Apart from bikes, buses are the most common means of getting around in the cities. Services are fairly extensive, buses go to most places and fares are inexpensive. The problem is that they are almost always packed. If an empty bus pulls in at a stop, a battle for seats ensues. Even more aggravating is the slowness of the traffic. You just have to be patient, never expect anything to move rapidly and allow lots of time to get to the train station to catch your train.
Improvements in bus quality have been matched by a steady increase in congestion on the roads. Bus routes at bus stops are generally listed in Chinese only, without Pinyin, so navigation can be difficult. In larger towns and cities, more expensive private minibus operations follow the same routes as the larger public buses.
Good maps of Chinese cities and bus routes are readily available and are often sold by hawkers outside the train stations. When you get on a bus, point to where you want to go on the map and the conductor (who is seated near the door) will sell you the right ticket. They usually tell you where to get off, provided they remember, but the bus stop may be quite a distance from your destination.
For those who’d like to tour China by car or motorbike, the news is bleak. It’s not like India, where you can simply buy a motorbike and head off. The authorities remain anxious about foreigners driving at whim around China, so don’t plan on hiring a car and driving off wherever you want.
Cars can be hired in Hong Kong and Macau, but at the time of writing you needed a residency permit and a Chinese driving license to hire a car elsewhere (eg in B?ij?ng or Shàngh?i), effectively barring tourists from the roads.
If you want to use a car, it’s easy enough to book a car with a driver. Basically, this is just a standard long-distance taxi. Travel agencies like CITS or even hotel booking desks can make the arrangements. They generally ask excessive fees – the name of the game is to negotiate. If you can communicate in Chinese or find someone to translate, it’s not particularly difficult to find a private taxi driver to take you wherever you like for less than half the CITS rates.
Although crowded, trains are the best way to get around in reasonable speed and comfort. The network covers every province, except H?inán, and the link to Lhasa was completed in 2006. At any given time it is estimated that over 10 million Chinese are travelling on a train in China, except during Chinese New Year when most of China seems to be on the railway.
Travelling by train is an adventurous, fun and efficient way of getting around China and meeting the local people. A variety of classes means you can navigate as you wish: if you can endure a hard seat, getting from A to B is very cheap. Opting for a soft sleeper means things can get pricey.
The safety record of the train system is also good (despite the grim and graphic photographs displayed in train stations warning of the perils of transporting fireworks and explosives), but keep an eye on your belongings.
The new fleet of trains that run intercity routes is a vast improvement on the old models – they are much cleaner and equipped with air-conditioning. The new ‘Z’ class express trains (eg between B?ij?ng and Shàngh?i) are very plush, with meals thrown in on some routes, mobile-phone charging points and well-designed bunks. The ultrafast maglev train that connects Pudong airport to the Shàngh?i metro system is perhaps a sign of things to come. Trains nationwide are very punctual and leave on the dot.
Most trains have dining cars where you can find passable food. Railway staff also regularly walk by with pushcarts offering miàn (instant noodles), miànb?o (bread), héfàn (boxed rice lunches), hu?tu? (ham), píji? (beer), kuàng quán shu? (mineral water) and qìshu? (soft drinks).
Many train stations require that luggage be X-rayed before entering the waiting area.
Virtually all train stations have left-luggage rooms (; jìcún chù) where you can safely dump your bags for about Y5 to Y10 (per day per item).
An excellent online source of information on China’s rail network is www.seat61.com/China.htm. For bundles of info on China’s railways and trains, consult the tremendous Railways of China (www.railwaysofchina.com).
Copyright 2010 Lonely Planet Publications , all rights reserved, used with permission