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Taking Public Transport in China

by Ken Cheong

China is a large country. Chances are, as a foreigner, you are likely to fly from city to city or spend most of your time in tour coaches or driven cars. However, if you do spend any significant period of time in China on your own, why not dive into local Chinese public transport?

Many of us came into China expecting half of the Chinese population to be on bicycles. Nothing can be further from the truth today.

Personal cars and taxis seems to be the most common mode of transportation today and in fact, you can hardly see bicycles in the streets in some of the major cities in China! Many young adults in China may not even know how to cycle!

Taxis in China

If you are new to China, start with taxis. Taxis are easily flagged in the streets and are generally clean and comfortable. Depending on the city you are in, fares starts from RMB5 (US$0.8) to RMB12 (US$1.2) and run on a taxi-meter. In most large Chinese cities, the driver will turn on the meter but in some of the smaller cities, taxi drivers may ignore the taxi meter and insist on a certain pre-determined price. Request that they turn on the meter or threaten to change to another taxi or report them to the authorities. Taxi licenses are lucrative and difficult to apply and most drivers will want to avoid getting into trouble with the Chinese taxi licensing authorities.

Most Chinese taxi drivers do not speak English and it may be advisable to carry your intended destination written in Chinese on a card. Be aware that in large cities like Beijing and Shanghai, even taxi drivers can get lost! So, always have your destination on hand or have the other party's mobile phone on hand so that the driver can communicate with the other party directly for driving instructions.

Taxis will be able to print receipts. Always ask for a receipt at the end of a journey. In case you leave behind something, a receipt will be useful to trace the driver and the taxi.

Public Buses in China

Public buses in cities are the most common and popular form of public transport. Public bus fares in China are extremely cheap and usually cost a flat RMB1 or RMB 2 (US$0.15 to US$0.25). You pay the same price regardless of the distance you travel.

You can pay with coins or notes or you can get a smartcard which entitles you to a discount. Be careful when travelling in crowded buses as pickpockets are not unknown. Most of the big cities' buses are air-conditioned.

Ask a Chinese colleague or friend to advise you on what buses to take.

Metro or Subway in China

Underground trains are not found in most Chinese cities except the biggest ones such as Beijing or Shanghai.

Even then, these subway networks are not well developed compared to other major cities around the world. In fact, Beijing's subway is disappointing with just two major lines given that it is such a large city.

Ask a Chinese colleague or friend to advise you on what subway line to take.

Railway Trains in China

China has an extensive railway system. Train fares are cheap and trains are very punctual. Book your tickets at the hotel reception or at the railway station. Railway stations are usually in a busy part of town. Some large cities such as Beijing or Shanghai may have as many as 4 railway stations. Be certain which station you need to go to as each station may serve different destinations.

Certain tickets may be pre-booked and there are different classes of seats. Normal seat structures are 'ying zhuo' or hard seats, 'ruan zhuo' or soft seats, 'ying pu' or hard bed and 'ruan pu' or soft bed. These are various classes of comfort and normally the advice is to go for soft seats for journeys up to 6 hours and soft bed for journey more than that. Check with the ticketing office for more information.

Take my advice. Avoid the hard seat class whenever possible as seats are not reserved and you may end up standing for your entire journey. Standing for up to 12 hours with sweaty Chinese farmers and their chickens and ducks may not be an experience you care to repeat!

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