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Getting around


Boat services within China are limited. They’re most common in coastal areas, where you are likely to use a boat to reach offshore islands such as Pǔtuóshān or Hǎinán, or the islands off Hong Kong. The YāntáiDàlián ferry will probably survive because it saves hundreds of kilometres of overland travel.

There are also several inland shipping routes worth considering, but these are also vanishing. The best-known river trip is the three-day boat ride along Yangzi River (Cháng Jiāng) from Chóngqìng to Yíchāng. The Li River (Lí Jiāng) boat trip from Guìlín to Yángshuò is a popular tourist ride.

Hong Kong employs a veritable navy of vessels that connect with the territory’s myriad islands, and a number of popular boats run between the territory and other parts of China, including Macau, Zhūhǎi, Shékǒu (for Shēnzhèn) and Zhōngshān.

Boat tickets can be purchased from passenger ferry terminals or through travel agents, such as CITS.

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Hitching is never entirely safe in any country in the world, and we don’t recommend it. 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.

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. There is no Chinese signal for hitching, so just try waving down a truck.

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Bus & tram


Long-distance buses (chángtú gōnggòng qìchē) are one of the best means of getting around. Services are extensive, main roads are rapidly improving and with the increasing number of intercity highways, bus journeys are getting quicker (often quicker than train travel). Another plus is that it’s easier to secure bus tickets than train tickets and they are often cheaper. Buses also stop every so often in small towns and villages, so you get to see parts of the countryside you wouldn’t see if you travelled by train, although breakdowns can be a problem.

On the down side, some rural roads and provincial routes (especially in the southwest, Tibet and the northwest) remain in shocking condition, dangerously traversed by bone-rattling hulks that shatter the nerves. Precipitous drops, pot holes, dangerous road surfaces and reckless drivers mean that accidents in black-spot areas, such as parts of Sìchuān, remain common. Long-distance bus journeys can also be cramped and noisy, with Hong Kong films looped on overhead TVs and 3-D sound. Drivers lean on the horn at the slightest detection of a vehicle in front.

Routes between large cities sport larger, cleaner and more comfortable fleets of private buses (many equipped with toilets and you could get a free bottle of mineral water), such as comfy Volvos; shorter and more far-flung routes still rely on rattling minibuses into which the driver crams as many fares as is possible and waits to fill up before departing.

On popular long-haul routes, sleeper buses (wòpù kèchē) may cost around double the price of a normal bus service, but many travellers swear by them, although bunks can be short. Watch out for your belongings on them, however.

It’s safe to estimate times for bus journeys on nonhighway 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 change from third into second. Coasting in neutral downhill is common.

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.

Bus journey times given throughout this book should be used as a rough guide only and do not factor in variables, such as weather, breakdowns or bad traffic conditions.


Apart from bikes, buses are the most common means of getting around in the cities. Services are fairly extensive, buses go to most places and fares are inexpensive. The problem is that they are almost always packed. If an empty bus pulls in at a stop, 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 a steady increase in congestion on the roads. Bus routes at bus stops are generally listed in Chinese only, without Pinyin, so navigation can be difficult. In larger towns and cities, more expensive private minibus operations follow the same routes as the larger public buses.

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, but the bus stop may be quite a distance from your destination.

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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 remain anxious about foreigners driving at whim around China, so don’t plan on hiring a car and driving off wherever you want.


Cars can be hired in Hong Kong and Macau, but at the time of writing you needed a residency permit and a Chinese driving license to hire a car elsewhere (eg in Běijīng or Shànghǎi), effectively barring tourists from the roads.

If you want to use a car, 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 the CITS rates.

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Although crowded, trains are the best way to get around in reasonable speed and comfort. The network covers every province, except Hǎinán, and the link to Lhasa was completed in 2006. At any given time it is estimated that over 10 million Chinese are travelling on a train in China, except during Chinese New Year when most of China seems to be on the railway.

Travelling by train is an adventurous, fun and efficient way of getting around China and meeting the local people. A variety of classes means you can navigate as you wish: if you can endure a hard seat, getting from A to B is very cheap. Opting for a soft sleeper means things can get pricey.

The safety record of the train system is also good (despite the grim and graphic photographs displayed in train stations warning of the perils of transporting fireworks and explosives), but keep an eye on your belongings.

The new fleet of trains that run intercity routes is a vast improvement on the old models – they are much cleaner and equipped with air-conditioning. The new ‘Z’ class express trains (eg between Běijīng and Shànghǎi) are very plush, with meals thrown in on some routes, mobile-phone charging points and well-designed bunks. The ultrafast maglev train that connects Pudong airport to the Shànghǎi metro system is perhaps a sign of things to come. Trains nationwide are very punctual and leave on the dot.

Most trains have dining cars where you can find passable food. Railway staff also regularly walk by with pushcarts offering miàn (instant noodles), miànbāo (bread), héfàn (boxed rice lunches), huǒtuǐ (ham), píjiǔ (beer), kuàng quán shuǐ (mineral water) and qìshuǐ (soft drinks).

Many train stations require that luggage be X-rayed before entering the waiting area.

Virtually all train stations have left-luggage rooms (; jìcún chù) where you can safely dump your bags for about Y5 to Y10 (per day per item).

An excellent online source of information on China’s rail network is www.seat61.com/China.htm. For bundles of info on China’s railways and trains, consult the tremendous Railways of China (www.railwaysofchina.com).


Train tickets are calculated simply according to the kilometre distance travelled and, on longer routes, the class of travel.

Hard seat (yìng zuò) is actually generally padded, but the hard-seat section can be hard on your sanity – it can be very dirty and noisy, and painful on the long haul. Hard seat on tourist trains, express trains or newer trains is more pleasant, less crowded and air-conditioned.

Since hard seat is the only class most locals can afford, it’s packed to the gills. You should get a ticket with an assigned seat number, but if seats have sold out, ask for a standing ticket (wúzuòorzhànpiào) which at least gets you on the train where you may find a seat or you can upgrade. Because hard-seat tickets are relatively easy to obtain, you may have to travel hard seat even if you’re willing to pay for a higher class.

On short express journeys (such as Běijīng to Tiānjīn) some trains have soft-seat (ruǎn zuò) carriages. These trains have comfortable seats arranged two abreast and overcrowding is not permitted. Soft seats cost about the same as hard sleeper and carriages are often double-decker.

Hard-sleeper (yìng wò) carriages are made up of doorless compartments with half a dozen bunks in three tiers, and sheets, pillows and blankets are provided. It does very nicely as an overnight hotel. There is a small price difference between berths, with the lowest bunk (xiàpù) the most expensive and the top-most bunk (; shàngpù) the cheapest. You may wish to take the middle bunk (zhōngpù) 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. As with all other classes, smoking is prohibited in hard sleeper. Lights and speakers go out at around 10pm. Each compartment is equipped with its own hot-water flask (rèshuǐpíng) which is filled by an attendant. Hard-sleeper tickets are the most difficult of all to buy; you almost always need to buy these a few days in advance.

Soft sleeper (ruǎn wò) is very comfortable, with four comfortable bunks in a closed compartment, with lace curtains, teacups, clean washrooms, carpets and air-conditioning. Soft sleeper costs twice as much as hard sleeper (the upper berth is slightly cheaper than the lower berth), so it is usually easier to purchase soft rather than hard-sleeper tickets; however, more and more Chinese are travelling this way.

If you get on the train with an unreserved seating ticket, you can find the conductor and upgrade (bǔpiào) yourself to a hard sleeper, soft seat or soft sleeper if there are any available.

Reservations & tickets

The vast majority of tickets are one way (dānchéng) only. Buying hard-seat tickets at short notice is usually no hassle, but you will not always be successful in getting a reserved seat. Tickets can only be purchased with cash.

Tickets for hard sleepers can usually be obtained in major cities, but with more difficulty in quiet backwaters. Don’t expect to obtain a hard-sleeper ticket on the day of travel. Plan ahead and buy your ticket two or three days in advance, especially if you are heading to popular destinations. As a general rule there is a five-day, advance-purchase limit, but in large cities, such as Běijīng or Shànghǎi, you may find you can book further ahead.

If you try to buy a sleeper ticket at the train station and the clerk says méi yǒu (not have), turn to your hotel travel desk or travel agent (such as CITS) who can sell you a ticket for a service charge. Telephone booking services exist, but they only operate in Chinese. Many towns and cities also have ticket offices dotted around town where you can obtain train tickets (for a surcharge of around Y5); such outlets are listed in the relevant chapters.

Buying hard-sleeper tickets in train stations can be trying. Some large stations have special ticket offices for foreigners where procuring tickets is straightforward; otherwise there should be a window manned by someone with basic English skills. Purchasing your ticket from the main ticket hall (shòupiàotīng) – typically accessed by a separate entrance from the departure hall – can be a trial of endurance, especially at larger stations. Some stations are surprisingly well run, but others are bedlam. On a few rare routes (such as Běijīng to Tiānjīn) cash-taking automatic ticket machines exist (with instructions for use in Chinese only). There are windows at large train stations for partial refunds on unused tickets.

Touts swarm around train stations selling black-market tickets; this can be a way of getting scarce tickets, but foreigners frequently get ripped off. If you purchase a ticket from a tout, carefully check the departure date and the destination. As with air travel, buying tickets around the Chinese New Year and the 1 May and 1 October holidays can be hard, and prices increase on some routes.

Tickets can also be bought online at China Trip Advisor (www.chinatripadvisor.com) or China Train Timetable (www.china-train-ticket.com), but it’s cheaper to buy your ticket at the station. For trains from Hong Kong to Shànghǎi, Guǎngzhōu or Běijīng, tickets can be ordered online at no mark up from KCR (www.kcrc.com).


Paperback train timetables for the entire country are published every April and October, but they are available in Chinese only (Y5). Even to Chinese readers, working one’s way through their Byzantine layout is taxing. Thinner versions listing the major train services from Běijīng can be bought at train stations for about Y2 – again in Chinese only. The resourceful Duncan Peattie (www.chinatt.org) publishes an English-language Chinese Railway Timetable, at the time of writing in its fourth edition. Both quick reference and full train timetables are available, as well as supplements. The full timetable details 2400 trains, available either in printed form or as two PDF files (for a fee). The quick reference timetable PDF can be downloaded for free. Also consult Travel China Guide.com (www.travelchinaguide.com/china-trains/), which allows you to enter your departure point and destination, and then gives you the departure times, arrival times and train numbers of trains running that route.

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Travel documents


Tickets are easy to purchase as at most times there is an oversupply of airline seats (except during major festivals and holidays). Tickets can be purchased from branches of CAAC nationwide, other airline offices and travel agents or from the travel desk of your hotel. Discounts are common, except when flying into large cities such as Shànghǎi on the weekend, when the full fare can be the norm; prices quoted in this book are the full fare. Fares are calculated according to one-way travel, with return tickets simply costing twice the single fare.

Children over 12 years are charged adult fares; kids between two and 12 years pay half-price. Toddlers under two years pay 10% of the full fare. You can use credit cards at most CAAC offices and travel agents.

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 if 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.

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Local transport

Long-distance transport in China is not really a problem – the dilemma occurs when you finally make it to your destination. While China boasts a huge and often inventive choice of local transport, vehicles can be slow and overburdened, and the transport network very confusing for visitors. Hiring a car in China is largely impractical or impossible for tourists, 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. On the plus side, local transport is cheap.

Metro & light rail

Going underground is highly preferable to taking the bus, as there are no traffic jams, but this transport option is only possible in a handful of cities: Hong Kong, Běijīng, Shànghǎi, Guǎngzhōu, Tiānjīn, Nánjīng and Shēnzhèn. Wǔhàn has a limited light rail system in Hànkǒu, as does Tiānjīn (linking it to Tánggū), while Chóngqìng now benefits from a monorail.

By far the best and most comprehensive is Hong Kong’s funky system; Běijīng’s network is limited but is being expanded in preparation for the 2008 Olympics. The Shànghǎi metro system is also being massively extended.

Other local transport

An often bewildering variety of ramshackle transport options can be found throughout China, providing employment for legions of elderly Chinese. The motor tricycle (; sānlún mótuōchē) – 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.

The pedicab (; sānlúnchē) is a pedal-powered tricycle with a seat to carry passengers. Chinese pedicabs have the driver at the front and passenger seats at the back. 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); Qūfù has pedicabs in pestilential proportions.

In some towns you can 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.

Prices of all of the above can compare with taxis; however, check beforehand and bargain. Also note that none of the above offer decent protection in a crash, so taking a taxi is often the more sensible option (unless the seatbelts don’t work…).

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While trundling around China in buses or chugging 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 drawn-out land campaign, take to the air.

China’s air network is extensive and the country’s rapid economic development means that its civil aviation fleet is expected to triple in size over the next two decades, with up to 2000 more airliners being added to the existing fleet by 2022. With predictions that China could become the world’s most visited tourist destination by 2020, the nation is shaping up for a further upsurge in domestic air travel. Airports are being built and upgraded all over the land, making air transport increasingly appealing.

The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC; Zhōngguó Mínháng) is the civil aviation authority for numerous airlines, which include the following:

Air China (in Běijīng 010-6601 7755; www.airchina.com.cn) Largely flies economically priced international routes.

China Eastern Airlines (in Shànghǎi 021-6268 6268; www.ce-air.com) Range of international destinations, including London and Los Angeles, with flights out of Běijīng and Shànghǎi.

China Southern Airlines (020-8668 2000; www.cs-air.com) Guǎngzhōu-based airline serving a number of international routes as well as a nationwide web of air routes, including Běijīng, Shànghǎi, Xī‘ān and Tiānjīn.

China Southwest Airlines (in Chéngdū 028-666 8080; www.cswa.com) Chéngdū-based airline serving a number of international routes as well as domestic cities.

Spring Airlines (In Shànghǎi 021-6252 0000; www.china-sss.com) Has connections between Shànghǎi and tourist destinations such as Qīngdǎo, Guìlín, Xiàmén and Sānyà. No food or drink served on board.

Some of the above airlines also have subsidiary airlines; for example, subsidiaries of China Southern Airlines include Xiamen Airlines and Guangxi Airlines. Note that not all Chinese airline websites have English-language capability. Airline schedules and airfares are listed within the relevant sections.

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.

Shuttle buses often run from CAAC offices in towns and cities through China to the airport.

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 at the older airports are rudimentary and waits can be long. Remember to keep your baggage receipt label on your ticket as you will need to show it when you collect your luggage. Compensation for lost baggage is Y40 per kilogram.

Planes vary in style and comfort. The more regularly travelled routes between cities employ Boeing or Airbus, more far-flung 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.

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Except in seriously hilly cities such as Chóngqìng, bicycles (自行车; zìxíngchē) are an excellent method for getting around China’s cities and tourist sights. They can also be invaluable for getting out to the countryside surrounding towns such as Yángshuò.

Take care when cycling. Helmets can be difficult to find, as few Chinese cycle with protection. Cycling at night can be hazardous, as bicycles are not generally equipped with lights. Your greatest concern, however, will probably be China’s awful traffic conditions and bad driving; don’t expect vehicles to give you much room. Note that cycling is prohibited on some major roads in large cities, so you will have to join everyone else cycling on the pavement; otherwise, there are generally ample bicycle lanes.

Outdoor bicycle-repair stalls are found on every other corner in larger cities, and repairs are very cheap.


Bicycle-hire outlets that cater to foreigners can be found in most traveller centres; addresses are listed in destination chapters. Most youth hostels rent out bicycles, as do many hotels, although the latter are more expensive.

Bikes can be hired by the day or by the hour. It’s also possible to hire for more than one day; if you are planning on cycling over several days, however, consider purchasing a bike instead. Rental rates for Westerners are typically Y5 per hour or Y15 to Y60 per day, but you could pay as much as Y20 per hour at some tourist sights. Always check the brakes before hiring and make sure the bike is not damaged in a way that makes it either unsafe or tricky to return. Some tourist sights such as Yángshuò also rent out electric bikes and scooters.

Most hire outlets 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’ licence. In most large towns and cities bicycles should be parked for a small fee at designated places on the pavement (typically Y0.50 to Y1).


If you’re planning to stay in one place for any length of time, it may be worth buying your own bike and then selling it later. Bike shops are plentiful and prices should be clearly marked. The very cheapest mountain bikes start as low as Y250, but single-speed bikes are even cheaper. A good local brand is Giant (捷安特). Buying a folding bicycle is also an idea if you are travelling through a lot of cities in China; you can fold it and stow it away on long-distance buses. It’s important to buy a decent cable or U-lock as theft is common.


Cycling through China allows you to go when you want, to see what you want and at your own pace. It can also be an extremely cheap, as well as a highly authentic, way to see the land.

You will have virtually unlimited freedom of movement but, considering the size of China, you will need to combine your cycling days with trips by train, bus, boat, taxi or even planes, especially if you want to avoid particularly steep regions, or areas where the roads are poor or the climate is cold.

Bikechina (www.bikechina.com) is a good source of information for cyclists coming to China. The Yángshuò-based company offers tours around southwest China, ranging from one-day bike tours of Chéngdū to five-day round trips from Chéngdū to Dānbā to eight-day around Yúnnán.

Roads in China are generally in good condition, but be prepared for the worst. Be aware that trucks and cars in China can drive erratically and dangerously; wild dogs can also be a menace in remoter areas.

A basic packing list for cyclists includes a good bicycle-repair kit, sunscreen and other protection from the sun, waterproofs, fluorescent strips and camping equipment. Ensure you have adequate clothing, as many routes will be taking you to considerable altitude. Road maps in Chinese are essential for asking locals for directions.

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