China is a really big country (third largest in the world). Transversing the country from north-east to south-west is no small task. To make it even more challenging, China is also the most populous country in the world. Whenever you travel in China, there are a lot of people and activity to contend with. For the most part they are friendly and helpful (when you can converse), but there is A LOT of people.
We attempted to speak some Chinese but I think that the tones defeated us. We were never really understood in Chinese (and we didn’t have any idea what they were saying). We tried English on occasion, but didn’t have much luck there either. Outside of Beijing and Guangxi province, there wasn’t much English at all.
A pre-packaged tour would have been a lot easier in China. This provide you with a set itinerary and helpful English speaking guides in each location. This would definitely make the task of traveling in China much easier. This, however, was not for us. We wanted the outcome to be more organic. We wanted to give ourselves up to the traveling experience (much as I had when I travelled in my twenties). As such, we did not pre-book any transportation other than our initial flight to Beijing.
When I travelled on my own in the early 1990‘s, I had nothing but a travel guidebook (typically the Lonely Planet). While I still travel with guidebooks, I can imagine being without the Internet for long. There are so many good online sources (e.g. www.seat61.com for anything related to train travel) that help you get through difficult times. If it wasn’t for guidebooks and the Internet together, I’d have packed up and gone home a long time ago. Being able to prepare for the day through my guidebook and the Internet makes it seem a lot more manageable… although I’m not sure that I would use the word simple or easy.
I digress, let’s get back to China…
There are four main modes of transport in China: trains, buses, cars and planes. For us, cars were not an option. We needed to cover long distances in remote parts of China and we did not speak the language. While major centers often post signs in Pinyin and have some English, this cannot be relied on. And then there are Chinese driving customs… lines are suggestions, bikes are everywhere and the horn is mandatory. Not really our idea of a fun holiday.
The three modes are focused on where trains, buses and airplanes.
We started on the trains. I love trains and they are a great choice in China. Destinations are almost always listed in Pinyin (not just Chinese characters) and they seem to always run on time (except for our last train which was late by over an hour). The train stations are very orderly and the staff very helpful. That said, it is also the preferred mode of transport for most Chinese, so it is INSANELY busy. The temperature of the waiting room seems to rise by at least 5C (and often more) due to the sheer volume of people. They are pleasant but focused on getting to their destination (don’t get in their way).
There are some very posh trains in China, but we didn’t take any of those. We were going to more obscure places, so the posh trains were not an option. We started on the bottom end with a “hard seat” on a slow train. This class of service is designed for volume. The seats are bolt upright and the train is packed. We reserved a seat, but many people do not so the aisle can be (and were) clogged with people. While they have air-conditioning, the volume of people seems to defeat it most of the time.
Make this a eight hour trip and add two kids and it sounds like a nightmare, but it wasn’t. The Chinese were very friendly. Although we couldn’t really speak to them with words, we smiled, nodded and used other gestures. The view from the train was also pretty spectacular. We saw some pretty amazing and varied countryside.
The other activity that helped pass the time was eating. Everyone brings food on the train and eats constantly. All trains supply hot water, so noodles are a staple. The train trips can be long and slow (no fast trains for us), so bring lots of food.
Once we were out of Beijing, it wasn’t possible to buy tickets in English. To make things easier I write down dates, destinations and class of service in pinyin and that seemed to work. It got a little confusing when their wasn’t any space, so I also made the habit of searching for space online (www.travelchinaguide.com/china–trains/ or trains.china.org.cn/) and adding the train number that I wanted. After that, things seemed to work ok… for trains.
On really long trips, it is best to get a sleeper and travel at night, especially if you have kids. Our kids were pretty good, but we started running out of entertainment options at the 6 or 7 hour mark, especially for our high energy son.
We did one hard sleeper (open compartments of 6 beds each), but I far prefer the soft sleeper (closed compartment of four beds each). The soft sleeper gave us our own room and we could close off the outside world. The kids really enjoyed this one, although it was near impossible to stop them from jumping from one bunk to the next.
As much as I love trains, they don’t go everywhere that you want to go in China. Inevitably you will need to catch a bus. Bus can often be faster in China albeit more expensive, but the experience is very different. While trains offer a consistent level of service, buses do not. It really depends on where you are, where you are going and which bus company you are dealing with.
The beginning of the experience is the bus station itself. Most stations that we went had no Pinyin signage (let alone English). Even the tickets had little to be recognized by non-Chinese (other that date, time and seat number). Assuming that you can buy a ticket to the right destination, it can be tricky getting to the right bus. We had to stay on our toes. Make sure that you have done your research before you arrive. You may not be able to get the information that you need at the station.
That said, many local were willing to help (not always the staff). Lots of pointing and gesturing seemed to be the right way to go.
The bus rides themselves were another story. Our bus ride from Xi’an to Wudangshan was as good as any western bus ride, if not better. The bus was in good condition, set a good temperature, there was good rest stops and the roads were great. The six hour ride was a breeze.
Then there was our bus ride from Zhongdian to Kunming. This was a 12 hour bus ride on winding mountain road with a bus driver that had to pass at every opportunity (gas-break-gas-break… and repeat). We even had to endure a 5 hour period with no rest stops (and no toilet on board). This was cruel and unusual punishment for the kids. After this bus trip we had to promise the kids a flight for the next long travel day.
If you are going to take the bus in China, make sure that you know what the bus might be like and be prepared.
Finally, there were the two flights that we took in China. I was hoping to avoid flights as much as possible, but it wasn’t practical. Traveling from Chengdu to Shangri-la on the bus would have taken a week and cost me the love of my children. Based on the bus trip from Shangri-la to Kunming, I know that we made the right call.
The second flight was to avoid the long train ride from Kunming to Guilin. The kids needed a break after the epic bus ride, so we didn’t have a lot of choice.
Flying in China is relatively efficient and cheap. Our experience was pretty much like flying in any other developed country. The one significant snag was the delay in the flight to Shangri-la. Due to air traffic congestion was were delayed by almost three hours. We were going to a small airport, so we just kept getting bumped. I just wish we hadn’t shown up at the airport three hours too early that day.
Looking back, I wouldn’t change too much about what we did. I would, however, have tried to book trains earlier (they get sold out) and broken up the bus trips more (not so long). It was a great way to see the country and the people.
- Vancouver to Beijing (9 hour flight)
- Beijing to Datong (8 hour train ride – hard seat)
- Datong to Pingyao (8 hour train ride – hard seat)
- Pingyao to Taiyuan to Xi’an (2 hour train ride – hard seat, 10 hour train ride – hard sleeper)
- Xi’an to Wudangshan (6 hour train ride)
- Wudangshan to Chengdu (18 hour train ride – soft sleeper)
- Chengdu to Zhongdian [Shangri-la], Yunnan (1.5 hour flight)
- Zhongdian to Kunming (12 hour bus ride)
- Kunming to Guilin (1.5 hour flight)
- Guilin to Ping’An (3 hour bus ride)
- Ping’An to Yangshuo (3 hour and 1 hour bus rides)
- Yangshuo to Nanning (6.5 hour train ride)
- Nanning to Hanoi, Vietnam (3 hour and 4 hour bus rides)