China’s public transport is comprehensive and good value: you can fly to all regional capitals and many cities, the rail network extends to every region, and you can reach China’s remotest corners on local buses. Tibet is the one area where there are widespread restrictions on independent travel.
However, getting around such a large, crowded country requires planning, patience and stamina. This is especially true for long-distance journeys, where you’ll find that travelling in as much comfort as you can afford saves a lot of undue stress. Tours are one way of taking the pressure off, and may be the only practical way of getting out to certain sights. China is also not the easiest country in which to travel independently: families and older travellers might prefer to book a tour with one of the agents.
Public holidays – especially the May, October and Spring Festival breaks – are rotten times to travel, as half of China is on the move between family and workplace: ticket prices rise (legally by no more than 15 percent, though often by up to double), bus- and train-station crowds swell insanely, and even flights become scarce.
China’s rail network is vast, efficient and reliable. The country invests billions of yuan annually on the network, considering a healthy transport infrastructure as essential to economic growth – and political cohesion. Recent years have seen some impressive developments: a rail line over the mountains between eastern China and Tibet completed in 2005; the country’s first ultra-fast bullet trains, which began operation in eastern China in 2007; and an expanding web of high-speed networks between major cities.
Food, though expensive and ordinary, is always available on trains, either from trolleys serving snacks and polystyrene boxes of rice and stir-fries or in a dedicated restaurant car. You can also buy snacks from vendors at train stations during the longer station stops.
It’s easiest to check train schedules online; travelchinaguide.com/china-trains is one good, and usually up-to-date, source of information.
Tickets – always one-way – show the date of travel and destination, along with the train number, carriage, and seat or berth number. They become available up to twenty days in advance, though it can be as little as four. Station ticket offices are all computerized, and while queues can tie you up for an hour or more of jostling, you’ll generally get what you’re after if you have some flexibility – note that you’ll need to show your passport when booking tickets. At the counter, state your destination, the train number if possible, the day you’d like to travel, and the class you want, and have some alternatives handy. If you can’t speak Chinese, get someone to write things down for you before setting out, as staff rarely speak English.
In all cities, you’ll also find downtown advance purchase offices, where you pay a small commission (¥5/ticket); it makes sense to try these places first, as train stations – especially for high-speed services – are often located far from city centres. Agents, such as hotel travel services, can also book tickets for a commission of ¥30 or more each. The best way to book tickets online, and have them delivered to your hotel door in major Chinese cities, is through travelchinaguide.com; you’ll pay a surcharge of about 25 percent for this.
If you’ve bought a ticket but decide not to travel, you can get most of the fare refunded by returning the ticket to a ticket office. The process is called tuipiao (退票, tuìpiào), and there’s usually a dedicated window for this at stations.
The different types of train each have their own code on timetables. Swanky high-speed services (C-, D- and G-class), which travel up to 350km/h, now link many cities in the east of the country, and often travel from dedicated high-speed stations. The trains are kept in excellent condition, with surprisingly clean Western-style toilets, reclining seats, and a decent enough amount of legroom.
High-speed routes are supplemented by, and others are still reliant upon, regular Z-, T- and K-class trains, which can still reach 150–200km/h. These all have modern fittings with text tickers at the carriages’ end scrolling through the temperature, arrival time at next station and speed. Toilets are usually Western-style in soft sleeper carriages, and squat elsewhere; the latter can be truly disgusting.
Ordinary trains (普通车, pŭtōng chē) have a number only and range from those with clean carriages and able to top 100km/h, to ancient plodders destined for the scrapheap with cigarette-burned linoleum floors and grimy windows. A few busy, short-haul express services, such as the Shenzhen–Guangzhou train, have double-decker carriages.
No-smoking rules are vigorously enforced on high-speed trains, though on slower services it’s still common to see passengers puffing away between carriages.
On high-speed services there are two seat classes, the only real difference between them being a two-two seat arrangement in first, compared to the three-two arrangement in second.
On regular trains, there are four ticket classes: soft sleeper, hard sleeper, soft seat and hard seat, not all necessarily available on each train. Soft sleeper (软卧, ruănwò) costs around the same as flying, and gets you a berth in a four-person compartment with a soft mattress, fan and optional radio. Hard sleeper (硬卧, yìngwò), about two-thirds the price of soft sleeper, is the best value. Carriages are divided into twenty sets of three-tiered bunks; the lowest bunk is the largest, but costs more and gets used as communal seating during the day; the upper bunk is cheapest but headroom is minimal. Each set of six bunks has its own vacuum flask of boiled water (topped up from the urn at the end of each carriage) – bring your own mugs and tea. There are fairly spacious luggage racks, though make sure you chain your bags securely while you sleep.
In either sleeper class, on boarding the carriage you will have your ticket exchanged for a metal tag by the attendant. The tag is swapped back for your ticket (so you’ll be able to get through the barrier at the station) about half an hour before you arrive at your destination, whatever hour of the day or night this happens to be.
Soft seat (软座, ruănzuò) is widespread on services whose complete route takes less than a day. Seats cost around the same as express-bus fare, have plenty of legroom and are well padded. More common is hard seat (硬座, yìngzuò), which costs around half the soft-seat fare but is only recommended for relatively short journeys, as you’ll be sitting on a padded three-person bench, with every available bit of floor space crammed with travellers who were unable to book a seat. You’ll often be the focus of intense and unabashed speculation from peasants and labourers who can’t afford to travel in better style.
Finally, if there’s nothing else available, you can buy an unreserved ticket (无座, wúzuò; literally “no seat”), which lets you board the hard-seat section of the train – though you might have to stand for the entire journey if you can’t upgrade on board.
Turn up at the station with at least 30min to spare before your train leaves. You’ll need to show your passport and ticket to be allowed into the station; all luggage is then x-rayed to check for dangerous goods such as firecrackers. You next need to work out which platform your train leaves from – most stations have electronic departure boards in Chinese (high-speed stations have dual-language boards), or you can show your ticket to station staff who will point you in the right direction. Passengers are not allowed onto the platform until the train is almost in, which can result in some mighty stampedes out of the crowded waiting rooms when the gates open. Carriages are numbered on the outside, and your ticket is checked by a guard as you board. Once on the train, you can upgrade any ticket at the controller’s booth, in the hard-seat carriage next to the restaurant car (usually #8), where you can sign up for beds or seats as they become available.
Buses go everywhere that trains go, and well beyond, usually more frequently but more slowly. Finding the departure point isn’t always easy though; even small hamlets can have multiple bus stations, generally located on the side of town in which traffic is heading.
Bus station timetables – except electronic ones – can be ignored; ask station staff about schedules and frequencies, though they generally can’t speak English. Tickets are easy to buy: ticket offices at main stations are computerized, queues are seldom bad, and – with the exception of backroad routes, which might only run every other day – you don’t need to book in advance. In country towns, you sometimes buy tickets on board the bus. Destinations are always displayed in Chinese characters on the front of the vehicle. Take some food along, although buses usually pull up at inexpensive roadhouses at mealtimes. Only the most upmarket coaches have toilets; drivers stop every few hours or if asked to do so by passengers (roadhouse toilets are some of the worst in the country, however).
Downsides to bus travel include drivers who spend the journey chatting on their mobile phone or coast downhill in neutral, with the engine off; and the fact that vehicles are obliged to use the horn before overtaking anything – earplugs are recommended. Roadworks are a near-certainty too, as highways are continually being repaired, upgraded or replaced; in 2010, a 100km-long jam on the Tibet–Beijing highway, blamed on roadworks, took nine days to clear.
There are various types of buses, though there’s not always a choice available for particular routes, and, if there is, station staff will assume that as a foreigner you’ll want the fastest, most comfortable and most expensive service.
Ordinary buses (普通车, pŭtōng chē) are cheap and basic, with lightly padded seats; they’re never heated or air-conditioned, so dress accordingly. Seats can be cramped and luggage racks tiny; you’ll have to put anything bulkier than a satchel on the roof or your lap, or beside the driver. They tend to stop off frequently, so don’t count on an average speed of more than 30km/h.
Express buses (快车, kuài chē) are the most expensive and have good legroom, comfy seats that may well recline, air-conditioning and video. Bulky luggage gets locked away in the belly of the bus, a fairly safe option.
Sleeper buses (卧铺车, wòpù chē) have cramped, basic bunks instead of seats, minimal luggage space and a poor safety record, and are not recommended if there is any alternative.
The final option is minibuses (小车, xiăochē; or 包车, bāochē) seating up to twenty people, common on routes of less than 100km or so. They cost a little more than the same journey by ordinary bus, can be extremely cramped, and often circuit the departure point for ages until they have filled up.
China’s airlines link all major cities, and services are becoming more and more regular. The main operators are Air China (www.airchina.com.cn), China Southern (cs-air.com), China Eastern (www.ce-air.com) and Hainan Airlines (hainanairlines.com); along with smaller regional companies they are overseen by the Civil Aviation Administration of China, or CAAC. Flying is a luxury worth considering for long distances, especially since prices can actually be lower than soft-sleeper train travel; planes are modern and well maintained and service is good.
Buying tickets from local airline offices or hotel desk tour agents is easy, and there are enough flights along popular routes to cope with demand. Agents often give substantial discounts on advertised fares, especially if you book a day or two in advance. Competitive fares are available if you buy e-tickets online at elong.net or english.ctrip.com. You’ll need to provide a phone number to confirm the booking (your hotel’s will do), and to book more than 24 hours in advance if using an overseas credit card.
Fares are based on one-way travel (so a return ticket is the price of two one-way tickets) and include all taxes. As an illustration, from Beijing, expect to pay at least ¥740 to Xi’an; ¥900 to Shanghai; ¥1120 to Chengdu; ¥1230 to Shenzhen; ¥1000 to Kunming; ¥1440 to Ürümqi, and ¥2100 to Hong Kong.
There are usually buses running to and from the airport; check the individual city entries in this Guide. Check-in time for all flights is 90min before departure.
Though there are few public ferries in China, you can make one of the world’s great river journeys down the Yangzi between Chongqing and Yichang, via the mighty Three Gorges – though the spectacle has been lessened by the construction of the giant Three Gorges Dam. Another favourite is the day-cruise down the Li River between Guilin and Yangshuo in southwestern Guangxi province, past a forest of pointy pinnacles looking just like a Chinese scroll painting. By sea, there are passenger ferries between Hong Kong and Macau, and between Guangxi and Hainan Island.
Conditions on board are greatly variable, but on overnight trips there’s always a choice of classes – sometimes as many as six – which can range from a bamboo mat on the floor right through to private cabins. Don’t expect anything too impressive, however; many mainland services are cramped and overcrowded, and cabins, even in first-class, are grimly functional.
China has the highest number of bicycles (自行车, zìxíngchē) of any country in the world, with about a quarter of the population owning one, despite a rising trend towards mopeds, motorbikes and cars. Few cities have any hills and some have bike lanes, though many of the bigger cities are in the process of banning bicycles from main roads in order to free them up for cars.
Rental shops or booths are common around train stations, where you can rent a set of wheels for ¥10–20 a day. You will need to leave a deposit (¥200–400) and/or some form of ID, and you’re fully responsible for anything that happens to the bike while it’s in your care, so check brakes, tyre pressure and gears before renting. Most rentals are bog-standard black rattletraps – the really deluxe models feature working bells and brakes. There are repair shops all over the place should you need a tyre patched or a chain fixed up (¥10–30). If the bike sustains any serious damage, it’s up to the parties involved to sort out responsibility and payment on the spot. Always use a bicycle chain or lock – they’re available everywhere – and in cities, leave your vehicle in one of the ubiquitous designated parking areas, where it will be guarded by an attendant for a small fee.
An alternative to renting is to buy a bike, a sensible option if you’re going to be based anywhere for a while. All department stores sell them: a heavy, unsophisticated machine will only set you back about ¥350, whereas a mountain bike will be upwards of ¥600. A folding bike (around ¥450) is a great idea, as you can cycle around all day and, when you’re tired, put it in the boot of a taxi; plus, you can take it from one destination to another on the bus. You can also bring your own bike into China; international airlines usually insist that the front wheel is removed, deflated and strapped to the back, and that everything is thoroughly packaged. Inside China, airlines, trains and ferries all charge to carry bikes, and the ticketing and accompanying paperwork can be baffling. Another option is to see China on a specialized bike tour such as those offered by Bike China (bikechina.com), Bike Asia (bikeasia.com) or Cycle China (cyclechina.com).
Local tour operators, who are listed throughout the Guide, offer excursions ranging from city coach tours to river cruises and multiday cross-country hikes or horse treks. While you always pay for the privilege, sometimes these tours are good value: travel, accommodation and food – usually plentiful and excellent – are generally included, as might be the services of an interpreter and guide. And in some cases, tours are virtually the only way to see something really worthwhile, saving endless bother organizing local transport and accommodation. In general, foreign-owned operations tend to give better service – or at least to understand better what Westerners want when they take a tour.
On the downside, there are disreputable operators who’ll blatantly overcharge for mediocre services, foist unhelpful guides on you and spend three days on what could better be done in an afternoon. Bear in mind that many Chinese tour guides are badly paid, and supplement their income by taking tourists to souvenir shops where they’ll receive commissions. It always pays to make exhaustive enquiries about the exact nature of the tour, such as exactly what the price includes and the departure/return times, before handing any money over.
All Chinese cities have some form of public transit system. An increasing number have (or are building) light-rail systems and underground metros; elsewhere, the city bus is the transport focus. These are cheap and run from 6am–10pm or later, but (Hong Kong’s apart) they’re usually slow and crowded. Pricier private minibuses often run the same routes in similar comfort but at greater speed; they’re either numbered or have their destination written up at the front.
Taxis are always available in larger towns and cities; main roads, transit points and tourist hotels are good places to find them. They cost a fixed rate of ¥5–13 within certain limits, and then add from ¥1 per kilometre. You’ll also find (motorized or cycle-) rickshaws in touristy areas, whose highly erratic rates are set by bargaining beforehand.