Having spent a year in China we thought that we’d write up some little bits of advice (so far) for the short or long-term traveller to the Middle Kingdom. We will focus on coaches (briefly), trains, and hotels.
In particular we are looking at using these things without having a good grasp of Mandarin (like us).
Coaches are one of the cheapest ways to get around, and allow you to get to places not serviced by trains. For example we went to the Bamboo Sea in the south of Chengdu by coach.
Most large-ish towns have bus stations and they are normally pretty easy to use. You have to go in person to buy the tickets, and should have the Chinese characters for your destination. If you want to book in advance write down the dates (write the month first and then the day – not the British way!) and take them; but, in our experience, you can normally only book for a few days in advance.
If you have someone who can speak Chinese they can always call up your local station and book which all seem to have slightly different rules.
One of the best ways to get around are the different train services, including for long distances if a flight is too expensive.
Trains in China can get booked up fast and a long way in advance, especially for the national holiday periods when the whole nation goes travelling. If you are planning a train trip anywhere book early, one day you might have plenty of choice the next you will be forced to leave at 4:30 in the morning.
Booking a train will normally require you to use CTrip English (they have a website and an app). They have the full roster of train services for the whole country from bullet to, um, mule class? (don’t know the name for the slow local trains). They are a travel agency though and they will charge a booking fee for each person/ticket which sometimes can be more than the ticket itself and you either have to have a credit card or a Chinese bank card to use it.
If you travel frequently with Ctrip though (who also do flights) you will find that you can earn points with them for discounts on future tickets – just remember your log in! They also have excellent customer service with fluent English speakers.
The free alternative is the official government website/app with the catchy name 12306 (http://www.12306.cn/mormhweb/). It does not charge any booking fee but it is entirely in Chinese and you need your own account, which I’ve been told you can set up without a Chinese ID card, if you can understand the instructions…
CTrip will send you a booking reference email which you will take with your passport to any train station ticket office (normally next to the station’s main entrance) and give them to the person there who will print out your tickets. If you have more than one booking reference and they pass your phone back to you you can say “hi-yo” (haiyou) to indicate you have another.
If you are collecting a ticket which originates outside the district (for instance you are collecting a return from Xi’an to Chengdu in Chengdu) they will charge you 5 yuan – you probably won’t recognise what they are saying at this point so just have the money out in your hand and they can point at it.
In the ticket office there are sometimes different queues for tellers who do different things but most will do the ticket for you. Try to leave yourself time for this, or do it a couple of days before. It can take a long time as queues can be very long slow, people push in, and they can, especially in smaller stations, be anxious with communicating with you.
Once they’ve printed off your tickets you’re good to go.
It is also possible to change your ticket, if you’ve booked too late or something like that and the stations have signs which show if there are seats available on different trains (again make sure you have the characters for your destination). There might be a small charge of about 10 yuan.
This is harder to do if the person has no English and you are not confident with your Chinese. It should be possible though if you take the ticket you have and point at it saying “boo yow jeguh” (I don’t want this) then “war yow ___” (I want ___) and then have the time for the train you want to change to written down and point at that. It will probably take a bit of time but if you keep on nodding until they give you what you want then you should get there. If you want some advice on other really basic words to get you through this interaction then please watch our video: Our top Mandarin words
Getting the train
The two most important things are do NOT forget your passport and leave yourself plenty of time.
To get into the main station (not the ticket office) you need your ticket and passport which are inspected and the ticket stamped. No passport no getting in. After that there will be a security check of bags and any water you’re carrying then you get into the main concourse where you wait until they let you onto the platform with your ticket. Once they asked to see our passport when getting on the train.
These security checks mean you need to arrive early. When it is quiet it adds a few minutes on but if it is busy or you are in a big/touristy city (Xi’an, Beijing etc.) where it is always busy it can take ages, over 30 minutes and then some if it’s a national holiday. Also they can be strict about not letting you on if you arrive just in the nick of time when doors are supposed to close five minutes early.
If you’re late, you can try pushing in at the front of the queue, just look super stressed and hold up your ticket with the train about to go in 10 minutes or so. Don’t show it to the people in the queue but one of the attendants and they will probably put you at the front. Don’t worry about doing this – they are not confrontational and it’s unlikely people will say anything or be aggressive at all.
Final word on train types
The bullet trains are the bomb, they are smooth and comfortable. Second class is comfy, first class more so for a little extra money and, if you want to, splash out on business class with its reclining seats, ipads and T.V.s.
The network is huge but there are no sleeper compartments so it is most useful for short to medium length journeys. If you need to go further, or along a route without a bullet train you will probably get a sleeper.
Sleepers kind of crawl, they are big and tend to stop at a million places where people inexplicably carrying sacks of rice will get on and off. If you are going by day there is just standard “Hard seats” (they’re not actually hard) which are quite cramped and not very comfy. People do book these over night, I had a student travel from Xi’an overnight in a seat, she had a bruise on her head where she’d leant against the window.
That leaves hard sleeper and soft. Soft are definitely the more comfy choice, 4 bunks, space to put everything, control of the lights, a door to the compartment and so on. Hard sleepers are OK but there is 6 people in the same space, less security and no door: the whole compartment is open to everyone. Soft sleeper cost a bit more but are easily worth it.
Oh and soft sleeper gives you swanky waiting rooms:
One of the best tools to use is booking.com: they have a wide range of hotels, you can use a non-Chinese card to book, they indicate if the hotel staff speak English and so forth. We started using this a few months ago and now use nothing else.
It is possible to find hotels on google and call them; the hostels and posher international hotels will have English speakers who will take your reservations.
Ctrip also offers hotels but it is very hard to trust; even if the hotel appears on their English language version it doesn’t mean that anyone will be able to speak English there. This can be particularly bad because some hotels/places are not actually allowed to have foreigners in them and there is no way of telling from Ctrip. We took a trip with some friends and booked through Ctrip, found the apartment complex and were told by the guard (well he told us, shouted at our friends who had, funnily, booked the same place) to go away. We had to get a member of staff from our University to call the hotel so we could figure out what the hell was going on. If we hadn’t been lucky enough to have then help us we would not have got what was going on. Turns out the hotel couldn’t take non-Chinese visitors but had neglected to put that on Ctrip. Therefore, I’d recommend just using booking.com.
Again if you have someone who can speak Chinese you can get them to call places and book for you if you are going somewhere small without any presence on booking.com or the equivalent. We did this when visiting the steam train and it worked fine, the receptionist couldn’t speak English but was expecting us.
Again YOU NEED YOUR PASSPORT – all hostels and hotels will need to take a scan of the ID page so that the government can keep track of you; no passport no hotel.
Oh and lastly, most of the hostels will require a 100 yuan deposit (or more) when you arrive.
There we go, happy travelling guys and if you have any questions or any different experiences leave a comment or contact us, and don’t forget to check out our vlogs!