If we were to name one country that surprised us in the most unexpected ways, I’d give the title to China. My knowledge on the sleeping giant stands on the surface level. Other than Beijing, Shanghai and that place where Avatar was inspired (Zhiangjijie, in case you’re wondering), there’s not much we know. At least until our 10-day trip to this country.
It can be challenging to explore a country as vast and varied as China in one week, or 10 days for that matter. There’s plenty to see and discover in this part of the world apart from the famed Great Wall and the Forbidden City. China holds a long list of breathtaking mountains, landscapes and sceneries that will leave one in awe.
Since our schedule was tight, we had to select which places to go based on our preferences, as well as the convenience and availability of transport options. Most parts of China can be accessed overland via trains and buses. All we had to do was study and plan which train or bus to take to get to point B. Sounds easy peasy, right? Well, we thought, too.
Long-distance and Local Transport
Transportation in some parts of China can get confusing. For one, majority of the people don’t speak English (except in Shanghai). Sign boards in local buses and ticket counters in train stations also lack English translations. A huge part of our China trip was spent asking locals for directions, figuring out maps and typing whatever we wanted to say on Google translate.
To give you an idea, long-distance transport in China is good, particularly when riding trains. It’s practical and exciting, with reasonable price and comfort. The country has a great deal of train systems from one province to the other in various classes – from high-speed D, G and C class express trains down to regular fast trains. Long-distance bus travel is also a good option with its extensive reach and the increasing number of intercity highways. There are mini buses, private buses and even sleeper buses (some equipped with toilets and hostesses handing out snacks) available depending on the location you’re heading.
Local transport, on the other hand, is less efficient (except for cities with metro systems) and diverse but could get confusing and slow. The good side is it’s cheap, affordable and expanding. Most cities have extensive bus networks to get around town, though these aren’t really tourist friendly as the bus driver and conductor rarely speaks English and the signs are written in Chinese. Growing cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an and Chengdu have subway, metro and light rail systems which are pretty new and recent. Taxis are easy to find, too. Most of them have meters but on some instances, can switch to negotiated rates depending on the city or location. Other local transport options include motor pedicabs and motorbikes which are offered in some towns.
Manila – Beijing: Lost at Midnight
Our plan was to start in Beijing, then off to Wudang before heading to Xi’an, and finally to Shanghai as our last stop. The information on the transport options available on the internet seemed complete and uncomplicated, which made us feel confident about this whole crescent trail trip. Little did we know that we’ll be facing a lot of roadblocks and detours along the way.
It was already midnight when we landed at Beijing Capital International airport. We took a taxi to get to our accommodation in Dawanglu area since public transportation wasn’t available. We ended up scouting the whole area for three hours under the rain after the taxi driver dropped us off somewhere without a clear direction on which road we should take. It would be better if you keep a Chinese translation of your destination or hotel’s address to avoid having the same fate. Other than that, we didn’t have a problem with Beijing’s public transportation which consists of local buses, taxis and trains.
Beijing – Xi’an – Shiyan: From Smooth to Stormy
In order to get to Wudang located in Shiyan city, we had to travel from Beijing to Xi’an first. The options include flying or taking the sleeper or bullet train. We opted to ride the more costly high-speed train ($100/person) to save time. It was a smooth and convenient trip to Xi’an before we started to get lost. To make the long story short, we spent the whole day riding the wrong bus, queueing at the train ticket counter, asking for directions and getting help from persistent locals. We were lucky to be with the right people at the right time as I’ve mentioned before, only a select few can speak and understand English. Anyway, the initial plan was to take the train to Shiyan, but then only standing room tickets are available and we don’t want to stand for five hours with our heavy backpacks. So we looked for a bus to Shiyan at the bus terminal located across the Xi’an Railway Station with the help of a young Chinese guy who appears to be in his mid 20s. Remember to ask around for the right bus to Wudang or Shiyan if the former isn’t available. We took the 6pm bus to Shiyan and arrived at around 11pm, which left us lost once again. Public transport to Wudang wasn’t available since it’s already almost midnight. We were lucky the guy who’s still inside the bus has a brother who can speak English so they both helped us and offered a private ride to our hotel in Wudang. To be sure, it’s better to leave Xi’an in the morning so you can get to Shiyan or Wudang in the afternoon.
Xi’an Transport: Visiting Hua shan and City Attractions
Going to Xi’an from Wudang was easy as the hotel staff arranged and booked our bus trip. We were informed that there’s only one or two bus agencies offering a Wudang-Xi’an route, so it would be great if you can ask your hotel’s receptionist to book you a bus back to Xi’an. The last stop is at Xi’an Railway Station, from there you can either take a local bus or a tuk-tuk to the place where you’ll be staying at. The former is cheaper but can only stop at specified drop-off points, while the latter is more expensive but can take you directly to your destination. Due to our heavy backpacks, we chose to ride a tuk-tuk straight to Alley Youth Hostel where the driver charged us RMB 35 each.
There are plenty of public transport options available in Xi’an- from tourist, sight-seeing, long-distance and suburban buses down to subway lines and taxis. If you want to go to Hua shan, Terracotta Warriors and other popular tourist attractions, just head to the main bus terminal and look for the bus labeled with the destination (most buses have the name of the place printed on its body) or ask around and they will point you to the right bus. This was what we did to get to Hua shan. The buses leave regularly during the day and will drop passengers at the foot of Hua shan. To save you time from asking around, look for the sign saying 华⼭ (Huashan). Again, having a Chinese translation of your destination will make your commute in China easier.
If you happen to be one of the last visitors to climb down Hua shan like us, don’t fret as you can still go back to Xi’an by taking either a train or a bus. Though I’ve read from other sites that the buses stop their operations at 7pm. In this case, take the train as they run until 11pm. We shared a taxi ride (around ¥25) with two other tourists to the train station and paid ¥55 each for the high-speed train (25 mins) back to Xi’an. Slow train is also available for about ¥20 or so with travel time of 1 hour and 30 minutes.
Shanghai Transport: All About Convenience
To get to our final stop, we booked a sleeper train to Shanghai for $104 per person. We arrived at Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station early in the morning and took the subway to our accommodation. The subway line is connected to the railway station so you just have to follow the directions in the sign boards and walk towards the line you need to take. Shanghai is an advanced city, therefore public transport is more convenient and accessible.
Shanghai’s public transportation network is convenient and tourist-friendly. There’s a railway network which provides a comfortable and inexpensive ride around the city. We almost always take the train whenever we go to Shanghai’s famous and low-key attractions like The Bund, Yu Garden, Nanjing Road, Xintiandi and the like. Most of these attractions are just a few steps away from a train station so really, it’s the best way to check the city for us.
Various options, such as the airport shuttle bus, Maglev train, subway line 2 and taxi, are also available to get to and from Shanghai Pudong International Airport. Our accommodation is located near a station in subway line 2, so we took this to get to the airport. It’s not a direct trip though as we had to get off the 4-car metro train at Guanglan Road station and change to another 8-car metro train to get to Pudong airport.
A big part of our China trip had a lot of misadventures due mainly to the confusing local public transport in its cities. It slowed us down and at some point, forced us to change or cancel seeing a place. But if I’m going to be really honest, those setbacks made our trip more exciting and worthwhile. Getting lost can, most of the time, be the highlight of the trip.