China can be fascinating, surprising and quite easy to travel but there are a few things I learnt the hard way during my trip so today I would like to share a few tips on getting around this beautiful country. Hopefully, you’ll avoid the problems I faced.
First of all, there are a lot of transportation options, namely:
- Flights – available between major cities, very convenient, quite expensive,
- High-speed trains – fewer cities are connected via high-speed trains than by flights but this number is rapidly growing,
- Regular trains – a lot of connections are available, quite convenient too. Much cheaper.
- Buses – least convenient but sometimes there simply is no other option.
- Taxis – good to travel around cities, usually very cheap.
Below, I’ll provide some description and tips for each of those options.
Flights are, of course, the most convenient and fastest way of travelling in China but they can be quite expensive compared to other options.
Another problem I encountered is how frequently flight schedules are being changed. Out of my 4 planned flights, 2 were cancelled (with no other flight option so I had to switch to a train) and 2 were changed by a few hours (one of them by more than 6!). One of the flights was, in fact, changed several times – initially from 21:00 to 18:00 but finally it was rescheduled for 22:30. What’s more, delays are pretty common in China so bear that in mind too – we spent about 3 hours waiting for the plane to take off and from what I’ve read it’s quite common.
Such things made planning a little more difficult.
High-speed, or bullet, trains are another very convenient travel option, and quite affordable too especially compared to flights.
Unfortunately, the trains I had travelled by weren’t as high-standard as high-speed trains in other countries – there was very little leg space and there wasn’t even electricity, not to mention WiFi. A good thing about high-speed trains was that there were some messages in English, eg. mentioning next station.
There aren’t that many connections yet but the high-speed network is rapidly growing so in the next few years I expect it to become a great alternative to flying. Also, a lot of major tourist cities are already connected (like Beijing <-> Shanghai, or Beijing <-> Xi’An).
Also, note that high-speed trains usually arrive to and depart from a different station than regular trains do.
Regular trains might still be quite comfortable (especially if you decide to buy a ticket on a sleeper car on longer trips) but usually, they are several times slower than a high-speed train. For instance, travel from Xi’An to Chengdu took me more than 16 hours by regular train. High-speed train that will be available on that route very very soon will take just 3 hours…
On regular trains there are usually no messages in English, so be prepared to ask train staff when and where you should get off the train. Also, most of the stations don’t have a name written in English.
Getting on a train
What’s quite curious is how you actually enter the train. It’s a lengthy process, let me tell you.
First, you need to go through security check to enter the station. Then you need to find right waiting room (usually this information is displayed in Chinese only) – quite often at this stage your documents will be checked again. As each waiting room is assigned to several platforms you need to find correct platform and then some time before your train departs to check in (documents will be checked again) and finally you can enter the train. Now, this might seem easy on paper but sometimes it can get really complicated especially on very large stations (like one in Beijing) and might also take a lot of time as each security check generates queues. So you usually need to arrive at the train station much earlier than you would do in Europe or US.
Definitely the least convenient but sometimes the only option.
Schedules aren’t very reliable – none of the long-haul buses I took arrived at its destination on time. But most other countries are no different in this regard.
Also, it happened to me twice that the bus finished its trip at a different station that it was supposed to (what caused some problems as it was the middle of nowhere). I’m not sure why but other foreign tourists were as confused as I was.
Finally, make sure to have your destination written in Chinese – buses don’t display destination name in English so you will need Chinese destination to be able to verify you’re entering the correct bus.
Unlike for trains, you usually won’t be able to book a ticket in advance online (as it requires showing a passport in the office) and often buying a ticket in the office in advance might be a problem too.
In Zhangjiajie, I wanted to get tickets to Fenghuang several days in advance so I went directly to the office. Lady in the office simply told me “tomorrow”. So I came back the next day but again I was told “tomorrow”. Only later did I learn that for many buses you can buy a ticket just a day before your trip – it’s because the timetable isn’t fixed, a bus might be cancelled or might depart at a different time. So bear that in mind. This won’t be a big deal if buses were frequent but between many cities, there are only one or two buses per day.
Taxis are a good option to travel around many cities as they are much cheaper than in the west.
There are a few oddities regarding them too:
- A driver might refuse to get you to your desired location – just because he doesn’t want to go there (it’s too far for him, he’s afraid he will not get a passenger on the way back, he’s about to end his shift, etc.). A tip I got, is to provide destination/address after entering the taxi and not before.
- Another thing is that majority of taxi drivers don’t know a word in English and can’t even read addresses written in English so make sure you have your destination written in Chinese.
- Also, there are a few times of day when it might be very difficult to catch a taxi: morning and evening rush hours and a time when taxi drivers end their shifts (in China most cabs are shared between several drivers).
- In some cities, taxi drivers might also try to scam you in several different sophisticated ways but I think it can happen everywhere. So make sure to use official taxis only and also ask a driver to enable a meter.