Transportation within China


China is huge, and unless you concentrate on a small area, you're going to spend a good deal of your time - and budget - just getting around. Fortunately, public transport is very comprehensive and reasonably priced considering the distances involved, and there's usually a choice of travel options available. You can fly to all regional capitals and many of the larger cities; the rail network extends to every province except Tibet; while if you're up to slow hours of rough riding, you can reach almost all corners of the country on local transport - which covers everything from buses to tractors. There's even a fair number of rivers still plied by passenger ferries, and a few vessels chugging between coastal ports and down to Hainan Island. Tibet is the one region where there are restrictions on independent travel. Tours are one way of taking the pressure off travel, and in some cases are the only practical way of getting out to certain sights; they're never cheap, but can be good value.

While there are plenty of options, travel can also take some planning and patience. Bus timetables are unpredictable, with scheduled state services losing out to ad hoc private operators, while train journeys have their own peculiar pitfalls. You also want to weigh up the mental and physical rigours involved if you insist on travelling the cheapest way all the time - it's well worth covering long distances in as much comfort as possible


Mainland China's first rail lines were laid in the nineteenth century, and it was popular resentment against foreign involvement in them which led directly to the successful 1911 revolution establishing the Chinese Republic. Much of the original network was destroyed during the Japanese occupation and subsequent civil war, but since its takeover in 1949, the Communist government has constantly expanded the facilities, and today China's rail network is vast and efficient, definitely the safest, most reliable way to travel through the country.

Buses and minibuses

Despite the ever-widening net thrown by the rail lines, there are still many parts of China unreachable by train - in which case bus is the cheapest (and often only) way of getting there. The huge numbers of private operators who have sprung up in the last few years mean that services are increasingly frequent, even to remote places, though some cities have so many depots it can be hard to find the right departure point. The advantages of bus over train travel are that seats are cheaper and it's no trouble to buy a ticket - queues really don't compare. And, while you can't usually book more than a day in advance, you are also almost guaranteed a seat, albeit often a hellishly uncomfortable one, even if you buy the ticket minutes before departure. On the downside, bus travel is very slow - count on an average speed of 30km per hour, breakdowns from time to time, and stops every few minutes to pick up or set down passengers. Airhorns make the experience noisy, too, as drivers are obliged to announce their presence before overtaking anything, and earplugs are seriously recommended. There are some new expressways, but poor surfaces and maintenance means that country roads can be downright dangerous, as is the habit of saving fuel by coasting down hill or mountainsides in "angel gear" - neutral, with the engine off. Take some food along, because though buses usually pull up at inexpensive roadhouses at mealtimes, they have been known to take two drivers and plough on for a full 24 hours without stopping.

Tickets are sold at the point of departure, whether this is a proper bus station or just a kerb stop - in which case you'll pay on board. You'll do this too if you hail a bus in passing; destinations are always displayed (in Chinese characters) on the front of the vehicle. It's best to buy your ticket a day or two in advance if possible, though it's often unnecessary; hotel desks might do this for you but queues at bus stations are rarely as horrendous as those for the train.

The standard Chinese long-distance bus is fairly ramshackle, with wooden or lightly padded seats; they're never heated or air-conditioned, so dress accordingly. Legroom and ceiling height are none too bad, but you'll still feel cramped if you're more than 1.5m tall. Owing to the frequent police checks on roads in China, however, buses are seldom illegally overcrowded. Luggage racks are tiny, and you'll have to put anything bulkier than a satchel on the roof, your lap, or beside the driver. On popular routes you'll also find two more comfortable options, although these are thirty to fifty percent more expensive than an ordinary bus. Luxury buses have larger, better padded seats which often recline; sometimes there's even air-conditioning and video - not always a welcome addition to the noise. Sleeper buses have basic bunks instead of seats, and can be comfortable if a little cramped; they tend to be harder to book, however, and road travel at night is always more dangerous. Lower bunks ( xiapu) are a bit more expensive than upper bunks ( shangpu), but are more comfortable and have space underneath to store shoes and luggage. There are no luggage racks for upper berths.

Minibuses are common on routes of less than 100km or so, and can be immensely useful. If you've missed the only bus to where you're going, you can usually hop there in stages by minibus. All are privately run and prices vary around the country, but they typically cost a little more than the same journey by public bus.


China has some fourteen regional airlines linking all major cities and many important sites, overseen by the Civil Aviation Administration of China, or CAAC. It's a luxury worth considering for long distances, but you'll have to offset comfort and time saved against a lamentably poor safety record (although standards are improving rapidly), and the cost - flying is a little more expensive than going soft berth on a train.

Buying tickets from the local CAAC office, hotel desk or tour agent is seldom problematic, and there seem to be enough flights along popular routes to cope with demand. CAAC - both in China and abroad - can furnish you with a bilingual timetable , though you'll occasionally find these inaccurate. Airlines frequently, but not always, provide a bus to meet arrivals or take departing passengers to the airport for a small fee; as airports can be 30km or more from city centres, you need to find out in advance if these are available. Check-in time for all flights is two hours before departure.

The planes themselves vary from carrier to carrier, or sometimes destination, with older vessels palmed off on to less profitable routes - Yunnan Airlines, for example, is noticeably modern, and all international flights are generally of reasonable standard. Service is usually good, with soft drinks, biscuits and souvenir trinkets handed out along the way, and sometimes there's even a raffle.


There are any number of river and sea journeys to make while in China, though passenger ferries are generally on the decline as new roads are built with buses providing a faster service between points. The Yangzi , one of Asia's largest rivers, is navigable for thousands of kilometres between the Sichuanese port of Chongqing and coastal Shanghai, a famous journey which takes you through the spectacular Three Gorges. Another popular jaunt is the overnight spin up the Xi River between Guangzhou and Wuzhou, which gives easy access to famous beauty spots around Guilin. Elsewhere, while it might not always be the quickest or cheapest form of transport, a boat ride can be a refreshing change from the tribulations of train or bus travel, and it's always affordable.

Conditions on board are greatly variable, but on overnight trips there's always a choice of classes - sometimes as many as six - which can range from a bamboo mat on the floor, right through to the luxury of private cabins. Don't expect anything too impressive, however; many mainland services are cramped and overcrowded, and cabins, even in first class, are grimly functional. Toilets and food can be basic too, so plan things as best you can. On the other hand, boats in and out of Hong Kong, such as to Xiamen or Shanghai, are very clean, comfortable and spacious, and can be a pleasure to ride.

Driving and car rental

Driving a car across China is quite an appealing idea, but an experience as yet forbidden to foreigners - though bilingual road signs going up along new expressways suggest that the notion is being considered. It is possible, however, for foreign residents to rent vehicles for local use in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong,Shenzhe,Guangzhou...You need an international driving licence, proof of residency and some plastic to leave as a deposit. Special licence plates make these rental vehicles easily identifiable to Chinese police, so don't try taking them beyond the designated boundaries. Rates are Y400-600 a day plus petrol. The Chinese technically drive on the right, although in practice drivers seem to drive wherever they like - over pedestrian crossings, through red lights, even on the left. They use their horns instead of the brake, and lorries and buses plough ahead regardless while smaller vehicles get out of the way.

Elsewhere the only option is to rent a taxi or Chinese jeep . Prices are set by negotiating but you won't get anything for less than Y400 a day, and you'll be expected to provide lunch for the driver. It's easiest to arrange this through a hotel, though some tour operators run vehicles too, which might work out better value as they often include the services of an interpreter. In Tibet, renting a jeep with a driver is pretty much the only way to get to many destinations.


China has the highest number of bicycles of any country in the world, with about a quarter of the population owning one. In a land where private car ownership is beyond all but the most affluent, it's how the majority get around. Few cities have any hills, and all have rental shops or booths, especially around the train stations, where you can rent a set of wheels for Y10-15 a day. You will need to leave a deposit (Y200) and/or some form of ID and you're fully responsible for anything that happens to the bike while it's in your care, so check brakes, tyre pressure and gearing before renting.

Most rental bikes are bog-standard rattletraps, available in black or black - the really de luxe models feature bells and two working brakes. There are cheap repair shops all over the place should you need a tyre patched or a chain fixed up (around Y5). Note that there's little in the way of private insurance in China, so if the bike sustains any serious damage it's up to the parties involved to sort out responsibility and payment on the spot. To avoid theft always use a bicycle chain or lock - they're available everywhere - and in cities, leave your vehicle in one of the ubiquitous designated parking areas , where it will be guarded by an attendant for a few mao.

An alternative to renting is to buy a bike, a sensible option if you're going to be based anywhere for a while - foreigners don't need licences, all department stores stock them (from about Y500), and demand is so high that there should be little problem reselling the bike when you leave. The cheapest are solid, heavy, unsophisticated machines such as the famous Flying Pigeon brand, though multi-geared mountain-bike clones are becoming very popular - they're not always as sturdy as they look, however. You can also take your own bike into China with you; international airlines usually insist that the front wheel is removed, deflated, and strapped to the back, and that everything is thoroughly packaged. Inside China, airlines, trains and ferries all charge to carry bikes, and the ticketing and accompanying paperwork can be baffling. Where possible, it's easier to stick to long-distance buses and stow it for free on the roof, no questions asked. Another option is to see China on a specialized bike tour ; though by no means cheap, these can be very good indeed. An organized bike tour could be an excellent way to start a longer stay in China.


Hitching around China is basically possible, and in remoter areas might save some time in reaching sights. However, drivers will usually charge you the going bus fare, and, given the added personal risks inherent in hitching, and the fact that public transport is becoming ever-more available, it's not particularly recommended as a means of getting around.

If you must hitch, don't do it alone. The best places to try are on town and city exit roads. Get the driver's attention by waving your hand, palm down, at them. Expect to bargain for the fare, and make sure that you have your destination written down in Chinese characters.

A few travellers hitch into Tibet on trucks as a way to get around government travel restrictions. Be aware that if you do this you are putting yourself at some risk, as conditions on the four-day ride are excruciatingly uncomfortable and it can get extremely cold. If you are found, you might have to pay a fine, but your driver will be in serious trouble - some drivers have been severely beaten by police.

Organized tours

Chinese tour operators, such as the CITS, can almost always organize excursions, from local city sights to river cruises and multi-day cross-country trips. While you always pay for the privilege, sometimes these tours are not bad value: travel, accommodation and food - usually plentiful and excellent - are generally included, as might be the services of an interpreter and guide. And in some cases, tours are the most practical, if not the only, way to see something really worthwhile, saving endless bother organizing local transport and accommodation.

On the downside, some operators blatantly overcharge for mediocre services, foist guides on you who can't speak local dialects or are generally unhelpful and spend three days on what could better be done in an afternoon. In general, it helps to make exhaustive enquiries about the exact nature of the tour, such as exactly what the price includes and the departure/return times, before handing any money over, though in most cases there is little you can do if promises are broken.

City transport

Most Chinese cities are spread out over areas which defeat even the most determined walker, but all have some form of public transit system . Hong Kong, Beijing, and Shanghai have efficient underground metros , while Guangzhou's is still being constructed; elsewhere the city bus is the transport focus. These are cheap and run from around 6am to 9pm or later, but, apart from Hong Kong's trams, are usually slow and hideously crowded. Pricier private minibuses often run the same routes in similar comfort but at greater speed - they're either numbered or have their destination written up at the front. If you're in a hurry or can't face another bus journey, taxis cruise the streets in larger towns and cities, or hang around the main transit points and hotels. They're not bad value especially for a group, costing about Y5-Y12 to within 3km and then a set rate of Y1-3 per kilometre, depends on where you are. Meter is not used in some small cities. You'll also find motorized- or cycle- rickshaws, and motorbike taxis outside just about every mainland bus and train station, whose highly erratic rates are set by bargaining beforehand.

Source: (but a slight update made by us)

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