China is currently going through an explosion in both international and domestic tourism. While there have been gradual improvements in the quality of tourist services, some of the remoter sights can still be difficult to reach independently, and most accessible sights get very crowded, especially during the summer season. Due to the absence of a nationwide non-profit network of tourist information centers, visitors often have to rely on hotels for guidance. In the larger cities the tourist infrastructure, including transportation, hotels, and restaurants, is on a par with international standards. The remoter areas, however, provide fairly basic accommodations and may not be equipped to cater to the needs of the international tourist. Communication also poses difficulties, as English is not spoken widely and its usage is generally restricted to major cities, tour groups, four- and five-star hotels, and restaurants catering to tourists.
When to go
Although there are great climatic disparities within China, spring and fall are generally the best months to travel. The peak tourist season, however, is during summer (June to September), best avoided if you don’t like the heat – it is baking hot in North China, steamy in the Yangzi region, and sweltering in South China. Winter is fiercely cold in North China, particularly in the northeast. Winters in South China are more pleasant, especially on the perennially warm Hainan Island and parts of Yunnan province. Climate and rainfall charts are found in the section The Climate of China. Planning a trip to coincide with the holiday and festival periods (see China Through the Year) can lead to a fun and colorful trip experiencing China at its liveliest. However, tickets for air, train, and bus transport can be very difficult to acquire, as half of China will be traveling as well. Tourist sights are swamped with local sightseers, and most hotels and guesthouses raise their rates.
What to take
The clothes you need will depend on the time of year that you visit. In northern China, from November until March, you will require a down jacket, gloves, sweater, warm socks, thermal leggings, sturdy footwear, and lip balm. During the same season in the south, you still need a sweater and warm clothes, even as far south as Hong Kong. In summer, across most of China, you only need loose-fitting shirts or t-shirts, and thin trousers. Shorts will also do, though not many Chinese wear them. Bring a first-aid kit, raincoat, sun hat, deodorant, pocket knife, flashlight, and some good reading material.
Advance booking of hotel rooms is only necessary during the peak holiday periods between May 1 and October 1, and perhaps during the Chinese New Year. Nonetheless, booking in advance using the internet can secure you good deals on accommodations. Unless traveling on short intercity routes, train tickets should be bought a few days before travel, as seats can be in short supply. Train tickets can only be purchased up to five days in advance of the day of travel. Bus and air tickets need not be booked in advance, although airplane tickets can become scarcer during major holiday periods.
Visas & passports
A passport, valid for at least six months, and a visa are necessary to enter the People’s Republic of China. Most foreign nationals don’t require a visa for entering Hong Kong and Macau but will need one if traveling on to mainland China. Chinese embassies and consulates around the world issue a standard single-entry, 30-day visa, although multiple-entry visas, and 60-day visas can also be obtained, depending on the purpose of your visit. Visas cannot be issued at the border. When completing the visa application form, you must clearly specify what parts of China you plan to visit. Avoid mentioning Tibet, or Xinjiang, even if you plan to visit these regions, as you may be questioned about your occupation and intent of visit – the list you provide is non-binding. Always carry your passport, as it is an essential document for checking into hotels, and the Public Security Bureau may insist on seeing it. Photocopying the visa page and the personal information page will speed up replacement in case your passport is lost or stolen. Visa extensions are sometimes granted for 30 days by the foreign affairs branch of local PSBs throughout the country. Note that heavy fines are levied if you overstay your permitted period in China.
Some areas of China are either totally or partially off-limits, and may require a permit from the PSB, include Lushun (Liaoning), Xanadu (Inner Mongolia) and parts of Shennongjia (Hubei). Check with the PSB before going to western Sichuan, where the rules of access are not fixed.
All travel to Tibet has to be arranged beforehand through a travel agency in China, who will arrange a permit for you. If you want to travel outside of Lhasa, the agency will have to arrange a tour guide, private vehicle and driver, and any additional permits. It is easiest to arrange this from Xining or Chengdu.
Embassies & consulates
Most countries have embassies in Beijing and consulates in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, and to a lesser extent, in Chengdu, Chong-qing, Qingdao, and Dalian. Consular offices can re-issue passports and assist in case of emergencies, such as theft, imprisonment, and hospitalization. Your hotel can put you in touch with your embassy or consulate, or try (www.travelchinaguide.com).
When entering China, visitors are entitled to a duty-free allowance of 70 fluid ounces (2 liters) of wine or spirits, 400 cigarettes, and a certain amount of gold and silver. Foreign currency exceeding US$5000, or its equivalent, must be declared. Items that are prohibited include fresh fruit, rare animals and plants, and arms and ammunition. Chinese law specifies limits on the export of certain items, such as herbal medicines. Also, objects predating 1795 cannot be taken out of China, while antiques made after that date will need to have an official seal affixed. Although foreign visitors are largely left alone, it is not advisable to take in politically controversial literature, especially to sensitive areas such as Tibet where there have been instances of books being confiscated.
Ensure that all of your routine vaccinations are up to date, such as tetanus and polio. It is advisable to also get vaccinated against Hepatitis A and B, and typhoid. Only visitors traveling from countries where yellow fever is endemic must provide proof of vaccination against the disease. Malaria medication is a good idea for those visiting rural areas, especially Yunnan and Hainan, as is a Japanese encephalitis vaccination. Try www.mdtravehealth.com for up-to-date travel-health information and more advice on immunization.
It is advisable to take out an insurance policy for medical emergencies as well as theft before leaving home, checking with your insurance company that it is entirely valid in China. The policy will cover the loss of baggage, tickets, and, to a certain extent, cash and checks. However, before signing an insurance policy, look for one that excludes coverages you will not require during your stay in China. Insurance is also essential to cover any adventure activity or sport that you may undertake during your trip.
the shore in Yu Yuan (Jade Garden),
With the exception of the major cities, China has yet to recognize the value of professional Tourist Information Centers, either at home or abroad. Those that exist in Beijing and Shanghai are often under-funded, poorly staffed, and unreliable, although they are useful for obtaining free maps. The state-approved China International Travel Service (CITS), originally set up to cater to the needs of foreign visitors, today functions as any other local operator, offering nothing more than tours, tickets, and rented cars. A limited choice of government-run travel agencies abroad promote China tourism. However, they fail to offer professional and unbiased advice, instead steering customers toward group tours and standard hotels.
History Museum, Xi’an
Virtually every sight in China carries an admission fee. Most temples and parks, museums, palaces, historical monuments, sacred mountains, and wildlife reserves can only be entered after paying a fee. While temples charge anything from ¥5 to ¥80, prices of all other entry tickets vary. It is often hard to see where the money goes as many of China’s temples and monuments appear severely neglected. Until relatively recently, non-Chinese visitors had to pay a higher charge, and although this practice has been more or less discontinued, you may still encounter a foreign visitor surcharge. Most sights, such as parks and temples, simply have a main ticket for entry (men piao), but further tickets may need to be purchased for access to individual sights within the complex. Alternatively, a “through ticket” (tao piao) can be bought for access to all the sights. Occasionally there are further fees for storing bags. The sale of tickets often ceases half an hour or so before the sight closes for the day. Guides swarm around entrances to major sights and will latch onto you, even if you’re not interested. It is advisable to test their English first, as many just repeat fixed lines, parrot fashion, relating to the sight in question, and are unable to answer further queries.
Holidays & opening hours
Even though New Year’s day (January 1) is a public holiday in China, the main holiday periods are during the Lunar New Year (Spring Festival) and October 1 (National Day) holidays (the May holiday is just a single day). Each holiday period officially lasts three days, although most businesses and banks remain shut for seven days.
Accommodation prices rise as domestic tourism peaks. Tourist sights, however, remain open during these times.
The official language of China is Putonghua (literally “common tongue”), based on the dialect spoken in Beijing, and known outside China as Mandarin Chinese. Putonghua doesn’t specifically belong to any one region, and is used across the country for communication between speakers of China’s numerous dialects. Unlike other dialects, such as Cantonese, Putonghua can be used throughout China. Since the vast majority of Chinese people do not understand English, it is largely useless for communication outside of hotels. The tonal nature of Putonghua makes it difficult for English speakers to become accustomed to the language. Pinyin, a romanization system, helps in the recognition of sounds and has diacritical marks to indicate tone.
Facilities for the disabled
If you are a wheelchair user, China is not a recommended destination for you. With the exception of Hong Kong and, to some extent, Macau, China offers very basic facilities for the disabled, both in public transport and accommodation. Public buildings and places of interest are rarely fitted with ramps or rails. Many of the pavements in urban areas are littered with obstacles and occasional potholes, and have high curbs, making wheelchair access troublesome.
The scarcity of safe crossing points on urban roads drives pedestrians onto overhead walkways; otherwise they have to join the crowds surging through the traffic. Rooms with services for disabled visitors are only available at the better hotels, although elevators are common in most hotels over three stories high.
Facilities for children
The Chinese love children, and they are usually welcome everywhere in China. Even though baby-changing rooms are extremely rare, and very few restaurants have child seats, traveling with very young children can have its advantages as people will generally go out of their way to accommodate you in most places and situations. Supermarkets in towns are well supplied with diapers, baby wipes, bottles, creams, medicine, clothing, infant milk formula, and baby food. However, the baby food is of a sweeter variety and nearly always processed. The Chinese very rarely give pacifiers to their children, but you can find them in department stores in larger cities. Also bring a set of plastic cutlery for your child, as some restaurants and eating places only have chopsticks.
It is as common to see the Chinese with their cameras as it is to find film-developing stores in all major Chinese cities and towns, although it is more common for people to use digital cameras now. While 35mm color print film is available almost everywhere, don’t expect to find color slide or high-speed film outside of the large cities. Camera batteries are widely available in department stores in big cities, though it is best to bring your own supply. Many photo stores in Hong Kong, Macau, and mainland China provide transferring of images from a digital camera onto a disc.
Photographing people in China is generally not a problem, but it helps to first ask for their permission. Photography is rarely allowed within temple halls and museums, or at archeological sites, and signs indicate where photography is not permitted. In case you don’t find a sign with such restrictions marked in English, it is advisable to ask around. Photographing politically-sensitive imagés may result in the confiscation of your film and it goes without saying that photography of military sites is banned. As far as the regulations go, photography from aircrafts is banned, and so is taking photographs of airports, harbors, and railroads. However, barring the military installations, most of the other restrictions are seldom enforced.
The electrical current in China is 220 volts. You will see a variety of plugs in China, including two flat prongs (the same as American plugs), or three flat prongs (the same as Australian ones). The British three square-pin arrangement is rare outside of smart hotels, and it is therefore advisable to carry a travel conversion plug, readily available in most of the larger cities. A power-surge cable will protect laptops against voltage fluctuations, which are common in China. It is best to avoid cheap batteries, as they are very shortlived. Instead, buy a battery charger and rechargeable batteries, which can be easily found in most Chinese stores. Blackouts are not unheard-of in China, so, given the erratic powercuts, it is wise to carry a flashlight.
Time & calendar
Despite its size, China occupies only one time zone, and there is no daylight saving time. Midday in Beijing is also midday in far-flung parts of China, including Lhasa and Ürümqi, which are along the same latitude as countries that are two and three hours behind China. China time is seven or eight hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), two or three hours behind Australian Eastern Standard Time, 15 or 16 hours ahead of US Pacific Standard Time, and 12 or 13 hours ahead of US Eastern Standard Time. The Western Gregorian Calendar is used for all official work, although the lunar calendar is still used for calculating the dates of festivals.
Measurements & conversion charts
The metric system is most commonly used in all parts of China.
Imperial to Metric
- 1 inch = 2.5 centimeters
- 1 foot = 30 centimeters
- 1 mile = 1.6 kilometers
- 1 ounce = 28 grams
- 1 pound = 454 grams
- 1 pint (US) = 0.473 liters
- 1 gallon (US) = 3.785 liters
Metric to Imperial
- 1 centimeter = 0.4 inches
- 1 meter = 3 feet 3 inches
- 1 kilometer = 0.6 miles
- 100 gram = 3.53 ounces
- 1 kilogram = 2.2 pounds
- 1 liter = 2.11 pints (US)
Despite rapid modernization, China remains a traditional society governed by strong family values. Although the cities and towns give the outward impression of Western modernity, their inhabitants retain a deep-seated and family-oriented conservatism. Confucian values promote respect for elders and those in positions of authority, and reinforce notions of conformity. Religious observance is also an important part of people’s lives, but is largely separate from mainstream social behavior. The Chinese are, above all, welcoming and generous, and visitors are often amazed at their hospitality. If invited to someone’s home, a gift of chocolates, French wine, or a carton of cigarettes will be greatly appreciated.
While shaking hands is not customary in China, Chinese men may shake your hand or expect their hand to be shaken by foreign visitors. Although the Chinese are not particularly tactile in their greetings, bodily contact is quite common between friends, even of the same sex. It is quite common to see young men and women walking arm in arm, or with their arm around another’s shoulder. The usual Chinese greeting is ni hao (how are you?) or nimen hao in its plural form, to which you reply ni hao or nimen hao – the polite form is nin/ninmen hao. Chinese people can be very direct, and will not blanch at asking you how much you earn, how old you are, or whether you are married. Such questions are seen as nothing more than taking a friendly interest in a new acquaintance. When proffering business cards, the Chinese do so politely, using the fingertips of both hands, and receive cards in the same manner. It is a good idea to take some business cards, with your particulars in Chinese on one side and in English on the reverse, as there will be many occasions to give them away.
Once they reach the age of 30 or 40, the Chinese tend to dress conservatively, favoring dark and inconspicuous colors such as brown and black. In cities and towns, people wear jeans, t-shirts, and skirts, and many youngsters also dye their hair. Locals expect foreign visitors to dress and behave a little flamboyantly, so don’t worry too much about what you wear, but try to avoid looking scruffy. It is also acceptable for both sexes to wear shorts in hot weather. On the beach, nudity and women sunbathing topless are rarely seen as Chinese beach culture is quite modest.
Reserved in manner and expression, the Chinese also harbor strong feelings of personal pride and respect. The maintenance of pride and the avoidance of shame is known as saving face. Loss of face (mianzi) creates great discomfort and embarrassment for the Chinese, so although you may often be frustrated by bureaucratic red-tape and delays, remember that arguing may make matters worse. Instead, try tackling difficult situations by being firm but polite, and use confrontation only as a last resort.
Places of worship
Although there are no dress codes for Buddhist, Daoist, or Confucian temples, visitors to mosques should dress respectfully – avoid wearing shorts or short skirts – and cover their upper arms. Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucian temples are relaxed about visitors wandering about, but do be considerate toward worshipers. Also, check whether you can take photographs within temple halls, as this is often not permitted. Taking photographs in courtyards, however, is usually not a problem. Some Buddhist and Daoist temples are active, and you should show respect towards the resident monks.
Dos & don’ts
If invited out for dinner, expect to see the diners competing to pay the entire bill, rather than dividing it up between them. It is a good idea to join in the scramble for the bill, or at least make an attempt – your gesture will be appreciated, though almost certainly declined. The Chinese avoid talking about politics, and it is best to follow suit.
The Chinese habit of staring, especially in smaller towns and rural areas, can be a little annoying. However, the intent is rarely hostile. Staring was common even in Beijing until the 1990s, and although it is rare in cities today, it helps to remember that China was closed to foreign nationals until the early 1980s.
Another annoyance that visitors face in smaller towns are the constant calls of “Hellooo!” or laowai (foreigner). It is best to either ignore them or smile, as saying hello often results in bursts of laughter. In large cities, people often strike up conversation to practice their English. Sometimes, art students try and coerce you into visiting over-priced art galleries, which you should firmly decline to do.
Although line-ups are beginning to replace the usual mêlée at ticket offices, be prepared for a lot of pushing and shoving.
Since the outbreak of SARS in 2002, public health organizations have made considerable efforts to curb the habit of spitting. It is still widespread, however, especially in rural areas. Spitting is common on buses and trains, and it is not considered rude to spit in mid-conversation, so do not take offense.
at business banquets
Smoking & alcohol
As the world’s largest producer and consumer of cigarettes (xiangyan), China is a smoker’s paradise. Despite the appearance of no-smoking zones and rudimentary anti-smoking campaigns, towns and cities remain shrouded in a haze of cigarette smoke. Smoking is now banned on domestic flights and in train carriages (except in the corridors), but rural buses remain fumigated. There are usually non-smoking floors in four- and five-star hotels, but don’t expect any at cheaper hotels. Smoking during meals is totally acceptable, especially if there are other smokers present. The Chinese are very generous when it comes to offering cigarettes, so remember to be equally generous in return. They also enjoy drinking alcohol, and there is no taboo against moderate intoxication. The usual accompaniment during a meal is beer (pijiu), or white spirit (baijiu). People in cities are increasingly drinking wine, and it is available in most large supermarkets. If someone raises a toast to you (ganbei!), it is good form to toast the person back at a later stage.
at a street market in Tianjin
As a foreign national in China, it is essential to bargain (jiangjia). You may often be overcharged – sometimes by large amounts – in markets and anywhere else where prices are not indicated. In some restaurants, the English menu has more expensive rates than the Chinese one. You may be able to bargain to reduce your hotel room-rate, especially during the low season. When bargaining, there is no need to be aggressive. Instead, firmly state your price – which should never be unrealistic – and walk away if the vendor doesn’t agree. Shopkeepers will often agree to the price once they realize they’re losing a potential sale. The prices in large shops and government emporia (guoying shangdian) are usually fixed.
Tipping is very rare in China, Hong Kong, and Macau, so there is no obligation to leave a tip (xiaofei) and people don’t usually expect one. Some smarter restaurants include a service charge on the bill.
China’s imbalanced economic progress and huge population of rural poor have resulted in large numbers of beggars all over the country, especially in cities. Foreign visitors naturally attract their attention, and groups of children are often sent by their parents to extract money. The best strategy is to ignore them and walk away.
Causeway Bay, Hong Kong
Personal Security & Health
The Police Force in China is called the Public Security Bureau (gonganju), abbreviated to PSB. Foreign nationals are unlikely to encounter the PSB, unless extending their visa, applying for a permit to a restricted area, or reporting loss or theft. China is a police state, so the PSB is riddled with corruption and overwhelming bureaucracy. Not all police stations (paichusuo) have English-speaking staff, so try to take along an interpreter if reporting a crime, although it is best to contact your embassy or consulate first for guidance. Throughout mainland China, call 110 for the Police. Protect your valuables and important documents at all times, stay and eat in clean places, and drink only mineral water. For medical attention, it is better to opt for a private clinic rather than one of the many government hospitals.
Traveling in China is generally safe. Even though crime has burgeoned since the 1980s economic liberalization, with millions of unemployed migrants flocking to the cities, foreign visitors are unlikely to be the victims of crime, apart from petty theft. Tourists on buses and trains, particularly those in the hard-seat class and on overnight journeys, are tempting targets for thieves. Guard your camera and valuables, wear a money belt at all times, and secure your luggage to the rack on overnight train journeys.
Hotels are, more or less, a lot more secure than dormitories, even though it is not unusual for things to go missing from hotel rooms. You could use the safes or storage areas that most hotels offer, but do insist on a receipt. If staying in a dormitory, never leave your essentials and important documents lying around, and be cautious about giving too many details to fellow travelers.
When walking in crowded streets, avoid wearing anything expensive or eye-catching, and keep your wallet in the bottom of your bag, but never in a backpack. Be discreet when taking out your wallet; it is best to carry only as much cash as you need for the day. Keep an eye on your belongings while visiting public washrooms, as quite a few travelers have had very unpleasant experiences.
Keep cash, traveler’s checks, passport, and visa documents in a money belt – ones that lie flat and are meant to be worn under clothing are best. Also, remember to make photo-copies of the personal information and China visa pages of your passport and any other important documents and store them separately from the originals.
Tightened visa restrictions and upgraded security brought in around the time of the Olympics are still in place, especially at airports and railway stations. At certain sights, you will be asked to deposit your bag before making a visit. Always carry your passport with you for identification.
China is usually regarded as a very safe destination for women. In general, Chinese men are respectful toward women, and it is unlikely for them to experience any serious form of sexual harassment. That said, never take your safety for granted, and though independent travel is safer in China than in many other countries, traveling in a group is always wiser, as lone travelers are more likely to be mugged or assaulted. How-ever, if you do travel alone, stay on your guard when visiting rural and far-flung areas, and avoid wandering about alone in quiet and deserted places, especially after dark.
As far as clothing goes, it is best to observe the clothing and behavior of local women, and adapt as closely as possible. It helps to dress modestly, especially in Muslim regions and rural areas.
If possible, avoid hotel dormitories and opt for single rooms in hotels located near the center of town on well-lit streets. To avert an undesirable encounter, carry a whistle or learn a few basic self-defense moves.
Gay and lesbian travelers
The gay and lesbian scenes in China’s main cities, in particular Shanghai and Hong Kong, are growing. However, China is still a highly conventional society, and homosexuality is largely disapproved of and misunderstood. In 2001, the Chinese Psychiatric Society finally deleted homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. Homosexuality is legal, but there are no laws to protect gays, and police periodically crack down on meeting places. Even in cities, it is inadvisable for gays and lesbians to be open with their sexuality, despite the tactile relationship many Chinese have with friends of the same sex.
Hospitals & medical facilities
It is important to take out comprehensive medical insurance before arriving in China. China’s state hospitals vary considerably in quality; the better-equipped hospitals (yiyuan) can be found in the cities and large towns, but even at the best, communication can be problematic. Cities with large expatriate communities have private hospitals, where there are exclusive clinics with English-speaking staff to attend to non-Chinese visitors. Consider contacting your embassy for a list of approved hospitals. In general, medical services are reasonably cheap throughout China, but many hospitals may levy a certain amount of “foreigner sur-charge” that could ensure better care. Whatever the type of institution, you will be expected to pay cash at the time of being admitted.
Pharmacies (yaodian), identified by green crosses, are found all over China. Many of them stock both Western medicine (xi yao) and Chinese medicine (zhong yao), and can treat you for minor injuries or ailments. Take adequate supplies of any prescription drugs you require, and also remember to take the chemical – not brand – name of all prescriptions, in case you need to restock. In large cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, prescriptions may not be required for a range of medicines, including antibiotics and sleeping pills. Some large hotels have in-house clinics to help guests with diagnosis, medical assistance, and prescriptions. Large modern hotels may also be able to provide a Chinese speaker to accompany you to the hospital.
Those interested in traditional Chinese medicine for treating chronic ailments can visit the traditional institutes attached to local hospitals and medical colleges. Some hotels, too, offer traditional Chinese treatments.
Public bathrooms are typically of the squat variety and are squalid, filthy, and rarely cleaned, unless watched over by an attendant. There is little privacy – doorless cubicles, separated by low walls, are the norm. Toilet paper is a rarity – don’t forget to carry your own supply. Toilet paper should be put in the receptacle, if provided, rather than down the toilet, as septic systems are often unable to handle paper products. You will be expected to pay a few jiao for using the facilities. Use hotel and fast-food restaurant bathrooms whenever you get the opportunity.
The rigors of travel require a few extra hygiene considerations. Carry a small bar of handsoap or a tube of concentrated camping soap with you all the time. A packet of wet wipes always comes in handy.
Warts are easily picked up from poorly cleaned shower stalls. You will often find a pair of flipflops under your hotel bed. These are meant to be worn in the shower, but you might consider packing a pair of your own.
Gardens, Hangzhou, Zhejiang
Heat, humidity & pollution
During Summer, it is hot all across China. If you’re traveling during this time drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration, and increase your intake of salt to compensate its loss through sweating. Wear loose-fitting cotton clothing and sandals, remember to bring a sunhat and sunglasses, and use plenty of sunscreen. Most hotels, except the very cheapest, have rooms equipped with air conditioning, and virtually all restaurants are air conditioned as well. Prolonged exposure to the sun can cause heat stroke, a serious condition with high body temperature, severe headaches, and disorientation. To avoid heat rashes and fungal infections caused by humidity, wear clean, loose clothes made of natural fibers, and open sandals.
Many of China’s cities, including Beijing, experience chronic levels of atmospheric pollution. This aggravates chest infections, and asthmatic travelers should always carry their own medication.
Cold & hypothermia
Winter can be severe through most of north China. High-altitude travel in particular can expose you to extreme cold, and travelers to Tibet and other mountainous regions must be prepared for sudden changes in temperature. A waterproof and windproof layer is vital in cold conditions, as is adequate warm clothing, including thick socks, boots, jacket, gloves, and most importantly, a hat. The symptoms of hypothermia, which include shivering, dizziness, exhaustion, and irrational behavior, are brought on by prolonged exposure to the cold. Be aware of fingers and toes going white or numb, the first indications of frost bite, and rub them vigorously if they do.
Organize a basic first-aid kit, which should include all personal medication, aspirin or painkillers for fevers and minor aches and pains, tablets for nausea and movement sickness, antiseptic cream for cuts and bites, an anti-fungal ointment, Band-Aids, gauze and tensor bandages, a pair of scissors, insect repellent, and tweezers. Also carry antihistamines for allergies, anti-diarrhea tablets, water purification tablets, disposable syringes, oral rehydration solution, and a thermometer. Taking a supply of antibiotics is a good idea. Most of these items are readily available at Chinese pharmacies.
Stomach upsets & diarrhea
Usually caused by a change of diet, water, and climate, diarrhea is common among visitors. Chinese food, which can be quite oily and spicy, does require some getting used to for many people. If the change of diet is affecting you, stick to Western food and simple boiled food, such as plain rice, until the diarrhea subsides. Most importantly, drink lots of fluids, as diarrhea quickly leads to dehydration – oral rehydration solution (ORS) is an effective remedy. If you do not have any ORS, stir half a teaspoon of salt and three teaspoons of honey or sugar into a mug of boiled water.
To decrease your chances of stomach upset, avoid raw salads, cut fruit, cold cuts, road-side kabobs, fresh juice, and yogurt. It is important to avoid drinking tap water even in big cities, apart from Hong Kong. Drink boiled water, or bottled mineral water after checking that the seal is intact. Most international brands of carbonated drinks are widely available. Although street food can look tempting, it is safer to abstain unless it is hot and freshly cooked in front of you.
A good pharmacist can recommend standard diarrhea medication, such as Imodium, though if the attack is severe, it is best to consult a doctor. A popular and effective Chinese medicine for upset stomachs is Huangliansu.
Sars & flu
In 2003, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) spread throughout China and then to Toronto, Canada. China managed to contain the disease with a strict identification and quarantine program. Since then, there have only been minor, localized outbreaks of the disease. Another SARS outbreak is unlikely, but should one occur, do not travel to the affected area.
Bird flu, or avian influenza, is a serious problem in east Asia, but unlikely to affect travelers. Do not visit any poultry farms, avoid birds at outdoor markets, and eat only poultry and eggs that have been thoroughly cooked.
China is screening for swine flu (HINI) and started a program of vaccination in 2009 for at-risk individuals (such as young children and pregnant women). The World Health Organisation (WHO) provides up-to-date information on serious diseases. If you develop symptoms of pneumonia or flu after your trip, see your physician immediately.
Sexually transmitted & other infectious diseases
After years of denial, Chinese authorities have begun to publicly admit to the alarming spread of HIV – the virus that causes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) – via unprotected sex, drug use, and infected blood banks. Nonetheless, considerable ignorance about the disease and its prevention still exists in rural areas, and most prostitutes working in the cities are from rural China. Long-term visitors to China are screened for HIV infection.
Hepatitis B, also transmitted through contact with infected blood, is spread through sexual contact, unsterilized needles, tattoos, and shaves from roadside barbers. However, it can be prevented with a vaccine.
When visiting a clinic, ensure that the doctor opens a new syringe in front of you. You may even want to bring your own disposable syringe for the doctor to use. Any procedure using needles, such as tattooing or ear-piercing, is best avoided.
Visitors must be on their guard against dysentery. Bacillary dysentery is accompanied by severe stomach pains, vomiting and fever, whereas amoebic dysentery has similar symptoms but takes longer to manifest. Vaccination against Hepatitis A is advisable before leaving home, especially if you plan to visit rural areas. Other water-borne diseases, such as cholera and typhoid, can also be prevented with vaccines. Schistosomiasis (bilharzia), a disease caused by a water-borne parasitic worm found in south and central China, can be avoided by not swimming in fresh water. Drink bottled mineral water at all times, and avoid ice cubes.
The deadly rabies virus is spread via the bite of an infected animal. If you are bitten, clean the bite with an antiseptic solution, and seek medical help at once. Treatment involves a course of injections. A rabies vaccine is only necessary if you are visiting high-risk areas for a long period and likely to come into contact with animals. Do not have this vaccine, unless advised by your doctor.
Mosquitos are rife during the summer in China. In the southern part of the country, mosquitos can carry a number of diseases. If you are visiting an area with a high risk of malaria, take preventive anti-malarial drugs before, during, and after your trip. Contact MASTA (Medical Advisory Services for Travellers Abroad) and check the MD Travel Health website for information on malaria medication. Dengue fever and Japanese B encephalitis are also carried by mosquitos. To guard against mosquito bites, apply mosquito repellent, and wear clothes that cover as much of your arms and legs as possible.
A lack of sufficient oxygen at altitudes higher than 8,000 ft (2,500 m) can cause attacks of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) – severe headaches, dizziness, and loss of appetite. These symptoms subside within a day or two, but if they persist beyond 48 hours, you must descend to a lower altitude immediately and seek medical help. To avoid altitude sickness ascend slowly, drink plenty of fluids, and avoid alcohol and sedatives.
Banking & Local Currency
China provides a wide range of banking facilities and money exchange services, which are available in large cities, international airports, major banks, and top-end hotels. Traveler’s checks are the safest way to carry large sums of money, but always keep some cash to hand for transport, restaurants, and purchases, as traveler’s checks and credit cards cannot be used everywhere, especially in rural areas. ATMs that accept international cards are easy to find in major cities, including Hong Kong and Macau.
Banks & banking hours
The Bank of China has the most extensive network in the country. Several other major banks operate nationwide, including the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, the China Construction Bank, and China Merchants Bank. Banks are normally open 9am–4:30pm or 5pm Monday to Friday, but there are variations between places, and some banks are open on Saturdays. All banks remain closed for the first three days of the Chinese New Year, with reduced hours during other Chinese holidays.
Automated teller Machines (ATMs) that accept foreign cards are common in all major cities of mainland China, plus Hong Kong and Macau, so can be relied upon for easy access to cash. In more remote areas of China, ATMs may not all accept international cards; visit your card issuer’s website for locations. In cities, ATMs are located in banks, shopping malls, five-star hotels and airports. Some ATMs also dispense cash against credit cards. Cash withdrawn from ATMs is subject to the same exchange rate as credit cards, and there may be a limit to how much you can withdraw per day.
Chinese currency is non-convertible; it is not widely available internationally and cannot be used outside the country. You will have to exchange your money in China (most major currencies are accepted), and then convert any left-over renminbi back before you leave. You can exchange currency at banks and international airports and most decent hotels will change money for guests. All exchange operations are linked to the Bank of China so rates do not vary between them. Keep exchange receipts so that you can re-convert any surplus renminbi before leaving China. The Chinese “black market” for exchanging foreign currency offers only marginally better rates than banks. Dealing with the shady characters involved is not worth the hassle or risk, and you may end up with counterfeit renminbi.
The more recently minted bills have Mao Zedong on one side and a well-known heritage sight on the other. The older bills depict the traditional dress of various ethnic minorities.
Chinese coins are not widely circulated. There is a 1 yuan coin, some jiao denominations, as well as tiny and lightweight fen.
Hong Kong dollars are convertible and available outside the country. They are accepted in Macau and most southern Special Economic Zones.
Credit cards are widely accepted in upmarket restaurants, hotels, and high-street stores, but always check before attempting to make a purchase that your foreign card is accepted. The accepted cards are MasterCard, Visa, Japan Credit Bureau (JCB), Diners Club, and American Express. Air tickets can be bought by credit card from the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) offices, but train tickets have to be paid for in cash. Cash advances can be made on credit cards at the Bank of China.
Traveler’s checks are safer to carry than cash and offer a better exchange rate, but you will have to pay a commission. All major brands are accepted in China, and American Express and Visa are the most widely used. They can be encashed at major branches of the Bank of China, and at larger hotels, but are not accepted at most hotels and restaurants. Keep the proof of purchase slips and a record of the serial numbers in case of loss or theft. Hold on to encashment slips, so you can convert spare renminbi to another currency before leaving the country.
China’s currency is called yuan, also known as renminbi, literally People’s Currency. One yuan divides into 10 jiao, which divides into 10 almost worthless fen. In colloquial Chinese, jiao is called mao, and yuan is kuai. The most common coins include 1 yuan, 5 jiao, and 1 jiao, while the bills in circulation are 1, 2, and 5 jiao, and 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, and 100 yuan. There are also some fen coins and notes, but this tiny denomination is rarely accepted. Try not to acquire too many damaged notes, as they may be difficult to get rid of. Counterfeiting is widespread, and shopkeepers regularly scrutinize large denominations. Hong Kong dollars divide into 100 cents, and Macanese patacas into 100 avos.
China has an efficient postal network with a variety of services, including registered post and express mail. Telecommunication systems are reasonably advanced and international telephone calls can be made from all but the cheapest hotels. The Internet is hugely popular, and cafés with Wi-Fi access are widespread. The government, however, polices the net, and websites that it considers controversial may be blocked. Foreign newspapers and magazines are sold in five-star hotel bookstores, and in some supermarkets and bookshops.
International & local telephone calls
Public telephones do exist in China but are rarely used in the cities – China has the largest number of mobile phone users in the world. If you do use a public telephone, card phones that accept a wide variety of phonecards are available in large cities, and are the cheapest way of making calls. IC (Integrated Circuit) cards come in denominations of ¥20, ¥50, and ¥100. They are largely used for domestic calls. They can also be used for international calls, though the rates are not very good. IP (Internet Phone) cards come in denominations of Y100 and offer the cheapest rates for international calls.
If you buy a local SIM card you can hook your GSM cellphone up to the Chinese system in minutes (North Americans need unlocked tri- or quad-band phones). Top-up cards are available on almost every street corner. Phones can also be purchased for modest prices (all have English menus) and there is a thriving second-hand market.
Useful dialling codes & numbers
- To call China from abroad, dial your international access code, China’s country code (86), the area code omitting the first 0, followed by the local number.
- Neither Hong Kong nor Macau have area codes; they only have country codes – 852 and 853 respectively.
- To make an inter-city call, dial the area code of that city and the local number. For Beijing, dial 010; Shanghai, 021; Guangzhou, 020; Chongqing, 023; Kunming 0871.
- To make a local call, omit the area code.
- To make an international call from China, dial 00, the country code, the area code omitting any initial 0, and the local number.
- Country codes: UK 44; France 33; USA & Canada 1; Australia 61; Ireland 353; New Zealand 64; South Africa 27; Japan 81.
- Dial 115 for international directory assistance.
- Dial 114 for local directory enquiries in Chinese; dial the area code followed by 114 for numbers in another town.
E-mail & internet facilities
Personal computer ownership is still very limited in China, so internet cafés (wangba) are found just about everywhere. Many are no more than hole-in-the-walls, and the numbers have dwindled somewhat since licensing regulations became stricter following a spate of fires. You will find the greatest number of cafés clustered around university campuses and in residential neighborhoods. You can also get online at China Telecom offices. Unless you need to get online urgently, avoid using hotel business centers or internet cafés aimed at tourists, as they are generally over-priced. Free broadband access for those with their own computers is commonplace in hotels of three or more stars, and Wi-Fi is found in most cafés. Overseas websites and blogs are carefully monitored and often blocked.
The postal service in China is, for the most part, reliable, and the domestic service is reasonably fast. It takes less than a day for mail to reach local destinations, two or more days to inland destinations, while the international postal service takes up to 10 days to send airmail and postcards overseas. Visitors can send mail by standard or registered post (guahaoxin), while EMS (Express Mail Service) is a reliable way to send packages and documents abroad and within the country.
Main post offices are open seven days a week, from 8am to 8pm, while smaller ones usually close earlier or for lunch, and remain shut on the weekends. Large hotels usually have post desks.
Take your mail to the post office, rather than dropping it in a mailbox. It will help postal staff sort your letter if you write the country’s name in Chinese characters. Aerograms and packaging materials for parcels are available at post offices.
Reliable poste restante services are available all over China. You will need some form of identification – preferably your passport – to retrieve your mail. Envelopes should be addressed with the surname underlined and in capitals. Chinese addresses always start with the country, then the province, city, street, house number, and name of recipient. The post code should be written at the end.
Courier services are widely available, but less so in small towns and remote areas. While it is preferable to send large, bulky items by regular land, sea, or air cargo, important letters, documents, and smaller parcels are best sent through a courier agency, even though it may be more expensive. United Parcel Service (UPS), Federal Express, and DHL Worldwide Express are international courier agencies with a wide network.
at a newsstand
Newspapers & magazines
The dry as dust China Daily is China’s official English language newspaper, but it is very short on substance. A selection of international newspapers and magazines can be found at tourist hotel bookstores and a small selection of supermarkets and bookstores. Titles available include the International Herald Tribune, the Financial Times, Time, Newsweek, and the Economist. Online newspapers are not usually blocked, but online news organizations such as the BBC are. In Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Guangzhou, and other large cities, look out for expat entertainment and culture magazines, which offer the best news on local events.
Television & radio
The state-run television network, Chinese Central Television (CCTV), has two English-language channels. CCTV9 is tolerable despite its biased news and bland program content. Some English programs are also broadcast on CCTV4. Cable and satellite television is available in most international chain hotels, and you will find BBC News 24 or CNN everywhere. Chinese programs range from historical costume dramas and tepid soaps to domestic travel, wildlife programs, war films, and heavily biased news programs.
There is also a wide Chinese-language radio network, but only a few local English-language programs. You will need a shortwave radio to pick up the BBC World Service, Voice of America, and other international programs. Bad reception of BBC World Service programs in Chinese, however, suggests some kind of artificial disruption of the radio signal.
Most visitors to China arrive by air, though overland routes exist with train links to neighboring Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Vietnam, and a bus link to Pakistan. It is also possible to arrive by sea; there are regular ferries from Japan and South Korea to China. Traveling within the country – even to remote areas – is possible by air, train, road, and, on a few routes, by boat. China has a huge, rapidly expanding rail network, although tickets – especially for sleeping berths – can be rare during the holiday periods. Bus travel is improving, with buses covering the entire country, including a number of “luxury” buses that offer reasonable comfort. Mired in bureaucracy, renting a car is not advised; foreigners are restricted from driving in many areas and the condition of many roads is very poor.
Arriving by air
All major international airlines fly to China. Air China, the country’s international carrier, has quite basic service and facilities, but has a near-spotless safety record and its flights, to most of the world’s major airports, are competitively priced. North American and European carriers such as United Airlines, British Airways, Virgin, Lufthansa, KLM, and Air France, have regular flights to some, or all, of China’s three main – and most sophisticated – airports at Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing. Flights to the other parts of the Far East, Australia, and New Zealand are offered by Singapore Airlines, Japan Airlines, All Nippon Airways, Korean Air, Qantas, Cathay Pacific, Air New Zealand, and others. Both Virgin and British Airways fly direct to Shanghai. Cheap flights to China are also available via Air China, China Eastern, Aeroflot (via Moscow), Malaysia Airlines (via Kuala Lumpur), and both Air Asia and Tiger Airways (from Southeast Asia).
International flights & airports
China’s four main international airports are at Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. The Chinese government is investing a considerable amount of money to provide its international airports with state-of-the-art features. Beijing Capital Airport has three impressive terminals – terminal three was designed by architect Norman Foster and opened in time for the 2008 Olympics. In 1999, Pudong Airport was built in Shanghai, making it the first city in China to have two international airports. Macau, too, has a swanky international airport on Taipa Island, although most visitors arrive via boat from Hong Kong. Other international airports offering flights to overseas destinations include Changchun (Nagoya, Seoul, and Tokyo), Changsha (Seoul), Chengdu (Amsterdam, Bangkok, Kathmandu, Singapore, and Tokyo), Chongqing (Nagoya, Seoul, and Singapore), Dalian (Hiroshima, Munich, Sendai, Seoul, and Tokyo), Guangzhou (Kuala Lumpur, Los Angeles, Sydney, Singapore, Paris, and other destinations), Guilin (Seoul and Bangkok), Haikou (Bangkok, Osaka, and Seoul), Hangzhou (Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Seoul, and Tokyo), Harbin (Seoul, Khabarovsk, and Vladivostok), Kunming (Bangkok), Lhasa (Kathmandu), Nanjing (Bangkok, Seoul, and Singapore), Qingdao (Osaka, Seoul, and Tokyo), Shenyang (Osaka and Seoul), Shenzhen (Bangkok, Manila, and Tokyo), Tianjin (Nagoya and Seoul), Xi’an (Nagoya, Pusan, Seoul, and Tokyo), Xiamen (Manila, Singapore, Osaka, and Tokyo), Ürümqi (Almaty, Bishkek, Islamabad, Moscow, and Novosibirsk), and Wuhan (Seoul).
Air fares vary according to the airline and the season. The peak season for international flights to China is between June and September, when prices are most expensive. Reasonably priced tickets are also hard to find during the holidays: Chinese New Year and the first week of October. While flying via another country is cheaper than flying direct, traveling by a Chinese airline such as Air China or China Eastern will be cheaper than international airlines. Plenty of discount tickets are available for long-term travel, which are valid for 12 months with multiple stopovers and open dates. The best deals can usually be found online (try www.ctrip.com and www.elong.net). Numerous travel agencies across the world have websites, making it easy to compare prices. Tickets can be booked through ticket offices, travel agents, and hotels, but travel agents – especially those away from hotels and areas used by expats – tend to offer the best prices.
On the airplane, visitors are given a customs arrival form to complete: combining immigration, customs, and health information, which has to be submitted along with their passport at the airport immigration counter (between the plane and the arrivals hall).
International airports throughout China offer a limited range of facilities, but you will find foreign exchange counters, ATMs, public telephones, left-luggage services, restaurants (though rather over-priced), very limited shops, and toilets. Airport tourist information centers in China are of varying degrees of usefulness, and are often manned by staff who speak poor English.
Getting from the airport
Airports are linked to the city by express train or by bus routes which make several stops in town. Avoid the overpriced taxi touts who try and force their services on foreign visitors. Instead, head for the taxi rank where trips into town are charged by the meter. Four- and five-star hotels usually run shuttle buses to their hotels and the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) runs buses to their office in town.
The check-in time for international flights is officially two hours before departure. Most passengers are allowed 40 pounds (20 kg) of baggage, while first-class passengers may be allowed 66 pounds (30 kg). One additional item of hand luggage weighing up to 11 pounds (5 kg) is also usually permitted. Baggage allowance depends on the destination, and travelers to North America are generally allowed more luggage. If you are carrying heavy luggage, check with your airline to make sure that your luggage is within the weight limit, as excess baggage charges can be very high.
Departure tax is included in the price of an airplane ticket and a fee is no longer payable at airports.
|Airport||Tel information||Distance to city center||Average journey time|
|Beijing Capital Airport||(010) 6454 1100||16 miles (25 km) northeast||40 mins (taxi)|
|Hongqiao Airport (Shanghai)||(021) 6268 8899||12 miles (19 km) west||30 mins (taxi)|
|Pudong Airport (Shanghai)||(021) 6834 1000||28 miles (45 km) east||45 mins (taxi)|
|Hong Kong International Airport||(0852) 2181 8888||20 miles (32 km) west||25 mins (train)|
|Macau International Airport||(0853) 2851 1213||3 miles (5 km) northwest||15 mins (taxi)|
Domestic Air Travel
Although traveling by air is more expensive than traveling by train, it is often the most convenient and comfortable way of covering the long distances involved in Chinese travel. In fact, if you need to get quickly from one end of the country to the other, there is often no alternative. The extensive domestic flight network involves numerous regional airlines flying to over 150 airports. The main cities of Beijing, Nanjing, Chengdu, Tianjin, Chongqing, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Dalian, Guangzhou, and Xi’an are particularly well connected to airports throughout the country. Domestic air tickets are straight-forward to buy, so wait until you arrive and then shop around for discounts. Flight cancellations and delays due to bad weather are common, especially in winter and on less traveled routes in the more remote provinces, so remember to reconfirm your ticket and the time of your flight.
en route to Chengdu
A few private airlines operate from Hong Kong and Macau, but most other airlines in China are administered by the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC). There are currently about ten domestic carriers operating in China. (The initials in parentheses are the airline code or flight-number prefix.) Some of the domestic airlines, such as China Southern (CZ), and China Eastern (MU), also fly international routes. You can buy domestic flights from these airlines overseas, but rates are far better when booked in China. Other domestic airlines include Sichuan Airlines (3U), Shanghai Airlines (FM), Shenzhen Airlines (4G), Hainan Airlines (HU), and Xiamen Airlines (MF).
Lack of competition in the industry has given the airlines little impetus to improve standards or customer service. Meals on board are sometimes served hot, but are often limited to a sandwich. Announcements are both in Chinese and English if there are foreign nationals on board. In-flight service can be brusque, and foreign visitors have felt neglected in the past but service has improved greatly in recent years.
Air China’s international flying safety record is good, and now almost all domestic airlines have fleets of new aircraft, which means safety records have improved further. Older aircraft are sometimes used in China’s peripheral regions. Before you choose to book with a particular airline, you may wish to ask what kind of plane you will be boarding.
The baggage allowance is 44 pounds (20 kg) for economy class and 66 pounds (30 kg) for first and business class. You are also allowed up to 11 pounds (5 kg) of hand luggage, although airlines almost never weigh it. The charge for excess baggage is 1 percent of the full fare per 2.2 pounds (1 kg).
Air travel is becoming much more convenient in China as new airports are being built and old ones renovated and expanded. It has been made a national priority to upgrade all city airports, and state-of-the-art facilities are now available at Beijing Capital Airport, Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport, and the Hong Kong International Airport at Chek Lap Kok. These modern airports easily compare with the best airports in the world. Airports at some major tourist cities, such as Xi’an, Hungzhou, Chengdu and Nanjing also sport up-to-date facilities.
Getting to & from the airport
The distance from airports to city centers varies considerably in China, so factor this into your journey time. Also, always allow time for unforeseen delays en route. In many large cities and towns, you can reach the airport or travel from the airport into town on a CAAC bus, which departs from and arrives at the CAAC office in town. In larger cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, dedicated bus and train services run from town to the airport. Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing airports all have express train links to the city. Shanghai’s Pudong Airport is connected to the metro system by a high-speed Maglev train, which is the world’s fastest passenger train.
Taxis wait for passengers outside the arrivals hall. Make sure you head for the taxi rank and avoid the numerous touts who will try to direct you towards their own car. Insist on the driver using the meter. If you have booked accommodation, check whether your hotel offers transport to and from the airport.
For most domestic flights, the check-in time is at least an hour and a half before departure, although very few passengers arrive that early. Make sure all your bags are tagged, and do not pack sharp objects, such as scissors, tweezers, nail files, or knitting needles, in your hand luggage. The airport tax for domestic flights is usually ¥50, and is paid at the time of purchasing the ticket.
Tickets, reservations & cancellations
Each domestic airline has a booking office in most cities, as well as a reservation counter at each airport. Tickets can be booked through ticket offices, travel agents, or the travel desks of some of the better hotels – you should not be charged a booking fee. Travel agents tend to offer the best discounts. Credit cards are accepted by many travel agents and CAAC offices. Visitors are required to show their passports when purchasing tickets. There is generally no shortage of tickets unless you are flying between Hong Kong and a mainland destination, except in the run up to and during the Chinese New Year, and the week-long holiday periods after October 1, when it is advisable to book well in advance.
A combined international and domestic timetable is published by CAAC in both English and Chinese. These publications can be bought at most airline offices and CAAC outlets. Individual airlines also print their own timetables, available at booking offices throughout the country. Flight schedules are revised in April and October each year.
Ticket prices are calculated according to a one-way fare, and a return-ticket is simply double the single fare. Discounts on official fares are the norm, so it is best to check with travel agents for good deals. You are likely to get a better deal on a flight if you buy your ticket from an agent in the city you are departing from. Business class tickets cost 25 percent more than economy, while first class tickets cost 60 percent more. Children over the age of 12 are charged adult fares, while there are special discounted fares for younger children and infants.
If you wish to return or change your air ticket, you can get a refund as long as you cancel at least 24 hours before departure, and return your ticket to the same agent who sold it to you. Even if you miss your flight, you are entitled to a refund of 50 percent of the full fare. You may be asked to buy travel insurance from your ticketing agent. It is generally not worthwhile, as the claim amount is very low.
Traveling by Train
China is a vast country and, for many travelers, train journeys are an excellent way to see the countryside and get to know the people. The Chinese rail network, which is still expanding, is extensive, with tracks running over 32,300 miles (52,000 km). Trains in China are punctual, fast, and relatively safe, and are a reliable transport option. Buying reserved tickets, however, can often be problematic, and since trains are usually crowded, it is advisable to either buy your ticket well in advance, or ask your hotel or travel agent to arrange your bookings.
The railway network
Since the cost of air travel is beyond the reach of most Chinese, traveling by train is the preferred alternative, especially over long distances. China has an efficient and extensive rail network that covers every province including Hainan Island, connected to the mainland by a special train ferry, and mountainous Tibet, connected to Qinghai by a new railway line. Hong Kong is also connected to mainland China by rail. Depending on which type of ticket you purchase, Chinese trains can be quite comfortable, and there are fast services running between most large towns and cities.
Trains & timetables
Although trains in China are commendably punctual, trying to decipher a Chinese timetable is an impossible task, unless you can read Chinese. Timetables are published in April and October each year, and are available at railway station ticket offices. Stations can be frustrating places, and visitors will need patience to deal with them. Trying to locate English-speaking staff on platforms is difficult, even in large cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. Telephoning stations with enquiries is pointless unless you speak Chinese.
Each train is identified by a train number, written on the outside of each carriage, that indicates its route and destination. As a rule, incoming and outgoing trains running between two destinations are numbered sequentially. For example, train K79 travels from Shanghai to Kunming, while train K80 runs from Kunming to Shanghai.
Trains are of three types: those with numbers prefixed by the letter “T” or “K” are express (te kuai) or fast (kuai) trains, and those whose numbers have no prefix are ordinary (pu kuai) trains, with frequent stops. Express trains have carriages of all classes, and are the most modern and comfortable, with few stops and superior services. Double-decker trains with soft-seat carriages run on a few short intercity routes such as Beijing–Tianjin or Shanghai–Hangzhou. All long-distance trains are equipped with sleepers.
There is no smoking permitted within compartments, except in hard-seat carriages, although most trains allow passengers to smoke in the corridors. Most trains have dining cars, and staff will continuously push trolleys through the carriages selling noodles, snacks, mineral water, coffee, and newspapers. The noise level in carriages is often very high, as music and announcements are regularly broadcast over the speakers. China’s modern fleet of trains are much cleaner than the old ones and have air conditioning. The older trains can be very dingy indeed; prepare yourself for sordid and filthy bathrooms.
Chinese trains have four classes. The most luxurious class is Soft Sleeper (ruan wo), with four comfortable berths per compartment. Offering more privacy, security, and cleanliness than less-expensive classes, soft sleeper tickets are very pricey, and are not much cheaper than air tickets on certain routes.
For long journeys lasting over six hours, Hard Sleeper (ying wo) is the best way to travel. Consequently, these tickets are the hardest to procure, and you’d be lucky to get one on short notice. Hard sleeper can be an economical choice when traveling between cities overnight, as it saves the cost of a night in a hotel. Carriages consist of doorless compartments, each with six bunks. Tickets are of three types – upper berth (shang pu), middle berth (zhong pu), and lower berth (xia pu), with a small price difference between each. The lowest berth is the most expensive, while the top one is the cheapest. The best berth, however, is the middle one. The upper bunk has little head-room and is closest to the speakers. During the day, the lower bunk acts as seating and fills with fellow passengers. Pillows, sheets, and blankets are provided by the railways, as are two thermos flasks of boiling water, which you can replenish yourself from the massive boiler at the end of each carriage. Once aboard the train, the inspector will exchange your ticket for a metal token, and return the ticket at the end of the journey.
The cheapest class is Hard Seat (ying zuo), which seats three people side-by-side on lightly cushioned seats. Although fine for short journeys, spending more than four hours in a hard-seat carriage can be quite unpleasant. Carriages are usually crowded and dirty, the speakers blare endlessly, lights remain on at night, and compartments are filled with smoke. It is possible to up-grade (bu piao) once aboard the train, if there are seats available in the class of your choice. Note that hard-seat tickets bought on the same day are usually unreserved.
Available only on certain routes, Soft Seat (ruan zuo) carriages are much more comfortable and spacious than hard seat, and seat two people side-by-side in numbered seats. Tickets cost about as much as hard sleeper.
Train tickets, fares & reservations
When buying tickets, it is essential to plan in advance. On most routes, it is vital to buy tickets at least two or three days before you travel, although tickets are available about five days before departure. On short routes, you may be able to secure a ticket just before departure, but it is safest to buy in advance. Tickets on longer routes are certain to sell out, especially those for hard sleepers.
Train fares are calculated according to the class and the distance traveled. All tickets are one-way, so you will need to buy another ticket for the return journey. Joining the crowds at station ticket counters can be very trying, so unless the station has a separate ticket office for foreign visitors, which is the case at Beijing train station, consider asking your hotel, tourist office, or travel agent to buy tickets for you – they should be more than happy to do so for a small fee. Black-market operators buy tickets in bulk, and then re-sell them at a mark-up outside railway stations. If you’re buying tickets on the black-market, check the dates of travel, destination, and class printed on the ticket carefully.
a double-decker train, Dalian
Before boarding the train, visitors wait in a hall before filing past ticket-checkers to the platform. Retain your ticket as inspectors will ask to see it again, just before you reach your destination. Note that getting hold of tickets during the Chinese New Year (Spring Festival), and the May and October holiday periods can be very difficult, and it is inadvisable to travel during these times.
Traveling by Bus & Ferry
China’s extensive network of road transport connects most cities, as well as distant, rural areas. Bus travel is essential for reaching places that are not served by train. Tickets are both easier to procure and are cheaper than train tickets, and there is a wider choice of departure times, stops, and itineraries. The absence of a national operator, however, means that numerous competing businesses exist, coupled with minimal regulation. Furthermore, driving is often rash, vehicles are poorly maintained, and road conditions can be bad, especially in the more remote areas. A small network of passenger ferries serves ports along China’s coastline and some of the inland waterways.
awaiting passengers, Qinghai
There are still many parts of China that are not accessible by train, making it necessary to make the long haul by road. In Fujian, where rail services exist, but are infuriatingly indirect, bus travel makes a lot of sense. In Guizhou and Guangxi, the more interesting areas inhabited by ethnic minorities are only accessible by bus and the tropical area of Xishuangbanna in Yunnan is best explored by bus or taxi. You will also need to take a bus (unless you are flying) to reach Lijiang in northern Yunnan and all of western Sichuan. Getting around Tibet will require long bus journeys, as will exploring the northwestern frontier of China if you want to get beyond the towns on the main train line. Numerous sights throughout China are off rail lines.
Many smooth, wide highways now link some of the major cities, making some bus travel, particularly on the east coast, reasonably comfortable. In some cases, the bus is now a faster way to reach your destination than the train.
All cities and most large towns have at least one long-distance bus station (changtu qiche zhan) where state-run buses arrive and depart. Private bus firms may have set up a few of their own bus stations in town; often, one of these is located next to the train station. Other stations may be located on the edges of town – the North or East Bus Station will usually serve destinations to the north or east. Determining which of these stations serves the place you are trying to reach can be tricky, so you will need to do plenty of asking around. Destinations are displayed in Chinese characters on the front of buses.
Long-distance buses vary enormously in quality, age, and comfort. You may find that several buses are running along the same route, so make sure you are sold a ticket for the fastest, most comfortable bus, or cheapest bus, if you prefer. Note that in general, long-haul bus journeys are taxing. Road conditions are often poor and road works are common, slowing the journey considerably. Drivers can be reckless and bus crashes are distressingly frequent. The noise level can be deafening, with music blaring and the driver leaning on the horn, so take earplugs. Most buses are choked with cigarette smoke.
Ordinary buses (putong che) are the cheapest and have basic wooden, or lightly padded, seats. These buses stop often, so progress can be slow. They provide little space for baggage – there’s no room under the seats and the luggage racks are minuscule. Suitcases and backpacks are usually stacked next to the driver, and you may be charged.
Sleeper buses (wopu che) speed through the night making few stops, so reach their destination in good time. They usually have two tiers of bunks, or seats that recline almost flat. The older models can be quite dirty. Lower bunks (xia pu) cost more than the upper bunks (shang pu), but are worth the extra cost as you are less likely to be thrown from your bed when the driver takes a corner at speed.
Shorter routes are served by rattling minibuses (xiao ba), which depart only when every spare space has been filled by a paying passenger. Crammed to the roof, minibus trips can be quite uncomfortable.
Express buses (kuai che) are the best way to travel. Some are luxury (hao hua), have air conditioning, and enforce a no-smoking policy. Luggage is stowed in a hold, which is fairly safe, given the few stops that are made en route.
In certain parts of China – in Gansu and Sichuan, for instance – you may be required to purchase insurance from the People’s Insurance Company of China (PICC) before being allowed on a bus. Usually, however, it is included in the price of the ticket. This insurance waives any responsibility of the government bus company should you be injured in a bus crash; it does not cover you in the event of an accident.
Bus tickets & fares
Traveling by road is generally much cheaper than traveling by train. Tickets are sold at long-distance bus stations and, unless you are hoping for a seat at the front of a luxury bus, do not need to be bought in advance. Tickets for private buses and minibuses are either purchased on board the bus or from touts nearby. Main bus stations invariably have computerized ticket offices, and the queues are much shorter than those at train stations.
Ferries & boats
Small network of coastal routes survives in China, and vessels still ply the Yangzi River, but the increased convenience of traveling by air, road, and rail has reduced the variety and frequency of sea- and river-ferry sailings in China.
The most popular river route is the trip along the Yangzi between Chongqing and Yichang, through the Three Gorges . An overnight ferry service for tourists runs along the Grand Canal between Suzhou and Hangzhou, and Wuxi and Hangzhou . There are no regular passenger ferry services up the Yangzi River available to foreign visitors until Wuhan.
Popular coastal ferry routes include boats to Hainan Island from ports in the province of Guangdong (including Guangzhou) and Beihai in Guangxi. A large number of vessels ply between Hong Kong and Macau, many of which are high-speed and operate round the clock. Macau is also connected to ports in Guangdong, while Hong Kong is linked to Zhuhai and several ports on the Pearl River delta. Within Hong Kong, a medley of craft run to the outlying islands. There are quite a few vessels connecting Hong Kong with the rest of China, but services are becoming less frequent. Because of the prohibitively long overland routes, ferries link the booming northeastern city of Dalian with Yantai and Tianjin. Yantai and Weihai on the eastern tip of Shandong peninsula are accessible from Shanghai, Dalian, and Tianjin. Note that ferry timetables may change frequently and services may have been added or terminated.
Several international sea routes link China to other countries. From Japan, Kobe is connected to both Tianjin and Shanghai on the east coast, while ferries also link Osaka with Shanghai. From South Korea, the port of Inchon is connected to the Chinese ports of Dalian, Weihai, Qingdao, Shanghai, and Tianjin.
Local Transport in Cities
Transport options vary greatly between cities in China. Many of the largest metropolises have complex networks with subway systems, which, in many cases, are in the process of being extensively expanded. In Beijing and Shanghai, the subway (ditie) is the best way to get around, while in Hong Kong, the transport system is well integrated, and subways, trains, and buses are all convenient options. In most cities, buses are slow and usually packed, but are very cheap. Taxis (chuzu qiche) are a necessity for most travelers, and, despite the language barrier and misunderstandings with drivers, are the most convenient way to get around. Bicycles once ruled the roads of China’s cities and although not as popular today, they are still one of the best ways to explore.
The subway system in Beijing underwent major development in preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games. The system has been expanded and includes a line which goes direct to Beijing Capital Airport.
The subway is a swift way to get around this spread-out city. The system is easy to use, although walks between lines at interchange stations can be long. Currently there are two different fares: one ticket for ¥3 covers trips on lines 1 and 2; the ¥5 ticket covers lines 2 and 13. Buy your paper ticket at the ticket booth near the entrance. Tickets are undated and you should show your ticket to the attendants at the entrance to the platform. The current ticketing system will be re-placed in due course. Charges under the new system (already in operation in Shanghai), will be based on the distance traveled. Line 13 now has automated ticket gates, as will any other lines that open up in the future.
The rapidly expanding, Shanghai subway system is clean and efficient, with the first line built in 1995. Expansion work is ongoing and should be completed by 2012. Lines 1 and 2 are most useful to the tourist; the raised Line 3, or Pearl Line, travels the western outskirts of the city. Fares for Lines 1 and 2 range between ¥2 and ¥4, depending on the number of stops traveled. Check the map to determine your fare and then buy a ticket from the booth or machine. You can also buy ¥50 pre-paid tickets. Put your ticket into the slot at the barrier and the gates will open. Retrieve your ticket on the other side of the gate and hold on to it – you will need it at the destination exit.
The much touted Maglev (magnetic levitation) runs between Pudong Airport and the eastern end of Line 2 and reaches speeds of 270 miles per hour (430 km/h). Check the times of departure.
Hong kong’s MTR & KCR
Integrated and efficient, Hong Kong has the best public transportation system in the country. The city is easy to get around using all of its forms of transport – MTR (subway), KCR (overland train), buses, trams, and ferries – and most signage is in English. You can buy single tickets for your journeys, but each type of transit requires a separate ticket. Alternatively, you can buy an Octopus card, an electronic card that allows you to hop on and off most of the system. You can buy these for a minimum of HK$150 including a HK$50 deposit, which is refunded when you return the card. Touch the card to the electronic reader at each ticket collection point and the fare will be deducted from your card. You can easily add credit at MTR and KCR stations.
The underground Mass Transit Railway (MTR) currently has seven lines, with many more planned. The fare increases with distance traveled, except on the Airport Express Line where a higher fee is charged. If you buy a single ticket, insert it into the turnstile and retrieve it on the other side. Hold on to your ticket as you will need it to exit the system. If you have an Octopus card simply touch the card to the yellow reader on the turnstile.
The Kowloon–Canton Railway (KCR) now has three lines that comprehensively cover the New Territories. KCR East Rail was the original line and heads north into mainland China. Do not go past Sheung Shui (the second last stop), if you do not have documentation to enter the mainland.
Buses & trams
City bus networks are extensive and cheap. The buses (gonggong qiche), however, are almost always overcrowded – so much so that you are unlikely to be able to see out of the windows. These conditions are perfect for thieves, so stay well-aware of your belongings. Consider using buses only for short straight-forward journeys. Avoid them if you are trying to get from one end of town to the other – you are likely to get stuck in traffic.
Bus routes can be tricky to navigate, particularly as most routes and destinations are listed in Chinese only. Hong Kong has the most comfortable and easy to use bus system, although traffic can be as bad here as anywhere else. Hong Kong also has an old tram line that runs from Sheung Wan to Causeway Bay on Hong Kong Island. Dalian has a few trams as well. Maps of bus and tram routes are widely available, especially in and around train stations.
The best way to get about in cities that don’t have subway systems is by taxi (chuzu qiche). Taxis are found in large numbers in all Chinese cities – often congregating near train stations – and can be hailed easily in the street. Guests staying at hotels can also ask the reception desk to summon a taxi. When arriving at airports, avoid the touts who immediately surround you, and head instead to the taxi rank outside where you are less likely to be overcharged. Also, make sure the driver uses the meter (biao) or negotiate a flat rate in advance. Taxis rarely have rear seat belts (anquan dai), so sit in front if you are traveling alone. Few taxi drivers speak English, so it is wise to have your destination written down in Chinese, which the staff at your hotel will gladly do for you.
Fares vary slightly from city to city, but taxis generally offer both good value and convenience. In many cities, different models of cars will have different rates. Tipping the driver is not necessary.
Taxis can also be hired for the day – a convenient way to see sights just out of town. Agree on a price beforehand, and make sure your driver is clear on the extent of your itinerary. In Tibet, you may find that hiring a jeep and driver is the only way to get to some sights. It is customary to pay for the driver’s lunch.
In smaller towns, motorcycle rickshaws (sanlun motuoche) and bicycle rickshaws (sanlun che) are a convenient and entertaining way to get around town. Do not take these in major cities – they cost about the same as a taxi and frequently target tourists for substantial rip-offs. In some small towns, they are the only form of transport. Agree on the fare before climbing aboard.
to get around the city
Motorcycle taxis are a very quick way to cover longer distances, although they are really only practical if you are traveling alone with little luggage. Insist on the driver providing you with a helmet.
the center of Macau
Hiring a bicycle is one of the best ways to explore towns and their environs. Bike lanes are common (although not always respected by drivers) and roadside repair stalls are everywhere. Beijing, with its spread-out sights and flat terrain, is the most cycle-able of the big cities, but if you are not used to cycling in heavy traffic, you may find it an intimidating experience. Make sure that any bike you rent has a lock provided. Handy bike stands are found in big cities and have an attendant to watch the bikes for a nominal fee.
Main streets, avenues, and thoroughfares are often divided into different sections based on the four cardinal points. For example, Zhongshan Lu (Zhongshan Road) may be divided into Zhongshan Xi Lu (West Road) and Zhongshan Dong Lu (East Road). Similarly, you may also see Zhongshan Bei Lu (North Road) and Zhongshan Nan Lu (South Road). Apart from lu (road), other key words are jie (street), hutong and xiang (lane or historic alleyway). Road names in large cities such as Beijing may also display the pinyin translation, but in smaller towns and remote destinations, only Chinese is used. The use of pinyin is being phased out and in many large cities signage will be in Chinese script and English only.
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