Long-distance transport in China is good, but local transport is less efficient, except for cities with metro systems. The choice of local transport is diverse but vehicles can be slow and overburdened, and the network confusing for visitors. Hiring a car is often impractical, while hiring a bike can be inadequate. Unless the town is small, walking is often too tiring. On the plus side, local transport is cheap, taxis are usually ubiquitous and affordable, and metro systems continue to rapidly expand in large tourist towns.
With extensive networks, buses are an excellent way to get around town, but foreign travellers rarely use them. Ascending a bus, point to your destination on a map and the conductor (seated near the door) will sell you the right ticket. The conductor will usually tell you where to disembark, provided they remember. In conductor-less buses, you put money in a slot near the driver as you embark.
Going underground or using light rail is fast, efficient and cheap; most networks are either very new or relatively recent and can be found in a rapidly growing number of cities, including Běijīng, Shànghǎi, Sūzhōu, Xī’ān, Hángzhōu, Tiānjīn, Chéngdū, Shènzhèn, Wǔhàn, Kūnmíng, Chóngqìng and Hong Kong.
Taxis (出租汽车; chūzū qìchē) are cheap and easy to find. Taxi rates per kilometre are clearly marked on a sticker on the rear side window of the taxi; flag fall varies from city to city, and depends upon the size and quality of the vehicle.
Most taxis have meters but they may only be switched on in larger towns and cities. If the meter is not used (on an excursion out of town, for example, or when hiring a taxi for the day or half-day), negotiate a price before you set off and write the fare down. If you want the meter used, ask for dǎbiǎo (打表). Also ask for a receipt (发票; fāpiào); if you leave something in the taxi, the taxi number is printed on the receipt so it can be located.
A variety of ramshackle transport options exist across China; always agree on a price in advance (preferably have it written down).
Motor pedicabs are enclosed three-wheeled vehicles (often the same price as taxis).
Pedicabs are pedal-powered versions of motor pedicabs.
Motorbike riders also offer lifts in some towns for what should be half the price of a regular taxi. You must wear a helmet – the driver will provide one.
Trains are the best way to travel long distance around China in reasonable speed and comfort. They are also adventurous, exciting, fun, practical and efficient, and ticket prices are reasonable to boot. Colossal investment over recent years has put high-speed rail at the heart of China’s rapid modernisation drive. You really don’t have to be a trainspotter to find China’s railways a riveting subculture and you get to meet the Chinese people at their most relaxed and sociable.
One of the world’s most extensive rail networks, passenger railways penetrate every province in China and high-speed connections are suddenly everywhere. In line with China’s frantic economic development and the pressures of transporting 1.4 billion people across the world’s third-largest nation, expansion of China’s rail network over the past decade has been mind-boggling.
The network currently totals over 103,000km in length. You can climb aboard a train in Běijīng or Shànghǎi and alight in Tibet’s capital (although ticket scarcity for trains into Lhasa means it’s easier to fly in and take the train out). Lines are poking further into Tibet, with a line to Shigatse opening in 2014. In China, thousands of miles of track are laid every year and new express trains have been zipping across the land since 2007, shrinking once daunting distances. State-of-the-art train stations are ceaselessly appearing, many to serve high-speed links.
With the advent of high-speed D, G and C class express trains, getting between major cities is increasingly a breeze (albeit far more expensive than regular fast trains). High-speed rail has put the squeeze on numerous domestic air routes and the punctuality of trains sees far fewer delays than airports. A high-speed link connected Běijīng and Xī’ān in 2014. The Lánzhōu–Ürümqi high-speed link should be up and running by the time you read this; there is even talk of extending this through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Turkey to Bulgaria. Down south, China is also planning a high-speed link from Kūnmíng in Yúnnán to Singapore, via Laos, Thailand and Malaysia.
Rolling out of Europe and into Asia, through eight time zones and over 9289km of taiga, steppe and desert, the Trans-Siberian Railway and its connecting routes constitute one of the most famous and most romantic of the world’s great train journeys.
There are, in fact, three railways. The ‘true’ Trans-Siberian line runs from Moscow to Vladivostok. But the routes traditionally referred to as the Trans-Siberian Railway are the two branches that veer off the main line in eastern Siberia for Běijīng.
Since the first option excludes China, most readers of this guide will be choosing between the Trans-Mongolian and the Trans-Manchurian railway lines. The Trans-Mongolian route (Běijīng to Moscow, 7865km) is faster, but requires an additional visa and another border crossing – on the plus side, you also get to see some of the Mongolian countryside. The Trans-Manchurian route is longer (Běijīng to Moscow, 9025km).
Travellers will need Russian and Mongolian visas for the Trans-Mongolian Railway, as well as a Chinese visa. These can often be arranged along with your ticket by travel agents such as China International Travel Service (CITS).
Book well in advance (especially in summer); in Běijīng tickets can be conveniently purchased and booked in advance in central Běijīng from CITS, for a ¥50 mark-up. Tickets can also be booked with a mark-up through China DIY Travel.
The Man in Seat 61 Reams of information on travelling the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Trains offer deluxe two-berth compartments (with shared shower), 1st-class four-berth compartments and 2nd-class four-berth compartments. Tickets for 2nd class/1st class/deluxe cost from around ¥3496/5114/5064 to Moscow, ¥1222/1723/1883 to Ulaanbaatar and ¥2559/3734/4052 to Novosibirsk. Ticket prices are cheaper if you travel in a group. The K23 service departs on Sunday (2nd/1st class ¥1259/1849, 11.22am, 30 hours) and terminates at Ulaanbaatar on Monday.
Trains have 1st-class two-berth compartments and 2nd-class four-berth compartments; prices are similar to those on the Trans-Mongolian Railway.
|Běijīng West–Xī'ān North||5½-6hr||2nd/1st ¥515/824|
|Běijīng West–Guìlín||10½hr||2nd/1st class ¥806/1249|
|Běijīng–Dàtóng||6½hr||hard seat/sleeper ¥54/104|
|Běijīng South–Hángzhōu||5hr||2nd/1st class ¥540/909|
|Běijīng West–Kūnmíng||33hr||Hard seat/sleeper ¥317/555|
|Běijīng West–Lhasa||43hr||Hard/soft sleeper ¥742/1186|
|Běijīng South–Qīngdǎo||4½hr||2nd/1st class ¥314/474|
|Běijīng South–Shànghǎi Hóngqiáo||5½hr||2nd/1st class ¥553/933|
|Běijīng South–Tiānjīn||33min||2nd/1st class ¥54/65|
|Shànghǎi Hóngqiáo–Hángzhōu||1hr||2nd/1st class ¥77/123|
|Shànghǎi Hóngqiáo–Shēnzhèn North||8½hr||Hard seat/sleeper ¥478/593|
|Shànghǎi–Lhasa||48hr||Hard seat/sleeper ¥402/817|
|Shànghǎi Hóngqiáo–Nánjīng South||1½hr||2nd/1st class ¥134/229|
|Shànghǎi Hóngqiáo–Wǔhàn||6hr||2nd/1st class ¥302/428|
|Shànghǎi Hóngqiáo–Xiàmén North||8hr||2nd/1st class ¥328/413|
|Shànghǎi–Xī’ān North||10½hr||2nd class seat/soft sleeper ¥338/834|
|Píngyáo-Xī'ān North||2hr||2nd/1st class ¥150/187|
|Shēnzhèn–Guiìlín||13½hr||hard seat/sleeper ¥128/230|
|Kūnmíng–Lìjiāng||7-10hr||Hard/soft sleeper ¥147/226|
|Kūnmíng–Chéngdū||17hr||hard seat/sleeper ¥138/246|
|Kūnmíng-Guìlín||18-22hr||Hard seat/sleeper ¥152/270|
|Ürümqi–Kashgar||24hr||Hard/soft sleeper ¥190/339|
|Wǔhàn–Guǎngzhōu South||4hr||2nd/1st class ¥463/738|
|Xī’ān North–Luòyáng Lóngmén||2hr||2nd/1st class ¥174/279|
|Běijīng West–Píngyáo||4hr||2nd/1st class ¥225/322|
Chinese train numbers are usually (but not always) prefixed by a letter, designating the category of train.
|Z class (express)||zhídá||直达||160km/h|
The fastest, most luxurious and expensive intercity trains are the streamlined, high-speed C, D and G trains, which rapidly shuttle between major cities.
D class trains were the first high-speed trains to appear and breathlessly glide around China at high speed, offering substantial comfort and regular services. D-class temperature-regulated 1st-class carriages have mobile and laptop chargers, seats are two abreast with ample legroom and TV sets. Second-class carriages have five seats in two rows. G class trains are faster than D class trains, but have limited luggage space.
Less fast express classes include the overnight Z class trains, while further down the pecking order are older and more basic T and K class trains.
Trains are generally highly punctual in China and are usually a safe way to travel. Train stations are often conveniently close to the centre of town. Travelling on sleeper berths at night means you can frequently arrive at your destination first thing in the morning, saving a night’s hotel accommodation. Think ahead, get your tickets early and you can sleep your way around a lot of China.
On entering a large old-style station (such as Běijīng West Train Station), you will have to find the correct waiting room number, displayed on an illuminated screen as you walk in. Modern stations (such as Shànghǎi Hóngqiáo Train Station) are more straightforward and intelligently designed, without waiting rooms; instead your platform number will appear on the screen.
Trolleys of food and drink are wheeled along carriages during the trip, but prices are high and the selection is limited. You can also load up on mineral water and snacks at stations, where hawkers sell items from platform stalls. Long-distance trains should have a canteen carriage (餐厅车厢; cāntīng chēxiāng); they are sometimes open through the night.
In each class of sleeper, linen is clean and changed for each journey; beds are generally bedbug-free.
If taking a sleeper train, you will generally be required to exchange your paper ticket for a plastic or metal card with your bunk number on it. The conductor then knows when you are due to disembark, and will awake you in time to return your ticket to you.
Some tips regarding train travel:
It is possible to upgrade (补票; bǔpiào) your ticket once aboard your train. If you have a standing ticket, for example, find the conductor and upgrade to a hard seat, soft seat or hard sleeper (if there are any available).
Soft sleepers are a very comfortable way to travel and work perfectly as mobile hotels; tickets cost much more than hard-sleeper tickets and often sell out, however, so book early. Soft sleepers vary between trains and the best are on the more recent D and Z class trains. All Z class trains are soft-sleeper trains, with very comfortable, up-to-date berths. A few T class trains also offer two-berth compartments, with their own toilet. Tickets on upper berths are slightly cheaper than lower berths. Expect to share with total strangers. If you are asleep, an attendant will wake you to prepare you to disembark so you will have plenty of time to ready your things. Available on some lines, two-bed deluxe soft sleepers usually have a toilet and sink. VIP sleepers, essentially three-bed compartments which one person can book in its entirety, are available on the Kūnmíng–Lìjiāng route.
Soft sleeper carriages contain:
Hard sleepers are available on slower and less modern T, K and N class trains, as well as trains without a letter prefix. As with soft sleeper, they serve very nicely as an overnight hotel.
There is a small price difference between the numbered berths, with the lowest bunk (下铺; xiàpù) the most expensive and the highest bunk (上铺; shàngpù) the cheapest. The middle bunk (中铺; zhōngpù) is good, 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 soft sleepers, an attendant will wake you well in advance of your station.
Hard-sleeper tickets are the most difficult of all to buy; you almost always need to buy these a few days in advance. Expect:
Soft-seat class is more comfortable but not nearly as common as hard-seat class. First-class (一等; yīděng) and 2nd-class (二等; èrděng) soft seats are available in D, C and G class high-speed trains. G class trains also offer business class and/or VIP seats, which include a hot meal and added comfort.
First-class comes with TVs, mobile phone and laptop charging points, and seats arranged two abreast.
Second-class soft seats are also very comfortable; staff are very courteous throughout. Overcrowding is not permitted and power points are available. On older trains, soft-seat carriages are often double-decker, and are not as plush as the faster and more modern high-speed express trains.
Hard-seat class is not available on the faster and plusher C, D and G class trains, and is only found on T and K class trains and trains without a number prefix; a handful of Z class trains have hard seat. Hard-seat class generally has padded seats, but it’s hard on your sanity; often unclean and noisy, and painful on the long haul.
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; if seats have sold out, ask for a standing ticket, which gets you on the train, where you may find a seat or can upgrade; otherwise you will have to stand in the carriage or between carriages (with the smokers).
Hard-seat sections on China’s newer trains are air-conditioned and less crowded.
Ticket offices (售票厅; shòupiàotīng) at train stations are usually to one side of the main train station entrance. Automated ticket machines operate on some routes but never accept foreign passports as ID. At large stations there should be a window manned by someone with basic English skills.
Alternatively, independent train ticket offices usually exist elsewhere in town where tickets can be purchased for a ¥5 commission without the same kind of queues; we've listed these where possible. Larger post offices may also sell train tickets. Your hotel will also be able to rustle up a ticket for you for a commission, and so can a travel agent.
You can buy tickets online at www.12306.cn but the website is Chinese-language only and you will need a Chinese bankcard. It’s cheaper to buy your ticket at the station, but tickets can be bought online at the following (China DIY Travel is the cheapest):
For trains from Hong Kong to Shànghǎi, Guǎngzhōu or Běijīng, tickets can be ordered online at no mark-up from KCRC, however for Běijīng or Shànghǎi a faster alternative is the high-speed trains from Shēnzhèn to Shànghǎi (D train) and Běijīng (G train), which take around 10 hours compared to 20 to 24 hours for departures from Hong Kong.
You can also find English-language train timetables on these websites.
To get a refund (退票; tuìpiào) on an unused ticket, windows exist at large train stations where you can get from 80 to 95% of your ticket value back, depending on how many days prior to the departure date you cancel.
wúzuò or zhànpiào
The Achilles heel of China’s overburdened rail system, buying tickets can be a pain.
Most tickets are one way only, with prices calculated per kilometre and adjustments made depending on class of train, availability of air-con, type of sleeper and bunk positioning.
Some tips on buying train tickets:
Your ticket will display: