Before my trip, I knew quite a lot about the rapid technological development in China, however, the extent of it still amazed me. Wherever we went, everything ran smoothly, the transport network is extensive and always on time, the online ticketing and payment apps work well (ok, online ticketing is not for foreigners, but well 😊), etc.
The public transport is very well developed, at least in and around the big cities we travelled to. The main mode of transportation between the cities are trains and buses. The trains are the best, if you want to cover big distances. Buses are less convenient, but obviously cheaper.
Inside the big cities, you have extensive metro systems. For instance, Beijing has 22 metro lines, Shanghai – slightly less, Suzhou and Hangzhou have 4 lines each (so far), etc. You will also find extensive bus network.
Train travel in China
I was very happy with my decision to travel by trains. They aren’t the cheapest mode of transportation, but the prices are quite all right and the distances they cover in a very short time are great. There are several types of trains. The fastest ones are G trains (we noted 335 km/h was the highest speed it developed), D type trains (they have more stops and the fastest they go by 248 km/h in our experience), and other slower types – K and L. We travelled by fast trains on these routes – Beijing-Pingyao, Pingyao-Xi’an, Xi’an-Suzhou, Suzhou-Shanghai and back, Suzhou-Hangzhou. None of these trains were later than scheduled and they were very comfortable.
Buying train tickets online
First and most difficult thing is that as a foreigner without a Chinese bank card, you won’t be able to buy the train tickets from the official website, like all Chinese do. Your only option is to use one of the tourist agencies, such as trip.com or to leave buying the tickets on the spot, which, when you have a limited time, can be a bad idea. I bought the long-distance train tickets several weeks in advance through trip.com and got the shorter distance trip tickets (like Suzhou to Shanghai), after arriving to Beijing.
There are several websites you can book tickets from. They add the booking fees of 3-6USD per ticket. The companies you can buy from are china-diy-travel.com, travelchinaguide.com, chinahighlights.com and several others. I found that trip.com offered the lowest booking fee rates, so I stuck with them and the booking process and tickets pick-up were easy and convenient.
The sale of fast train tickets starts 28 days before travel. However, you can order the tickets with the agent earlier and they will buy them for you, when the sales open. They can’t accommodate your request of seats, as the official railway allocates the seats. You can choose your seats, if you are buying from the ticket counter in person.
Buying train tickets in person and picking up your pre-bought tickets
Even if you bought your ticket online, you still have to go to a train station and pick up the actual ticket from there. Everyone suggests to pick up tickets in advance, not on the day of travel, as there may be queues and delays and you may miss your train. I agree with this. There may be several issues, so better puck them up before the day of departure. You don’t have to do this at the train station you leave from, you can do it at any train station. So you can pick up all your train tickets, as soon as you arrive to China.
We picked all our tickets up from the Beijing central train station. The ticket counters are on your right, when you face the train station. You don’t need to get inside the station through the security, you can directly head to the ticket office on the far right (when you face the station).
We went there in the evening, it was about 9pm after a long day of sightseeing. Good part of this was that there were no queues, so it was very quick to pick tickets up. You don’t even have to say anything, just pass them your passport and the booking number. It gets more difficult if you need to buy tickets.
If you are buying tickets, you will need to have all details written down in Chinese. At the Beijing central, there is only one counter, where they speak English, #12. When we arrived there in the evening, there was no one at this counter, so we went to another one. As I mentioned, we picked tickets up easily. Buying was more complicated. I had everything written in Google translate – the routes, dates and times of the trains. So the guy sold us the tickets. But when I double checked them, he sold us tickets not to Shanghai station, but to Shanghai Honquiao. After I tried to talk to him, he called an English speaking colleague, who suggested to change the tickets, so he wrote down for us that we wanted to change it to Shanghai station and sent us to the counter #3, which is apparently dedicated to changing tickets. The girl there spoke some English, so we finally got it all sorted. But overall it took about 40 mins.
How to read your ticket
The train tickets have your name and surname, the origin and destination written in Latin letters. You will also find the date and time of your departure, as well as the type and name of train on your tickets. Make sure to double check them, as soon as you buy.
How to navigate Chinese train stations
Contrary to popular belief, navigating Chinese trains stations is quite easy, there are signs everywhere and everything is well organized. First of all, when you arrive, have your passport and ticket ready. You will queue and show the guards your ticket and passport. The Chinese will just scan their IDs, while as a foreigner, you will have to show your ID to a person standing there.
Next, you will go through the security. It’s like airport security, you will have to scan all your bags. The strange thing is that everyone around is rushing, which may be quite unsettling. Be careful with your valuables, as there can be quite a disarray. After going through the security, you will find big screens with the information about departing trains. We were finding ours by the train number and the time, as the origin and destination were written in Chinese. By the way, once the time of the train was slightly different from the one written on our ticket, but it was easy to find with the train number G… The screen will show you, which waiting room to go to.
Chinese train stations are quite well organized and clean. You have bathrooms and mostly some food places, if you need them.
Transport inside the cities
Most big or medium (in Chinese standards) cities have metro networks. These networks are rapidly developing, with Beijing already having 22 lines and expected to have 30 by 2021.
I suggest finding your accommodation nearby a metro station, as you can get to most sightseeing destinations in the city by metro.
Metro is not only fastest transport, as you won’t get stuck in traffic, but also most convenient with English signs and accessibility options.
You can get single entry metro tickets at the machines in all cities. The machines are easy to use, they have English language option. Most of the machines don’t accept paper bills of less than 5 Yuan. They also have the coin part. As far as I know, most of them give change, but we tried to have exact amount, while buying tickets.
The prices for one metro ride vary between the cities. In Beijing it varies from 3 to 5 yuans, in Shanghai it starts from 4 yuans, in Suzhou and Hangzhou – from 3.
There is also an option of getting a card in most cities. They work similarly to the London Oyster card, with the only difference being that they don’t offer any discounts. So the cards are only useful, if you stay in a city for some time and are lazy to buy single tickets each time. In Beijing the Yikatong card costs 20 yuan and (even though I didn’t check this) I read that you can get the money back, if you return the card.
Finding your way in the metro
Download the app MetroMen. It has all detailed information about the metro networks, the times and best routes.
Alternatively, the metro maps can help you. Here is the Beijing map:
Shanghai Metro map:
You can easily find all maps you wish, they are readily available and in English, which I definitely can’t say about bus routes.
In most cities the metro stations have security checks, which was strange for us the first time. We found that it wasn’t as crowded, as we expected, even during rush hour in the morning. I think it was due to the fact that trains were running one after another with 1-1.30 min waiting time, which ensured efficiency.
Changing lines is almost always an easy task. We didn’t have problems most of the time except one, when we ended up walking for 15 mins to get from one line to another 😊 This happened in Shanghai, while switching lines at Shanghai People’s square station. This was the first time I ever saw a huge underground square. To avoid this, I suggest to follow the guidance of MetroMen and switch at the stations it suggests.
When getting out of metro, do find the exact exit you need. This will make it easier for you to find the closest route.
Buses can sometimes be useful. They have a big network in many cities as we noticed, but they are far more difficult to navigate than metro. First of all, there is no app, a map or any information on bus networks in English language. There is also no English information at the bus stops or on the buses, unlike in metro. Your only bet would be to ask a Chinese speaking person to find for you, which bus goes to your destination and how many stops till your destination. Or alternatively, hop on the bus going in the direction you are going and hope that it won’t go elsewhere 🙂
We used buses only in Xi’an. The hotel staff wrote down several bus numbers for us to the main sightseeing points, however the buses turned out to be very inconvenient. They took ages to get anywhere (except for the two-storey buses with fewer stops). Each time, we had to keep an eye on our GPS to make sure we didn’t miss our stop, as we didn’t understand any announcements of the stops.
You can get bus tickets in advance (not sure from where though) or pay the driver 1 or 2 yuan per person, depending on the city. We just did the second. Keep in mind to have exact cash, as I doubt they can give change.
There are several buses going to major tourist attractions outside the cities. The examples include the bus 306 going to Terracota warriors from Xi’an railway station and MUBUS.
When you get to the 306 stop, some people will try to take you to another spot telling you they go to Terracota warriors. I am not sure if they really do, but we stuck with the official bus 306, as I don’t like being harassed and I read a lot about the scams.
How to get to the major tourist attractions
Tiananmen square – metro stop Qianmen station from the south or Tiananmen East and Tiananmen West from the north. We walked from the south, passed the crowds waiting to get into the Mausoleum and got to the gates of Forbidden city.
Forbidden city – Tiananmen East and Tiananmen West stations. The city entrance is only from the south side, while the exit is in the north. You cannot exit from the south. After getting out of the forbidden city, it is difficult to find transport, as there is no metro station immediately closeby. So I suggest to visit Jinshan park and/or Beihai park and walk to the Beihai North metro station.
Jinshan park – walk up after getting out of the Forbidden city. Otherwise, you can get there from the Beihai North metro station.
Mutyaniu Great wall – MUBUS was the most convenient option. You can also get there by public buses, bus 916 and switch to local bus H23 and H24, H35 and H36. I found that here is the best detailed information about public buses https://www.tour-beijing.com/blog/beijing-travel/how-to-get-to-mutianyu-great-wall-by-bus .
Wangfujing road – Wangfujing Station Exit A to get to the commercial street.
Temple of Heaven – Tiantan East Gate station exit A. walk to the right after getting out of the metro station and you will see the East entrance in less than a minute.
Summer palace – Xiyuan Station exit C2 is 10 mins away from the East gate of the Palace. The Beigongmen station exit D is 3 minutes away from the North gate, walk to your left after getting out of the station. You can enter from one and exit from another. We entered from the north side and walked all the way to the East gate to get to the Xiyuan station, nearby which there were a number of food and coffee places.
Beijing Zoo – is really easy to get to. The metro stop Beijing Zoo station exit D is just next to the Zoo.
Drum and Bell towers and Houhai lake – Shichahai station exit A2
Beihai park – Beihai Bei station exit B
Lama temple – Yonghegong station Exit F. Keep in mind that the entrance is only from the south of the huge temple complex. We exited from the north and had to walk all the way south.
Xi’an Terracota warriors. Get to the Xi’an railway station and take bus 306. The railway station metro stop didn’t work at the time we were there, but I believe it will be available soon.
Xi’an Bell and Drum towers – Zhonglou metro stop. Muslim quarter is also close to this metro stop.
Xian city wall (enter from South, as the views are best from here day and night) – Yongningmen metro stop.
Xian Giant Wild goose Pagoda – Dayanta metro stop.
Canglang Pavilion – metro stops Sanyuanfang or Nanmen, it’s the same distance from either of them.
Pingjiang road – access from South from metro stop Xiangmen.
Humble Administrator’s garden and Lion Grove garden – metro line 5 will soon be developed and there will be dedicated stop. For now Beisita is the closest stop or you can get here from Pingjiang road.
People’s square – get here from the metro stop with the same name.
The Bund – get here by ferry from Pudong or from East Nanjing road metro stop.
Yuyuan garden – metro stop with the same name.
The skyscrapers in Pudong – metro stop Lujiazui.
Hanzhou West lake – get here by metro stop Longxianquiao and walk, take a boat or bike around the lake.
How to travel from Beijing airport to the city – The Beijing airport is connected with the city metro by the airport line. From the arrivals hall you should walk straight through the walkway to get to this line. There are no signs directing you there, which is why we had problems finding the right direction. You pay 25 yuan per person for the ticket. The airport line connects to the other metro lines at two stations. If your hotel is located in the central areas, you can get to the last of the two stops – Dongzimen, from where you will change the line to get to your destination.
You can also go to the official taxi line. We didn’t use it, as it was the rush hour in the evening and we were afraid to get stuck in traffic. It obviously is also more expensive than the metro.
How to travel from/to the Beijing main railway station – the most convenient is by metro, line 2 stop Beijing railway station.
How to travel from/to the Beijing West railway station (for high speed trains) – metro lines 7 and 9 stop Beijing West railway station.
How to travel from/to the Xi’an North railway station (for high speed trains) – Beikezhan (North railway station) metro stop. You can also take a taxi, which is about 7-8 mins walk away. Don’t follow any people, who offer you taxi, while you walk to the official line. I never checked myself, but heard of scams. The official taxi with the meter cost us about 35 yuan to get to the city center. This is one of the cities, where taxi is quite cheap and I do suggest to take it.
How to travel from/to the Pingyao ancient city railway station (for high speed trains) – taxis to the gate of the old city should not cost more than 30 yuan. The hotel promised to send a driver, which would get inside the city center (only hotel vehicles have this right, taxis are not able to get inside). Another option is bus 108, which stops near the north gate of the old city. Our hotel failed to send the promised transfer car, so we used the bus. Bus costs 1 yuan. Taxis won’t get you much closer than the bus.
How to travel from/to the Suzhou North railway station (for high speed trains) – metro is the most convenient here. The taxi with the official meter will cost you about 65-70 yuan to get to the city center.
How to travel from/to the Shanghai main railway station – three metro lines link to the stop Shanghai railway station. With the red line 1 you can get to the People’s square easily.
How to travel from/to the Hangzhou East railway station (for high speed trains) – metro line 1 will get you from/to the East railway station to/from the West lake area (Longxianquiao stop). Airport shuttle also goes from here and takes half an hour.
How to travel to/from Hangzhou airport – airport shuttles go to the Hangzhou East high speed railway station, as well as Hangzhou railway station. Shuttle buses cost 20 yuan per person, they are convenient and take 30-40 mins.