Travel tips for travelers to China.


Please allow me to clarify one thing first; I have visited China three times; first time in September of 2005 when I spent 24 days in China (I visited Beijing (the great Wall), Taishan (Taian), Xi’an, Shanghai and Hangzhou), the second time I spent 39 days in China in April-May of 2007 visiting Chongqing (Dazu), Guiyang (Huangguoshu waterfall and Long Gong caves), Kunming (Stone Forest), Guilin (Yangshuo), Wuhan (Wudangshan), Huangshan (Tunxi), Shanghai and Suzhou. The third time I spent two months in and around Shanghai in November and December of 2007.

China is a big county; culturally, geographically, historically… I don’t consider myself an expert on China and three visits to China don’t make me a seasoned traveler either. But I like Chinese people and Chinese culture (philosophy, art, language, music…) and I would like to share this little knowledge that I have with all of you out there who are yet to discover that magnificent world that is hidden behind that one word: China!

This is my humble attempt to show appreciation for all those wonderful gifts of Chinese spirit (such as Yi Jing and Dao De Jing) which are generously offered to everyone regardless of their race or creed to help us navigate our way under the stars.

Almost every page on this web site is linked to the bulletin board, so if you have more knowledge than me, if you find inaccuracies, if some information is incomplete, please go the bulletin board and write what you think. If there is something that you would want to say but it has to do with the web site itself and other visitors would not benefit from your comment please send me an e-mail rather than posting your opinion on the bulleting board.

Before you go

Now is the best time to go to China. China opened its doors to foreign tourists in early 1980es but very soon many Chinese beautiful little towns and whole areas may turn into another Yangshuo – tourism driven settlement, flooded with foreign tourists and local population abandoning their traditional ways of life and focusing on endless stream of western tourists and their wallets instead.

If you care about the weather then spring and fall (April-May or September-October) would be the most comfortable time to travel through China. Otherwise just check the weather charts for the cities you plan to visit and dress accordingly. In Beijing winters can be very cold and summers very hot. Also you may not want to travel around Spring Festival (Chūn Jié) which is usually in February (first day of the first month according to the Chinese lunar calendar) because at that time the whole country is on the move so it would be difficult to travel or to find accommodation.

Travel guide books and phrase books.

You will have to prepare for your trip, do your homework thoroughly if you want to travel independently. When you sign up for a guided tour someone else will think for you (and be paid for that), when you travel on your own you will have to do the thinking. I hope this web site will be an integral part of your prep work but you will need more than that. You will also have to have at least one up-to-date travel guide book at hand and most travelers take that guide book with them when they go to China.

There are several very good guide books out there but the best ones are (in 2007):

Lonely Planet – China (LP),
The Rough Guide to China (RG),
Let’s Go travel guide – China (GO) and
Frommer’s – China (FR).

Of course you won’t need all of them, I would suggest that you buy only one guide book and other ones you can borrow from the library while planning your trip. Probably the best two among them are LP and RG. Which one you choose depends on your preference, both are good. Deciding between LP and RG is almost the same like justifying why you like Pepsi more than Coke. The other two books are not far behind. Both LP and RG books are very thick and heavy so if some of the LP or RG folks is reading this could you please bind those books in such a way that only certain sections of the book can be taken out so instead of carrying the whole book all over China we could only take the parts we need.

See our Link section for extensive list of guide books.

When you decide which places you want to visit plan your trip day by day (I suggest that you use the Trip Itinerary template that you can download from our Download section. Also you can take a look at my trip schedules from 2005 and 2007, you will get a sense of what I am talking about). That way you will make more accurate estimates of how much time and money you will need for your trip.

You may think that planning a trip day by day and almost hour by hour is too much and you will destroy all spontaneity in your trip. I beg to differ. You can travel through China blindfolded for what I care but the thing is, no matter how well you get prepared you will have to make changes along the way because things come up and you will have to adjust your plan. If you have a basic framework well thought out then the spontaneity will nicely fit in; if you go to China without necessary preparation you will waste your time and money (for example: from home it takes 30 minutes to research accommodations in a Chinese city but it may take one day to do that on-foot in China). For most people frustration is not fun.

Another essential travel tool is a phrasebook. Again, there are many available, I carried LP phrase book (published in 1991) and RG phrasebook (published 1999) when I was in China. One of them (LP) is organized around specific situations (buying tickets, shopping etc) while the second one (RG) is organized as a dictionary. You should check them out and decide which one you like. The main difference among different phrasebooks is that some use pīnyīn system of Romanization (which is the system the Chinese devised to write Chinese words using western alphabet) and some use some sort of “funny English pīnyīn” (officially called “an intuitive pronunciation system” by LP editors) which is supposed to make things easier for native English speakers (and more complicated for the rest of the world). Since English is not my first language I find regular pīnyīn easier and I prefer phrase-books which employ pīnyīn for transliteration of Chinese words. Here is one example so you can decide which makes more sense to you:

Original sentence: 他要去长城吗?(Is he going to see the Great Wall?)
Chinese Pīnyīn system: tā yàoqù chángchéng ma?
“Intuitive pronunciation system”: tā yào-chèw chúng-chérng ma?

The RG phrasebook I mentioned earlier made a compromise and used both systems in their phrasebook. You will definitely need one phrasebook even if you speak some Chinese because sometimes our pronunciation is not as good as we may think (one example: I was buying a bus ticket in Chongqing and the name of the city I wanted to go to was Dàzú (大足), I was convinced I could pronounce those two words correctly especially because in my first language (with exactly the same tone) means “Yes” therefore I had used that word millions of times before that. But the lady who was selling the ticket did not understand, she pointed to the written characters with the name of the place and asked me if that was where I wanted to go. In case when our pronunciation gets in the way of understanding we can use the phrasebook and point to the sentence we were mumbling out.

Vast majority of the Chinese don’t speak English! It would be extremely useful if you could learn some basic, survival Chinese (Mandarin) before you go to China. Please visit our Link section where you can find useful resources for language learning. Chinese language is not as difficult as you may think, but it’s not easy either. You should learn pīnyīn in any event. Often you will see street names written in Chinese characters and pīnyīn underneath, on maps and on the street signs.

Language flash cards in our Download section can help a lot but still some extra effort will pay off later. Local people (in any country) always appreciate if you make an effort to speak their language. In big cities young people (high-school and university students) speak English but often they are too shy so if you need help with something don’t hesitate to ask questions. Also be aware of the regional differences in pronunciation of Mandarin; shí kuài (十块) (ten yuan) in Sichuan may sound like sì kuài (四块) (four yuan) which may impede the bargaining process.

Also it’s worth noticing that Chinese people make different hand gestures to indicate numbers, if you use your way of signaling they may not understand. If you get into situations when you can not get understood despite all your effort, don’t lose your cool; patience is one of the greatest assets in China.

Travel insurance. Make sure you purchase a travel insurance policy before the trip. I paid almost CAD$100 for 40 days coverage through the Blue Cross (2007). In case you get seriously sick the hospital costs can be very significant especially if you decide to go to one of the Hong Kong or Shanghai hospitals (where service is usually better), or you need emergency evacuation. Most travel (health) insurance policies won’t cover pre-existing conditions (if you end up in hospital because of, for example, an asthma attack but asthma is the condition which existed for several years the insurance company most likely won’t cover the costs). Also keep the insurance contact number handy because they expect you to call them as soon as you get to the hospital (if possible). Keep all documents related to your medical expenses and procedures because the insurance company may need them later on.

Vaccines. You will need Hepatitis A and B immunization shots which will provide almost 100% protection for up to one year. A buster shot after 12 months should provide protection for another 20 years. Go to see the doctor at least 3-6 months before the trip because 3 subsequent shots are needed to get optimal protection. Another vaccination that is needed is adult diphtheria and tetanus shot (good for 10 years). These are a must because China is one of the world greatest reservoirs of Hep B infections. Hep A can be contracted because travelers often can not wash hands as frequently as they should. Other vaccinations are optional but discuss these issues with your doctor and follow their recommendation before taking any vaccinations!


Documents. Scan all your documents (passport, visa, air tickets, travel insurance policy, emergency numbers, traveler cheques’ serial numbers, itinerary and accompanying notes etc) and upload them to your e-mail account (send an e-mail to yourself). Later, in case you lose your documents you will be able to print those documents anywhere in China.

Also you can put all those files on your USB flash drive (along with other portable software such as portable Firefox browser, Thunderbird e-mail client, Gimp for photo editing… All those portable applications can be downloaded for free at and take it with you.
The advantage of those portable application is that all your passwords will be already saved within your portable applications so when you go to the Internet café in China you won’t have to worry about the security because key-loggers (if they are installed) won’t be able capture your passwords since you won’t be typing them. That’s especially important if you want to transfer some money from your bank account to your credit card account and you use public Internet access. At this time (2007) you can buy one of 500Mb flash drives for less than $20.

Packing up

Pack lightly. The load you carry should not be more than 10% of your body weight; for example if you weigh 70kg your backpack should not weigh more than 7kg. There is no need to carry with you too much stuff because if you need something you can always buy it in China. The only exception is shoes; tall travelers who wear shoes 11 and up (over 45 European size) should be aware that in China it is hard to find footwear for people that tall.

Informal attire is appropriate for most situations so don’t worry about packing too much because as I said you can always make adjustments along the way. There are two things that you should pay close attention to before the departure: the first one it is your backpack and the second one are your shoes.

You must have a strong durable backpack and also comfortable but strong shoes.

If you plan to stay in one or two cities and explore the surrounding area from there then you may not need a backpack; suitcase or trunk will do. On the other hand if you plan to move around frequently then what you need is a good sturdy (frame?) backpack. What I recommend from my own experience is that you buy a backpack which has another small knapsack attached to it so that you can put your valuables and other stuff (like water, food, travel guide book, map etc) in it while the bulk of your luggage is safely stored in the locker.

Clothing. Based on my own experience here is what I recommend that you take with you. Ultimately it’s your call, it’s hard to make huge mistakes here:
1 pair of shoes,
1 rain/wind jacket but one that doesn’t take up too much space in your backpack,
1 jersey (warm),
1 pair of cotton pants, strong and not in bright colors (with 6 pockets),
1 pair of sweat pants (thin),
4 t-shirts,
3 shirts,
3 cotton briefs (thin, so that they can be dried quickly)
3 pairs of thin cotton socks,
1 towel,

Put underwear in one plastic bag, shirts and t-shirts in another, dirty clothes in another, flip-flops in another… It helps finding what you need in the shortest time possible.

You will also need a money belt and another three small bags and a small polyester sack (see picture).

Money belt: passport (visa), airline ticket, traveler‘s cheques, credit cards, debit (bank cards) any extra cash, driver’s license.

Toiletries bag: comb, toothbrush, toothpaste (small), deodorant (if you think you will need it then take it with you, it’s almost impossible to buy one in China), soap, rubber sink plug, elastic laundry line for drip-drying, laundry soap, mirror, shampoo, shaving items, ear plugs, antibacterial hand-wipes.

Medicinal bag: small first aid kit, advil/aspirin, antifungal cream, sunscreen, insect repellant, laxative/diarrhea medication (Pepto Bismol or Imodium), anti-stress vitamins (multivitamins + mineral), antiseptic (for cuts and grazes), cold medicine.

Third bag: small flashlight, battery charger, extra memory cards for your digital camera, extra set of rechargeable batteries, one big padlock and 3-4 small ones (for your backpack), alarm clock, smoke detector, (Swiss army) knife, small compass (I bought a wrist watch strap with small compass on it – it was very useful!), high-pitched whistle, sunglasses, eye shades (it can help you sleep on the plane and reduce the effects of jet lag), plastic rain coat, some tissues, toilet paper.

Sealable plastic bag/sack (for soap, shampoo, toilet paper when you go to the washroom or take showers you will need something to hold your things in).

Also camera, USB flash drive, guide book, small notebook and pen, 2-3 extra plastic bags (so that you can separate clean from dirty clothes etc).

Universal packing list:

Chinese visa

You will need a visa to enter mainland China. There are several types of visas, the one that you need to have is called an L visa (lǚxíng – “travel”). You will have to apply for it at the Chinese consulate or embassy which is closest to you. The cost is $50 (2007) for a single-entry L visa (there are multiple-entry L visas too).

You will have to fill out an application form (can be found in the download section of this web site), attach one passport size photo, enclose your passport (expiry date should not be less than 6 months from the date of application) and usually wait 3-5 days (rush service is usually available, for an additional fee) before you come back to pick up your passport with the visa glued to one of at least two blank pages in your passport. At that point you will pay the fee.

L visa is usually valid for 30 days (counting from the day you cross the Chinese border) but if you indicate in the application form that you plan on traveling more than 30 days then more than 30 days may be approved (in 2007 I spent 39 days in China so my visa was valid for 60 days). Even if you get a 30 day visa you can still extend it another two times while in China; first extension of 30 days will cost you around Y160 but the exact amount solely depends on the local PSB (Public Security Bureau, Gōngānjú) which has the authority to extend L visas.
It won’t be that easy to get the second or third extension (although theoretically possible). Fourth or even fifth extensions are possible but not very likely. PSB may extend your visa for 10 or 20 days, it doesn’t necessarily have to be 30 days. Extensions may take 5 business days. If you overstay your visa even for one hour you will be fined Y500 per day (if that takes place at the airport you may miss your flight!).

You will need a separate visa for Tibet, which can be obtained in China. When you apply for Chinese visa things may get a bit complicated if you mention that you want to visit Tibet or Xīnjiāng.

Tibet Tourism Administration
18 Yuanlin Road, Lhasa, Tibet 850001, People's Republic of China
Tel: (891) 683 4313. Fax: (891) 633 4632.

Tibet Tourism Office
Room M021 Poly Plaza, 14 Dongzhimennanjie, Beijing 100027, People's Republic of China
Tel: (10) 6500 1188 (ext 3423) or 6593 6538. Fax: (10) 6593 6538 or 6503 5802.

Tibet Tourism Bureau Shanghai Office
Suite B, 2/B, QiHua Tower, 1375 Middle Huaihai Road, Shanghai 200031, People's Republic of China
Tel: (21) 6431 1184 or 6321 1729. Fax: (21) 6323 1016.
E-mail: Website:

You are expected to enter China no later than 90 days after your visa is issued to you (“Valid until” date in your visa is the date by which you are expected to enter the country, which is 90 days. When you enter China your visa is valid for 30 days from the entry date if you have a 30 days visa).

Have your passport with you at all times (and another piece of ID if possible). If you lose your passport report the loss to the local PSB.

TIP Scan all your documents including your passport and your visa and upload those printable files to your e-mail account so that you can print them up from anywhere in China if need be.


This is what you can bring to China:
- up to 400 cigarettes,
- 2l of alcohol,
- up to Y6000
- up to US$5000 (more than that must be declared).

Bringing stuff critical of the country is illegal.

You are not allowed to take home from China items older than 100 years (even if they are fake… just kidding). Official seal must be attached to any items dated between 1795 and 1949. All those DVDs and Rolexes will pass Chinese customs fine, you may get in trouble in your own country, though.

Money in China.

The currency in mainland China is called Yuán (元,currency symbol is ¥) but other names are used as well (RMB, Rénmínbì, or “people’s money”, also kuài qián “pieces of money”).
Local people rarely use yuán , instead short form of kuài qián is used; kuài.
So if you hear someone saying “Sān kuài” they mean ¥3.
Paper money was invented in China and today you can see Y100, Y50, Y20, Y10, Y5 and Y1 notes.
One yuán is devided into 10 jiǎo (with a colloquial name máo) which is further divided into 10 fēn (cents).
The most useful notes are Y10 and Y20, make sure you have some at hand. Coins come in denominations of one yuán, five jiǎo, one jiǎo and five fēn.

You can exchange money at the Bank of China and only selected branches of that bank will cash your traveler’s cheques as well (sometimes you can cash travelers cheques at the foreign exchange desk at the hotel but what they do is they will go to the Bank of China with your cheques and charge you a small commission for doing that). If you approach other banks wanting to cash traveler’s cheques they will send you to the Bank of China.

Here in Vancouver (Canada) it is possible to get RMB (at almost the same exchange rate like those in China), but in other countries/cities it may not be possible so you will have to exchange some money when you arrive at the airport in China. Exchange rates are set by the government (at this time /2007/ the rates are: CAD$1=Y6.8, US$1=Y7.5, AUD$1=Y5.7, EUR1=Y10, GBP1=Y15). You will get the best exchange rates for traveler’s cheques.

Counterfeiting is in existence in China (Y100 and Y50 are usually counterfeited) so deal only with banks, avoid illegal (black-market) money exchangers. Keep receipts when you exchange money so that you can re-exchange surplus of RMBs at the end of the trip.

When it comes to money transactions in China the following will be available to you:

- cash,
- traveler’s cheques,
- debit (bank) cards,
- credit cards.

Ideally you will have all of these options open at all times and depending on the situation you will use the most appropriate one. It would be very helpful if you could have at least Y500 with you even before you arrive in China because if you arrive late in the day you won’t have to waste your time looking for the exchange booth at the airport, instead you will want to get to the centre of the city before the dusk. You may need Y100 for taxi, Y100 for deposit and Y200 for that first night.

But if you can not exchange your local currency into RMB before the trip, don’t worry, you will do it at the airport.

You should also bring some traveler’s cheques (AMEX is widely accepted) and I would say that approximately 70% of your budget should be in traveler’s cheques. Check with your bank, they may give you traveler’s cheques free of commission if you have a Gold Visa card with them (The Royal Bank in Canada has that option). Scan the cheque numbers and upload them to your e-mail account.

Bring your credit card with you. Visa is the most widely recognized but Mastercard and Amex are accepted too. Make sure your PIN (for cash advances) is set to 4 digits, the first digit should not be zero. You may want to adjust the credit limit as well (there is no need to carry a credit card with credit limit of $5000 or more if $1000 is what you may need). Later you can increase your credit limit if you wish. Double-check what is the lost/stolen credit card number.
Call your credit card company and tell them you will be in China otherwise they may block your credit card if they see charges coming from China and they don’t know you are there. Credit cards can be used for purchases (limited use) and for cash advances (at Bank of China and ICBC ATM machines). You may even credit some money to your credit card account (given that your account balance is zero to begin with) before your trip so when you make cash withdrawals in China it will come from that credit so you won’t be charged interest on withdrawals, only transaction fee. Check with your bank.
Make one larger withdrawal rather than several small withdrawals because you will have to pay $4-$5 for each withdrawal anyways (your bank will charge that much). There is a limit on daily cash withdrawals (usually around US$500).

There are two major international money networks: “Cirrus” (Mastercard) and “PLUS” (Visa) so if you see those two signs on the ATM machines chances are you can make credit card cash withdrawals using those ATM machines (I usually use ATM machines at the bank (ICBC or the Bank of China, because if something goes wrong I can go to the bank staff and ask for assistance; if you use an ATM machine in the middle of nowhere and the machine “swallows” your credit card, things can get a bit complicated).

Take your debit (bank) card with you too. But use your credit card instead, whenever you need cash advances, if that’s possible, because credit cards offer some fraud protection however money withdrawn from your bank account (in most cases) won’t be refunded even if someone stole your debit card or tricked you into revealing your PIN number. Also you can adjust your credit limit before the trip but moving money in and out of your bank account may prove to be more complicated. Use your debit card if credit card is not an option. Debit cards can be used at the Bank of China and ICBC Automated Teller Machines (ATM). Much like credit card PINs your debit card PIN should have 4 digits and first digit should not be zero. Debit (bank) cards which have Cirrus/Maestro symbol on it are not liable to interest payments, they are only subject to a flat fee (set by your bank) per ATM transaction.

If you bring foreign currency with you in China bring smaller denominations, $50 or less so that you can exchange as little as you wish in case the exchange rate is lower than it should be. Have some hard currency with you for unexpected situations. I put CAD$100 and Y100 aside, hide it in my money belt and don’t touch it until the end of the trip.

You can open a Chinese bank account in less than one hour. You only need your passport and Y20 to open an account. For that purpose the best choice is ICBC (Industrial and Commercial bank of China) because they have the largest ATM network in China (for those who are doing business with overseas companies Bank of China account will be more suitable). You will get a bank book where your transactions will be printed (it also has a magnetic strip, so you can use it for deposits/withdrawals inside the bank, you will have to know the PIN number, of course) and also a bank/debit card. You will be able to make withdrawals at all ICBC ATM machines (free of charge in the city where your card is issued) and with a small fee if you use other bank’s ATMs or use ICBC ATMs in other cities.

But don’t expect the same kind of service you get in your own country. Here is an example. I opened an ICBC account in Shanghai in 2005. I used it while I was in Shanghai and this year (2007) when I was in China again I wanted to use the same card. But I forgot my PIN number. I thought it would take 2 minutes to reset the PIN number because I had my passport, I could prove my identity so I could not foresee any problems. However I was in Chongqing at that time and I was told (by a very polite teller) that my card was issued in Shanghai so I would have to go back to Shanghai to change my PIN number. I explained that Shanghai was my final destination and I needed my debit card for over one month before I arrive in Shanghai. They replied that the best they can do for me is to open another bank account and give me another card (I had Y100-Y200 in my Shanghai account).

So I agreed, the security guard escorted me to the main branch in the centre of the city and Y20 and 30 minutes later I had another account number and another card. The following day I cashed some of my traveler’s cheques and deposited that money into that new bank account.

I used the new card throughout China until I got to Shanghai again. Soon after I arrived in Shanghai I went to the ICBC bank close to the Bund and I told the bank officer I wanted to change the PIN number on my old card. They said I could do that for Y30. I paid Y30. They reset my PIN number. Then I asked if I could sign up for the internet banking, they said I could not because in 2005 I had another passport, with different number (that passport expired in 2006 so I had to replace it). I explained that all information in my new passport is the same except the passport number. They replied that I have to show them my old passport then. I said I had to return it in order to get a new one (which was not true but the fact was I could not produce my old passport), then they said basically “it’s too bad but we can not do anything about it”. I asked to speak with the manager and 10 minutes later I was taken upstairs and spoke with a very lovely lady who basically explained the same thing. Without my old non-existing passport I could not do anything. So I withdrew all money from my Shanghai account and closed the account, so now I have only Chongqing card and when I go to China next time I better remember my PIN number otherwise I will have to go to Chongqing again. When my new passport expires things become complicated again…

Carry your credit card, debit card traveler’s cheques (and small amount of cash mentioned above) in your money belt. Divide Chinese money into two of your pockets. I wear pants with four regular pockets plus two large pockets lower on the pants so the pick-pockets have to figure out where my cash is because it could be in any of my 6 pockets. That’s too much headache for them, they will rather choose another victim who carries their wallet in the open rucksack.

China may be more expensive than other Asian countries but if you stay at youth hostels you will be able to travel on a very modest budget of approximately US$30-40 per day (2007) (including your train tickets). That depends which regions and cities you will be visiting. East coast is more expensive than western or central China.

In any event make sure you have enough money for the trip or you have means to get it in a moment’s notice (credit cards, bank cards, wire transfer etc) because as we all know without money things always tend to be even more complicated.


Tipping is very uncommon in China. Waiters and waitresses may even get offended if you offer them tips in restaurants. Taxi drivers are usually ok if you offer tips. The only exemption to that rule is, of course, Yangshuo; Yangshuo is the only place where not only that I was expected to give tips but lady who was our guide for the day (on the bicycle tour through the countryside) was asking (scolding) me why I did not give her any tip!


The Chinese love to bargain. It’s almost a rule and it happens everywhere except in a few government owned stores where prices are fixed (for example I was in one of those stores in Shanghai when I wanted to buy some silk items).

Here is how it usually goes. Let’s say the real value of the item is Y20 and the vendor is willing to sell it for Y25 then he will tell you the price is Y150. You will be surprised with the price so he will immediately reply: “Ok, ok, you say how much?” and most likely he will try to hand over his big calculator to you, to type the price. The vendor-psychology behind that act is that when you take the calculator in your hands you already made some kind of commitment so it will be more difficult for you to just walk away, so don’t take his calculator! Another thing that they do on purpose is that they say some insane amount first so it is a natural tendency that you take that in your consideration when you make a counter-offer; so in this case you may say you would pay Y40 because Y40 is much less than Y150 and he will reply with Y50, and you will agree to pay Y45 for something that is worth Y20.
When you walk away the vendor may say: 呆头呆脑地老外!
If you want to get the lowest price don’t say anything, just thank him and walk away, if he really wants to sell it he will walk after you and make a more reasonable offer.

It is crucial that you smile and be in good mood during the bargaining process; if you take his offer of Y150 as an insult to your intelligence chances are he will make things difficult for you so you won’t be able to buy it even for Y45! It’s just a game.

Traveling within China.

First thing to do when you arrive in a new city is to buy a map, then you can use it to show the taxi driver where you want to go. If you arrive at the train station, try to get to the city centre or to your destination as soon as possible, try to hang around the train station as little as possible because train stations, for some reason, anywhere in the world including China, are magnets for all sorts of scammers and small time criminals. The farther from them the better.

Train travel in China.

China is a vast country, distances between cities and provinces are sometimes huge. Majority of the Chinese travel by train because air travel is too expensive (relative to the average Chinese income) and also very few Chinese have their own car. At the same time China has very extensive railway network, therefore the train travel if preferred mode of transportation for most Chinese.

Chinese intercity trains are safe, clean, air-conditioned, fast, affordable and reliable (arriving and departing on time) mode of transportation. Some of the trains are very fast (for example some of those operating between Shanghai and Suzhou, or Shenzhen and Guangzhou can travel at the speed of 200 kmph), maglev (magnetic levitation) train connects Shanghai and Pudong airport (Y40 if you can show air ticket for that day). Even Tibet (Lhasa) can be reached by train as of 2007.

Practically all train stations in China have left-luggage rooms (jìcún chù) where you can safely leave some of your load for around Y3-Y5 (2007) per day per item.(For example if you decide to climb Taishan leave your heavy backpack at the Taian train station, you won’t regret it. I wish I knew.)

Types of trains in China.

The best and the fastest trains are those with a Z prefix (released in 2004, those trains have comfortable compartments, may offer personal TV screens, individual reading lights, wireless Internet access, outlet for your laptop computer, menu both in English and Chinese, even breakfast delivered in bed in the morning). The majority of those trains have only soft sleepers but the ticket price is not much higher than the older hard sleeper trains on the same route. Tickets for this train can be purchased 20 days before departure (as opposed to maximum of 10 days for other trains).

D trains (Dongchezu, which means electrical multiple units, EMU, train-sets, I guess) are high-speed trains (200-250 km/h). They are also called CRH trains (Chinese Railway High-speed trains) and some of those are connecting Shanghai and Suzhou /Hangzhou. There is a special waiting room at Beijing West train station for D trains.

Express trains are marked T (which stands for tèkuài – especially fast). They are fast and the train attendants on those trains are dressed like flight attendants and usually very helpful.

The next best are K trains (kuàisù – quick speed) and they more common are nearly as good as T trains.

You can also come across Y trains (lǚyóu – tourist trains) and L trains (línshí – temporary additional trains, for example during Spring Festival).

And then there are number of trains with N prefix (local express train), or no letter prefixes at all (pǔtōng chē, ordinary trains) and their quality vary widely; service on some may be as good as K trains but they travel at slower speed, while some can be quite uncomfortable. Hard to know ahead of time.

Numbers indicate the destination of the train (outbound and inbound trains have matching numbers, for example train number K79 is leaving Shànghǎi and traveling to Kūnmíng whereas train number K80 is leaving Kūnmíng and traveling to Shànghǎi).

Buying tickets.

Given the number of passengers using trains in China ticket offices have to have separate entrances because main railway station entrances are simply too busy. In Beijing and few other big cities there are special ticket offices for foreigners where you can purchase tickets in English language. Sleeper train tickets may be sold at separate offices but usually that’s not the case (usually you can get all kinds of tickets at the main ticket office).

Train ticked have fixed price so there is no bargaining involved when purchasing rail tickets. Soft sleeper is usually around 50% more expensive than hard sleeper. Normally you can not buy round-trip tickets except for a small number of destinations.

You can only pay by cash. If you buy train ticket but later change your mind you can get refund but only 80% of the original ticket price (if you return your ticket at least 2hours before the departure. If you miss your train you can not get refund. Two weeks before and after the Spring Festival you must return your ticket at least six hours before departure for a 50% refund). Wickets for return/exchange (tuipiao) are usually in the corner and you will recognize them because usually there is a short line-up in front of them (as opposed to endless line-ups in front of regular wickets). If you speak some Chinese this is the place where you can quickly buy some tickets because those people want to return them anyway.

Tickets can be purchased in advance but no more than 4-10 days before the trip. Telephone bookings are possible but only if you speak Mandarin. (Advance bookings from overseas / through CITS and some other agents / is possible but unnecessary).

National railway timetable can be purchased for Y3-4 at train stations in all big cities, it’s all in Chinese and it’s updated twice a year. The same timetable can be purchase on-line for $15 but there is no need to do that because train schedule can be accessed on-line at several web sites (both in English and Chinese. Please see our Link page).

Each train station has their own timetable posted in the ticket office, be patient, pay attention to Chinese characters for the city names and you will figure it out very quickly).

Another important point: most train tickets are sold in the departing city (for example if you travel from Shanghai to Beijing, most of the tickets will be sold in Shanghai because Shanghai is the point of departure, the home station) and only limited number of tickets is allocated for the cities between the departure and destination point (depending how important those cities are).

Also you should know that almost all train stations sell tickets only for that particular train station (for example you are in Beijing and trying to purchase two tickets; one from Beijing to Taishan and another one for the following day from Taishan to Xian, you won’t be able to do that. You will be able to purchase a ticket for the train from Beijing to Taishan (Taian) because you are in Beijing, but you will be asked to wait until you get to Taishan (Taian) and then buy the second ticket for the train from Taishan to Xian. In Beijing they don’t really care that in Taishan (Taian) you won’t be able to get a ticket for the following day (that’s what happened to me) but that’s something you should include in your trip-planning.

This is not always the case, though! Sometimes at one train station you can purchase train ticket for another train station (usually one which is close to the one where you purchase your ticket). One example is Wudangshan train station. This is what happened to me this year (2007). Wǔdāng Shān city is a small city therefore not very important train station (sometimes trains pass through without even stopping there).
Immediately after my arrival I wanted to purchase a train ticket back to Wǔhàn but the date I picked was May first (five day later) which is very busy day in China (it’s a national holiday and many people travel that day). The lady kept repeating “Méi yǒu!” (don’t have) after all my attempts to change the time or the train type/number and the seat class… She was polite and all but I could not get a ticket… And then out of the blue appeared one of the Wushu masters (teachers) from the Wudangshan mountain, asking me in English how he could help me, I told him what was my predicament and after his brief exchange with the ticket officer (the “Méi yǒu!” lady) I got my hard sleeper ticket for May first but departing from Shiyan city instead of Wudangshan City (Shíyàn is one hour away from Wudangshan city, minibus fare was Y5 in 2007). So it is possible, but under certain conditions, like everything else.

As a rule it’s the best to try to buy tickets for trains that are setting off from the city where you are. If you can not get, for example, hard sleeper ticket but you can purchase a soft seat ticket you may want to do that. Later you can upgrade (bǔpiào) your ticket once on the train. The ticket upgrade desk is usually in the middle of the train (usually car #10 or #12) or you can find the conductor in the first hard seat car, if you get on the train with unreserved seating ticket. You can also put your name on the list of those who are waiting ticket upgrade, once the train departs the conductor will hand out tickets according to the list order. Small intermediary stations often are not able to issue sleeper tickets to the upgrade is often the only alternative to hard seat. And it’s worth mentioning that seats in the dinning car are more comfortable than the hard seat… Got the hint?

In our Download section you can find flash-card which can help you to purchase or upgrade your ticket. The easiest way to get your tickets is through an agent who has access to the railway ticketing system, they may charge around Y5 for their service. If you ask someone at the hostel to purchase tickets for you they will most likely go to the train station themselves and charge around Y20 for their service. Some hostel stuff is extremely helpful in that respect (for example Mark at the Pathfinder Hostel in Wuhan purchased a bus ticket for me while I was at Wudangshan mountain (he checked the bus schedule on-line, I left him Y200 and the ticket was waiting for me when I returned to the hostel) and they did that without charging any commission! Never use on-line agents because the fee that they charge is 70% more than what you would normally pay.

In case you are confident there will be seats available on the train you don’t have to buy your ticket at the ticket office, you can do that on the train. In that case you will have to buy a platform ticket (zhàntái piào) first. Platform tickets are available from the station’s information booth for a few jiǎo. Then when you get on the train your will buy your ticket. This method makes sense only if you arrive at the train station too late and you would not have time to purchase a regular ticket.

Here is how train tickets looks like.

Ok, now that you have your ticket, your stuff is neatly packed into your backpack, you’ve got your water, snacks and some fruit and you are heading towards the train station. Try to be there at least 45 minutes before the scheduled time because often there are huge crowds in and around the station. You will have to put your backpack through the x-ray machine (chances are no one is checking the monitor but when in Rome…) and then you will have to find the waiting hall…

If you speak even basic Chinese don’t be shy, ask where your waiting hall is, if not then the best idea is to approach anyone in any kind of uniform and just show them your ticket with your eyes wide open and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what you want… Most likely they will point you in the right direction.

Another way is to memorize the Chinese characters for your city and then look at the big displays and just read the hall number for that city or train number. Sometimes there seat rows in the waiting hall are clearly marked, so passengers waiting for the train going to Shanghai are sitting in chairs behind the “Shanghai” sign.

So now you are in the waiting hall, killing another 20-30 minutes… first observe where is the exit to the platform… also try to figure out what is your car number and the berth number so that you can quickly proceed towards your spot once past the platform gates… 10-15 minutes (sometimes more) before the departing time people will start forming a line-up at the exit to the platform. You do the same. To be on the safe side take a peek at the tickets that other passengers are holding in their hands, they should have the same train number like yours.

The gate to the platform will open around 5-10 min after the train arrival (those who have soft sleeper ticket can use guì bīn (VIP) waiting room and board first). The guard at the gate will ask you for your ticket, make a perforation on the ticket and give it back to you.

Now you are on the platform, the train is waiting. Once again check the writing on the train cars; if you are going to Shanghai (and Shanghai is the last stop) then 上海 should be written on the plate. There is very slim chance that you board the wrong train but just be aware of that, it doesn’t require any extra effort. Car numbers are clearly marked on each car, close to the door. When you find your car the attendant will be waiting there, she will swap your ticket for a token (with your compartment/berth number). Hop on and head towards your bed, try to put your backpack on the luggage rack so that it is visible from your bed (attaching your backpack to the luggage rack is not a bad idea – use padlock and a bicycle chain).

The conductor is in a little booth in a hard seat carriage somewhere in the middle of the train (which is usually carriage 7, 8 or 9) in the hard seat carriage, next to the restaurant car.

Around 30 minutes before the arrival the attendant will come back with your ticket and ask you for the token. So sleep sound, it’s almost impossible to miss your stop. When you get your ticket back keep it ready for another check when you leave the platform area. After that you can safely destroy your ticket if that’s what your heart desires.

Always keep your receipts, tickets etc because you never know when someone may ask for them. Especially when you pay for a room, you will be asked for the receipt at the check-out even though they will have their own record of payment. China is a country where you need your receipts.

Type of seats on Chinese trains.

Sleeper accommodations are most common because usually it takes an overnight ride to get from one Chinese city to another. These are the seat classes:

Soft Sleeper (ruǎn wò 软卧)
Hard Sleeper (yìng wò 硬卧)
Hard Seat (yìng zuò 硬座)
Soft Seat (ruǎn zuò软座)

Soft sleeper (ruǎn wò 软卧) is the best and most expensive choice (often just a bit less expensive than the plain ticket, usually it’s 50% more expensive than hard sleeper tickets). It consists of a lockable compartment with four beds. Luxuries include individual reading lights and the volume control for PA system. Upper berths are slightly cheaper than the two lower ones. Very few trains have deluxe soft sleeper (gāojí ruǎn wò 高级软卧) which has cars with two berths in each compartment (for example Kowloon-Shanghai and Kowloon-Beijing) and in addition to that some have private bathrooms (for example those running between Beijing and Shanghai).

Hard sleeper (yìng wò 硬卧) has no doors, instead it has six couchettes separated by partitions and open to the corridor. Two columns of three berths on each side are approximately 50 cm apart. One carriage is divided into twenty sets of such three-tier bunks. Bed linens are provided in both hard sleeper and hard sleeper class. Lower berths are slightly more expensive than the upper ones. The bottom ones are usually used for socializing so if you want some privacy ask for the top berth however bear in mind that it can get pretty hot up there if the air-conditioning is not working (that’s what happened to me travelling from Taian to Xian, 12 hours at +35 C).

Chinese words for the three berths are:
Xiàpù (lowest bunk, most expensive)
Zhōngpù (middle bunk, probably the best)
Shàngpù (top-most bunk, the cheapest, most suitable for tall passengers)

Under each window there are two pull-down chairs and a tiny fold-away table, and right above the window there is a luggage rack. You are supposed to leave your luggage there. If you have a ticket for the lower berth you can put your stuff underneath the bed but there is very little room there. Is your luggage safe on the rack? I think they are reasonably safe (maybe a bit safer than if you put your luggage at the same place in a train in your own country) but if you have something very valuable in your knapsack it is a good idea to put it on the bed next to you. Also you can use a padlock and secure your backpack on the rack. However, if you are not fast enough chances are there will be no room left on the rack so you will have to figure out what to do with your backpack.

Around 10 PM lights go off and most of the traffic and chatter stops at that time. The lights are turned on again around 6:00 AM.

Thermoses with hot water can be found in each compartment and they are refilled by the attendants or you can refill them yourself from a boiler at the end of each car.

Hard seat class (yìng zuò 硬座) is still bench-like (three-person benches) but on most routes seats are not that hard, however you would not want to spend a night in the hard seat class (the lights are on all night). Hard seat tickets are very cheap (one half of the soft seat fare) but you are not necessarily getting an assigned seat. Tickets purchased on the same day will usually be unreserved (wuzuo), what you often purchase is the right to board the train, if you find a seat that’s a bonus. Unless you buy a ticket for a tourist, express train be prepared to inhale thick smoke and walk through the spittle. Safety in the hard seat class is less than perfect, keep that in mind if you plan on spending the night in that class.

I was traveling from Suzhou to Shanghai in the hard seat class and it was ok because it was only 1-2 hours ride.

Soft seat (ruǎn zuò软座) – only daytime express trains have this class (I was in that class on the train from Shanghai to Hangzhou, again it was around 2 hours ride). Usually it’s not as crowded as hard seat cars and usually it has two decks. Ticket price is similar to what you pay for hard sleeper. This is the best choice for daytime travel under 5-6 hours.

Most Chinese trains have squat toilets, you can wash your hands with cold water (most of the time). On some luxury trains there is hot water, free tooth-brush and tooth-paste etc but I have not seen those trains.

Here you can see the sample timetable for trains running between Beijing and Shanghai and Beijing and Xian.

Food and refreshments on trains.

You will notice that most Chinese passengers enjoy their instant noodles during the trip (and also variety of other food if children are around). Attendants push carts with instant noodles (miàn), beer (píjiǔ), mineral water (kuàng quán shuǐ), soft drinks (qìshuǐ), every 20-30 min or so. Separate trolleys bring kuài cān (fast food) which is usually not tasty and costs as much as a decent lunch in a medium-quality restaurant.

Food (and fresh fruit in season) can be bought before you board the train from the licensed carts on the platforms. That food is a bit better but still I usually don’t buy it. Usually I buy some instant noodles and bananas and I always carry some green tea with me. It is a good idea to buy one of those Chinese glass tea-jars/bottles which are not big and you can use them to make tea or drink water from them. I like to buy bananas because they are filling and at the same time I don’t worry about the fact that my hands may not be really clean because it’s easy to peal bananas as opposed to other fruit such as apples or pears.

All overnight trains have dinning cars but I never use them (apparently the food is just slightly better than the food sold on the carts by the attendants).
CITS (China International Travel Services, Zhōngguó Guójì Lǚxíngshè)
CTS (China Travel Services, Zhōngguó Lǚxíngshè)
CYTS (China Youth Travel Services, Zhōngguó Qīngnián Lǚxíngshè)