GUIDE TO CHINA
GETTING AROUND CHINA
While trundling around China in buses or sweeping across the land by train is great on occasion, China is a country of vast distances. If you don’t have the time or inclination for a long drawn-out land campaign, take to the air.
Airports are being built and upgraded all over the land, making air transport increasingly appealing, with new airports including Shanghai’s Pudong Airport, Beijing’s new Capital Airport terminal and Hong Kong’s spiffing Chek Lap Kok Airport.
The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC: Zhongguo Minyong) is the civil aviation authority for numerous airlines, including Air China ( www.airchina.com.cn ), China Eastern ( www.cea.online.sh.cn ), China Southern ( www.cs-air.com ), China Northern ( www.cna.in.cninfo.net ), China Southwest ( www.cswa.com ), China Northwest, Shanghai. Yunnan and others.
CAAC publishes a combined international and domestic timetable in both English and Chinese in April and November each year. This timetable can be bought at some airports and CAAC offices in China . Individual airlines also publish timetables. You can buy these from ticket offices throughout China.
Round-trip prices are simply double the single price. You’ll need to show your passport when reserving or purchasing a ticket.
Business-class tickets cost 25% more than economy-class tickets, and 1st-class tickets cost an extra 60%. Children over 12 are charged adult fares; kids between two and 12 pay half-price. Toddlers under the age of two pay 10% of the full fare. You can use credit cards at most CAAC offices and travel agents.
Travel agents charge you full fare, plus extra commission for their services The service desks in better hotels (three-star and up) can reserve and even purchase air tickets for you with a little advance notice. Buying tickets during the Chinese New Year, and the 1 May and I October week-long holidays is near impossible, so plan early. There is an airport tax of Y50 on domestic flights.
Cancellation fees depend on how long before departure you cancel. On domestic flights, if you cancel 24 to 48 hours before departure you lose 10% of the fare: if you cancel between two and 24 hours before the flight you lose 20%; and it’ you cancel less than two hours before the flight you lose 30%. If you don’t show up for a domestic flight, you are entitled to a refund of 50%.
When purchasing a ticket. you may be asked to buy insurance (Y20). It’s not compulsory and the amount you can claim is very low.
You need to arrive at the airport at least 30 minutes before departure.
On domestic and international flights the free baggage allowance for an adult passenger is 20kg in economy class and 30kg in 1st class. You are also allowed 5kg of hand luggage, though this is rarely weighed. The charge for excess baggage is 1% of the full fare for each kilogram. Baggage reclamation facilities are rudimentary at the older airports and waits can be long: lost baggage compensation is Y40 per kilogram.
Planes vary in style and comfort. The more regularly traveled routes between cities employ Boeing or Airbus, more farflung regions still depend on Soviet-built passenger jets. You may get a hot meal, or just a small piece of cake and an airline souvenir. On-board announcements are delivered in Chinese and English if there are foreigners on board.
Long-distance buses are one of the best means of getting around the country. Services are extensive and main roads are rapidly improving. Buses stop every so often in small towns and villages, so you get to see parts of the countryside you wouldn’t see if you traveled by train, although breakdowns can be a problem. Another plus is that it’s easier to secure bus tickets than train tickets and they are often cheaper.
Routes between large cities are sporting a larger, cleaner and more comfortable fleet of private buses: shorter and more far-flung routes still rely on rattling minibuses. Some parts of the land (especially in China’s Southwest, Tibet and the northwest) present formidable challenges to travelers-precipitous drops, pot hole, dangerous road surfaces and reckless drivers. Accidents in black-spot areas such as parts of Sichuan are common.
Long-distance bus journeys can be cramped and noisy: buses have speakers that entertain with ear-popping music. Other routes loop violent Hong Kong films on overhead TVs with three dimensional sound. The driver leans on the horn at the slightest detection of a vehicle in front.
Mostly bus travel is a slow means of transport, although the increasing number of major highways can make travel faster than trains. It’s safe to estimate times for bus journeys on non-highway routes by calculating the distance against a speed of 25km/h. Also factor in driving techniques drivers are loathe to change gears and appear to prefer to almost stop on a slope rather than changing from third into second.
If taking buses to high altitude destinations in winter, make sure you take plenty of warm clothes. A breakdown in frozen conditions can prove lethal for those unprepared.
It’s a good idea to weigh up the variety of buses plying the route you intend to take. Besides that bone-rattling tin creature that you are being shoved onto by ticket operators, a plush, air-con (albeit slightly more expensive) coach could well be heading to the same location.
Night buses are quite common. Such services get mixed reviews – they are more dangerous and it’s difficult to sleep on a crowded jolting bus. Sleeper buses (wopu qiche) ply more popular routes – they are usually double the price of a normal bus service, but many travelers swear by them. Some have comfortable reclining seats, while others have two-tier bunks. Watch out for your belongings on them, however.
Privately owned minibuses are increasingly competing with public buses on medium-length routes. They can be infuriating, however, waiting until the last passenger is wedged inside before leaving. All available space is used – this is very dangerous and leaves little room to escape the vehicle in case of an accident. Drivers will sometimes try to make you pay extra for bulky luggage. Generally you buy your ticket on the minibus.
Backpacks are a nightmare to stow on many buses as there’s little space under the seats and the overhead racks are hardly big enough to accommodate a loaf of bread. If you intend doing a lot of bus travel, then travel light!
While some hotels and travel agents book bus tickets, it’s often cheaper, easier and less error-prone to head for the bus station and do it yourself. Most large towns and cities have at least one long-distance bus station where you can buy your ticket on the spot and get on your bus. These have been indicated on the street maps throughout this book.
There is a special symbol for a bus station that appears on local maps and is meant to resemble the bus steering wheel. The symbol is:
Although crowded, trains are the best way to get around in reasonable speed and comfort. The network covers every province except Tibet , but engineers are working on that last mountainous bastion. There is an estimated 52,000km of railway lines in China , most of which was built after 1949.
The safety record of the train system is good. The new fleet of trains is also a vast improvement on the old models – they are much cleaner and are equipped with air-con.
Many train stations require that luggage be x-rayed before entering the waiting area.
Just about all train stations have left-luggage rooms (jicun chu) where you can safely dump your bags for about Y2 to Y4.
Most trains have dining cars where you can find passable food. Railway staff also regularly walk by with pushcarts offering mian (instant noodles), mianbafo (bread), hefan (boxed rice lunches), huotui (ham), pijiu (beer), kuang quan shui (mineral water) and qishui (soft drinks). After about 8pm , when meals are over, you can probably wander back into the dining car. The staff may want to get rid of you, but if you just sit down and have a beer it may be OK.
In China there are no classes: instead you have hard seat, hard sleeper, soft seat and soft sleeper.
Hard Seat (Ying Zuo)
Except on the trains that serve some of the branch or more obscure lines, hard seat is in fact padded, but you’ll get little sleep on the upright seats. Since hard seat is the cheapest rail option, it’s usually packed to the gills, the lights stay on all night, passengers spit on the floor, you can carve the smoke in the air and the carriage speakers endlessly drone news, weather, good tidings and music. Hard seat on tourist, express trains or newer trains is more pleasant, less crowded and there could be air-con.
Hard seat tickets bought on the same day will usually be unreserved. If there are no seats, you’ll either have to stand or find a place for your bum among the peanut shells, cigarette butts and spittle.
Hard seat is OK for a day trip, but beyond that the enjoyment of your journey will be dependent on your comfort threshold.
Hard Sleeper (Ying Wo)
These are comfortable and only a fixed number of people are allowed in the sleeper carriage. The carriage has doorless compartments with six bunks in three tiers. Sheets, pillows and blankets are provided. There is a small price difference between berths. With the lowest bunk (xiapu) the most expensive and the top-most bunk (shangpu) the cheapest. You may wish to take the middle bunk (zhongpu) as all and sundry invade the lower berth to use it as a seat during the day, while the top one has little headroom and puts you near the speakers (tall passengers may prefer the top bunk as the beds are short and passengers in the aisle bash into their overhanging feet). When you buy your ticket you will be asked which level you want, and this will be on your ticket.
Lights and speakers in hard sleeper go out at around 9:30pm to l0pm. Competition for hard sleepers has become keen in recent years and you’ll be lucky to get one on short notice.
Soft seat (Ruan Zuo)
On shorter journeys (such as Shenzhen to Cuangzhou) some trains have soft seat carriages. The seats are comfortable and overcrowding is not permitted. Smoking is prohibited, but if you want to smoke you can do so by going out into the corridor between cars. Soft seat cost about the same as hard sleeper. Unfortunately, soft seat cars are a rarity.
Soft Sleeper (Ruan Wo)
Soft sleeper is luxurious travel, with four comfortable bunks in a closed compartment, wood paneling, potted plants, lace curtains, teacups, clean washrooms, carpets and air-con.
Soft sleeper costs twice as much as hard sleeper, and sometimes as much as flying. It’s usually easier to purchase soft rather in hard sleeper because few ordinary Chinese can afford it.
Train composition varies from line to line and from day to night, and largely depends on the demand for sleepers on that line. If the journey time is more than 12 hours then the train qualifies for a dining car. The dining car often separates the hard seat from the hard sleeper and soft sleeper carriages.
The conductor is in a little booth in a hard seat carriage in the middle of the train – usually carriage No 7. 8 or 9(all carriages are numbered on the outside). Coal-fired samovars are found in the ends of the hard-class sections, and from these you can draw a supply of hot water. However, on long trips the water often runs out.
Different types of trains are usually recognizable by the train number. All trains beginning with the letter ‘T’ are ‘special express’ trains (tekuai). They have all classes and there is a surcharge for speed and superior facilities. This class of train is the quickest, most luxurious and most expensive. With a few exceptions, the international trains are included in this group. All trains beginning with the letter ‘K’ are ‘fast speed’ (kuaisu) trains.
Train numbers starting with the letter ‘Y’ are tourist trains (luyou). All other train numbers not beginning with a T. K or Y are normal speed trains (pukuai). Sleepers can he found on all long-distance trains.
Numbers indicate the destination of the train. As a general rule, the outbound and inbound trains have matching numbers: thus train Nos K79 and K80 divide into No K79 leaving Shanhai and traveling to Kunming , and No K80 leaving Kunming and traveling to Shanghli.
Reservations & Tickets
Buying hard seat tickets at short notice is usually no hassle, but you will not always be successful in getting a reserved seat.
If you try to buy a sleeper ticket at the train station and the clerk says mei you (not have), turn to your hotel travel desk or China International Travel Service (CITS; Zhongeuo Guoji Luxingshe), China Travel Service (CTS: Zhongguo Luxingshe), China Youth Travel Service (CYTS: Zhongguo Qingnian Luxingshe). However, many CITS and CTS offices no longer do rail bookings. Most hotels have an in-house travel agent which can obtain train tickets. You’ll pay a service charge of around Y20.
Tickets for sleepers can usually be obtained in major citie, but not in quiet backwaters. There is a five-day, advance purchase limit.
Buying hard sleeper tickets in train stations can be very trying. Large stations like Beijing Train Station have special ticket offices for foreigners where procuring tickets is straightforward. Otherwise it can be a fraught experience should you decide to queue up and get your ticket at the station. Plan ahead and buy your ticket two or three days in advance, especially if you are heading to popular destinations. Some stations are surprisingly well run, but others are bedlam. The best stations now have computers that spit out tickets quickly and efficiently, resulting in queues that move faster.
Touts swarm around train stations selling black market tickets; this can be a way of getting scarce tickets, but foreigners frequently get ripped off. As with air travel, buying tickets around the Chinese New Year and the 1 May and 1 October holidays can be impossible.
If you can’t get a ticket for a popular route, you could try buying a ticket for somewhere two or three stops after your intended destination. Ask the ticket seller to write a note to the conductor, asking them to give you your ticket back early (this is necessary in sleeper trains, where the conductor exchanges your ticket for a plastic or metal chit: you get your original ticket back to exit the train station). You may be asked to show your ticket before leaving the destination station.
An alternative to all the above is not to bother with a ticket at all and simply walk on to the train. To do this, you need to buy a platform ticket (zhantai piao). These are available from the station’s information booth for a few jiao. You then buy your ticket on the train.
It’s only really worth doing this if you arrive at the station without enough time to buy a ticket as it’s generally more hassle than it’s worth.
If you get on the train with an unreserved seating ticket, you can seek out the conductor (who will usually be in the first hard seat car) and upgrade (bupiao) yourself to a hard sleeper, soft seat or soft sleeper if there are any available. If you get to the upgrade conductor before that train departs, leave your name on a list of those waiting to upgrade. Once the train departs the conductor will hand out tickets in list order. On some trains it’s easy to do, but others are notoriously crowded. A lot of intermediary stations along the railway lines can’t issue sleepers, making upgrading the only alternative to hard seat.
If the sleeper carriages are full then you may have to wait until someone gets off. That sleeper may only be available to you until the next major station, but you may be able to get several hours of sleep. The price will be calculated for the distance that you traveled in the sleeper.
If upgrading fails and you can’t bear the thought of hard seat, head for the dining car.
Tickets are valid for three days, depending on the distance traveled. On a cardboard ticket the number of days is printed at the bottom left-hand corner. If, you go 250km it’s valid for two days: 500km, three days; 1000km, four days; 2000km six days; and 2500km, seven days.
If you miss your train, your ticket is not refundable. However, if you return your ticket at least two hours before departure, you should be able to get an 80% refund. If you’re traveling two weeks before or after the Spring Festival (the high season), you must return your ticket at least six hours before departure for a 50% refund.
There are train timetables in Chinese, but no matter how fluent your Chinese, the timetables are excruciatingly detailed and it’s an effort working your way through them. Thinner versions listing the main trains can sometimes be bought at major train stations. Hotel reception desks and CITS offices have copies of the timetable for trains out of their city or town.
CAR & MOTORCYCLE
For those who’d like to tour China by car or motorbike, the news is bleak. It’s not like India , where you can simply buy a motorbike and head off. The authorities prevent tourists from driving between cities, so if you’re hoping to ship in your motorcycle or car or to buy one when you get to China and drive around independently, you can forget about it. Even if you could casually buy a car, prices are ludicrously high. Cars can be hired in Hong Kong , Macau , Shanghai and Beijing for local use. Although road conditions in China should abolish any remaining desire to get behind the wheel. For information on licenses, see the Driving License section in the Facts for the Visitor chapter. Foreigners can drive motorcycles if they are residents in China and have a Chinese motorcycle license.
On the other hand, it’s easy enough to book a car with a driver. Basically, this is just a standard long-distance taxi. Travel agencies like CITS or even hotel booking desks can make the arrangements. They generally ask excessive fees – the name of the game is to negotiate. If you can communicate in Chinese or find someone to translate, it’s not particularly difficult to find a private taxi driver to take you wherever you like for less than half CITS rates.
You’re more likely to get fined for illegal parking than speeding. Indeed, with China’s gridlock traffic, opportunities for speeding are swiftly vanishing, except on the highways. Even if you are a skilled driver, you will be unprepared for the performance on China’s roads: cars lunge from all angles and chaos abounds.
If you travel much around China , you’ll periodically encounter road blocks where the police stop every vehicle and impose arbitrary fines for driving with sunglasses, driving without sunglasses etc. The fine must be paid on the spot or the vehicle will be impounded.
Highway tolls are excessive in China : driving between Beijing and Shanghai for example, will cost around Y530 in toll fees alone for an average four seat car; then you’ve got to think of the petrol. You might as well take the train, it’ll cost you less and it’s much more fun.
Tourists are permitted to rent vehicles in Hong Kong , Macau , Beijing and Shanghai but you will be restricted to driving around within the perimeters of each city. You will need to come armed with an International Driving Permit.
Only legal residents of China can purchase a motor vehicle. The whole procedure is plagued by bureaucracy, with lots of little fees to be paid along the way. Unless you import from abroad, you’ll have to settle for an inelegant box on wheels. If you want something with style, you’ll have to pay through the nostrils for it: the on-the-road price for a bottom-rung Porsche in 2001 was Y1.15 million (sorry, no road tests). That’s before you weigh in the insurance.
The license plates issued to foreigners are different from those issued to Chinese, and this is a big hassle. Since the license plates go with the car, this essentially means that a foreigner wanting to buy a used car must buy it from another foreigner.
Probably the first time the Chinese saw a pneumatic-typed bicycle was when a pair of Americans called Allen and Sachtleben bumbled into Beijing around 1891 after a three-year journey from Istanbul. They wrote a book about it called Across Asia on a Bic.i cle. The novelty was well received by the Qing court, and the boy-emperor Puyi was given to tearing around the Forbidden City on a cycle.
Today there are over 300 million bikes in China , more than can be found in any other country. Some are made for export, but most are for domestic use. They are an excellent method for getting around China’s cities or patrolling tourist sights.
The traditional Chinese bicycle and tricycle were the tubular steel workhorses, used to carry anything up to a 100kg slaughtered pig or a couch. More fleet-foot are the multi-gear lightweight mountain bikes and racers that you can buy all over the land.
In most larger towns and cities bicycles should be parked at designated places on the pavement. This will generally be a roped-off enclosure, and bicycle-rack attendants will give you a token when you park there. It can cost from 1 jiao to Y1. If you don’t use this service, you may return to find that your bike has been ‘towed’ away or stolen. Confiscated. illegally parked bicycles make their way to the police station. There will be a fine in retrieving it, although it shouldn’t bankrupt you.
In Western countries, travel agencies organizing bicycle trips advertise in cycling magazines. Bicycle clubs can contact CITS (or its competitors) for information about organizing a trip. See Organized Tours in the Getting There & Away chapter for a list of tour operators.
There are bicycle hire shops that cater to foreigners in most traveler centers. These are often heavy-going models, but mountain bikes and even tandems can be found (the latter are popular in Beidaihe). The majority of hire places operate out of hotels, but there are also independent hire shops and bike-hire collection points. Surprisingly, medium-size cities and towns (eg, Suzhou ) often have better bicycle-rental facilities than large metropolises.
Day hire, 24-hour hire or hire by the hour are the norm. It’s possible to hire for a stretch of several days, so touring is possible if the bike is in good condition. Rates for Westerners are typically Y1 per hour or Y 10 to Y20 per day – the price depends more on competition than anything else. Note that big hotels typically charge ridiculous rates so it’s worth looking around.
If you hire over a long period you should be able to reduce the rate. Most hire places will ask you for a deposit of anything up to Y500 (get a receipt) and to leave some sort of ID. Sometimes the staff will ask for your passport. Give them some other ID instead, like a student card or a drivers’ license.
If you’re planning to stay in one place for more than about five weeks, it’s probably cheaper to buy your own hike and either sell it or give it to a friend when you leave.
Before taking a bike, check the brakes, let the tyres pumped up hard and make sure that none of the moving parts are about to fall off. Get the saddle raised to maximise leg power. It’s also worth tying something on the bike – a handkerchief, for example – to identify your bicycle amid the zillions at the bicycle racks.
A bike license is obligatory for Chinese, but many don’t bother and it’s not necessary for a foreigner. Outdoor bicycle-repair satlls are found on every other corner in large cities, and repairs are very cheap – from three jioo to pump up your tyres to Y10 to fix a bent wheel rim.
Buying a bike in China is straightforward and a range of bikes can be found. Be aware that buying a flashy mountain bike is in invitation to theft (commonplace). Most hired bicycles have a lock around the rear wheel that can be pried open with a screw-driver in seconds. It would be better buying and using a cable lock, widely available from shops in China.
The legalities of cycling from town to town ire open to conjecture. There is no national law in China that prohibits foreigners from riding bicycles. Basically, the problem is that of ‘open’ and ‘closed’ areas. It’s illegal tar foreigners to visit closed areas without a permit. Fair enough, but foreigners can transit a closed area – that is, you can travel by train or bus through a closed area as long as you don’t exit the vehicle in this ‘forbidden zone’. The question is: Should riding a bicycle through a closed area be classified as ‘transiting’ or ‘visiting’ it?
Chinese law is as clear as mud on this issue. Most of the time, the police won’t bother you.
If you get caught in a closed area, it is unlikely to be while you are on the road. The law keeps firm tabs on transients via hotels. If you’re staying overnight in an open Place• but you are suspected of having passed through a closed area, the police may pull a raid on your hotel. You can be hauled down to the police station where you have to submit to a lengthy interrogation, sign a confession and pay a fine. Fines vary from Y50 to whatever they think you can afford. There is some latitude for bargaining in these situations, and you should request a receipt (shouju). Don’t expect police to give you any tips on which areas are closed and which are open – they seldom know themselves.
Camping is possible if you can find a spare blade of grass. The trick is to select a couple of likely places about half an hour before sunset, keep pedalling and then backtrack so you can pull off the road at the chosen spot just after darkness falls.
It’s essential to have a kickstand for parking. A bell, headlight and reflector are good ideas. Make sure everything is bolted down, otherwise you’ll invite theft Adhesive reflector strips get ripped off.
Driving standards in China are appalling and night riding is particularly hazardous. In rural areas, many drivers in China only use their headlights to flash them on and off as a warning for cyclists up ahead to get out of the way. On country roads, look out for those UFO-style walking tractors, which often have no headlights at all.
Your fellow cyclists are another factor in the hazard equation. Be prepared for cyclists to suddenly swerve in front of you, to come hurtling out of a side road or even to head straight towards you against the flow of the traffic. Chinese bicycles are rarely equipped with lights.
Off the Road
Most travelers who bring bikes take at least a couple of breaks from the rigours of the road, during which they use some other means of transport. The best option is the bus. It is generally no problem stowing bikes on the roofs of buses and there is seldom a charge involved. Air and train transport are more problematic.
Bikes are not cheap to transport on trains: they can cost as much as a hard seat fare. It’s cheaper on boats, if you can find one. Trains have quotas for the number of bikes they may transport. As a foreigner you will get preferential treatment in the luggage compartment and the bike will go on the first available train. But Your bike won’t arrive at the same time as you unless you send it on a couple of days in advance. At the other end it is held in storage for three days free, and then incurs a small charge.
The procedure for putting a bike on a train and getting it at the other end is as follows:
- Railway personnel would like to see a train ticket for yourself (not entirely essential).
- Go to the baggage transport section of the station. Get a white slip and fill it out to get the two or three tags for registration. Then fill out a form (it’s in Chinese, but just fill it out in English) that reads: ‘Number/to station x/send goods person/receive goods person/total number of goods/from station y’.
- Take the white slip to another counter, where you pay and are given a blue slip.
- At the other end (after delays of up to three days for transporting a bike) you present the blue slip and get a white slip in return. This means your bike has arrived. The procedure could take from 20 minutes to an hour depending on who’s around. If you lose that blue slip you’ll have trouble reclaiming your bike.
The best bet for getting your bike on a bus is to get to the station early and put it on the roof. Strictly speaking, there should not be a charge for this, but in practice the driver will generally try to get you to pay.
Transporting your bike by plane can be expensive, but it’s often less complicated than by train. Some cyclists have not been charged: others have had to pay 1% of their fare per kilogram of excess weight.
Hitching is never entirely safe in any country in the world, and we don’t recommend it. Travelers who decide to hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk. People who do choose to hitch will be safer if they travel in pairs and let someone know where they are planning to go.
Many people have hitchhiked in China , and some have been amazingly successful. It’s not officially sanctioned and the same dangers that apply elsewhere in the world also apply in China . Exercise caution, and if you’re in any doubt as to the intentions of your prospective driver, say no.
Hitching in China is rarely free, and passengers are expected to offer at least a tip. Some drivers might even ask for an unreasonable amount of money, so try to establish a figure early to avoid problems later. Even when a price is agreed upon, don’t be surprised if the driver raises it when you arrive at your destination and creates a big scene (with a big crowd) if you don’t cough up the extra cash. Indeed, he or she may even pull this scam halfway through the trip, and if you don’t pay up then you get kicked out in the middle of nowhere.
In other words, don’t think of hitching as a means to save money – it will rarely be any cheaper than the bus. The main reason to do it is to get to isolated outposts where public transport is poor. There is, of course, some joy in meeting the locals this way, but communicating is certain to be a problem if you don’t speak Chinese.
The best way to get a lift is to head out to main roads on the outskirts of town. There are usually lots of trucks on the roads, and even postal trucks and army convoys are worth trying. There is no Chinese signal for hitching, so just try waving down the trucks.
Camping is only really feasible in the wildernesses of western China where you are not going to wake up under the prying eyes of thousands of local villagers. In parts of Tibet, Qinghai, Xlnjiang, Gansu and Inner Mongolia there are places within reach of hikers or cyclists where this is possible, though don’t bother actually trying to get permission for it. This is the kind of activity which the Chinese authorities do not really have any clear idea about, so if asked they will certainly answer “no”. The only kind of regular, authorized camping in China is by the nomadic Mongolian and Kazakh peoples of the steppe who have their own highly sophisticated felt tents (mengu bao), which tourists can ask to stay in.
An alternative to camping are the pilgrims’ inns at important monasteries and lamaseries. These are an extremely cheap, if rather primitive, form of accommodation, though vacancies disappear quickly. Foreigners are warmly welcomed in such places and, though the authorities are not particularly keen on you staying in them, you are most unlikely to be turned away if it is late in the day and you are really stuck.
Long-distance transport in China is not gaily a problem – the dilemma occurs when you finally make it to your destination. Hiring a car is often impractical or impossible and hiring a bike may be inadequate. Unless the town is small, walking is not usually recommended, since Chinese cities tend to be very spread out.
Apart from bikes, buses are the most common means of getting around in the cities. Services are fairly extensive and buses go to most places. The problem is that they are almost always packed. If an empty bus pulls in at a stop then a battle for seats ensues. Even more aggravating is the slowness of the traffic. You just have to be patient, never expect anything to move rapidly, and allow lots of time to get to the train station to catch your train. Improvements in bus quality have been matched by increased congestion on the roads. One consolation is that buses are cheap – rarely more than Y 1. Bus routes at bus stops are generally listed in Chinese only, without pinyin.
Good maps of Chinese cities and bus routes are readily available and are often sold by hawkers outside the train stations. When you get on a bus, point to where you want to go on the map, and the conductor (who is seated near the door) will sell you the right ticket. They usually tell you where to get off, provided they remember.
Going underground is highly preferable to taking the bus, as there are no traffic jams, but this transportation option is only possible in a handful of cities: Hong Kong , Beijlng, Shanghai , Guangzhou and Tianjin.
By far the best and most comprehensive is Hong Kong’s funky system: Beijing’s network is small. Shanghai and Guangzhou have new and efficient systems, while Tianjin’s system is antiquated.
Taxis cruise the streets in most large cities, but elsewhere they may simply congregate at likely spots (such as bus stations).
You can always summon a taxi from tourist hotels, which sometimes have separate booking desks. You can hire them for a single trip or on a daily basis – the latter is worth considering if there’s a group of people who can split the cost some tourist hotels also have minibuses on hand.
While most taxis have meters, they are often only switched on in larger towns and cities. If the meter is not used (on an excursion out of town for example), a price should be negotiated before you get into the taxi, and bargaining employed. Write the price down if you have to and secure an agreement, so that the price is not suddenly upped when you arrive.
Chinese cities impose limitations on the number of passengers that a taxi can carry. The limit is usually four, though minibuses can take more, and drivers are usually unwilling to break the rules and risk trouble with the police.
It is practically impossible to find rear seat belts in China’s taxi fleet, and the front passenger seat belt is so rarely used that they leave a strip of dust across your shirt. Be prepared for bad driving and try and position yourself so you don’t lose an eye on one of the sharp corners and edges of the security cage the driver sits in if he suddenly halts (or crashes). Watch out for tired drivers -they work long and punishing shifts.
The deal is that you get a ride on the back of someone’s motorcycle for about half the price of what a regular four-wheeled taxi would charge. If you turn a blind eye to the hazards, this is a quick and cheap way of getting around. You must wear a helmet – the driver will provide one. Obviously, there is no meter, so fares must be agreed upon in advance.
The motor-tricycle (sanlun motuoche) – for want of a better name – is an enclosed three-wheeled vehicle with a driver at the front, a small motorbike engine below and seats for two passengers behind. They tend to congregate outside the train and bus stations in larger towns and cities. Some of these vehicles have trays at the rear with bench seats along the sides so that four or more people can be accommodated.
A pedicab (sanlunche) is a pedal-powered tricycle with a seat to carry passengers. Chinese pedicabs have the driver in front and passenger seats in the back.
Pedicabs are gradually disappearing in China , victims of the combustion engine. However, pedicabs congregate outside train and bus stations or hotels in parts of China . In a few places, pedicabs cruise the streets in large numbers ( Lhasa , for example).
Unfortunately, some drivers are aggressive. A reasonable fare will be quoted, but when you arrive at your destination it’ll be multiplied by 10. Another tactic is to quote you a price like YJO and then demand US$ 10- the driver claims that you ‘misunderstood’. Yet another tactic is for the driver to bring you halfway and demand more payment to bring you to your destination.
Some one-day tours are reasonably priced and might be worth the cost as they can save you a lot of trouble: they can solve your transport and accommodation hassles, and make it all a lot cheaper than tackling each stop individually. Some remote spots are difficult to reach and a tour might well be your only option.
Some tours are very informal and even popular with budget travelers. For example, at Turpan in Xinjiang province, many travelers do a one-day tour by minibus of the surrounding countryside. The minibus drivers hang around the hotels and solicit business, so there is no need to get involved with CITS or other agencies.
There are an increasing number of expatrun tour companies in China such as Wildchina ( www.wildchina.com ), which do a number of more exciting expeditions through China’s wilder and more rugged reaches. Check out the expat magazines in Shanghai , Beijing or Guangzhou for further listings.
A low-cost option is to go on a tour with a local Chinese group. A number of travelers use this option in Beijing , for example, to reach the Great Wall. The tour bus could be an old rattletrap and you’ll get to visit tacky souvenir shops (which invariably pay under-the-table commissions to the bus drivers), but these tours can be interesting if you keep a sense of humor about it. Don’t expect the guides to speak anything but Chinese – possibly just the local dialect.
Sometimes the buses will whiz through interesting spots and make long stops at dull places for the requisite photo sessions. You might have difficulty getting a ticket if your Chinese isn’t good and they think you’re too much trouble. The Chinese tours are often booked through hotel service desks or from private travel agencies. In some cases, there is an established tour bus meeting spot – you just roll up in the morning and hop on board.