China is a huge country, so unless you enjoy spending a couple of days on the train or on the road getting from one area to another, you should definitely consider domestic flights. China has many domestic flights connecting all the major cities and tourist destinations. Airlines include the three international carriers: Air China, China Southern, and China Eastern, as well as regional ones including Hainan Airlines, Shenzhen Airlines, Sichuan Airlines and Shanghai Airlines. In recent years, it has been popular for large cities and provinces to open their own (dubiously funded) airline. These include Chongqing Airlines, Chengdu Airline and Hebei Airlines, amongst others. The parent company behind Hainan Airlines has spawned some 13 airlines in the region, including Grand China Air, Yangtse Express, Hong Kong Airlines and Deer Jet.
Flights between Hong Kong or Macau and mainland cities are considered to be international flights and so can be quite expensive. Hence if arriving in, or departing from, Hong Kong or Macau, it is usually much cheaper to fly to or from Shenzhen or Zhuhai, just across the border, or Guangzhou, which is a little further afield but offers flights to more destinations. As an example, the distance from Fuzhou to Hong Kong, Shenzhen or Guangzhou is about the same, but as of mid-2005 flying to Hong Kong cost ¥1400 while list price for the other cities was ¥880 and for Shenzhen discounts to ¥550 were available. Overnight bus to any of these destinations was about ¥250.
Prices for domestic flights are set at standard rates, but discounts are common, especially on the busier routes. Most good hotels, and many hostels, will have a travel ticket service and may be able to save you 15%-70% off the price of tickets. Travel agencies and booking offices are plentiful in all Chinese cities and offer similar discounts. Even before considering discounts, traveling by plane in China is not expensive. Two big online agencies Elong and Ctrip have portals in English, and can process foreign credit cards. They offer prices marginally higher than via the official airline websites, although often the airline websites are only in Chinese, or require a Chinese mobile number to book.
For travel within China, it is usually best to buy tickets in China via a high street travel agent, or on Chinese websites. Most domestic flights when bought abroad (e.g. on Expedia or even via an Air China office) will be much more expensive, as only full fare tickets are sold. Discounted tickets are only sold within China, or as a tag on fare on an international ticket. Schedules for domestic flights are generally not finalised or released until around 2-3 months before a flight. Unlike most air markets, early buyers will pay higher rates, as discounts tend to increase with time. For most flights, the optimum purchase period is between 2-4 weeks before a flight. On emptier flights, it can be easy to get a very discounted rate in the days before the flight. Once you know your intended route, it’s advisable to monitor the fares to see when they rise and fall (which they will almost definitely do). However, when travelling during a busy period (e.g. Chinese New Year), it’s wise to buy earlier to guarantee yourself a seat. Some more expensive tickets are flexible, allowing you to cancel for a nominal amount (between 5%-20%), then rebook at a lower fare. Recently, discounts have been made available in premium cabins on domestic flights. On some routes, the buy-up from economy is very minimal, and is worth it for the extra space. Beware, however, than often perks of the ground (e.g. lounge, extra luggage, points) are not included on the discount rates.
Be prepared for unexplained flight delays as these are common despite pressure from both the government and consumers. For short distances, consider other, seemingly slower options. Flight cancellations are also not uncommon. If you buy your ticket from a Chinese vendor they will likely try to contact you (if you left contact information) to let you know about the change in flight plan. If you purchased your ticket overseas, be certain to check on the flight status a day or two before you plan to fly. Chinese airlines are generally quick to offer meals when a particular flight has been delayed, although the meals/snacks might not be suited to Western tastes. It’s always advisable to travel with emergency rations in China. water cannot be brought through security, but all Chinese airports have hot water machines, so bring a plastic mug and some tea bags.
As everywhere in the world, prices for food and drink at Chinese airports are vastly inflated. Coffee that is ¥25 in a downtown shop is ¥78 at the same chain's airport branches. KFC seems to be the one exception; their many airport shops charge the same prices as other branches. Paying ¥20 or more for a KFC meal may or may not be worthwhile when there are ¥5 noodles across the street, but at the airports it is usually the best deal around.
Train travel is the major mode of long-distance transportation for the Chinese themselves. Their extensive, and rapidly expanding, network of routes covers the entire country. Roughly a quarter of the world's total rail traffic is in China.
China is in the process of building a network of high-speed trains, similar to French TGV or Japanese Shinkansen bullet trains. These trains are already in service on several routes. They are called CRH and train numbers have a "G", "C" or "D" prefix. If your route and budget allow, these are much the best way to get around.
Chinese trains are split into different categories designated by letters and numbers indicated on the ticket. A guide to the hierarchy of Chinese trains from fastest to slowest are as follows:
On the regular non-CRH trains there are five classes of travel:
The soft seat and soft sleeper cars, and some of hard seat and hard sleeper cars are air-conditioned.
The CRH trains have usually five classes - second class (3+2 seat layout), first class (2+2 layout) and three VIP classes (2+1 layout just behind the driver's cabin). There are three different VIP classes, named "商务座" (business class), "观光座" (sightseeing class) and "特等座" (deluxe class). Unlike on airliners, 商务座 (business class) is in fact better than "一等座" (first class) on CRH trains. 商务座 (business class) and 观光座 (sightseeing class) priced the same, while 特等座 is usually more expensive than "一等座" (first class), but cheaper than 商务座 and 观光座.
At the point where a given train starts, train tickets can usually be bought up to seven days in advance. After the point where a given train starts, a small number of tickets might be reserved for purchase in larger towns along the route of travel. Usually these are the "standing" class. If you want to get a seat assignment (zuowei) or a sleeper (wopu), then find the train conductor and he will tell you if there is availability. The biggest demand is for hard seats and hard sleepers, so it' is a good idea to ask a local friend to buy hard seat tickets as the sellers are not always willing to sell them to foreigners although this is rapidly changing. As of January 2012, nationals and foreigners alike must present ID in order to purchase a ticket (e.g., national ID card or passport). The purchaser's name is printed onto the ticket and each individual is required to be present, with ID, to pick-up their ticket.
There are local state railway ticket agencies in many locations remote from train stations, clearly marked "Booking Office for Train Tickets" in English and Chinese and a locomotive emblem, but easily overlooked as these are simple "hole in the wall" shops. They are equipped with computers networked with the central booking system. Tickets purchased at these types of locations can be bought up to 10 days in advance at face value prices which can be half of what commercial travel agencies charge. Staff usually does not speak English.
Do not expect English-speaking staff at station cash desks either, even in big cities. And if the cashier finds some English-speaking colleague, don't expect that he can work with the reservation system. If you don't speak Mandarin, write the departure and destination station, date and time of departure, train number and required class on paper. You can write the station name in pinyin, as the cashier enters them in the same way to the reservation system. Beware that many cities have different stations for normal trains and high-speed trains. High-speed station names usually consist of city name and cardinal direction (for example Héngyángdōng "Hengyang East")
During busy seasons (Chinese New Year, for example) tickets sell out rapidly at train stations. It may be better to get tickets in advance through an agent. In major cities there are also agents who sell tickets in the normal time frame with a nominal markup. The convenience of avoiding a trip to the train station and waiting in the queue is well worth the small increase in cost. Travel agencies will accept money and bookings for tickets in advance but no one can guarantee your ticket until the station releases them onto the market, at which point your agency will go and buy the ticket they had previously "guaranteed" you. This is true anywhere in China.
The toilets on trains tend to be a little more "usable" than on buses or most public areas because they are simple devices that empty the contents directly onto the track and thus don't smell as bad. Soft sleeper cars usually have European throne-style toilets at one end of the car and Chinese squat toilets at the other. Be aware that on non-CRH trains if the train will be stopping at a station, the conductor will normally lock the bathrooms prior to arrival so that people will not leave deposits on the ground at the station.
Long distance trains will have a buffet or dining car, which serves hot, but generally overpriced, at ¥25 or so and frankly not very tasty, food. The menu will be entirely in Chinese, but if you're willing to take the chance, interpret some of the Chinese characters, or ask for common dishes by name, you can eat very well. If you are on a strict budget, wait until the train stops at a station. There are normally vendors on the platform who sell noodles, snacks, and fruit at better prices. Trains generally have boiled water available so bring tea, soups and instant noodles to make your own food.
Be careful with your valuables while on the train; property theft on public transportation has gone up in recent years.
On most higher-level trains (T, K, Z and CRH trains) pre-recorded announcements are made in Chinese, English and occasionally Cantonese (if the train serves Guangdong province or Hong Kong), Mongolian (in Inner Mongolia), Tibetan (in Tibet) or Uyghur (in Xinjiang). On local trains there are no English announcements so knowing when to get off can be harder.
Motion sickness pills are recommended if you are inclined toward that type of ailment. Ear plugs are recommended to facilitate uninterrupted sleep. In sleeper cars, tickets are exchanged for cards on long distance trains. The cabin attendants return the original tickets when the train approaches the destination station thus ensuring everyone gets off where they should even if they can't wake themselves up.
If you have some things to share on the train, you'll have fun. The Chinese families and business people traveling the route are just as bored as the next person and will be happy to attempt conversation or share a movie shown on a laptop. All in all, the opportunity to see the countryside going by is a neat experience.
You'll need your ticket to enter and exit the station - usually there will be an inspection at the departure hall entrance or the boarding gate and another at the exit gate. Once in the departure hall, follow the digital indicator boards to find the right boarding gate (they are in Chinese but will display the train service number which is printed at the top of your ticket). Approx 10 minutes before boarding your train and platform will be announced and the gate will be opened, just follow the crowd to the platform - at larger stations the train will already be waiting, in smaller stations look for your car number written on the platform edge - make sure you're waiting in the right place because often the train will only stop for a couple of minutes. Some newer stations have high-level platforms that are level with the door, but at smaller stations the platforms are very low and you have to ascend several steep steps to board the train so be prepared if you have a large suitcase. Generally passengers are friendly and will offer to help you with bulky luggage.
Smoking is not permitted in the seating or sleeping areas but is allowed in the vestibules at the end of each car. On the new CRH trains, the Guangzhou-Kowloon shuttle train and the Beijing Suburban Railway smoking is completely forbidden. Smoking is banned inside station buildings apart from in designated smoking rooms, although these places are often unpleasant and poorly ventilated.
Travelling by public city buses (公共汽车 gōnggòngqìchē) or long distance buses (长途汽车 chángtúqìchē) is inexpensive and ideal for in-city and short distances transportation.
City buses vary from city to city - generally expect plastic seats, many people, no English signs and unhelpful drivers. However, if you can understand the bus routes then they are cheap and go almost everywhere. Buses will normally have recorded announcements telling you the next stop - examples of which might include 'xia yi zhan - zhong shan lu' (next stop Zhongshan Road) or 'Shanghai nan huo che zhan dao le' (Shanghai South railway station - now arriving). Some major cities such as Beijing or Hangzhou will have English announcements on some major routes. Fares are usually about 1 or 2 yuan (the former for older buses with no air-conditioning, the latter for air-conditioned modern buses) or more if travelling into the suburbs. Most buses simply have a metal cash-box next to the entrance where you can insert your fare (no change - save up those 1 yuan coins and notes) or on longer routes a conductor that will collect fares and issue tickets and change. Note that the driver usually prioritises speed over comfort so hold on tight.
Sleeper buses are common in China; instead of seats they have bunk beds. These are a good way to cover longer distances - overnight at freeway speeds is 100 km or more - but they are not all that comfortable for large or tall travelers.
Generally, these are fast smooth and comfortable in the prosperous coastal provinces and less so in less developed areas. Try to avoid getting the bunk at the very back of the bus; if the bus hits a major bump, passengers there become airborne.
At some places you have to remove your shoes as you enter the bus; a plastic bag is provided to store them. Follow the locals. If there are food or restroom stops, you put the shoes back on. If you normally travel in boots, it is worth getting a pair of kung fu slippers to make this easy.
Coaches, or long-distance buses, differ drastically and can be a reasonably comfortable or very unpleasant experience. Coaches originating from larger cities on the east coast tend to be air conditioned with soft seats or sleepers. The roads are very good and the ride is smooth, allowing you to enjoy the view or take a snooze. Coaches are often a better, though more expensive option than trains. Bus personnel tend to try to be helpful, but they are much less familiar with foreigners than airline personnel and English ability is very rare. Some coaches have toilets, but they are frequently dirty and using them can be difficult as the bus turns a corner and water in the basin splashes around.
A coach or bus in rural China is a different experience altogether. Signs in the station to identify buses will only be in Chinese or another local language, routes may also be posted or pasted on bus windows and drivers or touts will shout their destinations as you pass, the coach's license plate number is supposed to be printed on the ticket, but all too often that is inaccurate. Due to different manners and customs, foreigners may find bus personnel to be lacking in politeness and other passengers lacking in manners as they spit on the floor and out the window and smoke. The vehicle can get crowded if the driver decides to pick up as many passengers as he can cram into the bus. The roads in rural China are frequently little more than a series of potholes, which makes for a bumpy and painful ride; if you have a seat in the back of the bus you'll spend much of your trip flying through the air. Scheduled times of departure and arrival are only rough estimates, as many buses won't leave until every seat is sold, which can add hours, and breakdowns and other mishaps can significantly extend your trip. The misery of your ride is only compounded if you have to travel for 10 or 20 hours straight. As gut-wrenching as all this sounds, short of shelling out the cash for your own personal transport, rural coaches are the only forms of transportation in many areas of China. On the bright side, such rural coaches are usually more than willing to stop anywhere along the route should you wish to visit more remote areas without direct transport. Buses can also be flagged down at most points along their route. The ticket price the rest of the way is negotiable.
Everywhere in China drivers often disregard the rules of the road, if there are any, and accidents are frequent. Sudden swerves and stops can cause injury, so keep a good hold wherever possible. Horn honking is widespread among Chinese drivers, so a set of earplugs is a good idea if you plan on sleeping during the trip.
Getting a ticket can be fairly hard. Large bus stations have ticket counters who sell printed tickets displaying the departure time, boarding gate and license plate number of your bus (not always accurate) and have fixed prices. Smaller bus stations will have touts shouting destinations and will direct you to your bus where you pay on board. Even large stations have touts outside - generally they will call the bus driver of a departing bus, who will wait up the road while the tout takes you there on the back of a motorcycle to the waiting bus - you can then negotiate the fare with the driver. This is sometimes a complete scam and sometimes you can save around 30% of the fare - depending on your bargaining and Chinese abilities.
There is an alternative now with an Independent Travel Network that has been created by a western company. Dragon Bus China now operates an Integrated transport and accommodation network across most of China. The Network is a “Jump On & Off” style of travel which means that you can stay longer at any of the Cities that they travel through and be assured that another bus will be coming through that same City for you or you travel partners to board. This travel option has been operating for more than 25 years throughout Europe and is an extremely popular form of independent travel within New Zealand, Australia and Canada. Traveling by this method could greatly reduce the hassle of traveling by public buses and greatly increase the safety aspect.
Major cities - at least Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Wuhan, Shenyang, Xian, Chengdu and Nanjing - have a subway (地铁 dìtiě) system. Chongqing has monorail systems. Xiamen has a system of bus-only roads, mostly elevated. Generally these are modern, clean and efficient. The signs and ticket machines are in both English and Chinese.
Most of these systems are being expanded, and new lines are under construction (as of early 2009) in other cities such as Hangzhou, Xi'an and Chengdu. The long-term plans are quite ambitious, with multiple subway lines per city planned. By 2020 or so China seems likely to have some of the world's most extensive urban transport infrastructure. Subway systems which link into regional rail systems such as between Guangzhou and Shenzhen are planned in many regions.
Taxis (出租车 chūzūchē or 的士 dishì, pronounced "deg-see" in Cantonese-speaking areas) are generally common, and reasonably priced. Flagfalls range from ¥5 in some cities to ¥12 in others, with a per kilometer charge around ¥2. In most situations, you can expect between ¥10 and ¥50 for an ordinary trip within the city. There is no extra charge for luggage, but in many cities rates are a bit higher at night. Tips are not expected.
While it is not unheard of for drivers to cheat visitors by deliberately selecting a longer route, it is not that common, and usually shouldn't be a nuisance. When it does happen, the fare difference will usually be minimal. However, should you feel you have been seriously cheated on the way to your hotel, and you are staying at a mid- or high-range hotel that has a doorman, you can appeal to him and/or the desk staff for assistance: A single sharp sentence pointing out the deception may resolve the issue.
Also beware of taxi hawkers who stalk naive travelers inside or just outside the airport terminals and train stations. They will try to negotiate a set price to bring you to your destination and will usually charge 2x or 3x more than a metered fare. If you’re not familiar with the area then stick with the designated taxi areas that are outside most major airport terminals and insist that the driver use the meter. The fare should be plainly marked outside the taxi.
Finding a taxi during peak hours can be a bit hard. But it really gets tough if it is raining. Away from peak hours, especially at night, it is sometimes possible to get a 10% to 20% discount especially if you negotiate it in advance, even if with the meter on and asking for a receipt. As with everything else in China you should not tip. (It's seen as a form of corruption.)
Sitting in the front passenger seat of taxis is acceptable; some taxis even mount the taxi meter down by the gearbox, where you can only see it from the front seat. Be warned that drivers may start smoking without asking by just opening their window and lighting up. In some cities it is also common for drivers to try and pick up multiple passengers if their destinations are in the same general direction. Each passenger pays full fare but it saves the time of waiting for an empty cab at rush hour.
Even in major cities like Shanghai or Beijing, you are very unlikely to find an English-speaking taxi driver, though Beijing made progress toward this in preparation for the Olympics, and Shanghai has made some progress due to the World Expo. Anywhere else it is basically impossible. If you try say the name of your destination in Mandarin (but with your native pronunciation), you may not be understood. Therefore, it is advisable to keep a written note of the name of place where you want to go to by taxi. Chinese characters are far better for this than a romanized (pinyin) version, as many drivers cannot read pinyin, and the same pinyin may correspond to different characters. Get business cards for your hotel, and for restaurants you like, to show taxi drivers. It will be a good idea to equip yourself with sound tracked guide to conversation in Chinese. Such tools can be easily found on the Internet in different languages.
If you are in China for any length of time, consider getting a cell phone so you can call Chinese friends and let them tell the driver where to take you. Cellphones are inexpensive, and pay-as-you-go GSM SIM cards are readily available.
In some cities, taxi companies use a star-rating system for drivers, ranging from 0 to 5, displayed on the driver's name-plate, on the dashboard in front of the passenger seat. While no or few stars do not necessarily indicate a bad driver, many stars tend to indicate good knowledge of the city, and willingness to take you to where you ask by the shortest way. Another indicator of the driver's ability can be found on the same name-plate - the driver's ID number. A small number tells you he has been around for a long time, and is likely to know the city very well. A quick tip to get a taxi driver's attention if you feel you are being ripped off or cheated: Get out the car and start writing down his license plate number and if you speak some Chinese (or have a good phrasebook) threaten to report the driver to the city or the taxi company. Most drivers are honest and fares are not very high but there are the bad ones out there who will try to use your lack of Chinese skills to their advantage.
Chinese can sometimes be very assertive when it comes to finding a taxi. The person who flags down a particular car is not necessarily entitled to that ride. Having locals move farther up in traffic to intercept cars or being shoved out of the way while trying to enter a taxi is not unheard of. If there are others in the area competing for rides, be ready to reach your car and enter it as soon as possible after flagging it down.
Wear your seat belt at all times (if you can find it) however much the taxi driver insists you don't need it.
Above ground, certain cities like Dalian or Changchun, offer transport via tram. Making more frequent stops than light-rail, they may offer a practical way of getting around if the touring city possesses one. Single-cart trolleys may also be in use. Both modes are susceptible to traffic jams.
Bicycles (zìxíngchē, 自行车), along with electronic bikes and motorcycle, are the most common form of transportation in China; at rush hour almost anywhere in China there will be thousands of them. Many are traditional heavy single-speed roadsters, but basic multi-geared mountain bikes are pretty common as well. For travelers, bicycles can be a cheap, convenient means of transport that is better than being squeezed into a public bus for hours on end.
There are two major dangers for cyclists in China:
In most tourist areas - whether major cities like Beijing or heavily-touristed villages such as Yangshuo - bicycles are easy to rent and there is a repair shop around every corner. Guided bike tours are also readily available.
Buying a bicycle is easy. Dahon, Merianda and Giant are three most popular brands in amatuer and semi-professional market and all cities have their distributors. Many supermarkets also carry a good stock of bikes. Prices vary from as little as ¥150 to over ¥10000. For a reasonably well-equipped mountain bike for riding to areas like Tibet, expect around ¥3000-¥4500 for a bike. Big cities like Shanghai and Beijing usually stock more professional upmarket bikes, but if you have very specific requirements, Hong Kong is still the last hope for buying them.
Bicycle repair shops are frequent apparently anywhere in cities and rural areas; Non-Chinese speaking tourists might find it a bit difficult, but you can just look for bikes and tires. For a quick fix to a sudden flat tire, there are also many people standing by along the road with a bowl of water and a repair kit ready. For special parts like disc brake, you may want to bring your spare one if you are not using them in big cities.
China is a vast country and it provides professional bikers with challenges to bike across mountains and desert. However, as of May 2010, if foreign tourists want to bike across Tibetan Plateau, you are required by law to obtain a permit and hire a tour guide.
The PRC generally does not recognize International Driving Permits and does not permit foreigners to drive in China without a Chinese license. Note that Hong Kong and Macau licenses are also considered to be foreign and having one of them will not allow you to drive in the mainland. This supposedly changed in 2007 and short-term driving without a Chinese license became legal. However, as with many laws in China, official changes and changes in practice do not necessarily correspond; as of December 2008 it is still illegal for foreigners to drive without a Chinese license. Unless you have diplomatic status, importing foreign vehicles is nearly impossible.
Rented cars most often come with a driver, similar to the remises of South America; this is probably the best way to travel in China by car. Driving yourself around China, even if you can read and speak basic Chinese and are able to qualify for a local license, is not recommended unless you are accustomed to extremely chaotic driving conditions. Driving in China's cities is not for the faint-hearted, and parking spaces are often very difficult to find. That said, driving in China is still easier than driving in Vietnam and other developing countries in Asia. Traffic moves on the right in mainland China. Many neighbors, such as India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan as well as the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau have traffic that moves on the left.
English directional signs are ubiquitous in Beijing, Shanghai and other major cities which see many Western tourists. However, they are spotty at best in other cities and virtually non-existent in the countryside. As such, it is always a good idea to have your destination written in Chinese before you set off so that locals can point you in the right direction should you get lost.
Foreigners should really avoid driving outside of major cities. "One Way" signs usually mean "mostly but not always one way". Expect someone who misses an exit ramp on a freeway to slow down just before the upcoming entry ramp and make a 270° turn to engage on that ramp. Expect drivers to take creative shortcuts at traffic circles.
As a pedestrian ALWAYS look both ways every time you cross any street. Not only may a bicycle come along traveling in the wrong direction, so may increasingly popular electric motorbike -- and they are silent.
Motorcycle taxis are common, especially in smaller cities and rural areas. They are usually cheap and effective but somewhat scary. The fares are negotiable.
Regulations for riding a motorcycle vary from city to city. In some cases, 50cc mopeds can be ridden without a driving license although many cities have now banned them or reclassified them due to numerous accidents. Riding a 'proper' motorcycle is much harder - partly because you'll need a Chinese license, partly because they are banned in many cities and partly because production and importing have slowed with the focus on automobiles and electric scooters. The typical Chinese motorcycle is 125cc, can do about 100km/h and is a traditional cruiser style. They are gnerally slow, mundane to ride and have little sporting potential. Government restrictions on engine size mean that sports bikes are rare but can still be found. Another popular choice is a 125cc automatic 'maxi' scooter based loosely on the Honda CN250 - it's a bit quicker than a moped and more comfortable over long distances but has the benefit of automatic transmission which makes negotiating stop-start urban traffic much easier.
Most cities will have a motorcycle market of some description and will often sell you a cheap motorcycle often with fake or illegal license plates - although a foreigner on a motorbike is a rare sight and it will grab the police's attention. Helmets are essential on 'proper' bikes but optional on scooters. Technically you'll need a license plate - they are yellow or blue on a motorcycle or green on a scooter and can cost several thousand RMB to register the bike yourself although fake plates are easily available at a lower price - do so at your own risk.
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