China is one of the largest countries in the world. In the same time-extremely rich of interesting places to visit- places, located all over the country. And there is an excellent transport network, making most of these places easy to reach, especially the famous and more popular destinations. However, using transportation in China is not such simple. There are also many places (as I said, China is really rich of interesting destinations), which are not so popular, but not less worth to visit than the popular ones- and they are often hardly reachable.
If you are a tourist, your transport would be arranged by a travel company- only to the more popular destinations. Because, as I said, there are a lot of other places, remaining outside of travel companies’ radar, even the local Chinese travel companies. I am talking not only destinations but interesting routes and exciting experience around the country. Only if you are an independent traveler, you could reach most of them (there are some really amazing places in China, which however are completely closed or at least highly restricted to visit by foreigners- mainly in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Qinghai provinces). But one of the things that you have to consider is the way of transportation.
Ways of transportation in China
There are many ways of transportation in China, created and still developing to serve mainly for the extremely large Chinese population. And if the travelers want to wander around China, they have to mix with the locals and use transportation like them. So, let’s see the ways of moving around the country.
Domestic airplane network is highly developed. There are numerous air companies, serving throughout the whole country. This is the fastest way to move around China, and of course, as everywhere in the world- the most expensive. It is usually used for two reasons. First- for tourists and travelers, who are not interested or just don’t have enough time to wander across China on land, but just want to reach distant destinations quickly. And second- for those who want to reach a starting point of their on- land journey, or to exit from its end point.
It is a relatively new way of transport in China and is rapidly developing. Actually, it is something “in the middle” between the airplanes and the slow trains. It is slower than the planes, but it is the fastest on land way to travel. Still, a very comfortable way to reach most of the corners of China within a day.
For long distance, it is my favorite way of travel. By slow train you can go through China from end to end within a few days, watching through the window the rich variety of changing landscapes- from deserts to subtropical forests, from grasslands to high mountains. These trains have comfortable sleeping carriages in two kinds- hard beds and soft beds. Hard beds are cheaper, 6 beds in a compartment, and the compartment is without doors. The soft beds are 4 in compartments with doors which can be locked, and there is an electric charge inside.
There are regularly passing carts with food- breakfast, lunch, dinner, fruits. And when the train stops in the railway stations for a longer time, you can easily get off for a while and buy some local food. But the most exciting thing about it is that you can easily make friends with the other local Chinese travelers in your compartment, especially during a long trip. Yes, most of them could not speak English, but there are body language, smiles, and friendly atmosphere.
This kind of transport is also very useful in China. The buses are really a lot. First- there are many bus terminals in the big cities, and there are buses leaving every 10-15 mins on routes, connecting the other nearby cities.
Buses normally don’t travel such long distances as the trains, but there are still some routes lasting 12, 15, 20, 24 or more hours, which require using of sleeping buses. I have traveled from Yiwu, Zhejiang province, to Chongqing in Western China, for two days and two nights (we arrived in Chongqing early in the morning on the third day). While the bus traveled on a highway, it was just “a normal trip”, but when we headed on a mountain road with thousands of curves and sloped upward and downward, it became really like adventure. The bus stopped a few times in some wild and remote villages for meals, rest and toilet (very “exotic” village toilets- one of them was just a hole in the ground, surrounded by a wall, and two pigs tied on the wall).
Ship, boat, ferry
Since China is not an island country, this kind of transport is not very popular. Most of the water transportation is actually tourist type of cruises- mainly on the big rivers like Yangtze, Pearl River, Li River in Guilin, and Yellow River, as well as on some large lakes like Qinghai Lake. But as public transport, it is mostly used between the sea coast and some nearby islands, or for crossing some wide rivers. There is also a ferry from Guangzhou to Hong Kong on Pearl River.
The normal public ferries are cheaper, of course, while the tourist cruises are more expensive. Anyway, it is the only possible way to reach the islands of China.
Floating to Taiwan
Now there are ferries between Xiamen and Taiwan. Yes, they are expensive, but still a comfortable and exciting way to reach this island. The whole trip is a few hours, and since there are not too many people traveling on this route, you can buy ferry tickets directly from the ticket office of Xiamen Port.
Floating to South China Sea Islands
It is a “special part” of China. These islands, called by China Dong Sha (East Sand), Xi Sha (West Sand) and Nan Sha (South Sand), geographically are a part of Southeast Asia, and most of them are tropical atolls, a real paradise. But since currently, this area is politically sensitive, foreigners are not allowed to visit them. Now there are cruises to Xi Sha (West Sand) archipelago, but only for Chinese. All other travelers just can expect and hope for a change, so the islands can be opened for everybody.
Local city transport
Moving from one place to another within a city in China is not always easy, especially in a big city. But fortunately, there are a lot of ways to do it, and most of the ways are quite comfortable.
Now there are well-developed metro systems in most of the big cities in China. It is very comfortable and fast, so you can easily avoid the traffic jam on the streets, thus it is the fastest way to move through the city. The price usually depends on the distance, but in general, it is very cheap, usually between 2 and 10 CNY. The only inconvenient thing is that you must have exact banknotes of 5, 10 or 20 CNY to purchase a ticket from the kiosk. Now there are ways to make it easier- paying by mobile, but you have to download the proper app and connect it to a proper bank account (which is complicated for a foreigner).
City public bus
Its cheap (usually 1,5 to 2 CNY for the “normal” buses, and more for buses going to more distant suburbs). It is comfortable because the public bus network is usually very thick. And although the cities are quite populated, the buses are seldom crowded. But just you have to research which bus No. Goes to the place you want to reach. There are a lot of online tools for searching bus routes and stops, but all in Chinese (the best one is 8684). In English, you can try this or this.
Taxis, Di Di, tricycles, motorcycles
All these are local ways of transport within a city, town or a cluster of villages. Taxis are just like the taxis all over the world- you can stop them on the street, or they would wait for you in front of every bus terminal or railway station. Di Di is a little different and more complicated to use by foreigners, because it requires to download at least WeChat app, and most importantly, to have money account attached.
And motorcycles and tricycles are the most simple way of local transportation. They are just like taxis, but without a taximeter, and you have to confirm the price before you use them.
Shared city bike
It is another new and very comfortable way to move within a city. There are 2 main companies offering this service- “ofo” and Mobike. Their bikes are thousands and can be found everywhere on the streets. You choose a bike, scan its code, and unlock it. When arriving at your desired place, just lock it again (to stop counting) and it would get your payment.
It is great for locals, but complicated for foreigners, since it requires an app downloaded, registration and bank account attached. Anyway, recently these companies (especially Mobike) improve their service to be easier for foreigners. For more information see here.
These types of transport are used for long distance travel. Shunfeng is like Di Di and therefore again complicated to use by foreigners. And minivans are usually used in more remote areas in the western part of China, like Tibet, Sichuan, Qinghai. They stay in the town’s central square or near the bus terminals, waiting for customers and when the minivan is full, it leaves. Good to use where no bus nearby, but makes you dependent on other customers.
This would be the best way to explore China- no matter whether it is South, East, North, West China (where the public transport is much more developed), or the wild territories of Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. Driving a car gives you full independence to go everywhere, stopping everywhere, at any time. Some of the most exciting trips in China are by using this way of transportation. And there are a lot of rental car companies, where you could get your car. BUT…
You must have a Chinese driving license! And this makes using a car in China impossible for most of the foreigners. Only those who reside in the country for a longer time and have obtained such a driving license can enjoy self-driving travel by car.
In this case, the only way to travel by car in China (if you don’t have local friends who can take you with them) is to rent a car with a driver. It can be a small car, but there are options for 7-seat, 9-seat, and more-seat vehicles. The problem is- how to find a car (or minivan, minibus) with a driver in China since most of the rental car companies usually don’t offer such a service?
Car with a driver
One of the ways is to find a car with a driver, is by using Tour Beijing service. They can arrange for you various kinds of driving service- from just 1-2 hours, to a month, from almost everywhere in China.
Another way is to contact a hotel, hostel or guesthouse, which you should have booked in advance, so they probably can help you arrange a vehicle with driver for you. You have to pay for the car rental, fuel, road tolls, and driver’s salary and expenses (hotel, food, etc.), which is usually between 1000 and 1500 CNY (140-220 USD) per day. Yes, it is a bit expensive, but if you are a group of travelers, you share the money together.
Bicycle (long distance)
Recently, long distance traveling by bicycle began gaining popularity. You can often see cyclists on the roads, with two bags on both sides of their bikes, and a backpack on their backs. It is especially popular in the Great Tibetan Plateau, on the famous road No.318, connecting Chengdu and Lhasa. Yes, most of the cyclists are Chinese, but there are foreigners too.
But of course, there is a question- how a foreigner could get a bicycle to cycle for many days? Obviously, there are not too many options. The first option is to find a local bicycle store and rent a bike from there. But it is usually difficult to find such a store, furthermore a store which would agree to give you a bike for days and weeks. Or you can buy a bike (no need to buy an expensive bike- 1800-2500 CNY could be enough). And when you finish your trip, just send your bike home by shipment (unless you could sell it as a second-hand bicycle before you leave China).
Another way is to join a bicycle trip group. There are some companies, who arrange such trips around China. Yes, their service may be a little expensive (because they provide everything: bikes, logistic transportation, accommodation, meals, guide, insurance, etc.), and you would be not independent, but the bike experience is really worth.
Finally, it is the most natural way to travel. And of course, the best way is by trekking. The rich natural variety of China provide really a lot of trekking opportunities, but most popular are they in the Great Tibetan Plateau and its high mountains. There are a lot of companies, organizing a few days or longer treks- in Tibet, Sichuan, Qinghai, and Yunnan. Some popular treks are around the highest mountains of Tibet- Everest, Minya Konka, Yading, Kailash, Amnye Machin, Nyenbo Yurtse.
If you join a trek by company, everything will be arranged for you, you will be much safer, and you can spend a nice time with other trekkers, meeting new friends. But again- you would be no independent, and basically, it would be more expensive.
Another option is to trek alone. It would be cheaper (maybe, at least in most of the cases), but it may be more dangerous, and definitely would need a good preparation (backpack, tent, and all other necessary gear, as well as enough information) in advance.
Important travel tips
When we talk about transportation in China, here is my first, and the most important travel tip. China is the most populated country in the world. And nothing can make you can feel it really painfully than using the transportation system.
The problem is particularly serious when you want to travel by train- both speed or slow. You go to the railway station to buy a train ticket, and most probably there would be no tickets for your train. Everything is sold- for today, for tomorrow, even for the next week. Yes, if you go by train to a short distance, there are a lot of trains traveling there during the day, so you have more chance to get a train ticket. But if want to go by train from Shanghai to Chengdu and just directly to the ticket office of the railway station- forget about tickets, even in the “normal working day in the lowest season”.
Concerning the buses, it is easier since most of them are often and don’t travel too long. You just go to the bus terminal and if there are no tickets for your bus, just wait for the next, which is only 15, 20, 30 or one hour later.
About the flights- it is as in many other countries in the world. Just book the air ticket in advance- the best time is around 2 weeks earlier, as the price is usually lowest at that time.
Book a train ticket in advance!
How to resolve the problem with the trains? Obviously, the only way is to buy the tickets in advance. The earlier, the better, however, you can’t buy train tickets earlier than one month before your trip. The Chinese Railways start selling tickets exactly one month in advance, and there are many people who are waiting for the chosen date for their train.
I remember when we wanted to buy a train ticket from Urumqi (Xinjiang) to Guangzhou. The ticket selling starts exactly at 7:00 am Chinese time (one month in advance!). It was July 20th and we were going to buy tickets for August 20th. At that time we were in Bulgaria, where it was 2:00 am. So we woke up around 2:30 am and opened our booking website. But it was too late- for only 30 mins all the train tickets for August 20th were sold!
So we had to change our itinerary and postpone our train journey for August 21st. On the next night, we woke up earlier and bought our train tickets 15 mins after 2:00 am- some of the last remained train tickets for this train!
Ways to buy a train ticket
Yes, the situation is not always such extreme, but I hope you get the picture. In other words- you need a travel company or a booking website to purchase your tickets in advance. Or, if you are already in China, you can buy tickets from a local ticket office (there are a lot in every city).
Anyway, the most convenient way to purchase not only train tickets but also air tickets and other service is online, in advance. Yes, it would fix your itinerary and would limit your flexibility, so you have to consider it unless you have really unlimited time.
Plan your schedule properly!
Talking about flexibility…another important tip. Go to the bus stations, railway station and airports on time, as early as possible! You can imagine this scenario: you have purchased a train ticket for a long distance trip- let’s say from Hangzhou to Chengdu. But first, you are in Shanghai and explore this city. Then you have to take a bus or a train to Hangzhou. You arrive at Hangzhou bus terminal and have to move to the railway station. Your train departs at 6:00 pm, and you arrive at the railway station at 5:40 pm. Looks like you are on time.
But first, you see a long queue in the entrance of the railway station waiting for luggage scanning an ID check. You wait 15 mins there, then enter inside (at 6:55 pm) and you have to find your train gate. Finally, you find it in 6:59… and the gate is closed. It’s too late! You not only lose your train ticket but now can’t purchase a new ticket for the next train, because everything is sold! Then you can easily imagine what would happen with your itinerary next.
Many things can make you late for a plane, train or bus, but the most common are traffic jam, long queues or just poorly calculated timetable, not considering the distances and schedules well.
VPN, maps and apps
Yes, don’t forget another important detail: install a VPN on your phone! As maybe you have heard, there is no Google (and Google Maps) in China. No Facebook, no Instagram, no Twitter, no Pinterest. They are all blocked by the so-called “Great China Firewall”. If you are an independent traveler, you would need maps, GPS and access to Google (unless you know Chinese and can find information in Baidu, the “Chinese Google”). You can also download Amap app on your phones- although it is in Chinese, it still can find places written in English and draw a route to them.
No matter how would you plan your trip to China, transportation is a very important part of it. You can easily combine various kinds of transport (along with your accommodation, which also has its specific peculiarities), so you can reach almost every corner of China. Just consider all these specific details about transportation in this country and you can have a great and unforgettable experience!