China’s most important long-haul international gateways are Beijing, Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Shanghai, though many other Chinese cities are served by international flights, operated mainly by airlines based in East Asia. There are also well-established overland routes into China – including road and rail links from its Southeast Asian neighbours, as well as the alluring Trans-Siberian Express from Moscow.
Fares to Hong Kong are at their highest during the fortnight before Christmas, the fortnight before Chinese New Year and from mid-June to early October. The cheapest time to fly there is in February (after Chinese New Year), May and November. For Beijing and Shanghai, peak season is generally in the summer. Flying on weekends is slightly more expensive; price ranges quoted below assume midweek travel.
Flights from the UK and Ireland
You can fly direct to China from London Heathrow with Air China, Virgin Atlantic, British Airways, China Eastern and Cathay Pacific to either Beijing (10hr), Hong Kong (12hr) or Shanghai (11hr). Other airlines flying via a change of planes in a hub city include Aeroflot, Air France, KLM, Singapore, Swiss and Thai. Flying to China from other UK airports or from the Republic of Ireland involves either catching a connecting flight to London or flying via the airline’s hub city.
From the UK, the lowest available fares to Beijing or Shanghai start from around £400 in low season, rising to £800 in high season; flights to Hong Kong are slightly cheaper. Less popular airlines such as Air China and Aeroflot offer competitive fares, while British Airways often run special offers or promotions.
Flights from the US and Canada
From North America, there are more flights to Hong Kong than to other Chinese destinations, though there’s no shortage of flights to Beijing and Shanghai and there are some direct services to Guangzhou. Airlines flying direct include Air Canada, Air China, Cathay Pacific, United and China Eastern. You can also choose to fly to a Chinese provincial city – Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Hong Kong airlines offer services to cities throughout China via their respective hubs. It takes around thirteen hours’ flying time to reach Beijing from the West Coast; add seven hours or more to this if you start from the East Coast (including a stopover on the West Coast en route). New routes over the North Pole shave off a couple of hours flying time; so far, that’s Air Canada’s Toronto, Air China’s New York, United’s Chicago and Continental’s Newark flights to Beijing.
Round-trip fares to Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai are broadly comparable: in low season, expect to pay US$900–1300/CAN$917–1325 from the West Coast (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Vancouver), or US$1100–1400/CAN$1120–1426 from the East Coast (New York, Montréal, Toronto). To get a good fare during high season it’s important to buy your ticket as early as possible, in which case you probably won’t pay more than US$250/CAN$255 above what you would have paid in low season.
Flights from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa
The closest entry point into China from Australia and New Zealand is Hong Kong, though from Australia it’s also possible to fly direct to Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing. It’s not a problem to fly elsewhere in China from either country if you catch a connecting flight along the way, though this can involve a long layover in the airline’s hub city.
From eastern Australia, some of the cheapest fares to Hong Kong (Aus$800–1050) are with Cathay Pacific, China Airlines, EVA Airlines or Singapore Airlines; to Shanghai (Aus$1000–1200) with Royal Brunei, Singapore or Japan Airlines (JAL); to Guangzhou (Aus$1050–1200) with Singapore, Malaysia Airlines, JAL and Air China; and to Beijing (Aus$1000–1200) with Singapore, JAL, Malaysia or China Eastern. Cathay, Qantas, Air China and China Eastern fly direct; other trips require a stopover in the airline’s hub city. From Perth, fares to the above destinations are Aus$100 or so more expensive.
Flights from New Zealand are limited; the only direct flights are the Air New Zealand routes from Auckland to Shanghai and Hong Kong, which cost around NZ$1600–2000, and the Air Singapore, Air New Zealand, and Malaysia Airlines flight to Hong Kong (around NZ$1800).
From South Africa, South African Airlines have direct flights to Hong Kong (14hr), which will cost around US$2500/ZAR17,000 in high season.
If China is only one stop on a much longer journey, you might want to consider buying a Round-the-World (RTW) ticket (around £1000/US$1800). Some travel agents can sell you an “off-the-shelf” RTW ticket that will have you touching down in about half a dozen cities (Hong Kong is on many itineraries); others will have to assemble one for you, which can be tailored to your needs but is apt to be more expensive.
Airlines, agents and operators
When booking airfares, the cheapest online deals are often with stock operators such as STA, Trailfinders and Flight Centres, though it’s always worth checking airline websites themselves for specials – and, often, a lot more flexibility with refunds and changing dates.
There are some bargains to be had on auction sites, too, if you’re prepared to bid keenly – but you usually only find out exact departure times, routes and the like after you’ve won, so you’ll need to be flexible. For advice and recommended auction sites, try whttp://www.cheapflightsfinder.com.
Absolute Asia US t 1-800/736-8187, w http://www.absoluteasia.com. Numerous tours of China lasting from between 6 and 16 days, in first-class accommodation, such as the 16-day “Silk Road” tour.
Adventure Center US t 1-800/228-8747 or t 510/654-1879, w http://www.adventure-center.com. Dozens of tours in China and Tibet, from a week-long whizz around the highlights to a month of walking, hiking and biking expeditions.
Adventures Abroad US t 1-800/665-3998 or t 360/775-9926, w http://www.adventures-abroad.com. Small-group specialists with tours through China and Mongolia.
Asian Pacific Adventures US t 1-800/825-1680 or t 818/886-5190, w http://www.asianpacificadventures.com. Numerous tours of China, focusing on southwestern ethnic groups and often-overlooked rural corners.
Backroads US t 1-800/GO-ACTIVE or t 510/527-1555, w http://www.backroads.com. Cycling and hiking between Beijing and Hong Kong.
Birdfinders UK t 01258/839066, w http://www.birdfinders.co.uk. Several trips per year to find rare and endemic species in mainland China and Tibet.
China Holidays UK t 020/74872999, w http://www.chinaholidays.co.uk. Aside from mainstream packages to the Three Gorges, Shanghai and Guilin, they also run a “Taste of China” gastronomic tour sampling food between Beijing and Hong Kong.
CTS Horizons UK t 020/7836 9911, w http://www.ctshorizons.com. The China Travel Service’s UK branch, offering an extensive range of tours including some cheap off-season hotel-and-flight packages to Beijing, and tailor-made private tours.
Exodus UK t 020/8675 5550, w http://www.exodus.co.uk. Offers some interesting and unusual overland itineraries in the wilds of Tibet, Inner Mongolia and the Northwest.
Explore Worldwide UK t 01252/760 000, w http://www.explore.co.uk. Big range of small-group tours and treks, including Tibet tours and trips along the Yangzi. Some supplements for single travellers.
Geographic Expeditions US t 1-800/777-8183 or t 415/922-0448, w http://www.geoex.com. Travel among the ethnic groups of Guizhou, Tibet, Yunnan and western Sichuan as well as more straightforward trips around Shanghai and Beijing.
Intrepid Travel UK t 020/8960 6333, Australia t 1300/360 667 or t 03/9473 2626; w http://www.intrepidtravel.com. Small-group tours with the emphasis on cross-cultural contact and low-impact tourism; visits some fairly out-of-the-way corners of China.
Imaginative Traveller UK t 020/8742 8612, w http://www.imaginative-traveller.com. An emphasis on the unusual, with cycling tours, a panda trek in Sichuan and a Kunming–Kathmandu overland trip.
Mir Corp US t 206/624-7289, w http://www.mircorp.com. Specialists in Trans-Siberian rail travel, for small groups as well as individual travellers.
Mountain Travel Sobek US t 1-888/MTSOBEK or t 510/687-6235, w http://www.mtsobek.com. Adventure tours to Tibet, northern Yunnan and along the Silk Road.
North South Travel UK t 01245/608 291, w http://www.northsouthtravel.co.uk. Friendly, competitive travel agency, offering discounted fares worldwide, including to Beijing. Profits are used to support projects in the developing world, especially the promotion of sustainable tourism.
On the Go Tours UK t 020/7371 1113, w http://www.onthegotours.com. Runs group and tailor-made tours to China and other destinations.
Pacific Delight Tours US t 1-800/221-7179 or t 212/818-1781, w http://www.pacificdelighttours.com. City breaks, cruises along the Li and Yangzi rivers, plus a range of tours to Tibet, the Silk Road and western Yunnan.
Regent Holidays UK t 0117/921 1711, w http://www.regent-holidays.co.uk. Offers interesting Trans-Siberian packages for individual travellers in either direction and with different possible stopover permutations.
REI Adventures US t 1-800/622-2236, w http://www.rei.com/travel. Cycling and hiking tours throughout China.
The Russia Experience UK t 020/8566 8846, w http://www.trans-siberian.co.uk. Besides detailing their Trans-Siberian packages, their website is a veritable mine of information about the railway.
STA Travel UK t 0871/2300 040, US t 1-800/781-4040, Australia t 134 782, New Zealand t 0800/474 400, South Africa t 0861/781 781; w http://www.statravel.co.uk. Worldwide specialists in independent travel; also student IDs, travel insurance, car rental, rail passes, and more. Good discounts for students and under-26s. China options include tours from 8 to 21 days in length, covering Beijing, Shanghai and the Yangzi and Li rivers, among others.
Sundowners Australia t 03/9672 5300, w http://www.sundownersoverland.com. Tours of the Silk Road, plus Trans-Siberian rail bookings.
Trailfinders UK t 0845/058 5858, Ireland t 01/677 7888, Australia t 1300/780 212; w http://www.trailfinders.com. One of the best-informed and most efficient agents for independent travellers. Numerous China options on offer.
Travel CUTS Canada t 1-866/246-9762, US t 1-800/592-2887; w http://www.travelcuts.com. Canadian youth and student travel firm.
Travel Indochina Australia t 1300/138 755, w http://www.travelindochina.com.au. Covers the obvious China sights but goes a bit beyond them, too; also arranges cross-border visas for Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.
Wild China US t 888/902-8808. w http://www.wildchina.com. Small group tours to out-of-the-way places, such as minority villages in Guizhou and Yunnan, as well as hiking after pandas in Sichuan.
World Expeditions UK t 020/8870 2600, w http://www.worldexpeditions.co.uk; Australia t 1300/720 000, w http://www.worldexpeditions.com.au; New Zealand t 0800/350 354, w http://www.worldexpeditions.co.nz. Offers cycling and hiking tours in rural areas, including a Great Wall trek.
China has a number of land borders open to foreign travellers. When planning your trip, remember that Chinese visas must be used within three months of their date of issue, and so you may have to apply for one en route. Visas are obtainable in the capitals of virtually all European and Asian countries, and are likely to take several days to be issued (for embassy addresses). Note that most nationalities can fly to Hong Kong without a visa, and easily pick one up there.
Via Russia and Mongolia
One of the classic overland routes to China is through Russia on the so-called Trans-Siberian Express. As a one-off trip, the rail journey is a memorable way to begin or end a stay in China; views of stately birch forests, misty lakes and arid plateaus help time pass much faster than you’d think, and there are frequent stops during which you can wander the station platform, purchasing food and knick-knacks – packages include more lengthy stopovers. The trains are comfortable and clean: second-class compartments contain four berths, while first-class have two and even boast a private shower.
There are actually two rail lines from Moscow to Beijing: the Trans-Manchurian, which runs almost as far as the Sea of Japan before turning south through Dongbei (Manchuria) to Beijing; and the Trans-Mongolian, which cuts through Mongolia from Siberia. The Manchurian train takes about six days, the Mongolian train about five. The latter is more popular with foreigners, Trans-Mongolian Chinese Train #4 being the preferred service – a scenic route that rumbles past Lake Baikal and Siberia, the grasslands of Mongolia, and the desert of northwest China, skirting the Great Wall along the way. At the Mongolia/China border, you can watch as the undercarriage is switched to a different gauge. The one drawback of this route is that you will need an additional visa for Mongolia.
Meals are included while the train is in China. In Mongolia, the dining car accepts payment in both Chinese and Mongolian currency; while in Russia, US dollars or Russian roubles can be used. It’s worth having small denominations of US dollars as you can change these on the train throughout the journey, or use them to buy food from station vendors along the way – though experiencing the cuisine and people in the dining cars is part of the fun. Bring instant noodles and snacks as a backup and that great long novel you’ve always wanted to read.
Booking tickets needs some advance planning, especially during the popular summer months. Sorting out travel arrangements from abroad is also complex – you’ll need transit visas for Russia, as well as for Mongolia if you intend to pass through there, and if you plan on reaching or leaving Moscow by rail via Warsaw, you’ll have to get a transit visa for Belarus, too. It’s therefore advisable to use an experienced travel agent who can organize all tickets, visas and stopovers if required, in advance. Visa processing is an especially helpful time saver, given the queues and paperwork required for visas along the route.
You can cut complications and keep your costs down by using the online ticket booking system offered by Real Russia (w http://www.realrussia.co.uk); they mark up prices about 20 percent but do save you a lot of hassle. A second-class Moscow to Beijing ticket booked with them costs around £550 – they will then help you sort out your visas for a small fee (as will all other agencies). They also offer tours: a nine-day tour, including a couple of night’s accommodation in Moscow, costs £900 per person, a little less if you book as a group. Another agency offering a wide range of inexpensive tours is Monkey Business (w http://www.monkeyshrine.com); a Moscow to Beijing trip, including a couple of nights in a youth hostel, costs around £600 in standard class. Note that tours with Russian agencies offer good value for money; try All Russia Travel Service (w http://www.rusrailtravel.ru) or Ost West (w http://www.ostwest.com). Tailor-made tours from Western companies will be much more expensive, but offer the minimum hassle: the Russia Experience (w http://www.trans-siberian.co.uk) has a good reputation. For details of companies at home which can sort out Trans-Siberian travel, check the lists of specialist travel agents. Finally, for detailed, up-to-date information on all ways to get tickets, check w http://www.seat61.com/trans-siberian.htm.
Via the Central Asian republics
From Russia, you can also theoretically reach China through several Central Asian countries, though the obstacles can occasionally be insurmountable; contact the in-country agents listed below, or Trans-Siberian operators listed earlier in this section, for up-to-date practicalities.
The main cities of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – Almaty and Bishkek – are both still linked by daily trains to Moscow (3 days), though getting Russian transit visas and booking berths on these trains is not easy. Kyrgyzstan-based Asia Silk Travel (w http://www.centralasiatravel.com) or Kyrgyz Concept (w concept.kg/eng) are good sources of background information, including visa requirements, and can make bookings. It is also possible to get into Central Asia via Turkmenistan, and thence to the rest of Central Asia, via northeastern Iran or from Azerbaijan across the Caspian Sea, thus bypassing Russia completely. Ayan Travel (w http://www.ayan-travel.com), based in the Turkmenistan capital, Ashgabat, are the people to contact for this stage of the journey.
Once in the region, crossing into China from Kazakhstan is straightforward – there are comfortable twice-weekly trains from Almaty to Ürümqi, which take 35 hours and cost about US$80 for a berth in a four-berth compartment. There are also cheaper, faster, less comfortable buses (US$60; about 24hr). From Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, Kashgar in the northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang is only eleven hours’ drive away (about US$55), and the two cities are linked by buses in summer months. Foreigners, however, have had difficulties in trying to use these and have usually had to resort to expensive private transport, run by local tour operators, to help them across (see Central Asian travel connections). You may well be expected to bribe the border guards US$20 or so.
From Pakistan and Nepal
The routes across the Himalayas to China are among the toughest in Asia. The first is from Pakistan into Xinjiang province over the Karakoram Highway, along one of the branches of the ancient Silk Road. This requires no pre-planning, except for the fact that it is open only from May to October, and closes periodically due to landslides. Check your government’s travel advice as the area is home to some fundamentalist militants and attacks on Westerners have occurred; at the time of writing it was regarded as very dangerous. The Karakoram Highway actually starts at Rawalpindi (the old city outside the capital Islamabad), and in theory you can get from here to Kashgar in four days on public buses. From Rawalpindi, first take one of the daily minibuses that run the arduous fifteen-hour trip up the Indus gorge to the village of Gilgit, where you’ll have to spend a night. From Gilgit, the next destination is the border town of Sust, a five-hour journey. There are a couple of daily buses on this route. Once in Sust, immediately book your ticket to Kashgar for the next morning – it costs 1450 rupees (about US$35). A few travellers have managed to talk their way into being issued a visa at the border, but you’re strongly advised to have one already. The route is popular with cyclists, but there’s no guarantee that you will be allowed to bike across the border; you’ll probably have to load your bike on a bus for this part of the trip. For more on crossing the Chinese border here.
Another popular route is from Nepal into Tibet, but Nepal’s political situation can be volatile, and you should check your government’s travel advice on the latest situation – practical details are covered For more information, see Getting there. It’s advisable to arrive in Nepal with a Chinese visa already in your passport, as the Chinese Embassy in Nepal often does not issue visas at all and at the best of times will only issue group visas. The Tibetan border is closed to travellers during politically sensitive times, for example after the riots in 2010.
From India there are, for political reasons, no border crossings to China. For years, authorities have discussed opening a bus route from Sikkim to Tibet, north from Darjeeling, but despite both sides working on the road, the border remains closed.
Vietnam has three border crossings with China – Dong Dang, 60km northeast of Hanoi; Lao Cai, 150km northwest; and the little-used Mong Cai, 200km south of Nanning. All three are open daily between 8.30am and 5pm. Officious Chinese customs officials at these crossings occasionally confiscate guidebooks, including this one (see Chinese embassies and consulates); bury it at the bottom of your bag.
A direct train service from Hanoi is advertised as running all the way to Beijing (60hr), passing through Nanning and Guilin. In practice, though, you’ll probably have to change trains in Nanning. Similarly, there are daily trains from Hanoi to Lao Cai, eleven hours’ away in Vietnam’s mountainous and undeveloped northwest (near the pleasant resort of Sa Pa), from where you can cross into Yunnan province at Hekou, and catch regular buses to Kunming. From Mong Cai, there are also regular buses to Nanning.
From Laos and Burma (Myanmar)
Crossing into China from Laos also lands you in Yunnan, this time at Bian Mao Zhan in the Xishuangbanna region. Formalities are very relaxed and unlikely to cause any problems, though take some hard cash as you can’t change travellers’ cheques on the Chinese side. It’s 220km on local buses north from here to the regional capital, Jinghong. Alternatively there are also direct daily buses between Luang Namtha in Laos and Jinghong (8hr).
Entering China from Burma (Myanmar) is a possibility, too, with the old Burma Road cutting northeast from Rangoon (Yangon) to Lashio and the crossing at Wanding in Yunnan, just south of Ruili. At present, this border is open only to groups travelling with a tour agency, which will sort out all the necessary paperwork in Yangon. Be aware that border regulations here are subject to change.