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China > Getting there and getting around > How to get around

Getting Around 


China is a vast country with an ever-improving transport network, especially between principal cities, but it is also still a developing country and, while some services are ultra-modern, others are super-slow. Some regions are ruled by the road, while others are served better by rail. Travel by any mode of transport tends to be good value, especially when the distances covered are considered, although bus is usually the cheapest and flying the most expensive.  


The duration and scope of your itinerary and the amount of money you have to spend are deciding factors in how you travel. To get to smaller or more out of the way places you may have to take a bus (often from a railhead town), although for anything longer than a few hours, if it’s an option, the train is preferable, unless you have the money to fly.


Even if money is no object, I’d recommend at least one long distance train journey for the experience. Indeed, implicit in the term “traveling” is the journey itself and, for some, getting from A to B is the best part of the adventure.  China has an abundance of local transport options which, while often uncomfortable, give you real insight into the lives of the people.


Wherever you’re planning to travel, unless you speak Mandarin, be sure to take along your destination written in Chinese. While pronouncing the name may seem like a simple process, the tones of the language and the plethora of similar-sounding place names can cause confusion.


See Also : City Travel 



By Air 

China has an extensive flight network incorporating hundreds of frequently served airports. There are several regional airlines (China Southern, China Southwestern, etc.), many of which are subdivisions of Air China, the national carrier.  


Most towns of any significance have a branch of the regional airline that can issue tickets and many hotels have travel agents who can book them for a small commission. In larger cities you’ll find CAAC offices where you can buy tickets for most airlines and often get buses to the airport. Airports can be close to the city center or tens of miles away so check when you purchase your tickets. 


While Chinese air travel doesn’t have a particularly good safety track record, things have definitely improved, both in terms of pilot ability and aircraft quality. That said, flying in China is a very different experience, from the frequent turbulence to the “lucky seat lottery,” although delays seem to be a worldwide feature! 


- Air China ( 

- China Eastern Airlines ( 

- China Southern Airlines ( 

- China Southwestern Airlines ( 

- Dragon Air ( 

- Shanghai Airlines ( 


By Rail 

Rail is generally my favorite mode of travel in any country and China is no exception. More comfortable than by road and cheaper than air, train travel affords you some time to reflect on your travels as the countryside unfolds through the window to the gentle (and sometimes abrupt) clackety clack of the tracks below. It also offers the opportunity to meet locals (albeit, on occasion, too closely for comfort).  


And it can give you a look at the conflicts of modern China; the system is authoritarian in essence, with its smartly dressed, stern staff and regulated systems, but these days you can hire VCD players (some trains even have individual TVs in first-class sleeper compartments) and buy tacky toys along the way. 


Stations usually have shops and stalls selling all the goods you’ll need for a long journey and there are dining carriages on many sleeper services along with platform snacks along the way. You’ll also find checkrooms for luggage at stations and some stations have designated waiting rooms for first class passengers (see Classes, below). China has an extensive railway network that covers all the major cities, now including Lhasa, which is the end destination of the high-altitude, ultra-modern Tibet line, part of the government’s program to develop the west 


Categories of train 


Trains are categorized according to their speed. The new D trains are the fastest, with Z trains hot on their heels, followed by T and then K trains, which are still fairly speedy. Un-lettered trains are the slowest of the bunch and are worth avoiding if you have a long distance to cover, as they also tend to be older and thus less comfortable and clean. The faster the train, the more expensive the tickets will be. 


Trains are divided into four classes and any train may have all or only one of these classes, depending on its route and speed. All classes have restrooms (though these are often squat and can get pretty filthy), a supply of hot water for tea, and generally some kind of food and drink provision, usually in the form of a buffet car and food trolleys. 

The bottom of the scale is “hard seat” which is, on the oldest trains, literally that, just a hard wooden seat, though most of these have been replaced by (still fairly rigid) cushioned seats. This is where you’ll get to mingle with the masses but, when you consider the price, it’s really not that bad, although it can be taxing for longer journeys.  

Soft seat is the next level up and the seats and clientele reflect the jump in price. Soft-seat carriages are sometimes double-decker.  

Hard sleeper is the most commonly used class for longer trips and accordingly gets booked up the quickest. Although the name doesn’t quite conjure up images of luxury, it’s actually fairly comfortable.  

Here you’ll have one of six bunks fitted into booths along one side of the train. Although the bottom level is the most expensive, followed by the middle level and then the top, there is debate among travelers as to which is best. The bottom obviously offers the easiest access and is the roomiest, but you’ll have people sitting on your bed during the day. You get a little less room in the middle but more privacy, and on the top you feel away from it all, although you have very little space to savor this.  

Soft sleeper is the top of the line, where you’ll reside in a private four-bunk compartment.  

As with hotels, the comfort of the train also depends on its age, thus hard sleeper on a new train can be almost as good as soft sleeper on an old one The most modern trains on major routes (Beijing to Shanghai, for example) have a new “businessclass where you get a two-room compartment complete with restroom and TV! In the sleeper classes you’re provided with clean bedding and a flask of hot water per compartment. 

 On entering the train you’ll need to exchange your ticket for a metal or plastic tag, which enables the attendant to make sure you get off at the right station. Indeed, you’ll often be awakened a good hour before the train is due so they can turn your bed around for the next passenger. Although the incidence of crime isn’t high, it’s worth securing your luggage to a rail with a padlock and keeping an eye on your possessions.

Buying a ticket 

Buying a ticket from the train station can be a confusing and time consuming business, so many travelers elect to purchase them through an agent (often found in your hotel), for a small surcharge. For frequently served shorter routes it’s easy enough to just arrive at the station and get a ticket for the next train.

However, for longer journeys, especially during peak times or on popular routes, trains can be completely booked for days, so if you know your schedule it’s worth buying your ticket on arrival in the city.  If you do buy your ticket at the station, make sure you take along the written Chinese name for your destination, ask which line to stand in, then get ready for some pushing, culminating in the frantic decision-making process as the masses behind try to oust you from your number one spot!

Some stations have designated foreigners’ ticket windows, which are worth seeking out as the staff might speak English and the lines are often shorter. 


By Road 

China’s road network has undergone massive investment in the last decade and some journey times have been dramatically reduced as a result. The efficiency of the government is undeniable in making progress here. While environmental action committees and protests are often the norm when a new road is proposed in Europe, in China it’s a simple case of get out of the way or face the consequences.  

New toll highways have been built between major cities and roads have often superseded former modes of transport (especially the rivers) as the way to get around.  

However, China remains an enormous country and, although some areas (the Pearl River Delta and the Yangzi Basin) have been dissected by new expressways in recent times, much of rural China is still connected by unbelievably bumpy dirt tracks, which get washed away every rainy season. Journeys on these routes can be crowded, uncomfortable, frustrating and scary.
But, if you’re not in a hurry, they are another great way to see the country and come face-to-face with the locals, baskets of chickens and all. 


While seldom as comfortable as the train, buses are generally cheaper, more frequent and often quicker for shorter routes. In remote or mountainous areas buses may be the only transport option. Intercity buses are generally categorized as putong (ordinary) class or kuai (express). The latter use expressways where available and are thus faster, tend to be more comfortable and are around double the price.  


There are also sleeper buses that link cities across the country, sometimes taking upwards of 30 hours. Typically, these are rickety old affairs with flat bunk beds, but a new breed of upmarket express sleeper buses has recently come into being, with DVD players, fully reclinable chairs and restrooms. On shorter routes you might also find shuttle minibuses, which cost a little more than standard buses and are a little quicker once on the road, but you’ll have to wait for them to fill up before leaving.  


With local services, your luggage may go on the roof or have to be squeezed in with you, but on more modern vehicles it will probably be stowed beneath and you’ll receive a tag to reclaim it. It’s worth taking some food on long-distance services as break stops can be erratic, but on rural routes there may be a wealth of local snacks to choose from as passengers get on and off at small market towns. 

There are usually shops selling snacks at bus stations and there may also be luggage storage facilities. 


Buying a ticket. In smaller towns and cities there may only be one bus station but in larger urban areas there can often be several, which serve different regions, as well as express stations in the center.  


For short hops you can generally just show up and get on the next bus, but for longer journeys it’s worth buying your ticket in advance or arriving in the morning as buses are less frequent in the afternoons, and often finish at sundown during winter, unless there are sleeper services. Once you’re at the station you may be faced with a daunting number of ticket windows but staff are generally helpful. 


Car Rental 


Forbidden until recently, car rental options are still limited in China unless you’re a resident with a Z visa (and a valid license from your home country), in which case you can obtain the Chinese license necessary to drive here. 


Otherwise, your options are restricted to hiring a car with driver, which can be arranged through major international chains such as Avis and Hertz or local companies – rates start from around US$40 a day.  


Hong Kong and Macau are exceptions to the rule and you can easily rent a self-drive car in either – exploring Macau’s coastal roads in the Cub and Moke jeeps they offer is great fun. If you live on the mainland and choose to drive, it soon becomes apparent that the rules of the road revolve around size – the bigger the vehicle the more you need to avoid it. Outside of the cities you need to pay particular attention at night as many drivers seem oblivious to the fact their cars have lights! 


By Boat 

Rivers and canals used to be one of the primary transport means for both people and freight in China, but these days they have been replaced by road, rail and air. Conversely, for visitors, river travel still offers one of the best ways to see idyllic rural China, with some of the country’s most spectacular scenery as a backdrop.  


Of particular note are the Three Gorges, Guangxi’s Li River and the Grand Canal. While you can organize most cruises while you’re in China, if you want to guarantee a quality boat to cruise the Three Gorges it’s worth booking from home. There are also ferries between Hong Kong and Macau and to Pearl River Delta destinations. 


See Also : City Travel  


  Why visit China 

  Top Destinations in China 

  When to go to China 

  How to get to China, City travel 

  History of China 

  Food in China 

  City & region guide 

       Beijing travel guide  

       Xi’an travel guide 

       Shanghai travel guide 

       Suzhou travel guide 

      Other places in China 

  The Chinese Language 

  Culture, Music and Opera 

  Events and festivals 



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China Travel Guide : How to get around