Saturday, February 27, 2021

How To Travel Around China

Asia China How To Travel Around China

With plane

China is a huge country. So unless you plan to move outside the east coast, you should definitely consider domestic flights if you don’t want to spend a few days on the train or on the road to get from one area to another. There are many domestic flights in China connecting all major cities and tourist destinations. Airlines include the three international carriers: Air China, China Southern and China Eastern, as well as regional carriers such as Hainan Airlines, Shenzhen Airlines, Sichuan Airlines and Shanghai Airlines.

Flying between Hong Kong or Macau and cities in mainland China is considered an international flight and as such can be quite expensive. Therefore, if you arrive in or depart from Hong Kong or Macau, it is usually much cheaper to fly to or from Shenzhen or Zhuhai, which are just across the border, or from Guangzhou, which is a little further away but offers more destinations. For example, the distance from Fuzhou to Hong Kong, Shenzhen or Guangzhou is about the same, but in mid-2005 a flight to Hong Kong cost ¥1,400, while the list price for the other cities was ¥880 and discounts of up to ¥550 were available for Shenzhen. An overnight bus ride to one of these destinations cost about ¥250.

Domestic fares are standard, but discounts are common, especially on the busier routes. Most good hotels and many hostels have a ticket service and may be able to save you 15-70% on the ticket price. Travel agencies and booking offices are numerous in all Chinese cities and offer similar discounts. Even without considering discounts, travelling by plane in China is not expensive.

For travel within China, it is usually best to buy tickets in China or on Chinese websites (there are several in English – they deliver the tickets to hotels in major cities. Payment is in cash to the person delivering the ticket(s)). Abroad, especially online, suppliers often charge much higher prices. It is not advisable to book too far in advance on Chinese websites, as prices remain high until two months before the flight date. At this point, there are usually big discounts, unless a particular flight is already fully booked well in advance.

Note that matches and lighters are not allowed on flights in China, not even in hand luggage. Pocket knives must be stowed in your hand luggage.

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Be prepared for unexplained flight delays, as these are common despite government and consumer pressure. Consider other, seemingly slower options for short distances. Flight cancellations are also not uncommon. If you bought your ticket from a Chinese carrier, they will likely try to contact you (if you left contact information) to inform you of the change in schedule. If you bought your ticket overseas, you should check the flight status a day or two before your scheduled flight.

With train

Travel by train is the primary method of long-distance trips for the Chinese, with an enormous network of lines which cover most parts of the country.. About a quarter of the world’s total rail traffic takes place in China.

China now has the world’s largest network of high-speed trains (similar to the French TGV or the Japanese Shinkansen) and the expansion is continuing rapidly. They are called CRH and the train numbers have a “G”, “C” or “D” prefix. If your itinerary and budget allow, these trains may be the best way to get around.

Train types

Chinese trains are divided into different categories, indicated by letters and numbers on the ticket. A guide to the hierarchy of Chinese trains from fastest to slowest are as follows:

  • G Series (高速 gāosù) – Long-distance high-speed express trains with speeds of up to 300 km/h – operate on many major high-speed routes, including Beijing – Zhengzhou – Wuhan – Guangzhou – Shenzhen, Zhengzhou – Xi’an, Beijing – Nanjing – Shanghai, Shanghai – Hangzhou and Nanjing – Hangzhou – Ningbo.
  • C-Series (城际 chéngjì) – 300 km/h fast short-distance high-speed trains – currently only on the Beijing-Wuqing-Tianjin-Tanggu and Shanghai South-Jinshanwei lines. The C-series numbering is also used for local trains on the Wuhan-Xianning lines.
  • D-series (动车 dòngchē) – 200 km/h fast trains.
  • Z-series (直达 zhídá) – 160 km/h non/less-stop services between major cities. Accommodation is mostly in soft-seat or soft-sleeper carriages, although they often have a few hard-sleeper carriages.
  • T series (特快 tèkuài) – 140 km/h fast intercity trains that only stop in larger cities. Similar to the Z trains, although they usually stop at more stations.
  • K-Series (快速 kuàisù) – 120 km/h fast trains, the most commonly seen series, stops at more stations than a T-train and has more hard berths and seats.
  • General express trains (普快 pǔkuài) – 120 km/h fast trains, without letter designation, four digits start with 1-5. These trains are the cheapest, albeit slowest long-distance trains.
  • General trains (普客 pǔkè) – 100 km/h fast local trains without letter designation, four digits start with 5, 6 or 7. Slowest trains, stop almost everywhere.
  • Commuter trains (通勤 tōngqín) / service trains (路用 lùyòng) – 4-digit number starting with 8 or 5-digit number starting with 57, extremely slow locally owned train, mostly used by staff of the railway.
  • L series (临时 línshí) – seasonal trains matching the K or four-digit series.
  • Y-series (旅游 lǚyóu) – trains that mainly serve tourist groups.
  • S-Series (市郊 shìjiāo) – Currently the only one on the Beijing Suburban Railway between Beijing North and Yanqing County via Badaling (Great Wall).

Classes

There are five classes of travel on the regular non-CRH trains:

  • Soft sleeper cars (软卧 ruǎnwò) are the most comfortable mode of transport and are still relatively cheap by Western standards. The soft sleeper compartments contain four bunks stacked two to a column (although some newer trains have two-bunk compartments), a locking door for privacy and are quite spacious.
  • Hard sleepers (硬卧 yìngwò), on the other hand, have 3 beds per column, open to the aisle. The highest bunk is very high and leaves little room for headroom. For taller travellers (1.80 m or more), this is the best bunk, as your feet protrude into the aisle when sleeping and you don’t bump into each other. The top bunk is also useful for people who have things to hide (e.g. cameras). If you place them at head height, they are harder for would-be thieves to reach. It is worth noting that this is not a ‘hard’ bed, the beds have mattresses and are generally quite comfortable. All beds are provided with pillows and blankets.
  • Soft seats (软座 ruǎnzuò) are fabric-covered, usually reclining seats and are a special category that you will rarely find. These are only available on day trains between destinations with a journey time of around 4-8 hours and on all high-speed trains (class D and above).
  • Hard seats (硬座 yìngzuò), which is practically well padded, is not to everyone’s taste, particularly for overnight, as it consists of an arrangement of 3 seats and 2 seats and is 5 seats wide. However, this is the class in which most of the backpacker crowd travels. Despite the “No smoking” signs, there are almost always smokers in the car. There is always a crowd of smokers at the ends of the carriages and the smoke drifts endlessly into the cabin. On most trains, especially in inland China, the space between carriages is a designated smoking area, although the signs for “designated smoking area” are only in Chinese, so this fact may not be clear to many travellers. Sleeping in the hard seats can certainly be considered uncomfortable and will cause a lot of inconvenience for just about all travellers, including many restless, endless hours without sleep.
  • Standing (无座 wúzuò) allow access to the hard-seat carriage, but do not give seat reservation. Consider carrying a tripod chair in your backpack to make such trips more comfortable.

The soft seat and soft sleeper carriages and some hard seat and hard sleeper carriages are air-conditioned.

The CRH trains usually have five classes:

  • Second class (二等座 erdengzuo) (3+2 seating arrangement). The seats are a bit narrow, but there is plenty of legroom.
  • First class (一等座 yidengzuo) (2+2 arrangement)
  • Three VIP classes (2+1 arrangement directly behind the driver’s cabin). There are three different VIP classes, called “商务座” (business class), “观光座” (sightseeing class) and “特等座” (luxury class). Unlike on planes, “商务座” (business class) is indeed better than “一等座” (first class) on CRH trains. 商务座 (Business Class) and 观光座 (Sightseeing Class) are the same price, while 特等座 is usually more expensive than “一等座” (First Class) but cheaper than 商务座 and 观光座.

Train tickets

Since 2014, the sale of train tickets usually starts 20 days in advance, either online via the China Rail booking site or at the ticket counters of the major stations.

  • China Rail website. It is possible to book tickets through this website and there is no charge for this service. However, the site is only in Chinese and only accepts UnionPay, so you will need a Chinese bank account to use it.

Tickets can be bought two days later at private agencies. They are little window shops which are scattered around the cities and are marked with the words “售火车票” (shou huo che piao).They charge a small commission (e.g. 5 yuan), but can save you a trip to the station. If you go to a ticket office to buy tickets, you will generally save yourself a lot of trouble if you write down the train number, the date and time of departure, the seat class and number of tickets, and the origin and destination in Chinese or at least in pinyin. Staff usually do not speak English and do not have much patience at the stations as there are usually long queues.

Travel agencies take money and bookings for tickets in advance, but no one can guarantee your ticket until the station releases it to the market, whereupon your agency goes and buys the ticket they previously “guaranteed” you. This is true everywhere in China.

Both residents and non-residents must present identification to purchase a ticket (e.g. ID card or passport). The name of the buyer will be printed on the ticket and each person must be present with an ID when collecting the ticket. Tickets sell out very quickly, especially at festivals, so it is advisable to book tickets as far in advance as possible. One way to get around the ID requirement if one of your fellow travellers is not present is to ask a Chinese person to buy the ticket online. You then only need to enter the passport number and present the passport when collecting the ticket.

Note that many cities have different stations for normal trains and high-speed trains.

Stations

Unlike what you may be used to, Chinese train stations operate much like an airport. The main implication of this is that you shouldn’t expect to catch a train at the last minute – the gates close a few minutes before departure! To be safe, you should be there at least 20 minutes early, or 30 minutes if you are entering a large station.

You will need to pass through an initial ticket and security check to enter the station. In the departure hall, follow the digital display boards to find the correct gate (they should be in both English and Chinese, at least at CRH stations; if only Chinese is available, you can still find the train number printed at the top of your ticket). Wait in the waiting area near your gate until boarding is announced about 10-20 minutes before departure. You will then pass through a ticket check (have your passport ready as they may want to see it) and follow the crowd to the platform. Note that there are two types of tickets: red paper tickets, which are issued at ticket machines, and blue magnetic tickets, which you can get at the station ticket office. Blue tickets go into one of the automatic ticket counters, while red tickets are checked manually; make sure you go through the counter in the right place.

On the platform, the train may already be waiting; otherwise, look for your carriage number written on the edge of the platform and make sure you are waiting in the right place, as often the train only stops for a few minutes. If there are no such signs, show the staff your ticket and they will show you where to wait. Some newer stations have higher platforms that are level with the door, but at smaller stations the platforms are very low and you have to climb several steep steps to get on the train, so be prepared if you have a large suitcase. Generally, passengers are friendly and will offer to help you with bulky luggage.

At your destination, exit the platform through one of the clearly marked exits, which will take you outside the station rather than into the waiting area. Your ticket may be checked again and may or may not be retained.

Travel tips

The CRH trains are also top international in terms of equipment and cleanliness. This includes the toilets, where toilet paper and soap are reliably available – a rarity in China. Toilets on non-high-speed trains also tend to be a bit more “usable” than those on buses or in most public areas, as they are simple devices that empty the contents directly onto the tracks and therefore do not smell as strongly. Soft sleepers usually have a European style toilet at one end and a Chinese style squatting toilet at the other. Note that on non-CRH trains, if the train stops at a station, the conductor usually locks the toilets before arrival to prevent people from leaving debris on the station floor.

Long distance trains have a buffet or dining car that serves not very tasty hot food for about ¥25. The menu will be entirely in Chinese, but if you are willing to take the risk, you can eat very well (try to interpret some of the Chinese characters, or ask for common dishes with names). Wait until the train stops at a station if you are on a tight budget.There are usually vendors on the platform there selling noodles, snacks, and fruit at cheaper prices.

Each train car usually has a dispenser for hot boiled water, so you should bring tea, soups and instant noodles to prepare your own food. Passengers usually bring a thermos or some type of sealable glass mug to make tea.

Be careful with your valuables on the train; thefts on public transportation have increased in recent years.

On most higher-ranking trains (T, K, Z, and CRH trains), announcements are recorded in Chinese, English, and occasionally Cantonese (if the train serves Guangdong or Hong Kong province), Mongolian (in Inner Mongolia), Tibetan (in Tibet), or Uighur (in Xinjiang). Local trains do not have announcements in English, so it can be more difficult to know when to get off.

Motion sickness pills are recommended if you are prone to this type of discomfort. Earplugs are recommended to allow for undisturbed sleep. Tickets are exchanged for cards on long-distance trains in sleeping cars. Train conductors return the original tickets as the train approaches the destination station. This ensures that everyone gets off where they are supposed to, even if they can’t wake themselves up.

If you have a few things to share on the train, you will have fun. The Chinese families and businessmen traveling on the line are just as bored as the next person and will be happy to try to have a conversation or watch a movie being shown on a laptop. All in all, the opportunity to see the passing scenery is a nice experience.

Smoking is not allowed in the seating or sleeping areas, but is allowed in the vestibules at the end of each car. Smoking is completely prohibited on the new CRH trains, the Guangzhou-Kowloon shuttle train, and the Beijing Suburban Railway. Inside station buildings, smoking is prohibited except in designated smoking rooms, although these places are often unpleasant and poorly ventilated.

Useful websites

Official booking site

The Rail Customer Service Centre is the official and only authoritative online source for train timetables, ticket availability and online bookings. It is only available in Chinese, but not difficult to use if you can read some Chinese characters. To check train timetables or ticket availability, click on “余票查询” (yu piao cha xun, remaining ticket request) on the front page. Enter the starting point, destination and date (the interface accepts pinyin and shows you the corresponding Chinese characters to choose from), then click “查询” (cha xun, query).

You will then receive a matrix with the trains running that day and the tickets still available.

  • 车次: This column displays the train number.
  • 出发站/到达站: Origin and destination of the train. Note that each city may have a suffix attached to it indicating the station. Which is generally one of 北 (bei, north), 南 (nan, south), 东 (dong, east), 西 (xi, west). E.g. 北京西 is Beijing West Railway Station. These suffixes are especially common for CRH trains, as they often stop separately from regular trains.
  • 出发时间/到达时间: Departure and arrival time.
  • 历时: The duration of the journey, represented as “XX小时YY分”, where XX is the number of hours and YY is the number of minutes. Following the number of days 当日到达 (same-day arrival), 次日到达 (next-day arrival), 第三日到达 (arrival two days later).
  • The remaining columns correspond to the different classes and show the number of remaining tickets. “No tickets available” is displayed as “无” (wu), otherwise the number of remaining tickets is displayed. When clicked, the price of the ticket is displayed. Check the above information to get an overview of the different train types and classes available. If you search far in advance, a time of day may be displayed, which then indicates at what time tickets become available for purchase.

It is possible to book tickets via the website; however, you will need a Chinese bank account to pay for them. You can then collect the tickets at any station or ticket office at any time by showing your passport. While you probably won’t be able to book tickets yourself, one of the most convenient ways to get tickets in advance is to ask a Chinese friend to do it for you: Tickets first become available online before they are sold at agencies, and you don’t have to present each traveller’s passport when booking (just have all passport numbers ready). In doing so, you only pay the ticket price and no additional fees.

The site has a certain reputation among the Chinese population for being slow and unreliable. However, this mostly refers to times like Chinese New Year, when tickets sell out in seconds and loads are generated that would bring almost any website to its knees.

Third party websites

  • CTrains.com is the first online booking website for China train tickets for English users. Travellers can book China train tickets online in real time for 24/7. There are also no booking fees.
  • The Man in Seat 61 website has a good section on Chinese trains.
  • Absolute China Tours or China Highlights have English time and fare information (note that the lists on these websites are very useful but not 100% complete).
  • OK Travel has more timetables. This page is mostly in Chinese, but contains romanised place names and you can use it without knowing Chinese. On the search page, simply select from the lists provided: the left side is the departure city, the right side is the destination. Note that you have to select the province(ies) or region(s) in the dropdown box before the corresponding list of cities appears. You select the desired cities and then press the left button at the bottom (marked 确认, “Confirm”) to execute the search. If you can enter place names in Chinese characters, the search function can even help you plan multi-day trips.
  • CNVOL has an extensive (quite exhaustive) and frequently updated list of all trains running in China. Simply enter the names of the places where you want to start and end your journey, and you will get a list of all the trains that run the route (including all the trains that are currently passing the stations you selected), listed with their starting and ending locations and times. Click on a train number you like and you can find out the prices for all available seat or berth classes by clicking on Check price below. The most important thing is that you spell the place names correctly in “pinyin”, the characters are never separated by a space, so: Lijiang, Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Kunming, etc.

With bus

Travelling by public city bus (公共汽车 gōnggòngqìchē) or long-distance bus (长途汽车 chángtúqìchē) is inexpensive and ideal for inner-city transport and short distances.

Buses varies from town to town – generally with plastic seats, many people, lack of English signs as well as unreliable drivers. However, if you can understand the bus routes, they are cheap and go almost everywhere. The buses usually have an announcement telling you the next stop – for example, “xia yi zhan – zhong shan lu” (next stop Zhongshan Road) or “Shanghai nan huo che zhan dao le” (Shanghai South railway station – Coming soon). In some larger cities like Beijing or Hangzhou, there are English announcements on some main lines. Fares are usually around ¥1-2 (the former for older buses without air-conditioning, the latter for air-conditioned modern buses) or more if going to the suburbs. Most buses simply have a metal box next to the entrance where you can put your fare (no change – save the 1-yuan coins), or on longer routes, a conductor who collects the fare and gives out tickets and change. Be aware that drivers usually prioritise speed over comfort, so hold on tight.

Coaches, or long distance buses, vary drastically and can be a reasonably comfortable or very uncomfortable experience. Buses coming from larger cities on the east coast are usually air-conditioned and have soft seats or sleeper chairs. The roads are very good and the ride is quiet so you can enjoy the view or take a nap. Coaches are often a better, albeit more expensive, option than trains. Bus staff usually try to be helpful, but they are much less familiar with foreigners than airline staff and English skills are very rare. Some buses have toilets, but they are often dirty and can be difficult to use when the bus turns a corner and water splashes around in the sink.

A coach in rural China is a very different experience. Signs at the station identifying the buses are only in Chinese or another local language, routes may also be posted or taped to the bus windows and drivers or touts call out their destinations as you pass, the number plate of the bus should actually be printed on the ticket but this is all too often inaccurate. Due to different customs, foreigners may find bus staff rude and other passengers rude as they spit on the floor and out of the window and smoke. The vehicle can be overcrowded if the driver decides to take as many passengers as he can squeeze into the bus. The roads in rural China are often just a string of potholes, making for a bumpy and painful ride; if you have a seat in the back of the bus, you will spend much of the journey flying through the air. Scheduled departure and arrival times are only rough estimates, as many buses don’t leave until all seats are sold, which can add hours to the journey, and breakdowns and other mishaps can extend the journey considerably. Breakdowns and other mishaps can add considerably to your journey. The misery of your journey is only compounded if you have to drive for 10-20 hours at a stretch. As unpleasant as it may sound, unless you have the money to spend on your own vehicle, rural buses are the only means of transport in many areas of China. The good thing is that these buses are usually willing to stop anywhere along the route if you want to visit remote areas without direct transport. The buses can also stop at most points along their route. The fare for the rest of the route is negotiable.

All over China, drivers often disregard traffic rules, if there are any, and accidents are common. Sudden swerving and stopping can cause injury, so hold on as tightly as possible. Honking is common among Chinese drivers, so a set of earplugs is a good idea if you plan to sleep while driving.

Getting a ticket can be quite difficult. Large bus stations have ticket offices that sell printed tickets showing the departure time, the boarding gate and the registration number of your bus (not always correct), and have fixed prices. Smaller bus stations have touts that announce the destination and guide you to your bus, where you pay on board. Large stations also have touts – usually they call the driver of a departing bus waiting by the road, while the tout takes you to the waiting bus on the back of a motorbike – you can then negotiate the fare with the driver. This is sometimes a complete scam and sometimes you can save about 30% on the fare – depending on your negotiation and Chinese skills.

Sleeping car

In China, sleeper buses are very common; instead of seats, they have bunk beds.These are a good way to travel longer distances – overnight distances are 1000 km or more at motorway speeds – but they are not quite as comfortable for tall or large travellers.

Generally, these are smooth and comfortable quickly in the affluent coastal provinces, less so in less developed areas. Try to avoid getting the bunk at the very back of the bus; if the bus hits a major bump, passengers there will be thrown into the air.

In some places you have to take off your shoes when boarding the bus; a plastic bag is provided to keep them. Follow the locals. If there are food or toilet stops, put your shoes back on. If you normally travel in boots, it is worth getting a pair of kung fu shoes to make this easier.

With subway

Most major cities in China now have metro (地铁 dìtiě) systems. They are usually modern, clean, efficient, popular with locals and continue to expand rapidly. Beijing and Shanghai already have some of the busiest underground systems in the world. Subways are usually the best way to get between two points. They will be extremely crowded during rush hour, but roads will also be heavily congested at the same time.

Both on the platforms and on the trains, there is usually signage in Chinese and English listing all the stations on the respective line. Due to the rapid changes in recent years, many maps (especially the English versions) may be out of date. It is worth getting a bilingual metro network map in advance and carrying it with you when travelling by metro.

Underground stations in Chinese cities usually have a security checkpoint before the turnstiles where you have to run your bags through an X-ray scanner. Metal detectors for people are not usually used.

Stations usually have numerous exits, labelled with names such as Exit A, B, C1 or C2. On maps you will find each exit clearly labelled around the station. Signs in the station itself make it easy to find your exit.

With taxi

Taxis (出租车 chūzūchē or 的士 dishì, pronounced “deg-see” in Cantonese-speaking areas) are generally common and inexpensive. Prices range from ¥5 in some cities to ¥14 in others, with about ¥2-3 charged per kilometre. In most cases, you can expect between ¥10-50 for a normal ride within the city. There is no extra charge for luggage, but in many cities fares are slightly higher at night. (In Shanghai, for example, falling the flag costs ¥14 06:00-22:59, and ¥18 23:00-05:59) Tipping is not expected.

While it is not uncommon for drivers to cheat visitors by deliberately choosing a longer route, it is not that common and should not usually be a nuisance. If it does happen, the fare difference is usually minimal. However, if you feel seriously cheated on the way to your hotel and you are staying in a mid-range or upscale hotel that has a porter, you can ask him and/or the front desk staff for help: a single sharp sentence pointing out the cheating can clear up the matter. In cities, it is quite effective to photograph the driver’s ID (hanging on the dashboard) and threaten to report him to the authorities.

The advanced smartphones in China mean that it is becoming very common for people to order taxi rides via a phone app and even offer higher fares. These services make it harder to randomly hail a taxi on the street, so it might be a good idea to learn the (Chinese language only) app if you spend a lot of time here.

Also beware of taxi salesmen who stalk naïve travellers inside or just outside airport terminals and train stations. They will try to negotiate a fixed price to get you to your destination and usually charge double or triple the regular fare. If you are not familiar with the area, stick to the designated taxi ranks located outside most major airport terminals and insist that the driver uses the meter. The fare should be clearly displayed outside the taxi.

Finding a taxi at rush hour can be a bit difficult. But it gets really difficult when it rains. Outside peak hours, especially at night, it is sometimes possible to get a 10-20% discount, especially if you negotiate it in advance, even if the meter is on and you ask for a receipt. Tipping is not required, although they certainly won’t complain if you round up after a long ride.

The taxi fee is usually rounded up to whole numbers (half). For example, you should pay ¥14 if the value on the taximeter ranges from 13.5 to 14.4.

Sitting in the passenger seat of taxis is acceptable and even useful if you have difficulty communicating in Chinese. Some taxis mount the meter at the bottom of the gearbox, where you can only see it from the passenger seat. Be warned that drivers may start smoking without asking, simply by opening the window and lighting up. In some cities it is also common for drivers to try to pick up more than one passenger if their destinations are in the same direction. Each passenger pays the full fare, but it saves the time of waiting for an empty taxi at rush hour.

It is difficult to find an English-speaking taxi driver, even in large cities like Shanghai and Beijing. If you are not able to pronounce Mandarin well, you can easily be misunderstood. Therefore, it is advisable to write down the name of the place you want to go to or take a map with you. Using the romanised spelling (pinyin) is not very helpful as most Chinese cannot understand it and the same pinyin can correspond to many different characters, so it is always better to ask someone to write it down for you in Chinese characters. Business cards for your hotel and for restaurants are useful to show to taxi drivers. It will be a good idea to equip yourself with a sound guide to conversing in Chinese. Such tools can easily be found on the internet in different languages.

In some cities, taxi companies use a star rating system for drivers, ranging from 0 to 5, which is displayed on the driver’s nameplate on the dashboard in front of the passenger seat. While no stars or only a few stars do not necessarily indicate a bad driver, many stars tend to indicate a good knowledge of the city and a willingness to take you where you want to go by the shortest route. Another indicator of the driver’s skills can be found on the same nameplate – the driver’s ID number. A small number tells you that he has been on the road for a long time and probably knows the city very well. A quick tip to get a taxi driver’s attention if you feel you are being ripped off or scammed: Get out of the car and start noting his number plate, and if you speak some Chinese (or have a good phrase book), threaten to report the driver to the city or taxi company. Most drivers are honest and fares are not very high, but there are also the bad ones who will try to use your lack of Chinese skills to their advantage.

Sometimes when searching for a taxi, many Chinese people can be very assertive. The person flagging down a particular car is not necessarily entitled to that ride. It is common for locals to get further ahead in traffic to intercept cars, or to be pushed out of the way if they try to get into a taxi. If others in the area are competing for rides, be ready to reach your car and get in as soon as possible after you have flagged it down.

Always wear your seat belt (if you can find it), no matter how much the taxi driver insists you don’t need it. Some taxi drivers, especially those who speak some English, can be quite nosy and talkative, especially during rush hour (高峰 gāofēng). Depending on the character and English skills of the driver or your knowledge of Chinese, you may find conversation very amusing or quite annoying.

With tram (trolley)

Above ground, some cities such as Dalian or Changchun offer transport by tram. They stop more frequently than light rail and are a convenient way to get around if the city has one. Single-track trolleys may also be in use. Both modes of transport are prone to congestion.

With bicycle

Bicycles (zìxíngchē, 自行车) were once the most common form of transport in China. But in recent years they have dramatically lost popularity as people have switched to electric bikes and motorbikes. Many bicycles are traditional heavy one-speed road bikes, but simple mountain bikes with multiple gears are also common. For travellers, bicycles can be a cheap, convenient means of transport that is better than squeezing into a public bus for hours.

There are two main dangers for cyclists in China:

  • Car traffic; cars and motorbikes often drive off without warning, and in most areas red lights are apparently optional.
  • Theft of bicycles is common in China’s cities. Watch how other people park their bikes. In some places you may still see locals simply parking their bikes, but in many cities people lock them in restaurants and internet cafes. It is advisable to park in designated areas with a guard, which costs about ¥1-2. Some locals also deliberately buy a used, old, ugly bike so that it won’t tempt a thief.

In most tourist areas – whether big cities like Beijing or heavily touristy villages like Yangshuo – bicycles are easy to rent and there is a repair shop on every corner. Guided bicycle tours are also readily available.

Buying a bike is easy. The most popular quality brands are Dahong, Meridianda and Giant, with dealers in every city. Prices range from $150 to more than $10,000. You should budget around $3,000 to $4,500 to ride a well-equipped mountain bike in areas such as Tibet. Big cities like Shanghai and Beijing tend to stock more upmarket bikes, but if you have very specific requirements, Hong Kong is still the last hope to buy them.

Bicycle repair shops are seemingly everywhere in the cities and countryside; for non-Chinese speaking tourists it might be a bit difficult, but you can just look for bikes and tyres. For a quick fix to a sudden flat tyre, there are also many people standing by the side of the road with a bowl of water and a repair kit. For special parts, such as disc brakes, you might want to bring a spare wheel if you don’t use them in big cities.

China is a vast country and offers serious cyclists the challenge of cycling through mountains and desert. However, since November 2011, it has been a legal requirement that foreign tourists cycling through the Tibet Autonomous Region must obtain a permit and hire a guide (although other Tibetan regions in China may also be visited).

Travelling with a bicycle on a train, bus or ferry

You can transport your bicycle as checked luggage (by train) if you wish to take it to other locations in the country. The charge for shipping a bicycle-sized item is usually much less than the cost of a passenger ticket for the same distance. This is possible at most major stations; the luggage department is usually located somewhere near the main station building. Checked luggage does not travel on the same train with you (in fact, you don’t even have to travel by train); it may take a few days to arrive at your destination.

A foldable bike can be taken as hand luggage on most trains; however, you may be asked to put it in a bag, so make sure you have a bag big enough to fit a folded bike in! With a typical hard or soft bunk ticket, you can easily fit a folded bike in the luggage compartment of the compartment (this is located between the roof of the carriage and the ceiling of the carriage aisle and is accessible from the compartment itself). On a high-speed line, some carriages have a convenient luggage compartment near the door into which a folded bicycle can easily fit; others do not, so accommodating the bicycle without inconveniencing oneself and fellow passengers can be somewhat problematic.

Regional and long-distance buses have a luggage compartment under their floor. You can sometimes see people carrying items as big as a motorbike. If the bus is not very full and does not already carry too much passenger luggage, it may sometimes be possible to fit even a normal (non-folding) bicycle in there; you may have to negotiate with the driver.

It is of course no problem to take a bicycle on a ferry that is designed for both passengers and vehicles; but even a passenger-only ferry would often allow bicycles. Ask at the terminal, or observe what other passengers are doing.

With car

The PRC generally does not recognise international driving licences and does not allow foreigners to drive in China without a Chinese driving licence. Note that Hong Kong and Macau driving licences are also considered foreign and possession of one does not allow you to drive on the mainland. This reportedly changed in 2007 and short-term driving without a Chinese licence became legal. However, as with many laws in China, official changes and changes in practice do not necessarily coincide; as of December 2008, it is still illegal for foreigners to drive without a Chinese driving licence. Importing foreign vehicles is very difficult.

Rental cars usually come with a driver and this is probably the best way to travel by car in China. Driving in China is not recommended unless you are used to chaotic driving conditions. Driving in China’s cities is not for the faint-hearted, and parking spaces are often very hard to find. However, driving habits have improved over time and are no longer as aggressive as in Indonesia or Vietnam, for example. In mainland China, traffic flows on the right. In many neighbouring countries, such as India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan as well as Hong Kong and Macau, traffic flows on the left.

In the areas that are likely to be visited by most tourists, the street signs are bilingual in Chinese and English.

Foreigners should really avoid driving outside of major cities.” “One-way” signs usually mean “mostly one-way, but not necessarily one-way”. If you miss an exit on the motorway, expect to slow down before the next ramp and then turn 270 degrees to get back on the motorway. Expect drivers to take creative shortcuts in most cases.

With motorbike

Motorbike taxis are common, especially in smaller towns and rural areas. They are usually cheap and effective, but a bit scary. Fares are negotiable.

The regulations for riding a motorbike vary from city to city. 50cc mopeds may be driven without a license in some cases, although many cities have now banned them or reclassified them due to numerous accidents. Riding a “real” motorbike is much more difficult – partly because you need a Chinese driving licence, partly because they are banned in many cities, and partly because production and imports have declined with the focus on cars and electric scooters. The typical Chinese motorbike is 125cc, does about 100 km/h and is a traditional cruiser style. They tend to be slow, mundane to ride and have little sporting potential. Government restrictions on engine size mean that sport bikes are rare, but can still be found. Another popular choice is a 125cc automatic ‘maxi’ scooter, loosely based on the Honda CN250 – it’s a bit faster than a moped and more comfortable on long journeys, but has the advantage of an automatic transmission, which makes getting through stop-and-go traffic in town much easier.

Most towns have some kind of motorbike market where you can often buy a cheap motorbike with fake or illegal number plates – although a foreigner on a motorbike is a rare sight and will attract the attention of the police. Helmets are compulsory on ‘proper’ motorbikes, but optional on scooters. Technically you need a number plate – they are yellow or blue on a motorbike or green on a scooter and can cost several thousand yuan to register the motorbike yourself, although fake number plates are easily available at a lower price – do so at your own risk.

With the pedicab (rickshaw)

In some medium-sized cities, tricycles are a more convenient way to travel short distances. Tricycles are a general term for motorized and rickshaw vehicles and are found everywhere in rural China and in less developed areas of large cities (i.e. less touristy areas). It is essential to negotiate the fare in advance.

Reports that “drivers will often try to rob you” may refer to con artists working at tourist attractions such as the Silk Road, Wangfujing, and especially the Lao She Teahouse in Beijing. Presumably a good business lesson is “beware of almost anyone who sells anything around tourist traps”.

For example, if you see a normal Chinese family using a “tricycle” on the street between the Beijing Zoo and the next subway station, it’s safe. Don’t sponsor a tricycle in an old-fashioned suit just to attract tourists. He will try to charge you ten times the usual price.

In Shanghai, electrified three-wheeled tricycles developed or converted from pedicabs seem to dominate.