China Survival Guide: Transport

Public transport in China is reasonably good and ridiculously cheap. The buses’ hard plastic seats are not particularly comfortable though this shouldn’t bother you as chances are you will have to stand anyway – Chinese buses are mainly standing to cram more people on. Get this though. Any citywide bus journey costs 1 RMB ($0.15) whether one stop or twenty, and it’s cheaper still if you purchase a travel card. 

china bank holiday

Typical bank holiday chaos in Zhengzhou, photo taken by my buddy Andy

The subways (Metro) are great value too. The trains may not have much aesthetic appeal with sterile plastic and glass and too bright lighting, but they are clean and modern and even in Beijing the most expensive journey is a mere 7 Yuan ($1). All very well, but chances are you are going to venture out of your chosen city at some point and that is when travel prices leap and things can become a little tricky.

China is big. It’s even bigger than Canada if you count landmass alone. And, as you have doubtless heard, quite a number of people reside there. These facts make travelling in China challenging at times, particularly on bank holidays. Much like a punch to the solar plexus or a kick between the legs, travelling on bank holidays should be strictly avoided. This is a nightmare you cannot awake from. You will be pushed and pulled and pulled and pushed in every direction in throngs of people for seemingly hours. Yet you will never get anywhere. I made this mistake once. Never again.

If you travel on a normal weekday however, travel can actually be very pleasant. Very pleasant indeed. Then again, it can still be a nightmare. Here’s what you need to know.

Planes

Anyone who travels often by plane in China will know that Chinese flight departure times are something of a fiction. That fiction might be of black comedy genre, or all out blood-soaked horror, depending on who you ask. I have taken just three planes in China. All were delayed. When I first arrived in China my connection flight in Beijing stopped on the tarmac for an hour and a half. We even ate our in flight meal before we left the ground. No explanation was proffered and interestingly no one on the plane blinked an eyelid. Par for the course.

A flight is not officially considered delayed in China until half an hour after its scheduled departure time. The standard criteria for most of the rest of the world is fifteen minutes. Because of this, China claim that almost 75% of Chinese flights take off ‘on time’. Of course, other sources don’t concur.

According to flightstats.com, a mere 20% of flights left Beijing Capital International Airport on time last year. Shanghai fared slightly better with just under 30%. Compare that with the likes of Japan’s Tokyo Haneda Airport with an impressive 95% of flights leaving on schedule.

China airportChina’s airports are the height of modernity but the systems employed are dated and lead to delays

One of the main reasons for these delays is that the military control 80% of China’s airspace to civilian’s 20%. This figure is inverted in the US with the military controlling just 20% of airspace, mostly in rural or ocean areas. The Chinese military control these skies jealously. They can, and often do, call military exercises at any time, disrupting flight paths of commercial planes at a moment’s notice.

An extreme case of this occurred in July 2014 when hundreds of flights in and out of Shanghai were cancelled to make way for military exercises. There was no warning and the exercises lasted two weeks, causing massive disruption and costing one of the largest and fastest growing aviation markets a fortune, to say nothing of the the cost to the wider economy.

The issue is compounded by other factors including precedence for take-off given to any government official above a certain rank, overly cautious air traffic control and airspace restrictions, and the fact that rapid growth in the aviation sector has resulted in air traffic control and other infrastructure being overwhelmed and in urgent need of upgrades to cope.

What to Do

Consider taking another form of transport. If you are travelling within China and the distance isn’t too great, the fast train is probably a better option. They are modern, comfortable and very punctual. You can set your watch by them.

Make sure you leave plenty of time between connections. Assume your plane will be delayed at least an hour and plan your schedule accordingly.

Arrive well before your flight. Security is very tight and it can take some time to get through.

Avoid travelling before or during national holidays. Avoid like the plague.

Keep calm and carry on. Depending on the carrier, you may have to collect luggage for connecting flights. This can take some time. Travel light, if you can, and carry on your luggage.

Trains

China’s fast train network just gets better and better. The cumulative number of tickets sold in 2016 is projected to be in excess of five billion as more and more passengers opt for rail over air. The High Speed Rail Network (HSR) currently extends to 28 of China’s 33 provinces and regions. Many trains have the ability to travel at a top speed of 380 km/h (240 mph), but all trains have had their operating speed limited to 300 km/h (186 mph) since the Wenzhou train collision, in 2011.

China fast trainChina’s High Speed Rail (HSR) is modern, clean, affordable and punctual

My experiences of travelling on High Speed Rail have been almost completely positive… apart from that one time when I fell asleep and missed my stop which had me speeding in the wrong direction for an hour or more. The trains are punctual, clean, and modern. The food sold on board is expensive but you can bring and eat your own as most Chinese people do..

In comparison to high speed rail networks in other countries China’s HSR is cheap. However in China tickets are considered quite expensive. A five hour trip from Zhengzhou to Beijing costs around 550 RMB ($83) with a standard rail ticket costing just over twice the price at 180 RMB and taking 15 hours. If you book a ‘sleeper’ it will cost an extra 150 RMB for that journey. For short journeys standing only prices are incredible value; I once got a standing ticket for a forty minute train journey for 10 RMB ($1.50)! When choosing your ticket consider what is most important to you – time and comfort or budget.

What to Do

Book online. The Chinese use their ID card to book and collect train tickets. This option is not available to foreigners and booking could be a bit of a nightmare in the past. Thankfully there are now a few new English language websites and apps where you can book online and then collect your ticket at the manned booths in the station. The best of these is Ctrip which also offers plane tickets and hotels. When you input your details once on the Ctrip app it literally takes two minutes to book a train, fast or regular, from then on. Alternatively you can book at the website or try Travel China Guide which is a similar English language booking site.

Try to book a bit in advance. Although prices don’t go up as departure approaches like air fares do, the cheapest tickets are often sold out days before departure.

Leave yourself plenty of time at the train station. Queues can be very long for the booths and security checks can cause delays.

Ask for help. Don’t be afraid to ask someone where you should queue. There will be at least thirty lines and only one of those is yours. Unfortunately, most Chinese stations have no English or Pinyin so you will have to ask for assistance. Have your eticket ready and ask someone who looks like a student where to go. Students tend to have passable English. Chinese people are more than happy to help.

Do not attempt to claim your ticket from the automated machines. These cannot be utilised by people who do not possess a Chinese ID card.

Make sure you bring your passport. You cannot travel by train unless you have at least a copy of this document, however short the journey.

Automobiles

There are two types of taxi in China – legal and illegal. The legal taxis are marked clearly and all have meters. The illegal ones are often small people-carriers with conspicuously darkened windows to prevent the authorities from spotting naive foreign faces being taken for a ride. In both senses.

I have travelled in illegal taxis twice. On the first occasion we couldn’t get a standard taxi to take us as it was raining heavily and the taxi-rank drivers were after a more lucrative fare. Our driver drove like a maniac and then demanded an exorbitant amount of money for the pleasure. We gave him half of what he demanded, which was more than twice the price it should have been.

Chinese taxiChinese taxis are usually red, green and yellow, or yellow and black/dark blue

The second time was a bank holiday in Beijing. We had spent over an hour queueing to purchase a ticket for the metro and by the time we got to the booth the trains were finished. The taxi rank’s long line looked none too appealing so we took up a taxi tout’s offer and went with an illegal cab. We got a long tour of the city (not particularly varied as I went past the same land marks several times), picking up and leaving off various people before we arrived at our hostel an hour and a half later. We duly paid for the pleasure. Avoid.

Chinese taxis can be very reasonable. Prices differ from city to city but an hour is between 35 and 50 Yuan ($5.25 – $7.50). I use the verb ‘can’ because lots of Chinese taxi drivers, like many of their non-Chinese brethren worldwide, are reluctant to use the meter provided and prefer to ‘negotiate’ a price. Like the old days. They really are a nostalgic bunch.

What to Do

Insist on the meter. The meter is the travellers friend. If the taxi driver refuses this request hop out and hail another one. There are plenty in China.

Avoid taxi-ranks. Taxi drivers who use them often employ unscrupulous business tactics. If you hail a taxi you are much more likely to get the meter without a discussion. Drivers in the taxi ranks know each other and work together so if one refuses you the meter the others will likely follow suit.

Know where you are going. It is also good idea to at least pretend you know where you are going by learning the name in Chinese rather than showing the driver a location on your phone. Dastardly drivers often take the long way if they feel you won’t notice, or drive where they know there will be traffic congestion to make extra cash.

Watch out for scams. Avoid getting your change in counterfeit notes by carrying small change. 100 yuan notes is the denomination you should be most careful with.

Keep your receipt. This should have the registration number of your taxi and a number you can call if you have any issues or you have left something behind.

 


Chinese rickshaw

I hope that has been helpful. Before I go, I should give an honorary mention to the Chinese auto rickshaw or Tuk-Tuk. They are small three wheeled vehicles, often red in colour and these days are usually powered by a motorcycle engine. There is no meter and they are not very comfortable or practical for long distances, but if you’re only going a couple of miles up the road they are incredibly cheap and a pleasant way to travel. Always agree on the fare first though.

Ciao for now.