Fittingly for a country of its enormity, there are a variety of options when it comes to transport in China. Expats in the People’s Republic have access to buses, trains, subways, trams and taxis in many cities, and there are also several options for long distance travel, including high-speed trains, buses and domestic flights.
Driving in China is often a challenge for expats, however, and is often characterised by mild chaos and heavy congestion. It may be a good idea for foreigners to get to know their surroundings through public transport before getting behind the wheel.
Walking and cycling are popular in much of China, being the cheapest and healthiest ways of getting around short distances. Some cities even have public bicycle hiring programmes as part of their public transport infrastructure.
Public transport in China
Standards vary between cities but, in general, the wider network of public transport in China is fairly comprehensive. China’s train and long-distance bus services make it possible to travel massive distances with relative ease. There are several kinds of trains with several classes to choose from, allowing passengers to strike a balance between comfort and budget according to their circumstances.
The national railway network in China is extensive and covers the entire country. Expansions and improvements are constantly being made to the country’s rail infrastructure, especially with regards to its high-speed trains. Most of China’s infrastructure is owned and administrated by the state-owned China Railway Corporation.
The different types of trains in China operate on different routes and at varying speeds. High-speed trains have letters C, D or G as a prefix. These only operate between the major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Expats who have the option to travel by high-speed train should do so as it makes for a more comfortable experience than other trains.
Different travel classes are available on different trains. Long-distance trains generally offer sleeper compartments, allowing passengers to get some rest while travelling. Soft sleepers are the most comfortable option followed by hard sleepers, and then there are soft seats and hard seats, the cheapest option.
Train tickets can be purchased in advance at stations. Passengers need to provide proof of ID when travelling by train in China, as tickets are not transferable. There are often local railway ticket agencies allowing passengers to purchase tickets in advance, but at a higher cost.
Expats should note that most station and ticket agency staff are unlikely to speak English and it is therefore best to enlist the help of a local acquaintance to assist in the purchase of tickets. During national holidays and festivals such as the Chinese New Year train tickets sell out rapidly. When travelling during a busy time of the year it is worth purchasing tickets through an agent to avoid long station queues.
Travelling by buses in China is often an inexpensive way to get around, although service standards vary widely between high comfort and incredible discomfort.
Air-conditioned buses with comfortable seating and onboard entertainment are easily available when departing from major cities, but could cost more than an equivalent train ride. Rural buses, on the other hand, are likely to be a challenging experience. Personnel rarely speak English, signs are usually in Chinese, buses are sometimes poorly maintained and delays are not uncommon.
Purchasing bus tickets in China is not easy for new arrivals. Tickets can be bought from ticket counters at large transport terminals in major cities. At smaller stations, destinations may simply be shouted out while passengers are directed to the relevant bus and pay while boarding.
Taxis in China
Taxis are readily available in all major cities and are reasonably priced. Rates do increase when travelling at night, however, and finding a taxi during peak hours or bad weather can be difficult.
Taxi drivers in China are usually reluctant to accept tips, as it may be seen as a form of corruption. There are, however, drivers that will take advantage of foreigners by travelling longer routes. However, even in these instances the fare difference is minimal. It is always best to use metered taxis as unofficial taxis approaching foreigners at airports and tourist attractions are common, and usually overcharge.
Expats should note that even drivers in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai rarely speak English and it is best to have the destination written down in Chinese.
Domestic flights in China
Air China domestic flight taking offGiven the country’s size, travellers in a hurry often prefer to take a domestic flight to get to their destination.
There are a number of airlines that operate flights connecting the major cities and tourist destinations, including Air China, China Southern, China Eastern, Shenzhen Airlines and Shanghai Airlines.
Flights from mainland Chinese cities to Hong Kong or Macau are, however, considered to be international flights and are more expensive than other destinations. It is usually cheaper to fly to or from a nearby city such as Shenzhen and cross the border on land.
Prices for domestic flights within mainland China are set at standard rates but discounts can often be found, especially on the busiest routes. Buying online via a Chinese website or travel agency is generally cheaper than on international channels.
Perhaps unexpectedly, this also means that tickets bought in advance are not cheaper. Instead, there is usually a lower fare for remaining seats closer to the date of departure. Planes are usually full during peak periods, however, and it is best to book in advance.
Delays are common when flying within China, so it may be better for passengers travelling shorter distances to consider using ground-based transport.
Cycling in China
Cycling is a cheap and convenient way of getting around Chinese cities and thousands of bicycles take to the roads during rush hour. Given the erratic nature of Chinese traffic, however, cyclists have to ride defensively and it may be best for inexperienced cyclists to give it some time before attempting to take to the road.
Bicycle theft is common throughout China so it is best to carry a lock. They are, however, a deterrent more than anything else. It is best to park in designated parking areas where a guard can take care of the bike for a small fee. Many people buy second-hand bicycles to avoid them being stolen.
Driving in China
International Driving Permits are not recognised and expats wanting to drive in China will need to obtain a Chinese driving licence. Chinese roads are frantic, however, and defensive driving is a necessity.
Lanes are not always adhered to, hooters are constantly hooted and it sometimes seems like there is no concept of right of way. Congestion can also be severe and parking is often impossible to find. There is, however, English road signage in major tourist destinations.
Even expats who pass the theoretical and practical test for a licence might want to reconsider taking to the wheel, although many do. The safest way of getting around on four wheels is by renting a car with a driver who understands local driving etiquette.
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