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Insights about China Transportation
By Louie Yi
How to choose your transportation while you travel in China? I’d like to share my personal thoughts and preferences gained from share my forty years of traveling experience within China.
I’ll start off by sharing that I would prefer taking a 7-hour bullet train from Changsha to Beijing over the 2.5-hour air flight. Airline travel is subject to cancellation often. In fact, there is humor among Chinese tourist that instead of CAAC being the abbreviation for: Chinese Civil Aviation Administration (CAAC). Instead, the joke is: that CAAC actually refers to:
China Airlines Always Cancel & China Airlines Always Change !
I’ve decided to share my personal preferences based on experience. I am listing my favorite modes of transportation in order of preference, starting with the bullet train option.
1. My Favorite & Most Reliable:
It is more and more popular for Chinese to travel by bullet train because it is economical, practical, efficient, and on consistently on time.
There are three fare choices on a bullet train. The terms are quite confusing for N. Americans, because the labels in the two countries have almost meanings on the same words. Let me explain.
Lowest is level is “Coach” -- it’s all clear on that. However….
2nd lowest level is called “First class”.
Top Level of services is named, “Business class”.
There are 5 seats (2 x 3) on each row in bullet train coach class. This is more space than an airlines coach class. There are 4 seats (2 x 2) in first class on the row. Personally, I don’t recommend first class because there is not much difference from coach class; it is not worth it to spend the extra money on first class. Business class is the highest class on the bullet train, with 2 seats for the full row with an aisle between. It is as comfortable as an airline’s first class.
One important dynamic to understand about bullet train stops is that the pausing at each train station is very brief. No matter if you are on train or platform, the train will shut the door and leave after a short stop. So, it is essential to move quickly forward when boarding a bullet train, otherwise people behind may shove you or get left behind on the platform.
There is a luggage storage spot at both ends of the carriage. You can store your larger luggage there but it’s important to monitor it, in case other people pick up the wrong one easily. In the overhead bin there is a rack which will accommodate your carry-on size luggage.
At both ends of each carriage, there is a toilet in either Chinese or Western style.
There are snack trolley selling box lunch or box dinner, snacks, beer, wine, even Chinese sprits on the trains.
Most cities in China have at least two, sometimes several train station stops in the city. When it is getting close to the arrival time, you need to be careful to keep listening and watching to make sure you are exiting the right stop in your destination city. The announcer will say the approaching train station name in both English and Chinese, and the electronic display screen above each carriage door will also give the same information in both English and Chinese. At this time, you need to make sure this is the right station for you. For example, if your train fare shows “Guangzhou Nan” as your destination city, you shouldn’t get off the train at the “Guangzhou Train Station”.
After verifying this is the right station you need to get off the train, please move all your belongings to the train exit door and wait for the door to open. Once the train door opens, you need to get off the train as quickly as possible. When you are going to get off the train, some aggressive passengers on the platform might try to board the train at same time. If it happens, you need to push them back without any hesitation so that you will be able to get off the train otherwise you might be taken to somewhere unknown. Don't blame yourself for your rude behavior. This is the only way to successfully exit and be sure to arrive in the right city in a country with such a big population.
2. Air Travel
China air travel logistics are quite similar to the US, so this mode does not require as much retraining as bullet train travel. After clearing through security, one goes to the boarding gate. Fortunately, airlines make announcements in both Mandarin and English. It’s also quite common to change gates, so please keep listening carefully. Make sure you bring all your items when moving to the new boarding gate.
3. By Overnight Soft Sleeper Train
A soft sleeper train compartment is equipped with two bunk beds and sleeps four people. If there are less than 4 people traveling in your family, we highly recommend purchasing extra seats in the compartment to ensure privacy. If you don’t, then you will share your private compartment with a complete stranger. At both ends of the carriage, there is one toilet in either Chinese style or Western style. If you find the toilet is not your favorite style, please walk to the other end of the carriage for the other style.
At one end of the carriage, there is a place for boiling water which you can get for making tea, and instant noodles. The water is steaming hot, please don’t let your young children handle it. There are snack trolleys selling snacks, beer, wine, even spirits on the trains. Although it’s not printed in English, it’s not too hard to figure out, though they may not stock your favorite comfort snacks. It’s okay to bring some on board in advance if you prefer.
4. Avoid if possible -Long Distance Bus
The long-distance buses have a big cargo trunk to store all your luggage. Important to know that the trunk won’t be opened until arrival at the destination. The buses will stop for 15 minutes at a rest area after every 2- or 3-hours’ ride. You can use the restrooms and buy snacks at the shops. Please remember to take your stuff, especially your camera bag and wallet from the bus and remember the bus number, and the bus location before you leave the bus.
5. Green Train (Slow Train) aka: You don’t care how long it takes
Green Trains stop at almost all train stations, including small train stations. That is why we call it slow train. Because they stop at all small train stations, the green trains are full of local farmers. You won’t be surprised to see many farmers traveling with live chickens or ducks on the green train lines.
On any train of soft sleeper train, green train, or bullet train, there are both policemen and train attendants in uniform. You can ask them for any help. If they can’t speak English and you can’t talk in Mandarin, you should try to use sign language and gestures to communicate, which is effective for the basics.
Let me know what other travel topics you might wish to have covered and I will include suggested topics for future articles. Email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org for topic suggestions or to answer questions about any aspect of China related travel!