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Home > China Travel Guide > Transportation > Travel inside China

Travel Inside China

[an error occurred while processing this directive] This section give you what you need to know to get around in China, and help you decise which method of transportation is best for you when you are getting round in the cities or provinces inside China.

Getting Around in China By Air

China has many domestic flights to all the major cities and tourist destinations.

Prices for domestic flights are set at standard rates, but discounts are common, especially on the busier routes. Most good hotels will have a travel ticket service and will be able to save you 15%-40% off the price of tickets. Even after considering discounts, travelling by plane in China is not inexpensive.

Do be prepared for flight delays; these are on the increase despite pressure from both the government and consumers.

Travelling between mainland cities and Hong Kong or Macau is considered an international flight and so can be quite expensive. Although more of a hassle, it is usually much cheaper to fly to or from Shenzhen or Zhuhai, just across the border, or Guangzhou, which is a little further, 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 them was about ¥250.

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Getting Around in China By Train

Train travel is the major mode of long-distance transportation for the Chinese themselves, with an extensive network of routes covering the entire country, with the notable exception of Tibet. A new railroad from Qinghai to Tibet begun passenger service in July 2006.

There are five classes of travel:

  • hard seats (硬坐 yìngzuǒ)
  • soft seats (软坐 ruǎnzuǒ)
  • hard sleepers (硬卧 yìngwò)
  • soft sleepers (软卧 ruǎnwò)
  • standing

Soft sleepers are the most comfortable mode of transportation and are still relatively cheap by Western standards. The soft sleeper compartments contain four bunks stacked two to a column (though some newer trains have two-bunk compartments), with a latchable door for privacy, and are quite spacious. Hard sleepers, on the other hand, have 3 beds per column open to the corridor, with the highest bunk very high up, leaving little space for headroom. Also note that the "hard" sleeper is not "hard" - the beds have a mattress and are generally quite comfortable.

Hard seats are not for everyone, especially overnight, but it is this class that most of the backpacker crowd travels on. You may still buy tickets for a fully booked train, the seat section of your ticket will be marked differently. You may be able to be assigned a seat by the conductor, or it may mean standing in the aisle. Consider carrying a tripod chair in your backpack to make such journeys more comfortable. Despite the "no smoking" signs, there is invariably a crowd of smokers at the ends of the cars and occasional smokers within the car. Overnight travel in this class is extremely uncomfortable if you are not a smoker.

The bathrooms on trains tend to be more usable than on buses or most public areas, because they are simple devices that empty the contents directly onto the track.

Long distance trains will have a buffet or dining car, which serves hot (but generally overpriced by Chinese standards, at ¥25 or so) 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 stall vendors on the platform who can sell you some noodles or fruit at better prices. Trains also have boiled water available; bring tea, soups and instant noodles to make your own food.

Be careful of your valuables while on the train; property theft on public transportation has gone up in recent years.

Motion sickness pills are recommended if you are inclined toward that type of ailment.

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 guy 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.

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Getting Around in China By Bus

Travelling by public city buses (公共汽车 gōnggòngqìchē) or long distance buses (长途汽车 changtuqìchē) is inexpensive and ideal for in-city and short distances transportation.

Local public city buses start at around ¥1 and can be quite packed during rush hour. More modern buses with air conditioning start at ¥2. Fares are marked on the outside of bus doors and no change is provided unless there is a ticket conductor. The price of the fare increases for longer distance trips to as much as ¥5 or more.

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 few 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 bathrooms, but they are frequently dirty and using them can be a real challenge as the bus turns a corner and water in the basin splashes around.

A coach in rural China is a totally different experience all together. Rarely is there an English sign in the station to identify buses and your coach's license plate number is suppose to be printed on the ticket, but all to often that is inaccurate. Bus personnel frequently lack in politeness and your fellow passengers lack in manners as they spit on the floor and out the window and smoke. It will be especially cozy if the driver decides to continually stop and 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 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 breaks downs and other unexpected 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 it may be more painful to know that short of shelling out the cash for your own personal transport, rural coaches are the only forms of transportation in many areas of China.

Every where in China drivers often disregard the rules of the road, and accidents are frequent. Sudden swerves and stops can cause injury, so keep a good hold wherever possible. Horn honking is widespread among Chinese coach drivers, so a set of earplugs is a good idea if you plan on sleeping during the trip.

Sleeper busses 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 1000 km or more — but they are not all that comfortable for large or tall travellers. You have to remove your shoes as you enter the bus; a plastic bag is provided to store them. If you normally travel in boots, it is worth getting a pair of kung fu slippers to make this easy.


Getting Around in China By Subway

Major cities — at least Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Nanjing — have a subway (地铁 dìtiě) system. Chongqing has a monorail system. Most of these systems are being expanded, and new ones are under construction (as of mid-2006) in other cities such as Hangzhou and Xian. Generally these are modern, clean and efficient. The signs and ticket machines are in both English and Chinese.


Getting Around in China By Taxi

Taxis (出租车 chūzūchē or 的士 dishì) are generally common, and reasonably priced. In most situations, expect between ¥10 and ¥30 for an ordinary course within the city. There is no extra charge for luggage, but in many cities rates are a bit higher at night. While drivers trying to cheat you by taking a longer way are not unheard of, it is not that common, and usually shouldn't be a nuisance.

Note that sitting in the front passenger seat of taxis is the norm -- some taxis even mount the taxi meter down by the gearbox, where you can only see it from the front seat.

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, even if with the meter on, and asking for the receipt.

Note that even in major cities like Shanghai or Beijing, it is extremely unlikely to find an English-speaking taxi driver. Chinese language phonetics being quite far from English, keep in mind that even if you say the name of your destination in Chinese (but with your native pronunciation), you can easily be misunderstood, or not understood at all. Therefore, it is advisable to keep a written note of the name of place where you want to go to by taxi, if you can't speak mandarin. Chinese characters will work better for this than the romanized (pinyin) version. Get business cards for your hotel, and for restaurants you like, to show taxi drivers.

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.

In most cities, taxi companies use a star-rating system for drivers, ranging from 0 to 5, displayed on the drivers name-plate, in front of the passenger seat. While no or few stars do not necessarily indicated a bad driver, many stars tend to indicate good knowledge of the city, and willingness to take you to where you asked by the shortest way. Another indicator of the drivers ability can be found on the same name-plate, in the driver's ID number. A small number tells you he has been around for a long time, and is likely to know the place very well.


Getting Around in China By Bicycle

China is a vast country and it may not appeal to the average tourist to bike across mountains and desert. But for some bicycles (自行车) are cheap, convenient means of transport that beat being squeezed into a public bus for hours on end. In some tourist areas, such as Yangshuo, bicycles are easy to rent and there is a repair shop around every corner. That is not the case in the rest of the country and it will be necessary to purchase or bring your own bicycle. Buying a bicycle is not too much of a hassle, as most supermarkets carry a good stock of bikes, starting from as little as ¥150 ($18). The problem is that the average bike sold in China is of low quality, and it is not unheard of for a pedal or fender to fall off after riding a new bike for only one block. Bicycle repair shops are frequent in most Chinese cities, but it will be difficult for the average tourist to identify them if they cannot read Chinese. One of the main dangers for bicyclists in China is the rest of the traffic; cars and motorcycles frequently pullout without any warning, and in some areas red lights are apparently optional. If your bike doesn't get run over by a motorcycle, it is still under threat from thievery. Bicycle theft is rampant throughout China and it is necessary for you to bring a hardy lock, or two, especially if you're sporting a fancy, new foreign bike. Despite the difficulties of traveling by bicycle in China it is not unheard of to see foreign tourists biking across the Tibetan Plateau or through some ethnic minority village.


Getting Around in China By Car

Rented cars often come with a driver; that is probably the best way to travel China by car. International Driver's Permits are not valid in China; to drive yourself you have to get a Chinese driver's licence.

Getting Around in China By Motorcycle

Motorcycle taxis are common, especially in smaller cities and rural areas. They are usually cheap and effective but somewhat scary. The fares are negotiable.

Getting Around in China By Pedicab

In some mid-sized cities, pedicabs are a much more convenient means of travelling short distances.


Getting Around in China By Sanlunche

Sanlunche (三轮车), or three-wheeled motorized taxi, are ubiquitous in rural China and lesser developed areas of larger cities. Negotiating the price is a must and the drivers will frequently try and rip you off. A sanlunche can be used to travel just a few blocks or long distances to a tourist destination and back. In some areas of China sanlunche are the only means of public transportation, while in many parts of the country they are the cheapest, least-luxurious ways of getting around

This article is based on information from an article on Wikitravel contributed by Anonymous and is distributed under the terms of Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 1.0

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