China is a vast country and to get anywhere; you would most definitely need to use many different kinds of transportation.
So let me describe what I have learned while backpacking through China 🙂
Traveling long and short distances is relatively easy, and I did not face many challenges there. Even though the level of my Chinese is non-existent, I got to every place that I needed to get to without any surprises.
The annoying part about most of the public transport is that they have to check your passport when they sell you tickets, and when you go through security control. The other is security control itself. It doesn’t matter if you take a plane, bus, metro, train. You have to put all your bags through the x-ray. And when you are in a hectic part of the city with your luggage, it is very tiring to take your bags off the shoulders continually.
The flight tickets are quite cheap, and there is an airport in almost all bigger cities. The most significant disadvantage is that it takes forever to get to the airport due to traffic. I thought I could reserve an hour for commuting, and it would be fine. Gosh, I was mistaken. It takes way longer to get to the airport, and after you are there, it takes forever to go through baggage and security checks. The queues are super long.
I took a couple of planes from different companies, and everything went fine. I got everywhere on time with all my luggage intact 🙂 I just didn’t foresee it takes more time than what I am used to.
I had slight problems with booking plane tickets directly at the airline websites. I had to book it via the 3rd party (Trip.com). When I have tried doing it on the airline website, they took my card details and processed the payment but then it seemed like it failed. Other companies had similar problems with not working sites. But once I was over that hurdle, the rest went easy.
In some cases, it is faster to take a train than a plane. For example to Xi’an from Beijing. It takes almost the same amount of time (5h) because you have to calculate getting to and from the airport.
I used regular day trains and night trains. I really liked the night trains. I received a fresh blanket, and the bed was quite comfy. The train personnel had my ticket, and they woke me up when I had to get out of the train.
I booked my tickets through China DIY Travel website. They took commision of 10$ for each ticket, but I think it was worth it. I have researched when and where I want to take the trains and sent the schedule to them. They replied with information whether it was possible to do it. I found out that way that I couldn’t make one of the connections due to trains not going there in October. They have proposed a different solution.
Another great thing about them is that they book tickets when they are released. In my case, all my four trains were issuing tickets on four different dates, and they just made sure to get everything I wanted.
They also provided me with maps of train stations, some simple translations to show to taxi drivers so they would know where to take me and videos how to get where I needed. Overall I was pleased with them. They said to pick up my tickets on every station I got to, but I managed to get all of them on my first station in Bejing.
It is possible for you to book a ticket by yourself at the train station. You just need to find a human to sell it to you as they need to check your passport. That is the reason why you can’t buy it in the machine. The downside of it is that you might not make the connection as everything might be already sold out. Especially when it comes to night trains. They were full, and you don’t want to travel for 12 hours standing 🙂
For the shorter connections, you can buy it at the station. I did it for Xi’an to Huashan without any significant problems.
Long distance buses
That is the category of all busses that are not just a city bus.
When I wanted to go to Dongchuan, I went to the bus station, showed a cashier a picture of the place and the name, and she sold me a ticket after checking out my passport. With the ticket, I went all around the station, showing it to every bus driver until one of them nodded it was mine 🙂 The busses that are going through villages do not have a bus stops, so you have to let the driver know when you want to go out. I showed mine a picture of the place, and he seemed to get what I wanted.
On the way back we asked the hotel owner to stop a bus for us, he told us the bus would be there at 9.00, and it waited for us 🙂 In this case, where there is no cashier to sell you tickets, you will get a person come over at some stage of the journey to get money from you.
It took me a while to figure out how those worked. I mean you know how busses work, but how do you pay for them 😀
The first time a girl paid for me as the driver and I were clueless 🙂 Then I got to observe people and figured it out.
Most Chinese use a special app to pay for their tickets. Those that didn’t have it put money in a box next to the driver. The fare price is written somewhere on the wall in the front part of the bus. It is usually ~2¥, but check it out yourself. You have to have the exact amount, as you put money in the box and the bus driver will not give you change.
Some big cities have a metro system. It is quite a cheap way to travel, but you have to know the name of the stop. On some stations, there was a human that could sell my ticket, but more often than not there was no one in the booth.
They way I did it was to open Google maps and find the name of the station I wanted to get to. Then on the machine, I started looking for the same name. The rest was comparing the signs like a horse looking sign, one line, square, oh that looks like something I’m looking for! 🙂 You can choose the English version, but it took me more time to find what I was looking for that way.
The one thing worth remembering is that you need 1¥ coins. You can only use 1,5,10¥ so remember to have some spare change on you.
Yeah, seemingly easier than public transportation… Definitely not cheaper 🙂 Out of all the taxis I took there, I have not been ripped off 3 times 🙂 When the driver starts the taximeter then the ride is cheap. But sometimes they decline to do that. You can try to bargain, but I failed at it, and usually, when I needed at a taxi I was on a tight schedule, and as a result, I paid way more than I was supposed to do.
Let’s say, my white European face was screaming $$$, and unfortunately, most of the drivers took advantage of the language barrier and lack of other choices.
Talking about languages, most of the drivers do not know a word in English, so it is a good idea to have a business card or the name of the destination in Chinese to show them.
Later on, I have discovered that there is an app called Didi that works like Uber or Grab. I have not used it but saw some people using it. Check out this link to see what to do with it.
There is a possibility to book a private driver to take you on tour. It is the most convenient and at the same time the most expensive option. It is easy as they usually are ordered by your hotel, so they know where to take you. They wait until you are done and take you straight back.
The prices differ, in Dongchuan we paid 200¥ for a day and half of driving around. On the other hand, to get to the Stone Forest from Kunming and then to the airport I paid 650¥. As you can see the spread is quite broad.
There is some Chinese website where you can book those trips cheaply, as the hotel usually have some deals with drivers and it might be more expensive. But for that, you need a Chinese speaking person. If you use the websites from Google that have an English interface, the price can be 2-3 time higher.