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Taking the Road Less Driven

In 2011, I spent a fortnight driving around southwest China by myself. I had a valid Chinese driving license and a legal rental car, and yet I felt as though I was doing something illicit. Others evidently thought so, too: “Do you really just go where you want? So free!” I was asked, wistfully, on several occasions.

Yes, I really just went where I wanted. Up a thickly forested mountain to watch snub-nosed monkeys eating moss amongst fallen magnolia blossoms, down bumpy tracks to find little village markets where men toked on thick bamboo pipes, and – once, memorably – along a beautiful road that I suddenly discovered was still very much under construction.

Asian roads have a poor image overseas, with terrible city traffic and plenty of dodgy driving. But Asia is a big place, and while I would hesitate to drive in Beijing or Yangon, I can’t imagine exploring the continent’s rugged, beautiful countryside any other way. Once behind the wheel, there’s still a strong and genuine sense of discovery and adventure about travelling here. In Europe or in North America, most of us would happily rent a car for convenience’s sake, but that frisson of adventure has disappeared.

Be that as it may, in Asia, many travellers forego the frisson and opt to hire a car and driver instead of driving themselves. It’s clear why; language barriers, red tape, concerns over road safety, undeveloped car rental markets and lack of reliable information – all reasonable and valid concerns, but not insurmountable. With preparation and the right support, it’s eminently possible to drive to Mount Everest or cruise around Burma by car.

Safety in numbers

Travelling in a small group is a huge help when driving in unfamiliar territory. A lead car can carry tools, spare parts and tour guides, showing the way and spotting any potential hazards, while leaving the rest of the convoy to relax and enjoy the drive. And all that extra muscle can come in handy for high-altitude tyre changes.


When I’m driving somewhere beautiful, I am forever pulling over to let local cars zoom past. It’s worth making a pest of myself to enjoy one of the biggest pleasures of a driving holiday: going slowly and stopping often. Slipping out of the rhythm of my rushed everyday life is a true luxury, whether I’m heading toward five-star or no-star accommodation. The added bonus? A slower drive is a safer drive.

Leave paperwork to the professionals

Unless you have a passion for form-filling and arcane points of Customs and Excise Law, plus the time to build relationships with the relevant officials, it’s best to leave the paperwork for your trip to a professional. Particularly if you plan to drive across borders or drive in Tibet; years of one’s life can easily be lost this way.

Go now

Travel by private car is not yet an obvious choice for most overseas travellers in most of Asia. This will change, as road networks improve and expand. But the traffic will get worse. If you’ve dreamed of crossing the continent by car, enjoying the freedom to go where you want and stop where you like, now is the time.

Joanna James is a guide, guidebook author, storyteller and devout travel enthusiast. This story was written based on research she did in China for our friends at On The Road Experiences, who believe in the value of trip research just as much as we do. Give us a shout if you’re curious.

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