Hiring a driver and car in Yunnan

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Yunnan is huge and distances between points of interest can be large. Having a car and driver means freedom from an itinerary pegged to public transport schedules. If you intend to cover a lot of ground or if you have an itinerary that includes going off the beaten track, are short on time and don’t want to be tied down to public transport, getting a car and driver is a good idea. This makes even more sense if you have a relatively large group of family or friends, as we did. When shared among a group, car and driver can prove to be a surprisingly economical option. Here’s how we found our car and driver in Yunnan and some tips and advice from the lessons we learned on hindsight.

20191223_160005First, I started by doing what everybody else would do – google “driver” “Yunnan” in Tripadvisor and that’s where Zeng Jing’s name popped up. Zeng received glowing reviews. And in one of them, his number was helpfully provided. In case you can’t find it but would like his number, drop me a message in the blog and I will respond.

I communicated with Zeng months before our trip began. We discussed costs, itinerary, type of vehicle and so on. I had downloaded WeChat and used it to communicate with him and all our drivers before and during the trip. So proud of myself – for someone who failed Chinese miserably in school, it wasn’t half bad to now be the one communicating in Mandarin (and actually being understood!). All those months of C-dramas and C-pop were finally paying off.

Zeng was very patient with me and my endless revisions of the itinerary. He was full of suggestions on what else we could see while we were there, intent on helping us maximise our time.

Here’s where we learned our first lesson: remember that it is YOUR vacation and YOUR itinerary. The Chinese travel on very packed schedules with whistle stops for pee breaks and meals but the typical itinerary is packed to the brim with sights or activities. If you prefer a slower pace, stick to your guns. For example, we had initially planned two nights in the rice terraces, with the second day to be a chillax day to visit a tribal morning market and then maybe do some hiking into the rice terraces or just hanging out in the hotel. But Zeng had persuaded us otherwise – saying there was nothing to do in the terraces and most people only spent a night, we would be wasting our time etc etc. So we caved and cut this to just a day and a night. But when we got there, the driver told us we should have stayed longer because that would have given us time to explore the place in greater detail, visiting villages and other less crowded vantage spots for sunset and dawn photography of the terraces. So bottomline is, do your research, take the drivers’ recommendations on board but it’s okay to be firm and stick to your plans.

Finding a reliable driver is important because once you have a trusted driver, it takes away a lot of the guesswork and we could travel in peace. The trust we had in Zeng went both ways. We could not give him a deposit to secure our booking because we did not have a China bank account nor did we have WeChat Pay. Zeng took us purely on good faith and agreed that we would just pay the full amount at the end of our trip in China. I think that is pretty rare for any organisation – to trust that we would show up and keep to our end of the arrangements. Zeng was sincere, generous and trust-worthy.

While I am full of praise for Zeng, I do have mixed feelings about his drivers. We had two drivers because there were two parts to our trip – one from Kunming to the Yuanyang rice terraces and back to Kunming and the other from Dali to Lijiang.

Our first driver for the Kunming-Yuanyang leg was Mr Xie. Monk-like in stature with his shaven head and slight build, he was a staunch Buddhist and a strict vegetarian. Calming Buddhist chants were the soundtrack on this road trip. Whether it was scrap leftover meat from our meals to be shared with stray dogs in the Yuanyang villages or bags of clothing he had brought from Kunming to distribute to villagers, Xie was always ready to share.

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Xie and I at our first rest stop, a restaurant outside Ge Jiu. It looks like an intense discussion going on but we were actually just discussing what to have for lunch!

He was a very interesting personality; an adventurer at heart who loved to bring visitors to the farthest reaches of the provinces, visiting villages close to the Vietnamese borders where tourists don’t usually go. His eyes shone whenever he talked about meeting tribes in remote corners of Yunnan. He seemed to love going off the beaten track and recommended places for us to consider if we ever came back to Yunnan. Culture, tradition, socio-economics,  geography, philosophy were all par for the course in our conversations. Language was a bit of a barrier, which was a pity, because it prevented a deeper discourse.

This guy seemed like such a good guy that we often felt like shallow, ignorant, decadent tourists next to him! As a driver though, he was professional, helpful, accommodating and tried his best to bring us exactly to where we needed to go. When we tried to tip him at the end of the trip, he refused by giving my husband a big hug and shoved the money back into my husband’s jacket. Overall though, I liked him a lot more than the second driver Zeng arranged for us.

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Our second driver Zhang and his 14-seater van.

Our second driver was a let-down. His name is Zhang. We started by giving him the benefit of the doubt when he could not pick us up for dinner (granted it was a last-minute decision and he said he had had a few drinks already – at 7pm!) or even when he insisted he could not pick us up at Dali old town even when our hotel said it was possible. But later it became apparent that we had to adjust to his schedule and his preferences, not the other way around. We soon realised he was taking the easy way out most of the time (making us walk from the restaurant to a dingy excuse of a waterfront and back just for us to see Erhai lake – surely there would have been more scenic viewpoints!), refusing to pick us up from Lijiang when we needed to (in the end we just took cabs; which made his services as a driver redundant) and finally the clincher – bringing us to a tourist trap which basically gouged unsuspecting tourists in purchasing over-priced oxygen tanks, renting overcoats and dubious ginseng drinks).

Possibly the only advantage he had over Xie is his newer 14-seater vehicle. Because it seemed likely that he already had kickbacks from the over-priced shop which sold us the oxygen tanks etc, we didn’t even bother tipping him at the end of the trip.

In the end, our total bill for a 14-seater van and driver for 11 days worked out to be RMB13,000 (roughly SGD$2600), which works out to be roughly SGD$371 per person. This may seem a lot at first until you realise it is actually way cheaper than a 7-day JR pass and offered a lot more comfort and flexibility.

So I guess second lesson we learned is: get a driver if you intend to cover long distances by car, going from town to village to scenic spot. But if you make one town your base eg Lijiang or Shuhe, then you don’t actually need a car and driver because it is very easy to get around by taxis. In the end, this may prove cheaper. While we needed a car and driver to drive around Dali and then to take us to Lijiang/Shuhe, we did not actually need this service once we made Shuhe our base. If you do need to make day trips out, the hotel is well able to arrange this for you. This might actually have cut our costs significantly.

Nevertheless no regrets in getting our own van and driver. Working with Mr Zeng was great and I would highly recommend him to anyone looking to go to Yunnan. Ask for Mr Xie if you can. If you’re the sort who loves going off the beaten track, he might be the best bet to help you.

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