The first thing to do upon arrival at any Chinese destination is to buy a map for ¥3 to ¥5. Even though few of these are bilingual, and many are inaccurate, they're useful for navigation. Your hotel staff can mark on them where you want to go, and you can show the characters to the taxi driver or bus conductor. Although building numbers are given in this guide, they're of little use for directions. Everyone navigates by street names and landmarks.
As Chinese businesses and individuals have more disposable income, air travel is becoming increasingly popular. To this end, China plans to build nearly 100 new airports by 2020 costing an estimated $64 billion. Even now, it is possible to fly to most of the destinations in this book, or if not, to take a flight to within a few hours' drive. However, this isn't good for the environment, and where possible you should try and use the efficient and extensive rail network.
Booking domestic flights before you arrive in China is advisable if you will be traveling during peak season, or have limited time; however, on most routes there is generally an oversupply of flights and booking a ticket a few days before your journey is easily arranged. If you do choose to book tickets before you travel there are a number of good online booking sites, the best of which is www.9588.com, which often has discounts of up to 50%.
While you can buy tickets between any two destinations served by Air China at any Air China office, you'll usually get a much better price from agents in the town from which you plan to depart. Prices are always better from agents than from the airline, even if they are next door to each other, and you can and should bargain for a lower price, and shop around. No agent with an online terminal connected to the Chinese domestic aviation system charges a booking fee. Agents sitting in four- and five-star hotels will not offer you the discounts they could, however. You need to look out in the street away from your hotel. You usually cannot get a refund on an unused ticket from anywhere except the agent where you bought it. Note that heading to or from the mainland Hong Kong and Macau are treated as international flights, with prices to match.
The train is still the best way to travel in China for many reasons. Railway journeys tend to be more scenic than endless highways, trains are more comfortable than even the best buses, and they also afford you the chance to wander around on longer journeys. Train stations tend to be located much closer to city centers than airports, and you also avoid the tedious airport waits. On sleeper services it is possible to avoid the cost of a hotel night, while still being able to spread out and relax. Do not underestimate the advantage of being able to lie down as you travel. No matter how long the journeys are, I have never seen a fellow passenger suffer from motion sickness, an affliction that is altogether too common on buses.
Though in backwater areas, slow trains can be primitive, intercity trains are usually air-conditioned and mostly kept very clean. There are 200kmph (125-mph) trains between Shenzhen and Guangzhou, 300kmph (188-mph) trains and tilting trains using British technology under trial; the world's highest line runs to Lhasa; and the world's first commercial maglev (magnetic levitation) line speeds from Shanghai to Pudong airport.
Seat Classes -- Given China's size, most intercity services are overnight (or sometimes over 2 nights), so sleeper accommodations are the most common. The best choice is soft sleeper (ruan wo), consisting of four beds in a lockable compartment, the two upper berths slightly cheaper than the lower ones. Berths have individual reading lights and a volume control for the PA system. Modern trains (including all Lhasa trains) have individual TVs for each berth. Hard sleeper (yiing wo) has couchettes, separated into groups of six by partitions, but open to the corridor. Berths are provided in columns of three and are cheaper as they get farther from the floor. The top berth has very little headroom and can be uncomfortably cramped for foreigners, although it offers the most privacy. While the bottom berth is the most spacious, it also becomes public seating for the middle and upper berths during daylight hours. Lights go off at about 10pm and on again at 6am. Thermoses of boiled water are in each compartment and group of berths, refilled either by the attendants or by you from a boiler at the end of each car. Bring your own cup or get one of the clear plastic tea flasks that many Chinese carry and are widely available in supermarkets. Bed linens are provided in both classes.
More modern trains have a mixture of Western (usually at the end of the soft sleeper carriage) and Chinese squat toilets. Washbasins are found at the end of each carriage, and except on the highest-quality trains, there's cold water only (and this may sometimes run out). A tiny handful of trains have deluxe soft sleeper (gaoji ruan wo), with two berths in a compartment (Kowloon-Shanghai and Kowloon-Beijing, for instance), and in the case of some trains on the Beijing-to-Shanghai run, these compartments have private bathrooms.
Almost all trains also have a hard seat class (yiing zuo), which on many major routes is now far from hard, although not the way to spend the night. Soft seat (ruan zuo) appears on daytime expresses only, is less crowded, and is now often in two-deck form, giving excellent views.
Types of Trains -- Where possible, choose a train with a C, D, Z, or T prefix. C and D trains are new, high-speed intercity services with all the latest amenities. Z (zhida) trains are the next level down, but still fast and very comfortable, while T (tekuaai) are the expresses, and still come with high levels of accommodations and service. Staff in all of these classes may be uniformed and coiffed like flight attendants, willing and helpful. K trains (kuaaisu -- "quick speed") are more common, and nearly as good. Occasionally Y trains (luyou, services for tourists) and L trains (linshi, temporary additional services, particularly at Spring Festival), can be found. The remaining services with no letter prefixes vary widely in quality across the country, from accommodations as good as that on K trains but at slower speeds, to doddering rolling stock on winding, out-of-the-way lines and with cockroaches and mice for company (no extra charge).
Timetables -- A national railway timetable can be found for sale at stations in larger cities, updated twice a year, and some regional bureaus produce their own, or smaller summaries of the most important trains. All are in Chinese only, and most are so poorly organized that they are initially incomprehensible even to most Chinese. Rail enthusiast Duncan Peattie produces an annual English translation of the October edition of the national timetable. At $20 for the PDF format (or $40 for an A4), it is a very useful addition to the reference selection of independent travelers. Download it from www.chinatt.org.
Timetables for a particular station are posted in its ticket office, and can be read by comparing the characters for a destination given in this book with what's on the wall. The best trains between selected locations are also given in this book, but be aware that train numbers (and times) are subject to change.
Tickets -- Rail ticket prices are fixed by a complicated formula involving a tiny sum per kilometer, and supplements for air-conditioning, speed, and higher classes of berth (soft sleepers are typically a third more expensive than hard sleepers). Prices, samples of which are given throughout this book, are not open to negotiation. In my experience, hard sleeper berths are quite acceptable for short overnight trips of 12 hours or so. For longer journeys of 24 hours or more, I usually spend the extra for a soft sleeper.
Ticket offices always have a separate entrance from the main railway station entrance. In a few larger cities, there are separate offices for VIPs and foreign guests, or just for booking sleepers. Payment is only in cash. Depending on the route, bookings can be made between 10 days and 2 days in advance.
Most seats on an individual train are sold at its point of departure, with only limited allocations kept for intermediate stops depending on their size and importance. Thus your best choice of train is generally one that is setting off from where you are. With the exception of public holidays, tickets are seldom difficult to obtain, but you may not get the exact train, class or berth you want. If you can only obtain a hard sleeper (or seat) ticket but want a soft sleeper, you can attempt to upgrade on the train. A desk for this purpose is in the middle of the train.
The simplest way to book tickets is via a travel agent. The few with terminals accessing the railway system charge ¥5 commission. Most others charge around ¥30 to ¥50, which should include delivery to your hotel. Agents within hotels often try to charge more. It's best to give agents a choice of trains and berth. You pay upfront, but the exact ticket price, printed clearly on the ticket, will depend on the train and berth obtained. Advance booking from overseas is possible through CITS and some other agents at large markups, and so are not advised. Contact your local China National Tourist Office to find agents if you must. In Hong Kong, China Travel Service sells tickets for the expresses from Kowloon to Guangzhou, Beijing, and Shanghai with no commission, and tickets for a selection of trains between other Chinese cities for a reasonable markup. Never use online agents, either Hong Kong or mainland based, as they charge up to 70% more than they should.
You'll need your ticket to get to the platform, which will only open a few minutes before the train's arrival (if you buy a soft sleeper ticket, you may be able to use the VIP guii bin waiting room, but some stations now charge to enter these facilities, regardless of the ticket you have). On the train, the attendant will swap your ticket for a token with your berth number. Shortly before arrival, she will return to re-exchange it (you never miss your stop in China). Keep the ticket ready, as it will be checked again as you leave the station.
Refreshments -- Attendants push carts with soft drinks, beer, mineral water, and instant-noodle packages through all classes at regular intervals. Separate carts bring through kuaai can (fast food) in cardboard boxes. This is usually dreadful, and costs ¥15. Licensed carts on platforms often sell freshly cooked local dishes, which are slightly better, and they also offer fresh fruit in season. All overnight trains have dining cars, but the food is usually overpriced and not that tasty. It's best to bring a supply of what pleases you, bought in convenience stores, supermarkets, and bakeries.
Comfort & Safety -- Berths aren't that big (approximately .6m wide by 2m long/2 ft. wide by 6 ft. 4 in. long), but they are reasonably comfortable (particularly soft sleeper). However, while some people (notably Chinese snorers) find the gentle (and sometimes not so gentle) motion of the train sends them to sleep, others struggle to get a decent night's rest. Earplugs are a good idea, although sleeping pills may be the only solution for insomniacs.
In the hundreds of overnight Chinese rail journeys I've made, I have never had anything stolen. Take sensible precautions as you would anywhere, and keep vital items (passport/money, and so on) close to you, but there is certainly no need for paranoia.
China's highway system, nonexistent 20 years ago, is growing rapidly, and journey times by road between many cities have been dramatically cut to the point where on some routes, buses are now faster than trains. Although most buses are fairly battered, in some areas they offer a remarkable level of luxury -- particularly on the east coast, where there are the funds to pay for a higher quality of travel. Some buses even have on-board toilets (although they may not work) and free bottled water.
Many bus stations now offer a variety of services. At the top end are kongtiao (air-conditioned) gaosu (high-speed, usually meaning that toll expressways are used) haohua (luxury) buses, on which smoking is usually forbidden and that rule is largely enforced, at least in urban areas. These tickets are usually easy to obtain at the bus station, and prices are clearly displayed and written on the ticket. There are no extra charges for baggage, which in smaller and older buses is typically piled up on the cover over the engine next to the driver. It's worth booking a day ahead to get a seat at the front, which may have more legroom and better views.
Buses usually depart punctually, pause at a checking station where the number of passengers is compared with the number of tickets sold in advance, then dither while empty seats are filled with groups waiting at the roadside who bargain for a lower fare.
While both bus and train travel afford the chance to meet locals, one of the biggest frustrations of taking the bus is often the other passengers. Many of the rural population are unused to travel and get sick very quickly. Although sick bags are provided, people still tend to puke on the floor, or down their trouser leg or lean across you so that they can vomit out of the window. Some coach companies have started handing out complimentary travel sickness pills, but rather than reassure you this will probably mean that this particular trip is going to be a long and unpleasant one.
Sleeper buses, although cheaper, should generally be avoided when an overnight train is an alternative. Usually they have three rows of two-tier berths, which are extremely narrow and do not recline fully.
Transport can vary widely in quality in rural and remoter areas, but it is often dirty and decrepit, and may be shared with livestock.
By Car (Taxi)
While foreign residents of China go through the necessary paperwork, with the exception of one rental operation at Beijing's Capital Airport, self-drive for foreign visitors is not possible, and without previous experience, the no-holds-barred driving style of China is nothing you want to tackle. Renting a vehicle is nevertheless commonplace, but it comes with a driver. Hong Kong and Macau are so small that there's simply no point in renting a car and facing navigational and parking difficulties, when plentiful, well-regulated taxis are available.
All larger mainland hotels have transport departments, but book a vehicle from a five-star Beijing hotel to take you to the Eastern Qing Tombs, for instance, and you may be asked for ¥1,200. Walk outside and flag down a taxi (not those waiting outside), and you can achieve the same thing for a quarter of the price. Branches of CITS and other travel agencies will also be happy to arrange cars for you, but at a hugely marked-up price.
Despite the language barrier, bargaining with taxi drivers is more straightforward than you might expect. Most areas have far more taxis than there is business, and half- and full-day hires are very welcome. Start flagging down cabs the day before you want to travel, and negotiate an all-in price, using characters written down for you by your hotel receptionist (times, pickup point, and other details), and a pen and paper (or calculator) to bargain prices. Avoid giving an exact kilometer distance, since if you overrun it (and with China's poor road signage and the drivers' lack of experience outside their own town centers, you may well get lost), there will be attempts to renegotiate. For the same reason, it's best to avoid being precise to the minute about a return time, but note that especially in big cities drivers sometimes have to be back in time to hand the car to the man who will drive it through the night. Be prepared to pay road tolls, and ensure that the driver gets lunch. If you find a driver who is pleasant and helpful, take his mobile phone number and employ him on subsequent days and for any airport trips.
10 Rules for Taking Taxis around Town
1. Never go with a driver who approaches you at an airport. Leave the building and head for the stand. As they are everywhere else in the world, airport taxis are the most likely to cause trouble, but drivers who approach you are usually hei che -- illegal and meterless "black cabs."
2. Cabs waiting for business outside major tourist sights, especially those with drivers who call out to foreigners, should generally be avoided, as should cabs whose drivers ask you where you want to go even before you get in. Always flag down a passing cab, and 9 times in 10 the precautions listed here will be unnecessary.
3. If you're staying in an upmarket hotel, do not go with taxis called by the doorman or waiting in line outside. Even at some famous hotels, drivers pay kickbacks to the doormen to allow them to join the line on the forecourt. Some cabs are merely waiting because many guests, Chinese and foreign alike, will be out-of-town people who can be easily misled. Instead, just walk out of the hotel and flag down a passing cab for yourself. Take the hotel's business card to show to a taxi driver when you want to get back.
4. Better hotels give you a piece of paper with the taxi registration number on it as you board or alight, so that you can complain if something goes wrong or retrieve items mistakenly left in the cab.
5. Look to see if the supervision card, usually with a photo of the driver and a telephone number, is prominently displayed. If it isn't, you may have problems and you should choose another cab.
6. Can you clearly see the meter? If it's recessed behind the gear stick, partly hidden by the artfully folded face cloth on top, choose another cab.
7. Always make sure you see the meter reset. If you didn't actually see the flag pushed down, which shouldn't happen until you actually move off, then you may end up paying for the time the cab was in the line.
8. If you are by yourself, sit in the front seat. Have a map with you and look as if you know where you are going (even if you don't).
9. Rates per kilometer are usually clearly posted on the side of the cab. They vary widely from place to place, as well as by vehicle type. Flagfall, not usually more than ¥10, includes a few kilometers; then the standard kilometer rate begins. But in most towns, after a few more kilometers, the rate jumps by 50% if the driver has pushed a button on the front of the meter. This is for one-way trips out of town, and the button usually should not be pushed, but it often is.
10. Pay what's on the meter, and don't tip -- the driver will insist on giving change (although in some cities they will round up or down to the nearest yuan). Always ask for a receipt. Should you leave something in a cab, there's a remarkably high success rate at getting even valuable items back if the number on the receipt is called, and the details on it provided.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.