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 here assume midweek travel.
You can fly direct from London Heathrow to Beijing (10hr) with Air China or British Airways; to Hong Kong (12hr) with British Airways, Cathay Pacific or Virgin Atlantic; or to Shanghai with British Airways, China Eastern or Virgin Atlantic. Other airlines flying via a change of planes in a hub city include Aeroflot, Air France, KLM, Qatar, Singapore 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, Hong Kong or Shanghai start from around £450 in low season, rising to above £800 in high season. You may pay less with airlines such Aeroflot and Qatar if you’re prepared to transit.
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 13hr to reach Beijing from the West Coast; add 7hr 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; these include Air Canada’s routes from Toronto, Air China’s from New York, United’s from Chicago and Continental’s flights from Newark to Beijing.
Round-trip fares to Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai are broadly comparable: in low season, expect to pay US$850–1200 from the West Coast (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Vancouver), or US$1100–1400 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 above what you would have paid in low season.
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, expect to pay from AU$800–1050 to Hong Kong with Cathay Pacific, China Airlines, EVA Airlines or Singapore Airlines; AU$1000–1200 to Shanghai with Royal Brunei, Singapore or Japan Airlines; and AU$1000–1200 to Beijing 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 AU$100 or so more expensive. But the best deals by far are with Jetstar, who fly from Perth or Melbourne to Hong Kong and Hangzhou, via Singapore; one-way fares start at just over AU$300.
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$1700–2000, and the Air Singapore, Air New Zealand and Malaysia Airlines flights to Hong Kong (around NZ$1800). Cheaper are the Jetstar flights from Auckland and Christchurch to Beijing, Hong Kong and Hangzhou, all via Singapore; one-way fares start at NZ$550.
From South Africa, South African Airlines have direct flights to Beijing (14hr) and more to Hong Kong (14hr), both costing ZAR10,000–18,000.
If China is only one stop on a much longer journey, you might want to consider buying a Round-the-World (RTW) ticket (from 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 (Beijing and Hong Kong are 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.
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.
Bamboo Trails bambootrails.com. A small travel company specializing in the Chinese world, offering some unique group itineraries (including Movie China and The Bamboo Trail), as well as high-end, tailor-made trips.
Bike Asia bikeasia.com. Guided bicycle tours ranging from day-long pedals around rural Guangxi to two-week epic rides across Southwestern China.
Intrepid Travel 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.
North South Travel 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.
STA Travel 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.
Trailfinders trailfinders.com. One of the best-informed and most efficient agents for independent travellers. Numerous China options on offer.
Wild China wildchina.com. Small group tours to out-of-the-way places, such as minority villages in Guizhou, as well as Tibet tours and tracking pandas in Sichuan.
World Expeditions UK worldexpeditions.co.uk; Australia worldexpeditions.com.au; New Zealand 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. Remember that Chinese visas must be used within three months of their date of issue, meaning that on a longer trip, 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 (see embassy addresses). Note that most nationalities can easily pick up a Chinese visa in Hong Kong, though these are now attracting various restrictions.
One of the classic overland routes to China is through Russia by rail to Beijing. 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, 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.
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, as well as 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 a visa for Russia, as well as for Mongolia if you intend to pass through there. 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 (realrussia.co.uk); they mark up prices by about 20 percent but 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 9-day tour, including a couple of nights’ 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 Shrine (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 (rusrailtravel.ru) or Ost West (ostwest.com). Tailor-made tours from Western companies will be much more expensive, but offer the minimum hassle: the Russia Experience (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.
You can reach China through several Central Asian countries, though the obstacles reaching them can occasionally be insurmountable; contact the in-country agents, or Trans-Siberian operators listed earlier in this section, for up-to-date practicalities. Once in the region, crossing into China from Kazakhstan is straightforward – there are comfortable weekly trains from Almaty (Mon) and Astana (Tues) to Ürümqi, which take two nights and cost about US$225 for a berth in a four-berth compartment. From Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, Kashgar in the northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang is an 11hr drive away, 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 To Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan). You may well be expected to bribe the border guards (a bottle of spirit will often suffice).
The routes across the Himalayas to China are among the toughest in Asia. The first is from Pakistan into Xinjiang province via 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 May–October, and closes periodically due to landslides; at the time of writing, however, most Western governments were advising against travel to Pakistan, thanks to fundamentalist militants and attacks on Westerners.
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. 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 8.30am–5pm. Officious Chinese customs officials at these crossings occasionally confiscate guidebooks, including this one; 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. Alternatively, there are daily trains from Hanoi to Lao Cai, 11hr away in Vietnam’s mountainous and undeveloped northwest (near the pleasant minority hill-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.
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 it’s prudent to take some hard cash along with you. 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), and Luang Prabang to Kunming (24hr).
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 Ruili in Yunnan. 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.
There are a number of ferry routes linking China with Korea and Japan. Those from Korea take one night, and all depart from Incheon, a coastal city connected to Seoul by subway train; services to Tanggu, near Tianjin, land you closest to Beijing, though there are other useful services to Dalian, Dandong, Qingdao and Yantai. Trips take 16–24hr, services usually run two times a week, and fares and standards are similar across the board; the cheapest tickets (KRW110,000) will get you a berth in a common room (though often closed off with a curtain, and therefore surprisingly private), while paying a little more (from KRW150,000) will get you a bed in a private, en-suite room (at lower classes, you may have to share with other travellers).
From Japan, there are regular ferries from Fukuoka to Busan (2hr from Seoul by high-speed train), or you can take direct ferries from Osaka or Kobe to Shanghai, and Fukuoka or Shimonoseki to Qingdao. All trips take two nights and leave once or twice per week, though standards are actually a little lower than those on Korean ferries; the cheapest tickets (¥1300) will buy you space on an often-crowded tatami floor, though for a little more (from ¥1600) you’ll have a bed in a (sometimes shared) room.
Beijing’s International Train Booking Office (Mon–Fri 8.30am–noon & 1.30–5pm; t 010 6512 0507) is at the International Hotel, 9 Jianguomenwai Dajie. Here you can buy tickets to Moscow and Ulaan Baatar with the minimum of fuss. BTG Travel have a desk for Trans-Siberian tickets that charges about the same. You can also buy tickets at the Foreigners’ Ticket Booking Office in Beijing train station though they aren’t much good on visa advice. Out of season, few people make the journey (you may get a cabin to yourself), but in summer there may well not be a seat for weeks.
Getting visas for Russia and/or Mongolia in China can be tricky, since regulations change all the time; it’s always best (and, sometimes, essential) to organize them in your own country. If you want to apply in Beijing, check first whether it will be possible; you may need to show proof of inward and onward travel, and possibly hotel bookings and an official invitation too. See Beijing embassy websites and seat61.com for the latest advice. It’s a lot easier, but a lot more expensive, to book a tour; see agents and operators for a few recommended organizations.
Chinese train #3, which follows the Trans-Mongolian route, leaves every Wednesday from Beijing station and takes five-and-a-half days. A bunk in a 2nd-class cabin with four beds – which is perfectly comfortable – costs around US$690. Trains leave Moscow for Beijing every Tuesday, though in this direction you’ll likely have to buy tickets through an agency.
Russian train #19, which follows the Trans-Siberian route, leaves every Saturday from Beijing station and takes six days. A Mongolian train leaves for Ulaan Baatur every Tuesday and costs around US$200 for one bed in a four-bed berth.
See companies offering Trans-Siberian tours and packages; of course they’ll cost more than doing it yourself, but it’ll save a world of hassle.