining that.”

Southern Gobi desert temple

The political stakes are far from my mind when I got the chance to traverse such beautiful and barren landscape, having the highway almost to myself to the point where it was safe to stand right in the middle of the two lanes to snap pictures of my rental VW Lavida with sumptuous backgrounds. Once I started heading south west towards Alashan Youqi, it’s an impressive bar of rocky mountains that follows the road in parallel for a few hours. Right in the middle of nowhere, a linear stretch of grey concrete leaves the newly minted highway to lead to a stunning temple right at the foot of the mountain, with dozens of goats noisily stomping on the sparse vegetation in the valley. They are the only sound around alongside the wind.

Southern Gobi desert

It’s the complete isolation of this region that makes it almost incongruous that a brand-new highway is being constructed to cross it, however the eastern half that was completed now enables a much faster connection to Ejina Qi to the north west, the capital of the Ejina Banner, the third banner of the Alxa League administration. In the same vein, all three banners of the Alxa League now have an airport (in Alashan Youqi, Alashan Zuoqi and Ejina Qi), following an objective by the Chinese government to position an airport within 100km of each and every Chinese inhabitant. Starting at the end of the last decade as a way to counter the global financial crisis, the Chinese government embarked on an immense modernisation program that saw the construction of thousands of km of highways and high speed train tracks as well as dozens of new airports such as the 2013 Daocheng Airport in the Sichuan province we visited in 2016. This program is still ongoing today with the number of airports in China forecast to grow from 200 in 2015 to 240 in 2020. It is not unusual to read about a city only served by buses or trains on the Lonely Planet China guide only to find out on flights app Skyscanner that a new airport has popped up since.

Great Wall pickups, Chinese SUVs and BAW Jeeps: the staple of remote Alxa League in Inner Mongolia.

As far as the car landscape I encountered in this part of China, the trends at play are the same as in Bayanhot but pushed to the extreme. The vehicle landscape on the highway is mainly heavy trucks aiding road construction and the “true” park of the region can only be observed in the very few towns I got to cross which can be counted on the fingers of one hand: Bayan Nuorigong, Alateng Aobaozhen, Menggen Bulage and Mandela Samu. These towns are so small that they only appear on your map just as you stop in them, and do look like ghost towns with only a handful of shops open, although the fact it was a public holiday weekend when I visited may have play a part in this.

A rare Wuling Sunshine, a dying Renault Laguna and my rental VW Lavida licking the sand dunes.

Given the remoteness of the region, minivans aren’t popular as the number of people needing cheap public transport connecting the distant small towns is almost inexistent: people rather stay in their own village. Instead, pickup trucks are more than ever dominant and necessary in such rough terrain and at this little game once again the Great Wall Wingle 5 and 6 hold an almost monopoly on the region’s pickup population. Great Wall’s pendant in the SUV world, Haval, is also popular especially the H6, with the Changan CS75 also making itself noticed. A slew of old Chinese Jeeps such as the BAW-branded one also resists in the remote corners of this desolate area. The Wuling Hongguang seems to not even have been launched here, instead I saw a few rare Wuling Sunshine. We’ll end on a surprise: a depleted Renault Laguna ending its days in Menggen Bulage.

Stay tuned for the next part in our exploration in Alashan Youqi.

China 2018 Photo: The cars of Bayanhot, Inner Mongolia

Tough choice between the 3,970€ Wuling Sunshine and the 135,000€ Tesla Model S in Bayanhot

This is Part 4 of our 2018 China exploration. You can check out Part 1: The cars of Beijing and using the Didi app here Part 2: Renting a car in China here and Part 3: The cars of Yinchuan, Ningxia province here. We now head west from Yinchuan to traverse the mightly Helan Shan mountains and cross into Inner Mongolia to enter the Tengger and Gobi deserts at Bayanhot. Confusingly, the town is also called Alashan Zuoqi, the name of the administrative division it presides, translated as Alxa League Left Banner.

Today’s itinerary is a short hop between Yinchuan and Bayanhot aka Alashan Zuoqi.Alxa League (red) in Inner Mongolia (orange)

The Alxa League is the westernmost part of Inner Mongolia, itself completely distinct from Mongolia (the country) across the Chinese border. We explored Mongolia and the Mongolian Gobi desert extensively back in 2013 so be sure to click on the link to relive that experience. Inner Mongolia is an autonomous region of China (different from a province on paper, but in reality exactly the same) with 25 million inhabitants, but the Alxa League only accounts for less than 1% of the region’s total population at just 231,334 souls over an expanse of 267,574 km², larger than the United Kingdom. Within the League, the Left banner is by far the most populous, counting 173,494 inhabitants over 80,412 km², ethnic Mongols making up 27%. For comparison, Inner Mongolia alone extends over 1,183,000 km² (twice the size of France) while Mongolia is even larger at 1,564,110 km² but only counts 3.1 million inhabitants.

Across the Helan Shan mountains between Yinchuan and Bayanhot.
On the way to the Guangzong Si temple south of Bayanhot.Bayanhot street

Although it is only a 2 hour trip on a brand new highway, everything changes in the landscape between Yinchuan and Bayanhot. We leave the fertile Yellow River valley and slalom into the Helan Shan mountains to reach an arid plateau where Bayanhot is perched. The entire area of the Left Banner is 800 to 1500 meters above sea level. There is almost no one on the highway, but the most striking element of the trip is that there is absolutely no town between the two cities: it is absolute desert.

Guangzong Si

The main touristic attraction in Bayanhot – even though there was only a handful of tourists when I visited – is the Guangzong Si temple located 38km south of town, at the foot of the Helan Shan mountains. It used to be one of the main monasteries in all of Inner Mongolia with over 2000 monks living here at its height, but was demolished during the Cultural Revolution and has partly been rebuilt since. As is the case in any Chinese monastery, supreme silence, incense clouds and bright colours make for a peaceful and enlightening experience.

Great Wall Wingle 5 and 6 pickups in Bayanhot.

Bayanhot and the Alxa League Left banner are understandably one notch below Yinchuan in the Chinese Tier classification, and qualify as the lowest Tier 4, including towns below 150,000 inhabitants but also depending on political and wealth criteria – . Tier 4 is rural territory. Two different rural scenarios determine the type of car landscape we see in Tier 4 cities and regions. The first one is a relatively dense network of little towns, perhaps along valleys in mountainous areas such as the itinerary from Kangding to Dégé in the Sichuan province we explored in 2016: that’s where minivans such as the Wuling Hongguang are ultra-dominant as they act as buses between towns. The second scenario is a more sparsely populated region with isolated towns linked with rough roads, and this is where pickup trucks are kings. Bayanhot is the latter, wth the Great Wall Wingle 5 by far the most frequent vehicle in town, while the Wingle 6 is more timid but still popular.

Chana Star Mini Truck in Bayanhot

Also to be noted is that virtually all pickup trucks in Bayanhot are double-cab 4WDs, so work horses through and through. Interestingly, adding to the relative weakness of mini- and microvans in Bayanhot due to the town’s isolation – and therefore lack of cheap public transport needs – as the striking near absence of the nation’s best-seller, the Wuling Hongguang. Instead, I spotted more Chana Honor but also a lot more micro-pickups (aka Mini Trucks) derived from micrvans such as the Wuling Mini Truck derived from the Rongguang microvan pictured above.

Haval H2, H2s and H7 in Bayanhot.

Due to the town’s proximity to the sandy Gobi and Tengger deserts, there is a very apparent and long pattern of 4WD wagon purchase in town (not just pickup trucks). This is where Great Wall killed two birds with one stone, starting with the legendary Hover H3/H5 that then gave birth to the #1 SUV brand in China: Haval. Great Wall has brilliantly managed to translate its Hover 4WD heritage and credibility through the Haval brand here, and as such the main heritage of this marked 4WD taste is very high sales of all Haval nameplates in Bayanhot, even though most of them would be simple 2WD crossovers. From the tiny H2s to all H6 variants to the H7 and the hardcore H9 4WD, but still including the now blue labelled H5.

Changfeng 6481 in Bayanhot

The second core Chinese 4WD from the start of the decade is the Changfeng 6481, a rebadged Mitsubishi Pajero which then gave birth to the Leopaard brand. I did spot a few in Bayanhot as well as a handful of Leopaard CS10 indeed.

Desert toys: big American pickups and Jeeps.

If you have followed our Chinese explorations over the past few years, you will have learnt that qiute surprisingly, at least one full-size U.S. pickup truck imported through the grey market seems to have made its way into each Chinese town. With an immense sandpit right at the town’s doorstep, Bayanhot pushes this trend to the extreme, with not one but dozens of U.S.-made pickups in town. Note that since 2017, the Ford F-150, Toyota Tundra and Ram 1500 are now imported into China through official channels. During an short trip to the Guangzong Si temple I crossed a huge and very threatening Ram 2500 while the Ford F-150 Raptor ruled in town accompanied by a dozen modified Jeep Wrangler and a brand-new Toyota Tacoma.

Borgward BX5 and BX7 in Bayanhot

Borgward is the surprise in town with both the BX5 and BX7 already represented. “European” SUVs seem to be an effective marketing trick to pull the buyer here. A more logical love for anything 4WD by Toyota is also on display in Bayanhot with numerous Toyota Prado, Highlander and Land Cruiser 200 circulating. One brand that was also surprisingly frequent was Skoda, with its higher-end lineup clearly more popular here such as the Octavia, Superb and even Kodiaq.

Dongfeng Fengxing X5 in BayanhotSWM X7 in Bayanhot

The latest craze SUVs are already here, including the Dongfeng Fengxing X5, Dongfeng Fengguang S560 or SWM X3. Note there was a very significant highway billboard campaign for the SWM brand all through the region at the time I visited, which includes the Ningxia, Inner Mongolia and Gansu provinces.

Geely Boyue in BayanhotZotye T600 in Bayanhot

Bayanhot also follows national tastes when it comes to tried-and-tested Chinese SUVs, with the Changan CS75, Geely Boyue and GAC Trumpchi GS4 very well represented in town.

GAC Trumpchi GA3 in Bayanhot

This small town seems to have almost skipped the “sedan” step of evolution in its automotive parc, with the format relatively weak overall and the VW Lavida an expected blockbuster. Taxis are mainly VW Santana and Nissan Sunny with a few Changan Yuexiang V3. The region has a very high GDP due to the extraction of natural resources, so there is wealth in Bayanhot even though it is the luck of a very few, and this was symbolised quite accurately by the lead picture in this article putting the dirt-cheap Wuling Sunshine alongside a Tesla Model S. I have to admit a remote town inside one of the largest deserts in China is not where I expected to see one of Elon Musk’s offspring…

Stay tuned for Part 5 and our exploration of the Tengger desert…

China 2018 Photo: The cars of Yinchuan, Ningxia province

Wuling Hongguang S3 in Yinchuan, Ningxia province.

This is part 3 of our exploration of China following the Beijing Auto Show. You can check out Part 1: The cars of Beijing and using the Didi app here and  Part 2: Renting a car in China here. We are now in possession of our rental VW Lavida and firmly headed towards Inner Mongolia which will be the focus on my annual Chinese exploration for 2018. But first, let’s acknowledge the Yinchuan car park.

Yinchuan location in China

I picked Yinchuan as both the pick-up and drop-off city for my rental because it is located 1.200 km west of Beijing and therefore gets me significantly closer to Inner Mongolia. Its provincial town status means much cheaper rental prices than in Beijing but as the largest city in the region it also means lots of availability for rental cars and a wide array of dealerships to visit. Yinchuan is where I test drove the Baojun 530, Haval H6, Baojun 510 and Geely Boyue. Click on the model to consult our review.

The Geely Boyue was one of four cars I test drove in Yinchuan.

Yinchuan is the capital of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and was the former capital of the Western Xia Empire of the Tanguts from the 11th to 13th centuries. They wisely founded the city between a source of water (the Yellow River) and a natural barrier from the Gobi Desert (the Helan Shan mountains). Yinchuan is typically one of those big Chinese cities (1.29 million inhabitants as of 2018) that you’ve never heard of – and neither did I… Its name means silver river in Mandarin, but historians don’t exactly know why. It could be because of the surrounding alkaline land that can appear white some days, or because the Yellow River is clear in these parts and can appear bright.

Yinchuan China Hui Culture Park. Picture Yan Cong

Muslim Hui people account for a third of Yinchuan’s population with around 500 mosques in town and Arabic-Chinese road signs and cuisine – although I did not spot or taste any. Yinchuan is at the centre of a 23 billion yuan (3.06€ billion or US$3.5 billion) project to build a “World Muslim City” slated for completion in 2020. As such, a lavish theme park celebrating the history and culture of the Hui, China’s largest Muslim ethnicity at 10.6 million people (just above the Uighur in the western Xinjiang region at 10.1 million), has been built south of town and is touted as a “Sino-Arab cultural bridge”. Note that since 2016 Emirates Airlines offers a direct service between Dubai and Yinchuan, making it only the 4th Chinese city to be connected to the UAE directly after Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. However my main focus in Yinchuan was to find Baojun, Geely and Haval dealerships and organise test drives so there was no touristic activity of any kind.

Wuling Hongguang in Yinchuan

Onto the actual cars of Yinchuan. Yinchuan is categorised as a Tier 3 city, very roughly meaning its population is between 150.000 and 3 million, however this isn’t the only criteria for ranking cities in Tiers, also taking into account GDP and political importance – . Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities are the real engines of growth in the Chinese new vehicle market as sales in Tier 1 cities are hampered by licence plate restrictions aimed at curbing pollution. The car buying patterns are skewed towards commercial vehicles such as microvans and minivans – mainly the Wuling Rongguang and Hongguang, micro pickups – led by the Wuling Rongguang Mini Truck, and pickups – the Great Wall Wingle 5 being by far the most popular as per national sales.

Peugeot 5008 in Yinchuan

The second element that is characteristic of lesser-Tier cities is the particular strength of SUVs: there is a proper tsunami engulfing the national sales charts at the moment – and for the past five years – but this is even more apparent in smaller cities that, in a way, justify the ownership of an SUV a little more due to their proximity to the countryside. Not that anyone would use them as 4WDs, but still. And one SUV that has snapped the status of instant blockbuster in Yinchuan is, logically given the dominance of the brand in third and four-Tier cities, the Wuling Hongguang S3 pictured at the head of this article.

Surprisingly few Baojun 510 in Yinchuan.

It also means that secondary Chinese and Chinese-owned brands are very well represented and over-perform vs. nationally. By secondary brands I mean JAC, Dongfeng and Borgward for example, citing the few that really stood out in Yinchuan. In terms of specific models, stand-outs are the JAC Refine S3, Dongfeng Fengguang S560 and VW Tiguan. Surprisingly, there were very few Baojun 510 – I counted only three in a couple of hours. That was a short one, but we are now on our way inside Inner Mongolia so stay tuned for Part 4 of this 2018 exploitation of China, reaching Bayanhot…

VW Santana taxi and Hyundai Elantra in Yinchuan

China 2018 Photo: Renting a car in China

Renting a car in China is difficult, but possible and very rewarding. I recommend it!

Now that we have the Beijing Auto Show and Beijing cars out of the way, it’s time for me to share with you one of the most eye-opening experiences I have had the, um, privilege to have in China: renting a car. Yep, something that mundane in most parts of the world takes a totally different dimension here, becoming a task you have to be prepared to fight for, metaphorically that is. Yet the short of it is: it is possible and there are absolutely no restrictions as to where you can drive to, opening a whole new way of travelling the country for me. As far as I know, as of 2018 there is only one province where you’re not allowed to drive a car by yourself as a foreigner: Tibet. But all the rest is absolutely open and free to go. There’s quite a few hoops to go through before you get there, so in this post I will explain exactly what to do if you, too, want to explore China with complete freedom by car. A little forewarning to begin with: No company, mentioned or not in this article, remunerated me for this trip. All recommendations are mine.

Don’t listen to what they say

The first thing you need to do is ignore what your travel guides tell you. I’ll take my example as an avid Lonely Planet reader, here is what the latest, June 2017 edition of the China Lonely Planet says: “Hiring a car has always been complicated or impossible for foreign visitors and in mainland China is currently limited to Beijing and Shanghai.” That is totally incorrect. You can rent a car in any city that has a car rental office, provided you are resilient and patient. Also, the information they provide about Hertz (up to 150km per day and 20.000 yuan deposit) and Avis (5.000 yuan deposit) is totally misleading. International companies have very limited car options and locations in China and are criminally more expensive. The company I used, eHi, was none of the above two and had unlimited km as well as only 2.000 yuan deposit. So there you have it, best to ignore guides altogether, at least until they get updated with the feedback I sent them, which won’t be for another couple of years.

The only place in China to get a temporary Chinese driver licence is Beijing Airport Terminal 3.

Getting your Chinese license

Firstly your local driver license is not recognised in China, even if you have gone to the trouble of getting it translated into an international driver license. That is of no use here. You will need to get a temporary Chinese driver licence, and the one I got was valid for just one month, instead of the 3 mentioned in the Lonely Planet. Note you are not eligible for a temporary Chinese driver license if you are a foreign resident in China. You need to be on a tourist visa staying no more than 3 months in the country to be eligible, and I am unsure whether other visiting visas are also eligible. The first trick to be aware of is that – at the time of writing – the only place you can get this temporary license in the whole of China is at the Beijing Capital International Airport Terminal 3. Note you don’t need to have flown in through that airport, you can simply rock up there as all offices you need to visit are within public areas.

Although there is a relatively straight-forward process to follow once you are at the airport, it can be time-consuming, so make sure you allow plenty (3-4 hours), especially if you are flying on and waiting for a connection: probably not a good idea to have the additional pressure of potentially missing your flight if not all goes to plan, you might not be able to get out into the public area without complicated visa manoeuvres. I’d advise to fly to your next Chinese destination the next day or two. The entire process happens at the Terminal 3 of the Beijing Capital Airport, no other terminal and no other airport in China will deliver the temporary Chinese driver license to you. It is a good idea to withdraw plenty of cash in small cuts before embarking on this adventure. Here are the steps to follow:

Step 1: Go to the Business Centre on 4F (fourth floor, but 3rd floor in Western logic so I’ll just replicate the way everything is signed at the airport). Here you need to ask to get your photo ID taken for your Chinese license. The ID format required is very specific so chances are the photos you might already have brought with you won’t fit: mine were too large, triggering no less than 3 visits to the various steps on this process. You also need a photocopy of your current driver license, your passport photo page, your current Chinese visa and your latest China entry stamp (that you just got minutes before if you just flew into Beijing Airport). The latter is the reason why it’s better to get all photocopies done at once the Business Centre as you won’t have that stamp yet if you’re preparing all documents from home before flying to China, and this way you are sure that everything is done right. Cost: 10 yuan (US$1.60 or 1.30€)

Step 2: You then need to head to the Emergency Medical Station on 2F to get a medical certificate. To get it you will need to part with one of your photo IDs and go through an eyesight test. Cost: 20 yuan (US$3.20 or 2.60€)

Step 3: With all these documents you next have to go to the Traffic Police on 1F, so they can create your temporary license. Note the Traffic Police is open from 9am to 7pm Monday to Saturday but closes every day between 11am and 12:30pm. Only about 10 minutes worth of paperwork later, you should receive your temporary Chinese driver license! It includes your name phonetically translated in Chinese characters, which is always fun to discover. The legalities of renting a car in China imply you need to carry the actual translation of your foreign driver license with you at all times. I only discovered that with dread while on the road as I never got this document. I did not get controlled by the police during my drive, but you might want to insist with the Traffic Police that they give you this one page document along with your Chinese license. Cost: 20 yuan (US$3.20 or 2.60€)

You need a Chinese phone number to facilitate the process. China Unicom is cheap and reliable.

Make sure your mobile phone is ready for China

You are now all set to rent a car in China. You thought it would be the end of your troubles? They are only beginning. Firstly I cannot stress enough the necessity of having a Chinese SIM card and therefore a Chinese phone number to go through this entire process. China Unicom SIM cards are available at Terminal 3 on 2F just to the right of the arrivals gate. Depending on whether you are planning to stay in Beijing (80 yuan) or travel throughout China (200 yuan) the price will be different. I got the latter with 5GB worth of data and only used 1.5GB in 10 days while constantly being on the internet. So one SIM card can potentially last you for a handful of different short trips to China. I may (read must) have paid a premium due to the airport location, but frankly it’s worth it because it saves you having to search for shops selling SIM cards in Chinese cities and, well, good luck with that.

Downloading the WeChat and Bing Translator apps on your phone will make life a lot easier in China.

It is also essential to download the WeChat app, the equivalent of Facebook in China (remember Facebook and Google as well as all their affiliates are banned in China), but also much more. People will routinely ask you to add them on WeChat so they can communicate more easily with you. You can do so by scanning the QR code on their phone, you don’t need their number – yes the future is here in China. There is a handy “Translate” function on the chat that automatically and accurately (an impressive feat) translates all Mandarin characters into English and vice-versa so you can end up having quite a sophisticated conversation with someone that is not in front of you (an important detail) while still knowing absolutely no Mandarin. I also recommend downloading the Bing Translator app: you can speak into your phone in English and it speaks the translation in Mandarin. Very handy, I used it for almost all my interactions during this trip. Of course this implies you have a constant internet connection, hence the SIM card.

Zuche.com or Car Inc. is “powered by Hertz” but rejected my Chinese driver license. Avoid them.

What car rental company to use

In the Beijing Capital International Airport Terminal 3, the rental car companies desks are on 1F almost next door to the Traffic Police. Now this is where the true adventure starts. Car rentals are still a very rare occurrence in China, even for Chinese citizens. To give you an indication, not a single person rented a car during the couple of hours I spent laboriously communicating with the staff. Two companies stood out: Zuche.com and 1hai.cn. Don’t be deterred by the fact that all brochures are in Mandarin and there’s absolutely nothing available in English. Both companies have hotlines with okay English-speaking assistants. My first choice was Zuche.com, also called Car Inc., as it is “powered by Hertz”. This turned out to be of no help at all. Here, all foreign applicants are required to go through a pre-approval process which consists of you sending pictures of all your documents (Chinese driver license, passport, Chinese visa) through WeChat for them to assess. This takes a few hours at least so you definitely cannot rent a car on the spot. My application was refused because neither my Chinese driver license nor my tourist Visa lasted long enough! Best to avoid these guys for now.

This is the logo you must be looking for in order to rent a car in China.

 – confusingly spelled “eHi” on most signage – is backed by Enterprise, was happy with my Chinese license and did not require any pre-approval, which means that technically you could rent a car with them on the spot if you are so inclined. Progress! I also learned there was unlimited km on all rental cars and I could drive anywhere in Mainland China without any restrictions. They failed to mention Tibet is a no go for foreigners, or perhaps I could have forced my way in, but I decided not to push my luck this time. Where it becomes very interesting indeed is that eHi has a whopping 4.000 stores located in 300 different cities across the whole country. The sky is the limit as to where exactly you decide to rent your car from and to. If you still want the car in Beijing, keep in mind prices are at least twice as high as what they are in smaller cities.

To organise your rental, the simplest way is to call eHI’s English speaking hotline (400 888 6608) even if you are standing at the counter because staff won’t speak English. You can then use the staff to confirm all details of the rental on their screen and organise. On the phone, say it’s for self-drive and someone speaking okay English will call you back within 15-20 minutes – this is one of the instances where having a Chinese mobile number helps greatly. Then you can actually choose ANY city you want to rent the car from that is listed on their website and drop it anywhere you want to. I suggest always asking for the Airport store of each city as it makes it much easier to locate. Make sure you confirm the province in which the city you want is located as many Chinese cities sound alike.

The eHi website, with the cheapest two rental options out of Beijing Airport: VW Lavida and Peugeot 301.

Just pause for a second to realise that as a foreigner you can actually rent a car from any of 300 cities in China, a country that only a couple of decades ago was strictly reserved to government-guided tourism the way North Korea operates right now. That, and you can drive everywhere you want except from Tibet. I find this amazing and I had no idea you could actually do that. For me, it makes travelling in China vastly more interesting.

I rented a VW Lavida, one of the cheapest options available, from and to Yinchuan in Ningxia province and I was able to pay for it at one of eHi’s Beijing stores. Theoretically there are a lot of car models available but in practice only a few can be rented. It is almost impossible to rent a Chinese-branded car, which is what I originally wanted. Peugeot is very well represented with the 301, 408, 2008 and 3008 all available to rent. It cost only 941 yuan (US$149 or 124€) for 6 days, and even then that was with a significant surcharge because my rental was across public holidays. In normal times it’s around 80 yuan per day (US$13 or 11€) for the cheapest car, so very affordable indeed. Prices in Beijing started at 240 yuan/day for the period I wanted, 140/day in normal times. One last trick before you are off with your rental: although the staff will ask you to enter your credit card code, do NOT. Instead, directly press the green button on the bottom right corner of their machine and watch their face lighten up with amazement as the receipt prints out. This is valid for the rental rate as well as the security deposit, which you will be requested to pay at the pickup location and was only 2.000 yuan in Yinchuan.

Make sure you take pictures of all dents and scratches, as chances are there will be many.

Now. Perhaps because I was a foreigner and they thought there was no point giving me documents in Mandarin, or perhaps that’s just the way it is, but there was no contract, no document outlining my rights or what happens and what is covered by the security deposit in case of accident and no car status pictorial. Call me reckless but I decided to plow ahead regardless. I did take dozens of photos of the car when I picked it up under the amused eyes of the sales assistant who pointed out the dents on the photos to make sure everything was recorded. As is the case with most locals in more remote parts of China the kid was way too starstruck by the foreigner in town to think about much else. Given rentals are not common, the cars are kept much longer: mine had its lot of dents pretty much everywhere and the odo signalled 28.456 km at day of departure, far above what any car rental in the Western world would allow.

On the road we go with our rental car in China! How easy was that? Not quite, but we did it.

Can’t read the signs? No problem… 

…Map directions are very precise even if overtimed, with warnings for every camera.

I hear your next question being: “What with all the road signs? Is anything in English?” And the answer is rarely, but it doesn’t matter at all. Having a Chinese SIM card on my phone the map directions automatically updated with Baidu maps and it works exactly like Google maps. The directions are reliable, even though the default suggestion is always a much longer option to avoid tolls. Just press “Go” and let yourself be directed anywhere with extremely precise instructions. One very helpful feat is directions such as “Use the left 3 lanes, use the middle 2 lanes…”: in Chinese cities, each lane has its own purpose and you must not change lanes from around 100m before red lights. So you must choose the correct lane(s) early otherwise you cannot go where you want: remember you are being filmed all the time (more on this below). Plus lanes merge and split at the start of each block so you need to be aware of which lane the cars next to you are choosing to merge onto. Keeps you well awake, trust me.

Fear not: there are always manned booths that clearly indicate the price to pay.

Highway tolls! That was one of my main concerns as in Australia no booths are manned anymore and you must have a tag on your windscreen that automatically charges you when you go through any toll. If you don’t, you have to go online to pay (it’s almost impossible to do so as you always miss the tolls you didn’t even notice you passed) or pay 5 times the price months later. Fear not, China is thankfully still a little bit behind on this one. There are always manned booths and the price pops up on a screen so you can pay without speaking a word. But I only had to do this a couple of times because 5 of the 6 days I drove were public holidays when all highways are free!!

The one thing you’re best not to ignore from your travel guide is the warning about crazy driving in China. The Lonely Planet again: “Even skilled drivers will be unprepared for China’s roads: in the cities, cars lunge from all angles and chaos abounds.” Ok so this is true if only way too dramatic, and it’s nothing very careful driving can’t deal with. Frankly, I had much scarier driving experiences in Latin America (notably in the Dominican Republic!!), Italy, or even my home country France, than what I encountered in China. Note that on highways and in small towns, Chinese drivers are extremely civilised. Yes, that came as a surprise to me too, but you need to keep in mind there is at least one surveillance camera every 700 metres even on isolated highways, if not an emergency lane camera, a speed camera or a red light camera. And unlike the Western world where you only get flashed when you’re breaking the law, here every single camera takes your picture every single time no matter what. Having driven roughly 2.500 km in 6 days, I calculated that the Chinese government now has about 3.600 pictures of me at the wheel of my rental VW Lavida stored somewhere on a computer. Freaky…

Front windows are blacked out in China.

Things get a lot hairier when you enter sizeable cities. Worse still: driving through big cities at night. This you need to try and avoid at all cost. Note in China most cars’ front windows are blacked out (this is illegal in most parts of the world) so you need to drive all windows open in order to see anything at night, which is distracting as you can hear way too many noises. You basically have to assume the worst at all times and cars launching onto the main road from side streets without the driver checking first. Stay at a fair distance of all vehicles around you as much as humanely possible and you should be able to avoid any collision. Having said that, pay special attention to the last few minutes of your rental drive as that’s when you’ll start thinking “That wasn’t too bad after all”, start relaxing, and pow! Drama strikes. Despite all this, I only narrowly avoided a car by mere centimetres as it was suddenly shifting lanes literally in front of the airport as I was about to pull over to return my Lavida. Having an accident in China is something you really want to avoid as foreigners are immediately declared guilty because wealthier…

I was bluffed by eHi’s staff change upon returning the car.

But all was well in the end, and I returned the Lavida without any problems. Now this is where I tip my hat to eHi. They were probably faced with their very first foreigner renting one of their cars, especially likely in Yinchuan which is a big city but not a foreign tourist hotspot by far. The staff that welcomed me on pickup day was visibly frustrated, however I learnt throughout this trip that in general if the Chinese are frustrated when attempting to communicate with you, it’s not because they expect you to speak Mandarin but they are in fact frustrated with themselves for not having learnt more English. I’m going out on a limb here but I’m pretty sure they specifically hired English-speaking staff on the day I returned the car in order to service me better. The kid that guided me to the car return parking lot later told me it was his very first “takeover” meaning first car returned. I find it highly unlikely that they would expose a complete beginner in the company to their first foreign client, so my theory is that they hired him as well as the desk bloke that closed the rental specifically on that day for me. And I applaud this.

Stay tuned for our China Test Drives and Photo throughout Inner Mongolia driving the VW Lavida…

China 2018 Photo: The cars of Beijing and using the Didi app

Changan Benben EV and luxury fare in Beijing

This article launches our traditional and annual series of Photo for China. You can check out the 30 Chinese cities and regions we have explored over the past five years here. After the Beijing Auto Show, we will be exploring one new Chinese region and 2018 is the year of Inner Mongolia. But first, let’s have a quick look at the cars of Beijing and my experience using the Didi ride hailing app for the first time.

Beijing pollution isn’t a legend: this was the weather for the whole time I was in town.

This is the fourth time I visit Beijing since creating BestSellingCarsBlog – the 5th time overall as I did visit back in 2001 when the car parc was near inexistant. In 2013 we went through a series of Photo exploring the Great Wall of China and Beijing dealerships. In 2014 we explored the Beijing hutongs and in 2016 we found that the Beijing car parc had not changed much and new energy cars were only starting to appear.

Volvo S90 at Beijing Capital International Airport

The first thing I noticed in Beijing was that like two years ago, there aren’t many sparkling new cars around. This goes against the trend in most Chinese cities but the explanation is pretty simple: this freeze is a direct consequence of the license plate restrictions put in place in 2014 to limit pollution in the biggest cities of the country. It makes acquiring a new license plate – and the right to drive a car in the city – almost as expensive as buying the car itself.

Tesla Model S in Beijing

The main observation in Beijing streets this year is the spread of “new energy” cars – read electric and plug-in hybrid – and most notably Teslas. Since 2016, the brand has become ubiquitous here with many Model S and X spotted over the course of the four days I stayed in town. Other common electric cars of note are the Changan Benben and CS15 EVs. As far as combustion cars are concerned, there were a few rare highlights including the Chevrolet Equinox – already very frequent, the Wuling Hongguang S3, Chevrolet Cavalier and Volvo S90, all China-made.

Citroen C-Elysee taxis in Beijing

Even though taxis remain the most frequent cars on the road – with the Hyundai Elantra from three generations ago still accounting for the majority of the parc but the Citroen C-Elysee also scoring a significant share,  the shift to ride hailing apps and car-sharing schemes was perhaps the most striking modification of the way the Beijing car parc is being used compared to my last visit two years ago. One car-sharing scheme stood out: Togo, with long lines of Jeep Renegade and Smart Fortwo spotted near the Beijing Auto Show venue northeast of central Beijing. Note this doesn’t mean it’s successful as none of these cars were picked up when I was observing.

Smart Fortwo and Jeep Renegade part of the Togo car-sharing scheme in Beijing.

While failing to find a vacant taxi on my way back to the hotel from the Beijing Auto Show, I decided to find out whether downloading and using the DiDi ride hailing app was as easy for a foreigner as signing up to Uber, Taxify or Ola back home in Sydney, Australia. For those of you who squint their eyes at the DiDi word, here is some background info. DiDi was founded in 2012 and has since become the largest ride-sharing app in the world (eat this Uber) with 450 million users across over 400 Chinese cities. It even acquired Uber’s China unit in August 2016.

DiDi is the largest ride-hailing app in the world with 25 million daily rides, far outpacing Uber.

But the record figures don’t stop here. DiDi claims 25 million rides per day, far surpassing the combined daily rides of all the other ride-sharing companies around the world. DiDi is the only company to have all of China’s three internet giants – Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu – as its investors. In May 2017 DiDi started to develop an English version of its app and has launched in Mexico last month. Finally, in December 2017 DiDi closed a US$4 billion financing round, becoming the most valuable start-up company in the world with over US$56 billion worth of valuation.

First DiDi trip with option to tip driver.

So in a word DiDi is a behemoth. And I found out first hand some of the reasons why. From the first screen you can choose the English version of the app that functions roughly as Uber does overseas. But the most striking point was its ease-of-signup. Contrary to most Chinese digital services (including Facebook equivalent WeChat) that require a Chinese bank account to utilise their full transaction potential, you can link your DiDi account with any international credit or debit card – there is a specific option to do exactly that. Enter your card details and in under one minute you are an active customer of DiDi and able to hail a ride. I have to mention that the entire process works more smoothly if you have a Chinese SIM card in your mobile phone, giving you a Chinese number.

Second DiDi trip with fare discrepancy detected and lower fare automatically suggested.

Keeping in mind my Mandarin skills are very limited, the whole process was done in English. As long as the driver doesn’t need to call you to ask for more details about your pick-up location, you are able to order and enjoy the entire ride without speaking a word of Mandarin, which is a feat in itself. The maps look a little more detailed as the ones available on Uber and you can follow the trip live (same as Uber) but also how much it is currently costing (Uber doesn’t show that). At the end of the trip, you are given the option of tipping your driver, something you can’t do on Uber in Australia as far as I know.

My first trip went without hiccups but for my 2nd trip – to the airport – the driver took a wrong turn which added 15 mins and pushed the fare up by 2/3. Not to worry, DiDi automatically detected the discrepancy with the predicted fare and offered the option to only pay the latter, not the inflated one. In Uber you have to actively search through the app for a way to connect and ask for a refund which is transferred in the form of a credit on your next ride. But with DiDi you actually only pay the no-road mistake fare. Well done, DiDi.

This concludes our Photo Report on the cars of Beijing, please stay tuned for the next episode in this China 2018 series: Renting a car in China…

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