Road tripping probably isn't the first thing that comes to mind when you think of vacationing in Asia, seeing as public transportation throughout the continent is so cheap and plentiful. However, getting behind the wheel of a car or hopping on a motorbike is one of the best ways to get off the traditional tourist path if you're daring enough to take on the challenge. Many roads in Asia—especially in the south—are rugged, poorly signposted, and have unsettling features like massive drop-offs and mountain passes, but the most famous ones are tourist-friendly. And they make up for being slightly frightening with their breathtaking beauty. Visitors from abroad should make sure they have an international driving license or permit before planning a self-drive holiday in Asia.
The Karakoram Highway (Pakistan and China)
Often hailed as the highest paved road in the world, this route is as much of an amazing engineering feat as it is a tourist attraction. There are many people who travel long distances just to drive, motorbike, or cycle through the Himalayas on the Karakoram Highway connecting China and Pakistan.
Alpine views are the highlight of this 810-mile (1,300-kilometer) drive, which reaches an altitude of 15,748 feet (4,800 meters) at its highest point (Khunjerab Pass). That's higher than California's Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States. The route winds through three mountain ranges: the Karakoram, the Hindu Kush, and the Himalayas, home to Mount Everest. It's a rare opportunity to see some of the tallest peaks on earth from the seat of a car.
Gilgit, Pakistan—which can be accessed from the aviation hub of Islamabad—is the popular starting point. From there, drivers will hit Hunza Valley, where the mountain views begin, and the stunningly blue Attabad Lake. You'll then drive along Cathedral Ridge and through Khunjerab National Park before arriving at your destination, Kashgar, China. The route features steep inclines that could be considered dangerous and the altitude can cause many to feel sick. Due to snow, Khunjerab Pass is closed from November to March every year. Drivers should allocate at least 10 days to the trip and make sure they have valid visas for both China and Pakistan before beginning the journey.
Hokkaido's Scenic Byways (Japan)
Hokkaido is one of Japan's four main islands, and many people also consider it to be the most beautiful. It's packed with volcanoes, caldera lakes, snow-capped peaks, beaches, and geothermal springs. Tourists can get a real feel for Hokkaido's diverse scenery by driving the island's series of scenic byways, which showcase the coast, the mountains, and the colorful farms in between. The six routes include the Shikotsu to Toya-Niseko Park route, of which the crystal-clear Lake Toya is a highlight; Tisetsu to Furano, primarily centering around the island's famous flower gardens; the Higashi Okhotsk Scenic Byway, beloved for the Sea of Okhotsk and its incredible drift ice; and the Soya Scenic Byway, covering the northernmost region, including Rebun and Rishiri Islands.
Kushiro Shitsugen-Akan-Mashu Scenic Byway puts Hokkaido's wildlife on full display, winding through Akan and Kushiro Shitsigen National Parks. And finally, the Hakodate-Onuma-Funkawan Scenic Byway puts you more in the way of food, people, and culture (especially concentrated in Hakodate city).
The entire island of Hokkaido is 32,221 square miles (about the size of South Carolina), so these drives could be completed in as little as 10 days. The roads here are well maintained and signposted.
The Silk Road to Samarkand (Uzbekistan)
Uzbekistan is a Central Asian country that is well off the tourist trail, but it has an interesting history (the city of Samarkand was once the capital of the large empire of Tamerlane), which is fascinating to explore by road. There is no formal route, but rather an old Silk Road that connects the ancient city of Bukhara—accessible via the capital city, Tashkent—to Samarkand, known for its ornate, 15th- to 17th-century mosques and mausoleums. UNESCO calls Samarkand "one of the most important sites on the Silk Routes traversing Central Asia." These roads were used for trading between the east and west from the 2nd century BCE to the 18th century.
The M-37 route runs 167 miles (269 kilometers) from Bukhara to Samarkand, which takes about four and a half hours to drive. If you'd like to make it an overnight trip, you can stay at the historic ruin of the Rabati Malik caravanserai (inn) or in a traditional felt yurt in Yangikasgan. After arriving in Samarkand, explore the history of the city by visiting Registan square or the Ulugbek observatory.
The Mountain Tunnels of Guoliang and Xiyagou (China)
The Guoliang Tunnel is perhaps the most spectacular (and terrifying) vehicular route in all of Asia. Mountain passes seem like child's play next to this cliffside road, dubbed the "road of death." What's even scarier than the vertical drops is that the tunnel was hand carved by 13 villagers who were frankly tired of scaling 700-some steps on foot. It took them five years to cut a tunnel through the Taihang Mountains back in the '70s. Now, it's not just a trading path but a tourist attraction in itself.
There are several tunnel roads throughout China, but Guoliang Tunnel is the most famous. The road is about a half mile long and consists of two tunnels, each 16 feet high and 13 feet wide. The windows along the route offer spectacular views of the surrounding mountain scenery, but you'd best keep your eyes on the road. The Xiya Valley Mountain Tunnel—between Shanwa and Nan'anshang—took a little longer to construct. About 30 years, to be exact. These two tunnels are connected by a road that takes you through the Taihang Mountains on a relatively short stretch of 37 miles (60 kilometers). Most visitors get to the area by going through the city of Xinxiang.
Nha Trang to Qui Nhon (Vietnam)
The famous Hải Vân Pass that follows the coast from Hue to Da Nang gets most of the attention when it comes to scenic road trips in Vietnam, but the 134-mile (216-kilometer) stretch of Highway 1 that connects Nha Trang to Qui Nhon, further down the coast, is just as epic (and less touristy, to boot). it's got mountain scenery on the inland side and stunning sea views with golden beaches on the ocean side.
After leaving Nha Trang, your first stop should be the Ba Ho waterfalls for a cool dip. Then, you'll hit a remote beach (the easternmost point in Vietnam) and the fishing village of Dam Mon, where you can stop for the night if you wish. Prepare to hit busier, more mountainous roads on the second day. Da Dia Reef is a popular pit stop before the final destination, known for peculiar rock formations. The coastal city of Qui Nhon is home to several scenic, off-the-beaten-path beaches, including Ky Co and Queen's Beach.
It's commonplace to drive through Vietnam on a motorbike rather than in a car. You can rent these scooters from just about any city (and even drop them off in another city). Just be mindful of big trucks on the windy portions of Highway 1.