Let’s start with a very simple statement that is, though, extremely important: China is big. Huge. Enormous. What does that mean? Simply that transportation will be a big part of your time in the country and will matter if you don’t want to get too frustrated.
Since we’ve been in China we’ve tried almost every available transport (except driving sadly, but this should change soon enough) and sharing our experience might help you avoid a few misadventures. Here is our guide to transportation in China. This comes from our own experience across the country and we hope it will come in handy for you.
Types of transportation in China:
Planes are perfect to cover long distances in China. Take a flight from Chengdu to Beijing and you’re there in 3hours, take the train and… well, it’s gonna take a day or two. While this is clearly a practical way to cross the country and cheap tickets are often available, I would rather take a train than a plane when possible in China. The reason is simple: Since we arrived in China I’ve taken a total of 6 flights (which is not that much) and out of those 6 flights; two were delayed by 1-2 hours, three were delayed by in excess of four hours, and the remaining one was cancelled entirely, only after that is, I’d waited in the airport for over eight hours beyond the stated departure time, with the constant assurance from staff that it would be ready soon. While this mainly happens during the Chinese holidays it’s hard to trust the local airlines, especially if you have a tight deadline to meet or a connecting flight to catch. Be prepared to wait for a while at the airport like the many locals who have grown accustomed to this.
My point: don’t book an appointment or a meeting a few hours after your flight is supposed to land. There is a few ways to check if your flight might be late: you can check how often during the year said flight has been delayed on a few websites online. Flying is a wild card as transportation in China goes. Might be awesome, might be dreadful.
Trains are my favourite. They are, for me, the best transportation in China. This country offers the CRH that goes up to 450km/h , the Maglev (sadly it only covers a short distance) and the more traditional trains. I’ve been on a few journeys on them and even took a 15h train journey from Shanghai to Chengdu and I loved it!
The trains are efficient and delays are rare (in fact, only one of my train journeys was ever ‘late’, and that by a mere 5 minutes), the train stations are high on security in China and will require to see your ticket, x-ray your luggage and as a foreigner, you will often be asked to present your passport for inspection. And all of this is before you are even admitted to the station. Very similar to an airport security, the difference with the train stations is how efficient they are. Trains live on time, people are sent to their appropriate carriage and door, and it all goes smoothly. Usually.If you are travelling during the holiday book your tickets in advance! Getting a train ticket during Chinese New Year is a nightmare! So come prepared! Guest houses and a few websites can book them for you in exchange a small fee.
Once in the train there is a few things you need to know:
CRH trains tend to push the heat in winter. Usual temperature inside is 24 degrees Celsius but can get up to 26. Prepare light clothes for your journey.
People have a tendency to listen to their music, watch their TV shows and play computer games without headphones on, and this can be a real irritation when you have have a dozen different smartphones, ipads and whatever else all within a few feet of you and all set to maximum volume in an attempt to be heard over their competitors. If that’s the kind of things that might annoy you, get some noise cancelling headphones. Also bring in some snacks and food, there is some choice in the train but like in any long journey train in the world they will rob you blind on the price of water, snacks, etc.
Talking about water carry with you a bottle! You’ll always be able to get hot water in the train for free. So if you’re staying in a night train bring your tea or coffee too!
Except from that, as always, people are lovely so don’t be surprise if you end up in a compartment with a few locals that will want to talk to you or share their baiju with you. I guess this is why I love the train so much in China: fast, efficient and fun.
Long distance bus:
From town to town you might have to opt for a bus for your journey. A few areas are not covered by trains (like you Ya’an, yes you, forcing us to get so many bloody buses!) and you will have no choice if you want to get into said place or out of it.
Bus station are pretty straight forward and you usually don’t need to book them in advance. If you are unsure ask the reception of your hotel.
In busy periods they tend to add buses as soon as one is full to help move people around. In those cases you will get a tickets stating a fake time. If you’re unsure go to one of the doors and show your tickets. If they point to a bus then you’re good. If not, you might have to wait. Highways are pretty good in China but buses tend to drive fast like in most of Asia.
Once you’re in town you will get a few choices to get around. The local buses are a good option. At 1RMB for a ride (up to 2RMB in some towns though I have seen buses at higher prices but they tend to be an exception), they will get you anywhere in town if you can read the map or figure it out with your driver.
There’s nothing wrong to say about them, just get in, put your money in the box near the driver and sit down.
More expensive than the local bus, metros are still a fantastic option in the main towns of China. Fast, clean and easy to understand, they will have the station written in Chinese and in English to help you get to destination.
Be careful though: there is security at the entrance and some are tougher than others. I’ve learned the hard way to not come back from work or shopping with a can of deodorant in your bag or any type of liquid. If it’s water you should be fine and they will only ask you to take a sip of it to prove that it’s not dangerous. Again, apply the same rules as you would to your carry-on luggage at an airport, so things like penknives, scissors, aerosols of any kind, and many liquids will be confiscated before you enter, and all bags are x-rayed.
Metro lines are constantly evolving (like China itself) so try to stay informed.
As far as transportation in China goes, they are a must. Taxis are one of the best way to move around town in China and they are cheap but you need to keep a few things in mind.
When a taxi offers you a ride at a given price REFUSE! You want a ride with the meter on or nothing! In small towns the ride starts at 4RMB and in bigger towns from 8 to 12RMB depending on the place and the time of day.
Get ready with an address in Chinese and if you are trying to get to a hotel get their phone number too so that the driver can call them if he’s not sure of the location. If you’re taking the taxi at a train station or airport there will usually be a queue to get in.
Your taxi driver might be surprised if you put your seat belt on, it’s not very usual in some areas but you might want to keep it on: their driving style is very particular and might get a little scary sometimes.
In a few towns motorbike taxis are a possibility if you’re in rush hour and traffic is a problem. While they are not allowed everywhere (some towns don’t allow motorbikes or scooters) they are great if you are in a rush.
Bargain the price and hop on to your destination. Same applies as for the taxi and rickshaw: get your address ready in Chinese.
When there is no taxi around you might need to opt for a rickshaw. While I try to avoid them (where we live they are more expensive than a good comfy taxi) they can be a solution if you can’t get anything else. They are also fun and can be a nice little experience.
You can try to hitch-hike in China. Get your destination town in Chinese characters if you want a bit more success! You’ll see a few people trying it out once on the highway. While we only did it in our small town of Ya’an we heard stories of people that had amazing experiences. Give it a try and see how it goes. Locals might try to ask you for some money for a ride or run off when they realise you’re a foreigner, don’t be too upset and try to be patient, this is not a common way of transportation in China except during the Chinese New Year.
As you might know you cannot drive in China with an international driving license. If you want to you will need a provisional driving license that you can get in big towns like Beijing for 30 days. You might be required to provide an insurance, photos and a few documents. If you want a permanent driving license you will need a health certificate, an insurance, a few photos and you will be required to pass a written test to get it. Main towns have the test in English but you might want to bring a Chinese friend to help you go through the process.
Driving in China should be a whole chapter on which we will come back once we succeed to get our local licence.
Transportation in China might seem scary at first but get into it, take the plunge and enjoy the possibilities that are being offered to you.
In China I will opt generally opt for trains due to my personal experiences and because I just love to be in contact with people and exchange with them. It’s up to you to decide what is best for you.
What has been your experience with transportation in China? Have you got any questions for us? Please let us know in the comments!
Share it on Pinterest: