Many travelers thinking of going to China assume that joining an organized tour is the way to do it. But for those independent minded travelers with a spirit of adventure, doing it on your own is not only possible, it’s not as difficult as you might think.
I arrived in Guangzhou after midnight. I didn’t know of any hotels there or any tourist attractions, so I got into a taxi and told the driver, “Take me downtown. Take me to a hotel.”
This is the freedom of traveling in China in 2013. With railroad lines running over 91,000 kilometers–linking everywhere from Mohe County (population 83,465), at the northernmost tip of China, to Hainan, the island paradise south of China’s mainland; from Tonghua, 100 kilometers away from North Korea, to Kashgar in the far west, where the sun rises at 8 a.m. and sets at 10 p.m.–travel is cheap and easy.
Cities are densely populated and easily navigable by public transportation. Lodging is as cheap as $2 USD a night in some cities. The dynamic development of China in the past few decades makes right now an incredible time to witness the land and culture that 5,000 years of dynasties, uprisings, revolutions, and unprecedented cultural reforms and economic boom have created.
1. Plan your trip
Start by planning where you want to go and what you want to see. China is a huge country with a diverse geography and culture. Whether you want to see mountains or beaches, mega cities or remote villages, the tallest Buddha in the world, five of the 15 tallest skyscrapers in the world, the 1912 presidential palace, or the tomb of the 200 BC emperor and his terra cota warriors, you can find it all in China.,
Read books and websites to find places that interest you and take notes. After you know what you want to see, visit ChinaTrainGuide.com to see the train schedules and start making rough plans.
2. Buy tickets
You can buy tickets at the train station, an official ticket office, or a ticket agency. Train stations are crowded, and agency markups can be high, so ticket offices are your best bet. You can search for ticket offices on Google Maps in English with the search term “booking office for train tickets.” Not every city has booking offices, but most big cities do.
Ticket agencies can be useful when you need to buy tickets for multiple legs of a journey that require transferring stations. At a train station, you can only buy tickets from that city itself to another city. You can’t buy tickets from Shanghai to Guangzhou at the Beijing ticket office, for example, but you can buy tickets for trains originating from any station at ticket agencies.
Ticket buying tips
- You can usually buy tickets at any station two or three days in advance with no problems.
- You can even buy same day tickets during certain times of the year.
- In high travel season, it can be hard to buy same day or next day tickets.
- The earliest you can buy tickets is ten days in advance.
- Make sure to have your passport with you when you buy tickets.
You can choose between four classes of seats: hard seat, soft seat, hard bed, and soft bed. The distinction isn’t really in their hardness but in how much room they offer. Hard seats are packed about 90 into a car with five seats in a row (2+3) and alternating rows facing each other. On a full train, the legroom is cramped. Soft seat cars have four seats in each row and are more comfortable. Soft seats cost about 20% to 25% more than hard seats.
Hard beds are arranged in compartments of six beds with three tiers of beds–top, middle and lower–and two rows. The compartments are sectioned off by walls with no doors, and there are small tables with fold down chairs on the side of the row for eating.
Soft beds have closed compartments with four beds each, and those beds sometimes come with individual TVs to watch movies. Soft beds cost about 40% to 60% more than hard beds. For each class, the lower beds cost slightly more than the upper beds.
Some of the most popular routes also have “first class,” “second class,” “premier class,” and “business class” seats. “Premier class” and “business class” seats are three to a row, and “business class” can recline fully to lie flat, but these kinds of seats are typically only on high-speed rail lines, which aren’t available for most routes.
As for what time is best, overnight trains are often more convenient than daytime trains. While riding overnight trains, you can save time and lodging money by sleeping on the train rather than wasting daylight hours sitting on the train. Consider the Nanjing to Beijing route. There are 56 trains going from Nanjing to Beijing every day. The majority take four hours, a few take six or seven hours, and some take as many as 13, but if you take an overnight train, you can go to bed in Nanjing at 10:30 p.m. and wake up at 9:30 a.m. at your destination. The cost of a bed on the overnight train is nearly half of the cost of a seat on a four-hour train from Nanjing to Beijing.
3. Riding the train
Now you have your tickets. It’s time to go. Here are some provisions you’re going to need for an enjoyable ride: tissues, hand sanitizer, and ramen noodles. Chinese public restrooms (including those on the trains) usually don’t have toilet paper or soap, so you need hand sanitizer and toilet paper tissues when traveling. You can also use tissues as napkins when eating.
Inside the train station and on the streets surrounding it, there are many small convenience stores selling snacks and ramen noodle boxes, also known as “convenient noodles” (“fang bian mian”). These prepackaged boxes include noodles, sauce, seasonings and freeze dried meats and vegetables that turn into a surprisingly delicious noodle soup when cooked in boiling water. There is boiling water readily available at train stations near the restrooms and on trains at the end of each car. You can also brush your teeth at the sink at the end of the car with the boiling water or bottled water. (Don’t use the sink water, though.)
There are many other snacks in the stores that aren’t appealing to many Westerners, like fish and chicken feet packaged in plastic bags. But there are also tasty local treats at some stations like coconut pancake crisps in Hainan Island, and there are local twists on American favorites like potato chips in hot pot, barbequed meat, and hot and sour fish soup flavors.
If you can speak any Chinese, be prepared to do a lot of talking on the train. Chinese people are incredibly hospitable and interested in talking with foreigners. Be prepared to answer “How much does an iPhone cost in your country?” and “How much does a home cost?” Chinese people are genuinely interested in learning about foreign lifestyles. On trains, I have played cards, learned Chinese jokes from little kids, and been invited to dinner by fellow passengers.
4. Arriving at your destination: Avoid the scammers!
The first thing to do when you arrive at your destination is to beware of the scammers (“pianzi”). When you step off the train into the arrival terminal, the first thing that greets you is some stranger yelling, “Taxi! Taxi! Taxi!” in English right in your face. The “taxi” these aggressive peddlers offer is a black market taxi marked up many times above the market price. In Nanjing, the scammers even have the audacity to hawk their fake taxis while standing right in front of the sign for the real taxi. Never use the black market vendors. There is always official public transportation for much more reasonable prices. Black market vendors will often lie to you about transportation and continue to sell even after you say no.
Sometimes they collude with other peddlers. In Emei City, a scammer was offering transportation to Emei Mountain for 20 RMB (a little over $3USD). He told me there was no public bus to the mountain. When I asked a vegetable seller in the parking lot, she also told me there was no bus. There was a public bus waiting by the side of the road, so I asked the driver. He said his bus went to the mountain for 2 RMB (~$0.30).
Another scam to watch out for is drivers of legitimate taxis who don’t put their fare flag down. Usually if they don’t put the flag down that means they want to charge an exorbitant fee. Sometimes, they have a not-so-sinister reason. Sometimes they just want to get other people to ride in the same taxi with you and pay a fixed price (not exactly in accordance with the regulations, but not a scam). But if you must ride in a fixed price taxi, make sure you agree on a rate beforehand.
Bargain brand hotels like 7 Day Inn, Like Home Inn, and Hanting Inn are roughly equivalent to a Holiday Inn in America. Standard rooms include a queen size bed, a TV, a bathroom with towels, and a bedside table that includes light switches to control the lights in the room. In most cities, they cost around 100 to 150 RMB (~$16-$24USD) per night, though they can cost closer to 200 RMB or more in wealthy cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Dirt-cheap non-chain hotels can cost less than 100 RMB per night, but they are predictably of hit or miss quality.
However, if you really want to save money, book a hostel. One week in Guilin, I stayed in a hostel for 10 RMB ($1.60USD) per night. Guilin is an exceptionally cheap city. Most hostel beds cost between 30 and 60 RMB ($5-10USD) per night. Hostels are also usually cleaner than the average dirt-cheap hotel. The main problem is hostels can be noisy. Roommates often go to bed late, and it is sometimes hard to sleep.
You can book hostels at any number of hostel booking sites, including here at BootsnAll, but it isn’t always necessary to have a reservation for a hostel or hotel. If you are staying for an extended period at a hostel, a reservation will make sure you get to keep your same room the whole time.
6. Get off the beaten path: Take a bus
Trains will get you to a lot of places, but they won’t get you to a remote mountain village like Basha, Guizhou, where the Miao minority tribesman put on a fantastic singing and dancing gun show. For that, you will need to take a bus.
China’s bus network is even vaster than its train network. China’s buses take travelers between China’s largest cities as well as small towns and villages. Buses are also necessary for Yunnan’s most famous tourist attractions: Dali, Lijiang, and Shangri-La, which aren’t well connected by train. Bus tickets can usually be bought on the day of travel, often less than an hour before departure. Buses to many destinations run constantly throughout the day.
Buses stop at many places between their point of origin and destination, with passengers getting on and off. You can catch the bus alongside the road anywhere on its route if there are any empty seats. Buses through the countryside always have space. At the famous hiking destination Leaping Tiger Gorge in Yunnan, you can catch a bus from the gorge area to Shangri-La or Lijiang.
There are also overnight buses with beds, but it is hard to sleep because the beds are small and the ride is usually bumpy. Overnight buses have a reputation as being dangerous, but they are a good option if you need to get somewhere fast.
7. Forget your plans
No guidebook can fully capture the personality of a city. As you travel, you will find some cities boring and some unexpected treasures. Adjust your plans accordingly. Stay longer in your favorite places. Leave early if you’re disappointed. If you learn about new destinations along the way, change your plans. Maybe you get bored and you just want to wander.
When I was in Yunnan last summer, I still didn’t know where I wanted to go for the final leg of my trip. I met a girl from Sanya, and my decision was made. A few days later, I got off the airplane in Guangzhou, en route to Sanya, and over two days, I discovered the architecture in Guangzhou was spectacular and the cuisine divine.
For more on traveling in China and rail travel, check out the following articles and resources:
- Browse the China Indie Travel Guide
- Find a flight to China
- Book a hostel in China
- Read From Italy to China: A Leap of Faith in the Mouth of the Dragon
- Read the Indie Traveler’s Guide to China
- Check out our Beijing Indie Travel Guide
- Read Everything You Need to Know About Train Travel in Southeast Asia