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The International Writers Magazine:

Chinese modes of transport
Paul Haire

There are many different modes of transport in China which the foreign traveler can use ranging from the luxurious to the downright dirty. Taking public transport is something not for the faint hearted, especially in the countryside or a city during rush hour.
The various modes of transport include, plane, train, bus, (intercity and citywide) taxi and bicycle. There are even sedan chairs as well, but these are mostly located at tourist attractions where sprightly young (and old) men carry lazy tourists up and down hills with jaunty aplomb.

Planes, the way most people come to this fair land are the most convenient way to travel quickly and efficiently the large distances between cities. They are, on the whole, the same as anywhere else with the exception of the Chinese total disregard of safety rules. The moment the planes wheels have touched down people are undoing seatbelts, talking on phones and taking things out of lockers. Also on Chinese flights the food is a strange hybrid between western and Chinese. Apart from this though plane travel differs little from anywhere else.

The second form of transport between cities is by train. These are separated into hard seat, hard sleeper and soft sleeper, soft being the most expensive where you get a cabin to yourself and hard seat being a total nightmare unadvisable to anyone except the most budget conscious or hardy.

I have only traveled hard seat once, a 13 hour overnight trip from Nanning to Kunming where I only achieved about 2 hours of fitful sleep right at the end of the journey when most of the other passengers had left and I could lie on the floor.

Soft sleeper is my favoured grade it is slightly more expensive than hard seat but worth every penny as you get a bunk to sleep on. The bunks are arranged in three tiers in compartments of six. Chinese people favour the bottom bunk as you can sit on it during the day but I prefer the top one as you can retreat to it and get away from the questions, prying eyes or just the general hullabaloo. Your travel mates will spend the day talking, playing cards, eating, or just lying on their beds in their pants.

I also always commandeer the small fold down seat outside the compartment beside the window because it is a good place to sit and read. This means I get the best of both worlds, somewhere to sit during the day and somewhere I can go to to get some relative peace and quiet. Therefore it is advisable unless you want your bed to become the days bench to ask for the top bunk when booking train tickets. Trains also have restaurant cars and food trolleys selling drinks and cup noodles. Though the food in the restaurant car is generally terrible, but they do have beer.

Buses also travel between cities and include 'sleeper buses'. However I wouldn't recommend these as there is nowhere to put your bag so you must squeeze it and yourself into your 'bed' .

Other buses vary greatly in quality depending on distance being traveled and where they are going. If you are travelling from one major city to another, say Beijing to Xian, the bus will probably be modern, air conditioned and relatively comfortable, though you may have to endure a constant barrage of Chinese pop music.

Buses in rural areas are more hit and miss ranging from small mini buses where you virtually have to sit on the engine to perfectly acceptable affairs. You might find yourself sitting next to a Buddhist monk chanting his prayers,a travel sick mother vomiting for the whole journey or a young student eager to practice his English with you.

Buses in cities are an entirely different kettle of fish and range from the not busy, comfortable and modern buses to the old, sardine tin, rush hour job's where you have to squeeze yourself on, through and off. These are not advised for anyone but a seasoned China hand. Furthermore destinations are exclusively written in Chinese. On the upside buses are very cheap, only 25p a journey.

Subways in China range from the ultra modern to the veritably ancient but are much the same as anywhere else in the world.

Taxis are generally a good form of transport if extortionately expensive compared with others. They are seen by the Chinese as the correct form of transport for rich foreigners and traveling any other way around a city will provoke raised eyebrows and whispered comments 'foreigners can use buses!!'.

Taxi drivers are generally friendly but it is advisable to take a map with you as some can try and take you the long way and thus 'trim the fat off -  rip off, the foreigner.

But with the Olympics coming next year there has been a drive to improve taxi drivers English so often you will meet ones desperate to practice their new found skills often with mixed results.
Finally we come to my favourite form of transport in China, the humble bicycle. With China's car ownership soaring and nearly all the major cities suffering from traffic congestion problems which are getting worse, the bicycle is a quick and efficient way to get around.

Again local people will look at you as mad, 'why would a rich foreigner want to ride a bicycle?!' (bicycles are seen as deeply un-cool in the modern, image conscious China) But you will have the last laugh as you fly by the taxi's and overcrowded buses stuck in traffic jams.
Travel in China can be a haphazard affair, an assault on the senses, mind and body. But it will not always be like this as it is already improving and becoming efficient and boring just like everywhere else. So if you're looking for adventure and excitement rather than just getting from A to B then China's various modes of transport have something to offer.  Furthermore traveling like a local is one of the best ways to really get to know a people and culture.

© Paul Haire 6 December 2007

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