Transportation in China

ferry on Victoria harbor in Hong Kong

Of the four possible modes of travelling around China – bus, train, plane or boat – only the boat can be considered relaxing, and even here a few provisos must be added. However, it is important to remember that China has come a long way in a short time, and further improvements in its transport network are an integral part of government plans for the country’s continued economic expansion.

Undercapacity, outdated equipment, inadequate investment, and staff who are often poorly motivated would be enough to dislocate any transportation system. In China, this is compounded by the great distances to be covered, and the forbidding nature of much of the terrain. In addition, growing prosperity has given the Chinese the desire to see the natural and man-made wonders of their own country. Coping with demand from the vast potential pool of travellers is not a task to be underestimated.

Foreign tourists, whether they are from the West or Japan, on organised tours should have few complaints about transport, although some tours and visits are liable to cancellation at short (or zero) notice for reasons which are not always explained as they would do in Japan. Independent travellers have to accept things as they are and make the best of them even though this sort of things would not happen in Japan. The best can be very good; the worst can be very bad. If you are considering moving from Japan to China you should think carefully about the following advices.

By Bus for Those with Strong Nerves

This form of transport is easily dealt with, if only because there are so few long-distance bus services that it is probably best not even to consider this as a means of travel. The extent and condition of roads make this a wise decision, although in remote regions, where railways do not reach, there is no alternative. Intercity and regional bus services are better, but far from luxurious. Only people with strong nerves should sit near the driver, with a clear view of how he handles the ‘threat’ of oncoming traffic: the near-suicidal disregard of danger will surely leave most observers shaken.


By Train – China’s Lifeline

Japan has a reputable railway system and in many ways China’s railway systems are similar to the ones in Japan because they were modeled after Japanese railways in many ways. Travellers from Japan would think that bullet trains look somewhat similar to the Japanese bullet trains. Railways are China’s arteries, the only more or less reliable way of getting from A to B. Without them the country would suffer some kind of fatal seizure. Trying to even get on a train might do the same for foreign travellers. It is important to have sharp elbows, a note in Chinese stating the ticket type desired, and a willingness to kowtow to the ticket clerk, who will pronounce with the finality of an emperor on one’s travel plans.


If you find the right platform in an overcrowded station, the rest should go smoothly. Riding soft class, or soft class sleeper, is a good way to travel in China; you are provided with bunks, mostly clean linen, curtains, and meals in a dining car just like when you are travelling by train in Japan. Hard class is something else – particularly a hard seat on a long distance train, though a hard sleeper can also be grim. Like in Japan, virtually the entire country is connected to the rail network. This is the way most Chinese travel.

On the two-day journey from Guangzhou (Canton) to Shanghai, the train crosses the heartland of China, taking in rivers, mountains, villages and cities, while the aggravations of a developing country’s booming economy are soothed away to the beat of steelshod wheels on rails. A postcard-in-motion unfolds through the windows -a panoply of fields worked by peasants wearing conical hats. The work in those fields is hard, you tell yourself as you pass through, but it seems a timeless image of pastoral peace. Only a master of Chinese painting could capture the landscape’s many moods.

Such experiences are the stuff of train travel in China, and if there are others which are less desirable – overcrowded stations, dirty trains, unhelpful staff -together they create a unique vantage point for observing China. The country loves its railways, warts and all, and could scarcely survive without them. Most provincial capitals are already connected to Beijing and the others soon will be. The steam engines, which once captured romantic imaginations, are giving way to diesel units, and many lines are being electrified. Air-conditioning has even put in an appearance on prestige routes. On China’s railways, the times, and timetables, are changing, but the experience is still unforgettable.

Jet Setters

Forget the days of deck-chairs in the gangway to accommodate extra passengers, and pilots who thought they were flying the Chinese version of the MiG-19 jet fighter. Civil aviation in China is growing up, assisted by joint ventures with international carriers (Dragonair’s link with Cathay Pacific, for example). A fleet of new airliners is now in service, so you can expect to fly in reliable aeroplanes, like the Boeing 737, McDonnell Douglas MD11, Airbus A320, and British Aerospace 146.

A report in Business Week called China a ‘leading contender for the title of the most dangerous place in the world to fly’, with aircraft not always perfectly maintained, and pilots averaging 280 flight hours a month (rules set a limit of 100). Higher standards are now being implemented – passengers can no longer get out of their seats during take-off and landing!

Ferrying Across

While the train is the most flexible way to travel long distances, few experiences beat travelling by boat. Most such trips are likely to be in the form of an organised excursion, but independent travellers can hop aboard services such as the Yangtze River cruise boats plying between Chongqing to Wuhan or Shanghai. The jetcat on the Pearl River is an ideal way to get between Hong Kong and Guangzhou (Canton). Macao is connected to Canton by ferry. Other possibilities include excursions on the Grand Canal (between Hangzhou and Suzhou), on the Li River (from Guilin), the Yellow River, and on various lakes.

ferry on Victoria harbor in Hong Kong

Other Modes

Taxis are fast and easy to hire, though honest taxi drivers seem to be rationed to one per province. Buses and minibuses are not bad once routes and timetables have been figured out, but are almost always packed. Pedicabs and scooter-cabs are fine, but many drivers have a flexible interpretation of what constitutes a fair agreement.


In Beijing, the subway is a good alternative to the bus, although it can be hot and stuffy. Finally, the humble bicycle may be the perfect way to get around, particularly as walking may be difficult because of the long distances involved. Although it is not as sufficient as in Japan, the subway system is something you will need to learn if you move to China from Japan or elsewhere in the world.

Moving to China is not easy. China is a country whose culture, politics and people are entirely different from the US, Europe or Japan. Anybody who move to China may experience some sort of a culture shock. It is recommended to do some research before you move there or travel there.