Whether you are traveling in mega-cities or trekking through the rural areas of China; you may be surprised by a few things when trying to get from point A to point B. Good planning and thinking ahead will help smooth out the process of traveling in China, but patience and trusting your driver are essential to getting anywhere efficiently.
The first thing to remember is that the drivers of Chinese buses, trains, and taxis sincerely want to get you where you are going. After 5 months in China and riding multiple taxis, buses, and trains I can attest to the honesty, sincerity, and desire of drivers to do their job well. It is rare that anyone will purposefully make you feel unsafe, uncomfortable or scared.
The following is a brief overview of 4 methods of travel in China:
It is hard to avoid taxis if you are traveling in China. At some point you will find yourself in a taxi and there are some things to consider beforehand. The first thing about Chinese taxis is that there are no seat belts in the back (if you refuse to travel without your seatbelt you won’t get very far in a taxi)… no one wears seat belts unless they are going through a checkpoint or think the police are ahead (this concept may be more common in rural China). The second oddity you might notice is that the back left door does not open from the inside. I believe this is a safety precaution and designed to keep people from stepping into traffic. Regardless, it is a reality that I don’t think about much anymore; but was slightly confusing the first time.
Some of the best drivers I have ever seen sat behind the steering wheel of a beat up taxi in China. Sitting in the back seat with no seatbelt can be an adventure, but the taxi drivers’ ability to swerve in and out of cars, bicycles, scooters, and pedestrians is astounding. I have seen 2 accidents in the last 5 months: One involving a tuk tuk that got hit and was underneath a taxi (possibly a serious injury involved); the other was a minor fender-bender on the highway.
All-in-all I believe that driving in China is actually safer than the streets back home because of 2 things:
- People in China share the road… A common taxi ride may involve driving into oncoming traffic, horns every few seconds, and extremely close calls with pedestrians and bicycles; but road rage is almost non-existent (shockingly) and people accept the flow with the chaos, rather than fight against it.
If your taxi driver wants to use the shoulder of oncoming traffic to pass a semi he will honk, without thinking twice and then go. The semi may move to the right a bit, cars going the opposite direction may move into their shoulder, and your taxi driver will do the same if anyone else is trying to pass or get by him. Picture the traffic like pushing your cart through a grocery store aisle… you are free to go anywhere you want, but people naturally gravitate to the right as a general rule.
- Traffic is slower and no one assumes the person in front of them will do anything predictable. Someone may stop in the middle of the road, swerve across oncoming traffic to make a left turn, or back up when they pass their destination. Nothing is predictable and so, everyone drives defensively. It honestly works!
Trains in China are somewhere between the luxurious atmosphere of European trains and the conglomeration of people, smells, and tightness of trains in India. You can buy tickets online (Travel China Guide) which is a convenience that took me about 4 months to figure out. You will still have to go to the nearest train station or ticket office to collect your tickets; but the Chinese written on your confirmation page makes communication easier. Just take your passport and some extra money (usually a 10 RMB service fee).
There are a few different options for taking trains. 25+ hour train rides are not unheard of an 12 hour train rides are fairly common. Picking a train is balance between cost and comfort; so are some brief explanations of the options to help you decide:
- No Seat Option: I don’t know how to buy these and I wouldn’t recommend it for trips longer than 2 hours. This option is the cheapest and allows you to stand on the train with no seat. I have seen many people do it but I suspect it becomes very uncomfortable for long amounts of time. It is common for people with out seats to sit down in other’s seats when they get up. This is commonly accepted so don’t panic if someone is in your seat when you return from the bathroom or food car, etc… they will move when you get back.
- Hard Seat (photo above-right): These are very tempting seats to buy because they are cheap. After the first time on a hard seat (Henan Province to Nanjing – a 12 hour night train) I vowed to never do it again. It was very thrifty but people talked loudly for most of the night, there were 2 kids in our 6-seat section (One kid cried for most of the trip and the other one threw up twice at our feet). I like to call this the “$20 version. It’s not sooo bad, but I got off the train with puke on my hat and backpack, exhausted from only getting a couple hours of uncomfortable sleep, and wondering if the price was really worth the experience.
- Soft Seats/First Class seats – Instead of 3 seats to a section there are 2. These seats are much more comfortable, you don’t feel quite as much like you’re on a cattle train, and they are significantly more expensive. Depending on the length of your trip, these are hard to beat if you have the money.
- Hard Sleeper: For night trains and long journeys there are sleeper cabins available. The hard sleeper is a bunk bed style sleeping area that is nice when you are asleep and laughably cramped in while you are awake.
When you purchase these tickets you will see 3 prices available; these refer to the bottom, middle, and top bunk (photo below is the top bunk).
If you are claustrophobic or larger than an average person get the bottom bunk! In fact, get the bottom bunk everytime you can. It is only slightly more expensive and make getting up to stretch, move, or go to the bathroom much more pleasant. I am a smaller guy and fairly agile, but I still felt like I had to wrestle my way into that top bunk … it was a fairly comical experience at just how crammed in it was. There is also no door between the bunks and people walking up and down the train, so privacy does not exist.
- Soft Sleeper: This is the best and most expensive option for long journeys by train. They are expensive but very comfortable. There are 4 beds instead of 6, a reading light, plenty of room to sit up in your bed, a table, and a door that makes the cabin feel private and comfortable. This option is definitely the best option and depending on your travel funds, worth the extra money.
Buses are fairly well organized in China. They leave frequently, travel to almost all destinations, are on time at least half the time, and relatively comfortable depending on how much you are traveling with. In smaller cities the busses have a habit of stopping and departing at apparently random places. Some leave from the main bus-station, others leave from the outskirts of town, and others just seem to stop when someone waves them down. I have not found much of a trend with buses and I would recommend researching it a bit (based on area-specifics) before you travel. (Buses are more reliable in bigger cities; most of my experiences are based on rural China).
You can pay for busses once you are on the bus itself. They are usually very reasonably priced and leave frequently from main bus stations. Busses in China are similar to every other bus in the world… they are cheap, big and slow, and have a reasonable but not excessive amount of leg room.
Busses can and will fill up. I have waited for a bus for over an hour (it as 45 minutes late); only to get on a full bus. I watched that bus drive away while my friend and I stood in the street with all our stuff. We ended up paying a private driver 3 times as much, eventually caught up to the bus in a traffic jam, watched the bus driver and our driver talk through their windows, and ended up getting back on the bus we had missed in the first place. We got where we were going 2 hours late and spent 3 times as much … but such is China.
Tuk Tuks –
If you don’t know what a Tuk Tuk is, refer to the picture above. These are very common across Korea, Thailand, China, India, and most of Asia for that matter. When striking out with taxis (and if you are not going far) opting for a tuk tuk can be a good option. They are a bit small and require a slight acrobatic circus performance to climb into them, but they will get you where you are going just the same. Tuk tuks are slow and uncomfortable, yet reliable.
I would caution that tuk tuks are not as safe as other methods of travel. I have personally never had an issue with them and it seems that other drivers try to be more careful when passing them. But I have seen 2 tuk tuks on their side and a third buried underneath a taxi since I have been in China (I’m not sure what the result or injuries were, but a tuk tuk always comes out behind in an auto accident).
I think they are worth trying though, and they can prove to be a fun experience! They are always viable options for short distances, especially in the absence of taxis. Typically the cost to get to your destination is comparable or slightly less than that of a taxi, but they are slower and potentially less safe in the long run.