My rental Peugeot 301 in Manzhouli, Inner Mongolia.
We are back for a new series of China Test Drives as securing my temporary Chinese driver’s licence for a second year in a row enabled me to rent two cars in two different provinces and test drive 9 more at dealerships. You can consult our complete guide of How to rent a car in China here. My first rental is a crumbling Peugeot 301 I rented with my trusted rental company eHi at the Hailar airport in eastern Inner Mongolia.
Chinese towns visited with the Peugeot 301 and exact itinerary at the junction of 3 countries.
We will then embark on a 1400km-journey through eastern Inner Mongolia, from Hailar westward to Manzhouli at the Russian border, along the Hulun Lake to the south, circling around the Mongolian border to the mountain resort town of Arxan and the impressive Mongolian warriors of Huolin Gol before heading southeast to end the trip in Tongliao where I will drop the Peugeot 301.
My valiant Peugeot 301 in Hailar where large 4×4 pickups such as the Maxus T60 are favoured.
The arrival at Hailar airport had a definite frontier feel with gusts of smoke-filled wind rushing through the Terminal due to a nearby bushfire. It’s cold (I was there in late April), almost Winter-freezing-cold, and I’m glad to be at the wheels of my new “Chinese” car for the next few days: a first generation Peugeot 301. Originally launched here in late 2013, China did benefit from the 2017 facelift which means our car is at least 2.5 years old, but Peugeot sales (-61% so far in 2019 and -70% in May) remain in dire straits. Although the odo indicates “just” 23.669 km at pickup, this 301 looks like it has lived a long life already, with significant damage to the front bumper and cuts and bruises everywhere. As for Hailar town, it’s an icy-windy city with Mongolian accents (see the roof of the Railway station pictured above) where large pickups rule the roost.
My Peugeot 301 on the road to Manzhouli: full steppe and ger camps
The next morning we take the highway for the 200km that separate Hailar to Manzhouli, crossing barren landscapes peppered with Mongolian ger camps and under a menacing grey-orange smoke/sand blanket. I stopped in a dismantled camp to observe the metallic structures of the ger tents (see pictured above), a fascinating sight. Here, the road signs are displayed in three different scripts: Mongolian on top, Mandarin in the middle and in larger signs, and Russian at the bottom. None of them I can read, so it’s of little help! At the Frankfurt Auto Show in September 2013, then Peugeot PR Manager Marc Bocqué had insisted to me that, unlike the Dacia Logan, the Peugeot 301 isn’t a low-cost car because it is equipped with the latest engines. And driving it on the highway I have to agree on the engine point: it’s powerful, there is no lag when accelerating and the car isn’t struggling at all in climbs unlike the Logan I drove in 10 Eastern European countries last year. The only downside was surprisingly strong vibrations throughout the car when reaching 120kph for the first time, but these disappeared once the car had warmed up. Where the 301 is performing poorly is with driver creature comforts, totally absent. No cruise control and not even a USB port to charge your phone – don’t even dream of an Apple CarPlay connection. Other than that most commands are practical and straight-forward and the boot is absolutely huge.
Arrival in Manzhouli
As was to be expected given its location at the Russian border, Manzhouli is a mix of Russian and Mongolian influence, with the most entertaining part of town being without a doubt the Russian Doll market with its namesake hotel in the shape of a giant doll – very kitsch but also actually unpretentiously fun. For much more on the cars of Manzhouli see our Explore China Manzhouli report here.
Top: I stopped the closest I could from the Mongolian border, a couple of hundred meters to the right of the night pic. Bottom: in front of the hotel it took hours to find, and refuelling in Arxan.
Next, I decide on a nighttime run from Manzhouli to the mountain resort town of Arxan (430km), starting southward alongside Hulun Lake. Although China isn’t particularly known for its environmental stance, I noticed an interesting detail near the lake: multiple road signs indicating it is forbidden to honk because it would disturb the endangered birds living nearby. A nice touch. At one point we get tantalisingly close to the Mongolian border (see night picture above). It’s an eery experience as there are no signs mentioning the border and not a single road leading to that country from where I drove. Arriving at 1am in Arxan and looking for my booked hotel is a very bad idea: the part of town where hotels are is composed of around 50 identical buildings with no English “hotel” signs on any of them. Plus we are outside the touristic season so everything is closed. I did eventually find my hotel and was lucky a “night-time crew” (in actual fact an elderly couple that was probably hired as live-in staff during off-peak season) was sleeping near the reception and was able to open the door and unlock a room for me. Arxan village itself is a very interesting find: as close as you can get from a mountainous holiday town akin to what you would find in the European Alps, complete with wooden chalets and full flower decorations. The air is crisp, the sky bright blue, the trees dark green.
Huolin Gol warriors and Mongolian horses.
Our next stop is the Huolin Gol warriors, a location I have been wanting to visit since watching the Audi Quattro Sky the world video. Although a very spectacular sight with giant statues of Genghis Khan dominating a field of 800 distinct Mongolian warriors, Huolin Gol doesn’t feature on any touristic guide and it’s a very difficult place to find if you don’t happen to read Mandarin. There are no signs in English on the road so you have to figure out the name of the hill (Khan Mountain) in Chinese and/or Mongolian script and follow those signs to get there. There are only a few Chinese tourists and all smile and nod with pride to see a foreigner interested in this landmark. I am welcomed by horse-riding locals shouting “Welcome to Mongolia!” Hmmm not quite, as we are still in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, even though the border with the actual country of Mongolia is a mere 100km to the north.
Toll booths in the middle of nowhere, sustenance and Tongliao car landscape.
Southeast of Huolin Gol, the road to Tongliao goes through deserted steppe landscapes very similar to what I saw in my Mongolian adventure back in 2013. Here, the car landscape changes to concentrate on the Leopaard Q6 (a facelifted Mitsubishi Pajero) and its ancestor the Leopaard 6401 (the actual Pajero), Huanghai, Great Wall and JMC Baodian pickups, a couple of new generation Wuling Hongguang and lots of Baojun and Haval SUVs. Tongliao is by far the largest city of this trip at 885.000 inhabitants, and the cars in town change accordingly with lots of Toyota Corolla and Nissan Sylphy sedans, but interestingly not a single new generation VW Lavida. I even spotted a Lamborghini Urus, the first and only one of this trip, a find I was honestly expecting to happen in Shanghai instead, but we should never underestimate Chinese customers in Tier 2 and 3 cities, as these will trigger further sales growth in the country over the next decade. I drop my Peugeot 301 at Tongliao airport and the eHi staff is amused at welcoming a car from all the way up in barren Hailar.
Stay tuned for our next China rental test drive: a Hyundai Celesta in Yunnan.