Hello everyone,

My partner and I are about to set off on a huge road trip through Central and Western China and would like your help planning our routes.

We are a couple in our early 30s and have been living in Kunming for the last two months. We came here to study Mandarin so we could then go on a 2-3 month road trip through Central and Western China. We love China and our goal is to understand it better by traveling through its geography, meeting its people and generally by observing everyday life.

We have done a lot of research on the places and types of things we'd like to see, but when it comes to choosing the specific roads and finding recommendations outside of guide books we would like some local/experienced help. We did a 4,000km motorcycle trip in India last year and we had a lot of route-planning help from a local group there (HV Kumar on Facebook). So we were hoping to find something similar in China.

Our Experience
We've studied about ten weeks of intensive Mandarin between this year and last. In Kunming we can generally make ourselves understood even if we're missing a key piece of vocabulary, but listening is harder. We can read menus pretty well, soap opera dialogue, and anything else with simple grammar/words. We have our Chinese drivers licenses and have recently finished buying, registering and insuring a 2009 2WD Changfeng Liebao/Cheetah (aka a Chinese-made Mitsubishi Pajero).

We have driven and road-tripped in a lot in other countries, in cars and on motorcycle. So we're familiar with the kind of traffic/road obstacles we'll encounter. We're also familiar with the kind of planning, preparation and risks involved with such an ambitious trip. We like to camp, cook our own food, etc. We have emergency beacons, water filters, and various other survival / safety equipment, and so on. For this particular trip we are not aiming to go off-road much. Hence the 2WD.

Our Goals
During this road trip we want to see: geography, culture, agriculture/cultivation and food harvesting/preparation, and the daily life and customs of people who live outside the cities.

Our Plan
We have just left Kunming a few days ago but we are hovering around nearby while we plan out the first few weeks of the trip. We would like to have sketched out basic routes for the first few provinces. We're generally looking for a route that covers the best smaller roads, scenery, and interesting counties. In some we'll stop to explore the local roads - and possibly stay in a local village or two - before getting on our main route again. We usually don't travel on highways/expressways or through cities unless we really just want to go from A to B quickly. We prefer to go slowly, follow our curiosity and allow for chance encounters. That said, we still prefer to travel on good, safe roads wherever possible. We plan to avoid tourist sites except for a few highly recommended places.

The main provinces we plan on visiting are Yunnan, Guangxi, Guizhou, and Western Sichuan. We also really want to drive through Qinghai, Gansu, maybe Xinjiang and maybe Tibet. In the first provinces we will go more slowly, staying with people and exploring. In the other provinces, we were planning on spending more time on the road. What we're looking for is 1.5 months worth of driving that will probably take 2-3 months to do. We have budgeted for around 20,000 kilometers.

We plan on staying in small hotels, with locals, and camping in a tent or in the back of the car occasionally. We generally stick to three rules of road travel: no driving at night, in cities, or bad weather. We know this slows down travel, but we feel it mitigates a lot of the risk.

What we want to see:
* Mountains, high plains, rivers (especially deltas), forests, geological formations and desert
* Smaller and more scenic routes in place of highways
* As much traditional agriculture as we can find - plantations (tea, etc.), animal farms, wild-harvesting, rice terracing, orchards, growing grains, fishing
* We'd love to follow around some folks while they wild forage for foods, while they process soy beans into tofu, while they make barley wine, while they bake their clay pots, etc.
* Craft-making, especially pottery, textiles and traditional food production
* Old silk route, tea horse road, etc
* Great wall - the older, more genuine parts, not the touristy reconstructed parts
* Market towns and trading in general
* Ethnic minority places, especially where they still do things traditionally - craft, food production, etc
* Places where we can hike

What we want to avoid:
* Large and even medium-sized cities wherever possible
* Most large tourist sites - we'd like to pick out only a sampling that are exceptional
* Roads frequented by truck / trade routes wherever possible
* We have been told to avoid border areas, but if there are certain areas that are near a border worth seeing, we'd like to know

1 - Can anyone recommend a high level strategy for visiting the provinces? Which order, weather considerations, etc? At the high level, we are either going to do a large loop (e.g. starting and ending in Kunming), or an open-jawed trip, in which case we'd sell our car in the final city. Which do you think would be better?
2 - Within each province, we'd love as much detail as you can provide about roads and sights. We've pinpointed sights, but haven't been able to find things outside of guidebooks, especially on which roads to take.
3 - We know the rainy season is starting, so we are assuming it's best to see Yunnan and Guanxi first. Does this make sense?
4 - For language, we're planning on getting fixers where we need them, especially in the west and any remote places where people will not speak Mandarin. We are favoring taking this as it comes, but if you have recommendations please let us know. Where do you think the accents will be hardest to understand.
5 - Do you recommend any other forums / places where we can post this same information?