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, 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 27 metro lines, Shanghai – 19, Hangzhou – 12 and Suzhou – 6 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 reasonable 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 during our trips), 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. Each of these journeys were smooth, trains were always on time and very comfortable.
Buying train tickets online
One of your options to secure tickets in advance, especially during the peak times, is buying tickets online. The official website and the 12306 app became foreigner friendly recently. Now you can already use credit and debit cards to book your tickets there.
Another 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, travelchinaguide, chinahighlights 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 generally 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.
Nowadays, you travel ticketless. Meaning that you use your passport, as a ticket. You scan your passport at the gate and it recognizes the booking and lets you through. You can download the itinerary of your travel from the website you purchased it from, but it serves only, as information, not as ticket itself.
Buying train tickets in person
If you prefer to have printed tickets, you can still do it at the ticket counters though.
We picked our tickets up (at the time we travelled, paper tickets were needed for foreigners) and purchased some tickets at 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 quicker than what I have heard.
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, #16 (they also have windows for English speakers in Shanghai and Xian). When we arrived there in the evening, there was no one at this counter, so we went to another one. I had everything written in Google translate – the routes, dates and times of the trains. So the guy sold us the tickets – keep in mind that currently your passport will serve, as your ticket, while you get a printed itinerary from the ticket counter (which is not your ticket). 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.
The train stations also have self-service ticket machines, which recognize your passport. If you want to print out your itinerary or buy a ticket, you can use them. However they are only in Chinese, so I wouldn’t try unless you know how to read or understand it. The train61 website has the guide how to use them.
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. However, you definitely need to allocate much more time here, than the train stations in other countries simply because you go through several checks.
First of all, when you arrive, have your passport and itinerary ready. You will queue and show the guards your passport. The Chinese will just scan their IDs, while as a foreigner, you will have to show your ID to a person standing there (alternatively, there are some stations which have a foreign passport scanner as well).
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 often written in Chinese (at some stations you may find English signs as well, but it’s rare and specific to only a few major stations). 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. The screen will show you, which waiting room to go to.
Chinese train stations are quite well organized and clean. You have bathrooms and some food places, if you need them.
Intercity Buses in China
Buses are certainly a cheaper option than trains. China has a substantial network of buses in all its regions. There are regular intercity buses, tourist buses, night buses, etc. The major problem for foreigners however is that the bus stations are more difficult to navigate knowing no Chinese.
Bus tickets usually don’t sell out, so you have far more chance of finding them on the spot on the day of travel. Alternatively, you have an option of buying tickets in advance on the trip.com or another travel agency.
Transport inside the cities
Most big or medium (in Chinese standards) cities have metro networks. These networks are rapidly developing, with Beijing already having 27 lines. This number is insane, considering that 5 years ago there were only 22 lines. Similarly, Hangzhou metro has had crazy rapid development from 4 lines five years ago to current 12.
I suggest finding your accommodation nearby a metro station in any city with the metro network, as you can get to most sightseeing destinations in the city by metro.
Metro is not only the 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. 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.
There is also an option of getting a card in most cities. They work similarly to the London Oyster card or Korean T-money card, with the 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. For instance, 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. Similarly, in Shanghai the Shanghai Public Transportation card costs 20 yuan itself and you load it with additional 80 yuan at the time of purchase.
Finding your way in the metro
Download the app MetroMan. It has all detailed information about the metro networks, the times and best routes in all major cities in China.
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 MetroMan 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.
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 also several types of 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 tourist buses to Great Wall of China.
How to get to Some Major Airports and Railway stations
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) – The station is served by metro line 2, 4 and 14 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) – If you can arrange transfer with your hotel, that would be best, as only hotel vehicles have this right, taxis are not able to get inside the old city walls. Our hotel promised to send a driver, but we didn’t find it (or they didn’t send). Another option is bus 108, which stops near the north gate of the old city. We used the bus. Bus costs 1 yuan. If you prefer, taxis are also an option, but they won’t get you much closer, to the old city than the bus.
How to travel from/to the Suzhou North railway station (for high speed trains) – metro line 2 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 – You have 2 options to get here by public transport: 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 up to 40 mins. The metro line 1 and line 7 were expanded to reach the airport. Overall it take about 80 minutes by metro from East Railway station.