Although China has a developing network of highways and the biggest car-buying market in the world, road transportation remains challenging. The number of vehicles is often greater than the road capacity and the standard of driving is generally considered poor. Car hire is also restricted for foreign nationals, so many prefer not to drive in China, choosing to use taxis or bicycles instead.
For those who do choose to drive, international licences are not accepted by the Chinese authorities. Instead, you will need to obtain a Chinese licence, which most people apply for through an agency. Depending on the qualification you already hold, you may be able to convert your licence, but some people will need to take the theory and/or practical components of the Chinese driving test. In mainland China you drive on the right-hand side of the road, whereas Hong Kong and Macao retain the colonial custom of driving on the left.
With driving conditions regarded as hazardous, taxis are a very popular and inexpensive way to get around in cities. Most taxis charge on a meter, although rates increase at night and surcharges may apply for slow journeys on busy routes.
Bus services are also very cheap in China, with fares from as little as ¥2 or even less with a smartcard. However, buses can get extremely crowded and signs are very rarely translated, so if you don’t understand Chinese it’s important to plan the route in advance. Tickets are normally bought from a conductor on the bus, although in some areas they can be bought before travel.
The Chinese rail network is extensive and new high-speed sections have cut the journey times between major cities significantly. For lengthy travel, avoid ‘hard class’ tickets as travel conditions can be very uncomfortable, particularly on sleeper trains. You usually need your passports to buy tickets for long-distance train journeys and may also need them to board the train. Further information and travel advice is available through Seat 61. Although major stations usually have multi-lingual attendants, it can be useful to pre-book your tickets through an agency such as China Train Tickets, although costs may be higher.
China’s largest cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Guangzhou, have modern underground railway systems. Trains run for around 18 hours per day and signage is usually in both Chinese and English.
China’s sheer size makes air transit a very appealing prospect for domestic travel. There are around 200 commercial airports in the country, including Beijing Capital International Airport – one of the world’s biggest and busiest airports. The country’s aviation safety record is improving, and increased competition between airlines has helped to drive down costs.
Other ways to get around
Bikes are a very popular option in China, but if you want a slightly different experience there are plenty of alternative forms of transport available in Chinese cities. These include rickshaws and motorised tricycles with an enclosed cabin at the back for passengers. Although they aren’t the most practical way to travel on a regular basis they can be great for novelty value! Always agree a price upfront though to avoid paying over the odds.