Getting Away

Part of the Travel section of A Better Guide to Běijīng’s Practical A–Z

By Air

Buying Air Tickets

飞机票 fēijī piào air tickets

International and domestic air tickets are easily obtained in Běijīng from innumerable agents and on-line sources, as well as at the airports and airline downtown ticketing offices. As far as international flights go, the airline itself is rarely the place to find the best price. Things are a little more equal for domestic flights, but prices can still vary considerably. However, you need almost never pay the published price if you simply visit a few agents, clearly identified by airline logos and pictures of planes. Those in back streets tend to have better prices than those on main streets, and both tend to have better prices than those at hotel receptions (they just go down the street to the agent you could have visited yourself), or from the agent in the lobby. (In some five-star hotels prices asked may be double what you can find elsewhere.) All of these are typically beaten by agents who have no visitable premises but who deliver tickets straight to your room. However, these are usually discovered through recommendation from a Chinese person, often do not last long in business, and typically require some grasp of Mandarin to deal with over the phone, although you can try asking your hotel reception to assist.

Recommendations from expats beginning, ‘I know a really good agent with the best prices,’ should be treated with great caution. Consistently using one agent often results not in reduced prices for a loyal customer, but in a steady increase in prices once the agent feels trust has been established. In one experiment five different expats obtained prices from their ‘best agents’ for the same flight, and the worst price was higher than the best by a factor of three. Collect recommendations by all means, but still shop around.

Note that the Chinese are reluctant to purchase in advance where that can be avoided, and that discounts (routinely offered) can still be found only two to three days before a flight departs, and may not be offered at all until less than a month before flying. Dealing over the counter without Mandarin is no problem: air timetables are bi-lingual, there are calendars to point at for the date, and prices are shown to you on a calculator screen. Whatever you’re shown simply look reluctant and ask for something cheaper.

打折吗 Dǎzhé ma? How about a discount?

The first and last domestic flights of the day sometimes have lower prices. Departure taxes are included in ticket prices. Wherever you purchase you’ll need to show your passport, and you’ll need to pay in cash, even if you take likely the most expensive option and buy through your hotel. Where agents do accept foreign credit cards there may be a surcharge of between 1.5% and 4%, and you’ll need to be cautious of DCC problems. See Money and Prices.

To get some idea of what you may need to pay you can look at Chinese on-line ticket sellers english.ctrip.com and www.elong.net. You may even choose to book with them, but these are the prices you can find and often beat for yourself. There’s occasionally an element of bait-and-switch — the price you see on the site is no longer actually available — and there have frequently been problems with the acceptance of foreign credit cards, which means that receipt and ticket or e-ticket will be delivered to your hotel in exchange for cash. Once on their email lists you may find it impossible to get off again — unsubscribe links for some are permanently 404 (unavailable). Approach with caution.

In general, unless economy is everything, foreign airlines should be preferred for long-haul international flights as they mostly offer much higher standards of service, better food, better in-flight entertainment systems, and, sorry to say, on average more considerate behaviour by fellow passengers.

There’s little to choose between Chinese domestic airlines, although note that Dragon Air is related to Cathay Pacific, both are Hong Kong-based, much more expensive, and a far better class of experience. Note, too, that China Airlines (CI) is Taiwanese and also has higher standards, and that it’s Air China (CA) that is the national flag carrier of the People’s Republic. All domestic airlines have poor records for punctuality and for providing any information at all about delays. On the other hand planes not uncommonly leave a few minutes early if all passengers are aboard. Seat allocation usually happens only at check-in. Boarding and alighting can both involve a little pushing and shoving, and there is confusion on board as many passengers are unfamiliar with the Latin alphabet which is used to number seats in the conventional way, and a few just take whatever seat appeals. In-flight catering is appalling, and English-language entertainment nonexistent (limited on international flights). But domestic flights are short, and taking your own snacks and entertainment makes them perfectly tolerable.

Travel to the Airports

首都国际机场 Shǒudū Guójí Jīchǎng, Capital Airport, t 96158, en.bcia.com.cn

At least until September 2019, when the new monster four-runway Dàxīng International Airport is scheduled to open, you will almost certainly be departing from Capital Airport, about 30km northeast of the city. The quickest route is via the Airport Express Line from m Dōng Zhí Mén (Lines 1, 13) stopping a few minutes later at m Sān Yuán Qiáo (Line 10), reaching Terminal 3 in 22 minutes and Terminal 2 a few minutes later. Terminal 1 is reached via a footbridge. The journey between any two points costs ¥25. The first departure from Dōng Zhí Mén is at 6.21am and the last at 10.51pm.

There are now two highways to the airport, but that doesn’t prevent traffic from coagulating and travel times can be lengthy even if you begin on the airport side of the city. Taxis are charged a toll of ¥10 for which is added to the fare and for which you’ll be given a separate receipt. Budget around ¥150 and at least one hour, depending on starting point and time of day. There are night bus services inbound, but none outbound to the airport.

There are multiple airport shuttle buses, with distance-based fares from ¥15 to ¥24, mostly running every 30 minutes or departing when full. Buy at the ticket office at each terminus, or on board. Services change frequently, and some of these routes differ when inbound and have more frequent stops. See From Capital Airport in Arrival and Travel into Town for inbound details.

b 机场1线 departs 5am–9pm from Fāng Zhuāng on the southeast side of Běijīng and runs up the East Third Ring Road to stop 大北窑南 at m Guómaò (Lines 1 & 10), then straight to Terminals 2, 1, and 3.

b 机场2线 departs 5.10am–9pm from the Aviation Building east of m Xī Dān (Lines 1 & 4), and takes the Second Ring Road clockwise, stopping at 车公庄北 just north of m Chēgōng Zhuāng (Lines 2 & 6) then at 雍和宫桥东 just east of m Yōnghé Gōng Lama Temple (Lines 2 & 5), then Terminals 2, 1, and 3. Maximum fare ¥24.

b 机场3线 departs 5.10am–9pm from the west entrance of the Běijīng International Hotel (国际饭店西门) north of m Běijīng Railway Station (Line 2), travels up the East Second Ring Road to just east of m Dōng Zhí Mén (Lines 2 & 13, 20 mins, ¥21), then to Terminals 2, 1, and 3.

b 机场4线 departs 4.50am–10pm from just north of m Gōngzhǔfén (Lines 1 & 10) on the West Third Ring Road, then clockwise around the Third Ring to stops including 友谊宾馆(四通桥) just west of m Rénmín University (Line 4), then on to Terminals 2, 1, and 3.

b 机场5线 departs 5.10am–10pm from Bǎofú Sì towards the western end of the North Fourth Ring Road in the Zhōng Guān Cūn computer district and travels east to stops including 惠新西街北口 underneath the bridge immediately north of m Huì Xīn Xī Jiē Běi Kǒu (Line 5) then on to Terminals 2, 1, and 3.

b 机场6线 departs from the Shàngdì Holiday Inn Hotel Express beyond the Northwest Fifth Ring Road and travels east along that ring, stopping at 亚奥国际酒店.(Best Western Stadium Hotel) at m Běi Shātān (Line 15), 大屯东 east of m Ānlì Lù (Line 15), 北苑路大屯 at m Dà Tún Lù East (Line 5), and then Terminals 2, 1, and 3. Every 40 minutes.

b 机场7线 departs 4.50am–10pm from the south plaza of Běijīng West Railway Station, m Běijīng West Railway Station (Lines 7 & 9) and travels east across the Chinese (Southern, Outer) City to the East Fourth Ring Road before turning north. Stops include 广安门内 at m Guǎng’ān Mén Nèi (Line 7), 磁器口西 at m Cíqì Kǒu (Lines 5 & 7), just north of the bridge at the southeast corner of Cháoyáng Park at m Cháoyáng Park (Line14), then Terminals 2, 1, and 3.

b 机场10线 runs 7am–7.30pm non-stop from m Běijīng South Railway Station (Lines 4, and, by 2017, Line 14), to Terminals 2, 1, and 3.

b 机场12线 departs 7.30am–6.30pm from the Sì Huì Bus Station, m Sì Huì (Bā Tōng Line) running north well to the east of the centre, past m Qīngnián Lù (Line 6), then Terminals 2, 1, and 3.

b 机场13线 runs only twice daily, at 7am and 9am, from the very central Regent Hotel at m Dēngshì Kǒu (Line 5), one block east of Wángfǔ Jǐng Dàjiē, via the Peace Hotel in Jinyu Hútòng, and m National Art Museum (Line 8) to Terminals 1 and 3

b 机场15线 runs 7am–6pm from the Altar of the Century via m Běijīng West Railway Station (Lines 7 & 9) the north to m Běijīng Zoo (Line 4), Xī Zhí Mén Wài near m Xī Zhí Mén (Lines 2, 4, & 13; S2 suburban railway), and on to Terminals 2, 1, and 3.

The cheapest bus of all is regular city bus b 359 which will get you to Capital Airport from Dōng Zhí Mén Wài outside m Dōng Zhí Mén (lines 2, 13, and Airport Express) on the northeast Second Ring Road for only ¥5, or even only ¥2.50 if an yìkǎtōng travel card is used, via m Sān Yuán Qiáo (Line 10). It runs 5.20am — 10pm, but may take 90mins to the forecourt of the now disused original terminal building, leaving you with a walk to Terminal 2, connected by a footbridge to Terminal 1, and by free shuttle to Terminal 3.

Walk on towards the quaint original terminal building of 1958, still in operation in the mid-80s, whose overall style may remind you of Běijīng Station, although it’s not one of the ‘ten great buildings’ of the period. Swing to the left where a bridge crosses the expressway and see a well-trodden path down the bank to the right just before you start to cross the bridge. Take that and carry on to the right, passing under several bridges and swinging round to the right, then crossing over towards Terminal 2 whenever a chance presents itself (may involve a bit of a sprint). Alternatively ‘black’ taxis will offer to take you to the terminals for ¥10.

Several high-end hotels both down town and near the airport run shuttle buses that are free to their guests. Many offer pick-up services using hotel cars, usually upper-end BMWs, Mercedes, or even Rolls-Royce vehicles. Prices are typically many multiples of the price of a taxi. Even some of the budget hotels offer pick-ups, but again, for rather more than the price of a taxi. Assorted travel agencies and car services also trawl the Internet looking for foreigners, and again, offering rates several multiples of a taxi.

南苑机场 Nányuàn Jīchǎng, Nányuàn Airport

It’s unlikely that you’ll be departing from Nányuàn Airport, to the south of the city, but if you do your only public transport options is b 北京南苑机场线 which departs 6.10am–3pm from the Aviation Building (民航大楼, Mínháng Dà Lóu) just east of m Xī Dān 西单 (Lines 1 & 4) non-stop to Nányuàn for ¥18.

北京大兴国际机场 Běijīng Dàxìng Guójí Jīchǎng, Běijīng Dàxìng International Airport

This 47 sq km airport, about 45km south of central Běijīng and due to have its own metro line from Běijīng South Station, will be one of the world’s largest when it opens in September 2019. It will take over all services from Nányuàn Airport, but whether the remainder of its services will be primarily domestic or international remains to be seen.

Checking-in and Airport Services

All your baggage, large and small, will be X-rayed either as you enter the terminal, or as you pass the check-in area.

Capital Airport publishes multiple information leaflets in English covering arrival, departure, transfer, dining and shopping at each Terminal which may be found in racks near entrances and at information desks. But English signage is plentiful, departure announcements are in English, and the whole experience is little different from that of modern airports anywhere else. A free shuttle bus travels between the three terminals. Free wi-fi is available, but it’s not entirely reliable, requires registration, and code must be obtained from the Customer Service Desk, so you may be better off at Starbucks and other cafés. Porters are available at ¥10 per trolley (no tipping), with up to three pieces of luggage per trolley. Wheelchair-accessible elevators are clearly marked, as are lavatories. Left-luggage facilities include lockers and counter service. Locker charges are typically ¥25 for up to four hours, and a further ¥10 for each of the next two blocks of four hours, then a further ¥20 for up to a total of 24 hours, and then ¥20 per 12-hour unit. Larger baggage starts from ¥30. Shelf deposit rates begin at between ¥20 and ¥50. Baggage must be put through X-ray machines as you enter the check-in area. Departure and arrival boards and all other signage is in English as well as Chinese. Shopping is avoidable and overpriced both before and after emigration. Pay no attention to signs saying ‘duty free’. Do not expect to find international magazines or newspapers or much reading material in English at all. All terminals have Time-Rate Lounges — rooms and individual seats rentable by the hour or overnight. See Airport Accommodation. Avoid all counters offering hotel bookings.

Check-in for most international flights closes one hour before take-off, and arriving at least two hours before a flight is recommended. The check-in window for domestic flights is narrow, between around 90 minutes and 45 minutes before take-off. Domestic flights have the international standard baggage limits of 20kg for check baggage in economy class, 30kg in business class and 40kg in first class. One piece of hand baggage (plus the usual extras) is permitted, of no more than 5kg, and maximum dimensions of 20 x 40 x 55cm, although these rules are widely flouted, and sometimes extravagantly so. But don’t rely on them being relaxed for you. For international flight baggage limits consult your airline. In many cases seat numbers are only allocated at check-in. Security checks are standard, and with typically the same restrictions on carrying liquids, etc. as found elsewhere. Complete a departure card (have your own pen ready) before lining up for emigration, which is usually straightforward. Business class lounges, including those selling access for a fee, are mostly underwhelming.

Terminal 3 is a vast arched space. From the metro exit twin ramps lead up to departures on Level 4, and a central one down to arrivals on Level 2. At departures Level 4 there’s a Customer Service Centre straight ahead (t 6454 1100) where some English is spoken. This level also has shrink-wrap packaging service, shops (handbags, jewellery, ceramics, furs, silk, luggage, nothing at reasonable prices), restaurants, cafés, banks (typically 9am–5pm), money exchange counters (high fees, 24hrs), and check-in counters. A bookshop has precious little in English but you might find National Geographic. There are plenty of public telephones and charging stations for mobile phones. If you have funds to reconvert then turn off the main central route to right or left to find proper bank branches, although these may require sight of recent exchange receipts for at least double the amount you with to re-exchange. Money exchange counters on the main route require no paperwork but charge a ¥50 fee, so avoid these. Food options on a mezzanine level reached by stairs or lift include assorted cafés, the usual Western fast-food culprits such as Starbucks, Kenny Rogers’ Roasters, Burger King, Haägen-Dazs as well as Phrik Thai, Korean options, Chinese fast food, halal, and others. Decor includes, inexplicably, a giant copy of one of the astonomical instruments from the Ancient Observatory. Vending machines (not recommended) sell local SIM cards, long-distance calling cards, with rates for domestic and international calls displayed. Those planning to leave Běijīng by rail within a few days can purchase tickets at counter 22 in the L check-in area, with the standard ¥5 fee, open 7am–midnight.

Level 3 has airline offices. Level 2 has arrivals, currency exchange, hourly lounge hotel info, left luggage, banks, simple accommodation called time-rate lounges (at the front of the termal’s far right-had and left-hand sides), and an information counter, bookshop, convenience stores, clinic, and left luggage facilities. There are multiple foreign-card-friendly bank machines (ATMs), and a counter selling airport bus tickets. If meeting arrivals note the separate exits for domestic and international flights, and flights from Hong Kong, Macau, or Taiwan. Level 1 has post office, shuttle bus service between terminals (every ten minutes 6am–11pm; every 30 minutes 11pm–6am), and access to car parks.

Terminal 2 departures are from Level 2. There’s post office to the right as you enter, and a very small assortment of rather feeble cafés with a Lucky Shamrock ‘Irish’ restaurants upstairs. Lei Café has acceptable sandwiches, and overpriced waffles labelled as muffins in English. Domestic departures are to the left, and international and Hong Kong and Macau departures to the right. There are multiple bank machines (ATMs) accepting foreign cards, and a money exchange counter offering to deal with over 25 different currencies, for a fee (24hrs). There’s precious little shopping and almost no choice of reading material. The free shuttle bus to other terminals leaves from arrivals Level 1, outside entrance 4. Avoid hotel reservations counters at this level, but there’s a useful rail ticket booking counter in roughly the middle of the terminal opposite door 9, open 7am–midnight, and a counter with information for those using the 72-hour visa-free service, although by that point none should be needed. There are further bank machines here, and limited catering includes a Starbucks, KFC, and Pizza Hut. The Airport Express is signposted and reached from outside the front of the terminal. The Time-Rate Lounges are further down a Level B1, with a food court offering more choice and lower prices than upstairs. Level B2 has further access to the Airport Express.

Terminal 1 is reached by shuttle bus or on foot from Terminal 2, and is tiny, with all services clearly visible from any point in the main hall, although these are very few. They do include a Time-Rate Lounge, clearly visible upstairs in one corner at the front of the building.

Nányuàn Airport, dealing solely with a limited number of domestic routes, has less of everything, and is small enough to be easily managed.

By Rail

Every one knows that the Mandarins have always opposed railways, as they do any other innovation. To suggest the subject to them was simply to invite refusal; to urge the advantage that has resulted from their introduction in Europe was to evoke the reply that no doubt they are suited to the conditions of European countries, but thay are not suited to China. It is an easy way of getting rid of the subject, and saves all the trouble of argument and thought.

Richard Simpson Gundry, A Retrospect of Political and Commercial Affairs in China During the Five Years 1873 to 1877, London 1878

The former railways minister Liu Zhijun, who was given a suspended death sentence in July for accepting bribes and abusing his power, admitted to holding a deep belief in feng shui, the practice of promoting harmony between humans and the natural environment. Although his position as a member of the CPC required him to be an atheist, he regularly invited feng shui masters to help him choose auspicious dates to commence and complete major projects.

China Daily, 9 October 2013

China’s rail network is vast and still growing rapidly. In modern times the Ministry of Railways grew to be almost a country within a country, with its own communication systems, police force, and courts, and vast levels of corruption along with trillions of yuán in debts, particularly in connection with the rapid construction of China’s high-speed rail network. In just a few years this has grown to be the world’s longest, and is planned to reach 50,000km by 2020, although the announcement of plans often has little to do with their achievement, the lines are loss-making, and there’s much that’s pure vanity about them, not least the claim that they are a purely Chinese achievement. The 2298km Běijīng–Guǎngzhōu line is nevertheless the world’s longest high-speed line, and currently being extended to Hong Kong. The entire rail network, already the world’s second longest, is about half the size of that in the US, but is more efficient and carries vastly more passengers, and is planned to reach 270,000km by 2050, compared to the US’s current 250,000km.

Accidents with the new lines and attempts to hush those up led to widespread public criticism, the dismantling of the ministry in 2012, and the jailing of top officials in 2014. Top speeds were reduced from a world-beating 350km/h to only (!) 300km/h, leaving the French operating the fastest system, and the Japanese that with the best safety record. But in June 2017 a new generation of Fùxīng (复兴, rejuvenation) trains were introduced on the Běijīng to Shànghǎi run, the only profitable line in the whole high-speed network, capable of running at 400km/h although restricted to 350km/h. China’s railway system debt is more than US$600 billion and growing. About two thirds of this is related to high-speed rail.

Nevertheless, for all but those on the tightest schedules, and even for some who are, when total city-centre to city-centre times are considered, train is the best way to travel long distance in China: more leg room, more space in general, and, particularly with standard trains, views of rural China.

Buying train tickets

火车票 huǒchē piào train tickets

Tickets for trains in China go on sale 60 days in advance (including day of travel) for on-line purchases, and 58 days in advance for over-the-counter purchases. Few Chinese think this far ahead (and until recently and indeed for most of railway history in China the advance booking period was just a few days) except for travel around Spring Festival, and not necessarily even then. Chinese Railways’ on-line booking service, www.12306.cn, is not open to foreigners, requiring a Chinese ID number and/or Chinese payment card.

English-language on-line services targeting foreigners have been found charging as much as 70% commission on some popular international routes, with mixed reliability, while others charge US$5–12 in commission — rather a lot if your ticket is only $25 to start with, and when commission over the counter from local agents is only ¥5, or about 75¢. Unless you are arriving in Běijīng shortly before departure, are attempting to travel at Spring Festival or at the beginning or end of the October ‘golden week’, or absolutely must be on a specific train (and it is unwise ever to put yourself in that position in China) use a local agent. With on-line agencies there may also be problems with payment method, delivery, and the need to provide scans or photographs of passport pages.

NB: You must present your passport when booking in person. A photocopy is not usually acceptable and the law anyway requires you to carry it at all times. Even the receipt from an embassy processing an onward visa is unlikely to be accepted, so plan carefully. You may also be asked to show your passport on the train itself.

Ticket booking windows at most railway stations are open very long hours indeed, and to see shorter lines going at night may be worthwhile. Note that in almost all cases (Běijīng South is an exception) the booking offices are either in a separate building, or may only be entered from the outside of the building through their own separate entrance. There’s limited use of electronic terminals to sell tickets for some routes, but which, although they have English-language availability, only accept local ID numbers, and/or a local payment card. Large screens show the availability of berths of different types for trains from all Běijīng stations, not merely the one at which you happen to be standing. These are in Chinese only, but if you know your train number and the characters for your seat type, you may be able to discover if seats are available before you line up. 有 (in red) indicates seats/berths are available, and 无 (in green) that there are none.

At most stations almost any ticket window will do, although one window may be reserved for refunds. Tickets for trains from all stations in the Běijīng Railway Bureau’s area may be purchased at any station in that area, so you don’t have to go to Běijīng North to buy a ticket for a train to the Great Wall, for instance, if you happen to be nearer to Běijīng South.

The rules for cross-border trains, including those to Hong Kong, are different. See International Rail Services below. Tickets to Tibet have assorted extra complications that are in constant flux, but will likely involve use of a government approved tour agency (ask at branches of CITS or telephone 
t 8161 5919, 8161 3694 for details), and may involve putting together a small group of foreigners of the same nationality as yourself. Enquire well ahead.

Agencies with computers on the railway’s network are legion, their windows and doors marked either with the railway system’s symbol, or the characters 火车票 (huǒchē piào, railway tickets). These are sometimes little more than a window to the street.

Rail ticket prices are calculated according to the number of kilometres travelled, with supplements added according to the speed of the train, the class of berth, whether it’s upper (cheaper), middle or lower, and whether there’s air conditioning (now universal). There’s no bargaining. Prices are sometimes raised around Chinese New Year. Children under 1.2m in height travel free at a rate of one per full-fare adult, if sharing that adult’s seat or berth, with extra children paying 50% of full fare. Children between 1.2m and 1.5m occupying their own places pay 50%. There are marks on the wall near the ticket windows by which children are measured. Tickets may be returned for a refund less 5% up to 48 hours before travel, less 10% 24–48 hours before, and less 20% later than that.

Ticket offices are almost always entered by a different door than the one that leads to the platforms, and may be in a separate building altogether. Important exceptions in this book are Běijīng South (organised along foreign lines with ticket windows in the main hall) and the new Běijīng Xī Zhàn (Běijīng West Station), which have special foreigners’ ticket windows inside the main station building. Several on-line agencies offer English-language timetables of varying degrees of completeness and accuracy. english.ctrip.com is easy to use and with a responsive server. Timetable books for the whole national system are on sale at railway station information counters and bookstores, but are so bizarrely organised that even Chinese have trouble using them. A tiny ¥2 booklet dealing just with departures from Běijīng is much easier to navigate using the characters for each Běijīng station and for your destination. For many years China train enthusiast Duncan Peattie has published a translation of the national timetable sensibly re-ordered to match usual Western timetable styles. This can now be purchased as a pdf or in printed form at www.chinatt.org. The Quail Map Company publishes a printed atlas of China’s train routes which is also invaluable for train enthusiasts, although it struggles to keep up with the speed of China’s rail expansion. See www.quailmapcompany.free-online.co.uk.

The majority of the tickets for a train are sold in the town where its route begins, and to increase your chances of getting a ticket you should always look first for trains that start from Běijīng. Intermediate stations have much smaller allocations of tickets for trains that begin or end within other railway bureaux territory. Most trains now have entirely reserved seating, but if you find one that has unreserved hard seats you can buy one of those and look to upgrade on the train. The on-board office will usually be at the end of one of the hard seat carriages in the middle of the train, often number 11 or 12. In some cases soft sleeper upgrades are handled by the staff in the soft-sleeper carriages, so if a soft sleeper is what you’re after, it may be best to ask there first. See below for seat and sleeper categories.

Demand is subject to the ends and beginnings of university terms, migrations of seasonal labourers and Communist Party official junkets, as well as the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), National Day ‘golden week’, and, to a lesser extent, other public holidays. The effect of the foreigner ‘tourist season’ is negligible. Even at peak times, foreign tourists are mere droplets in an ocean of Chinese.

International rail services (including Hong Kong)

Tickets for international services each have their own pecularities, and with these on-line ticketing services tend to be particularly rapacious, and should be avoided as much as possible. Tickets for the two weekly trans-Siberian services to Moscow, one via Harbin and one via Ulaan Baatar, and the weekly service to Ulaan Baatar only, must be purchased at the CITS International Rail Ticket Office in the International Hotel, Jiànguó Mén Nèi Dàjiē 9, 
m Dōng Dān (Lines 1 & 5), t 6512 0507, Mon–Fri 8.30am–noon and 1.30–5pm, Sat & Sun 9am–noon and 1.30pm–4pm. Tickets may be not be collected until seven days in advance. All services leave from Běijīng Station. Children’s prices work on age, not height: under-4s go free, 4–11 (inclusive) pay 75%.

Tickets for the standard daily service to Kowloon in Hong Kong must be bought at Běijīng West Station but at a signposted office on level 2 of the main building (through the main front door and X-ray machines) rather than at the main ticket office. In September 2018 this service was joined by trains on the new high-speed rail link direct to the new West Kowloon station taking well under half the time.

Twice-weekly trains to Hanoi in Vietnam (change at Nánníng and again at the border) also depart from Běijīng West, but tickets for these service are not available in the station, but over the years at an assortment of points outside the station to the east, including an unmarked free-standing kiosk and a counter inside a bank. They’re now available at China Railway Travel Service, Building 20, Běi Fēngwō Lù 30 (北蜂窝路30号, 院20特), t 5182 6541, 9am–4.30pm. This is on the northeast corner of the junction with Liánhuā Chí Dōng Lú, which is to the east of the north side of the station.

Train travel

For all but a tiny number of services trains run at the same times seven days a week. Seating comes in four classes: hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper and soft sleeper. On CRH or ‘bullet’ trains, there is now once again talk of class: first or second. Máo would probably spin in his mausoleum if he could.

Hard seat (yìng zuò) on ordinary trains was once all wooden benches, with passengers ankle deep in peanut shells, fruit peel, sunflower seed husks and mucus, but conditions have much improved in recent years, and on high-speed daytime trains these seats are as good as soft seats on other trains.

Soft seat (ruǎn zuò) is relatively rare, and usually on short daylight trips such as that between Běijīng and Chéngdé or Tiānjīn. It features comfortable seats, all reservable.

Hard sleeper (yìng wò) has firm couchettes in piles of three, separated by partitions into groups of six altogether, open to a passageway along the side of the carriage. The price for hard sleeper tickets decreases the further away you get from the ground, but the differences are minimal. The upper berth is often favoured by foreigners as it gets them up and away from the mêlée, and can spare them from excessive curiosity (the only kind available). Everyone sits on the bottom berths during the day, so there’s little sense of control over your environment if that’s the berth you have. Speakers set in the ceiling play saccharine music and broadcast announcements, including the dining car menu and extremely rosy descriptions of the next town and its happy inhabitants. In the top berth you may find a speaker right over your head. It cannot be turned off, and nor can the lights, which come on early in the morning and go off altogether at night. Each group of six berths has two thermoses of boiled water, but often someone has to volunteer to trek down to wherever the boiler is in order to refill them. It’s worth trying to avoid the berths at either end of the carriage from the point of view of both noise and smell.

Soft sleeper (ruǎn wò), has four comfortable beds in a compartment with a lockable door. It may have plastic flowers on the table, carpeting, twin thermoses of boiled water which the attendants usually top up for you, and a volume control for the speaker. Windows, both in the compartment and the corridor, have net curtains. Soft sleepers were once the haunt of the party official, the self-made entrepreneur and the employee of the multinational, but these all now take daytime high-speed trains where available. Sleeper buses and trains are the only time you will sleep in the same room as Chinese. The lower berth is slightly more expensive than the upper one, but again the upper berth offers a little more control over when you can go to sleep at night or take an afternoon nap. Purchase of a soft seat or sleeper ticket also permits use of a VIP waiting room at most stations, whose occupants are allowed onto the platform first and by a route that avoids the crush at the main ticket barriers.

A tiny number of domestic services, and some of those entering Hong Kong including 24-hour conventional services from Běijīng, offer a limited number of two-person compartments called gāojí ruǎn wò. Some high-speed trains offer a business class and/or a sight-seeing class which may allow a forward view. Seats are very limited in numbers and highly expensive.

International trains are another matter. Rolling stock varies widely according to route, but typically berths sold as hard sleeper are as good as soft sleeper on domestic services. Soft sleepers merely come with more decoration.

When you board the train for a sleeper, your ticket is taken away and you are given a plastic or metal token with the number of your berth on it. Do not lose this. When it is nearly time to get off (any time between five and 30mins beforehand) the attendant will come and return your ticket and retrieve the token. The ticket is checked again as you leave the station, so keep it ready.

It’s not unusual for tickets simply to be sold in sequence so that families or couples end up in neighbouring compartments. So journeys often begin with negotiation for exhanges of berth. If you end up with a compartment all to yourself, you may get moved in with other people so as to give the attendants less cleaning to do, or leave them space to spend the night drinking and gambling. Bed linen is provided and usually clean, although it may be collected well before you arrive at your destination if it pleases the attendant to do so. In all classes of train, the small, garishly coloured towel provided is to function as a pillow-slip. Standards of cleanliness vary from crisp and spotless on the newest trains, to rather more dingy on older ones.

Whereas almost all long-distance rail travel in China once involved at least one overnight, the new network of high-speed (gāo tiě, 高铁, ‘bullet’, EMU) trains has cut some travel times in half. Seats on these come in first and second class (yī děng, èr děng) also categories occasionally found on short-distance daytime trains. Second class is comfortable enough, with three seats on one side of the aisle, and two on the other. First class has two seats on either side.

Note that at major railway stations all baggage is X-rayed upon entering the station. Despite the fact that the main occupation of people on trains is staring at other people on trains, theft is increasing, including opportunistic snatching of valuables through train windows. Even some Chinese now tie their luggage to the racks, and it’s important to have your compartment locked if it will be unattended while you visit the dining car or go for a walk on the platform.

Dining cars on all trains serve poor and overpriced food, with a choice of six or eight dishes at slightly higher prices than you would find for a better meal in an ordinary restaurant. It’s mostly soft-sleeper Chinese who use the dining car, and it’s not usually full. Find the attendant at one end with a pile of coloured tickets and a handwritten menu with prices. Beer is always available, and sometimes soft drinks, but rarely chilled. Breakfast is normally steamed bread. Attendants usually bring round trolleys laden with snacks and some prepared meals in styrofoam boxes, or more elaborate meals in plastic trays on high-speed services, but these are little better. Most Chinese bring their own food and buy from vendors on platforms when the train stops. Platform food tends to be cheaper, but often even more basic. Bring some snacks of your own, and bring some extra to share as the Chinese in your compartment or carriage will almost certainly offer you something of theirs.

Packing for train journeys: On the very worst of the slower trains be prepared for revolting lavatories, no running hot water for washing, even no cold water, and floods in the washroom, probably all at the same time. Always take toilet paper, as well as handwipes or sanitizer if you wish (all widely available in China) and a mug for making tea or for cooling down boiled water to use for brushing your teeth, although inferior brands of bottled water are also for sale on the train.

At the Railway Stations

Many stations levy a ¥1 charge on arriving taxis, which the driver will pass on to you. Note that in almost all cases ticket windows are reached through a separate entrance to an area that has no connection with the main station. Luggage is X-rayed at the main entrance. Facilities inside vary widely from station to station, with some having only limited snacks available, and others an assortment of restaurants, fast food, and take-away options. Don’t expect to find English-language publications. In general it’s best to shop for everything you might need before leaving for the station. After passing through security head for the waiting room indicated on the departures board, or just show your ticket to any official to be pointed in the right direction. Train numbers are posted outside waiting room entrances. There’s no access to platforms until boarding is announced. There are separate waiting rooms for passengers with soft sleeper tickets, who are invited to board first, often reaching platforms by a different route from the main crowds. Tickets are checked at the platform entrance and again as the train is boarded. You may not board in a different carriage and walk through the train. Ticket offices sell platform tickets if you wish to meet someone on the platform. If waiting outside the station note that in almost all cases passengers exit through a single funnel to one side, and not through the main station. Left luggage facilities are plentiful, open 24 hours, and often also reached from the exterior of the station.

Běijīng Station

北京站 Běijīng Zhàn, www.bjrailwaystation.com.cn (all Běijīng region stations), m Běijīng Railway Station (Line 2), b to 北京站: 24, 机场3线. 北京站西 (W side): 103. 北京站东 (E side): 9, 20, 29, 39, 52, 59, 122, 126, 140, 403, 619, 622. 北京站口西 (N on W side): 59. 北京站口北 (further N across 建国门内大街): 24, 674. 北京站口东 (N on E side): 1, 特2, 0013, 0026, 0030, 0032, 0047, 52, 99. 北京站前街 (opposite on W side): 特2, 9, 24, 126, 619, 673, 674, 804.

The only station inside the Second Ring Road, on the east side of the Inner City. One of the great projects built with Soviet help to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, Běijīng Station once towered over neighbouring hútòng, but is now dwarfed by shopping malls and assorted towers, and has been demoted in favour of bigger and uglier Běijīng West, and bigger and vastly more modern Běijīng South. Trains leave from here run to northeast China and Inner Mongolia, and slower trains to some east coast and southern cities. Trains to Ulaan Baatar in Mongolia and those on the two trans-Siberian routes.

The main ticket office is well over to the left (west) side, open 5am–midnight but after that you can buy from external windows. Ticket window 106 has limited English. The waiting room for international services is at the very rear on the left. There are several left-luggage facilities at this end. From ¥10 for 7 hours, ¥25 for 24 hours, ¥40 for 24 hours for a big bag. ¥15 for each extra 12 hours. The office in the alley leading to ticket window 106 has real shelves rather than lockers. There’s a smart coffee shop in the main hall, and fried chicken and confectionary also on sale. There’s a far better choice of Western and Chinese fast food and snacks around the post office across the left-hand footbridge as you exit.

Běijīng South Station

北京南站 Běijīng Nán Zhàn, m Běijīng South Railway Station (Lines 4 & 14), b to 北京南站: 机场10线, 20, 84, 102, 106, 133, 381, 458, 485. 北京南站南广场 just S of station: 特5, 特17, 343, 529, 652, 665.

The descendent of Běijīng’s first ever station which was built by foreigners outside the Yǒngdìng Mén at the end of the 19th century, and of a successor on a neighbouring site that was little more than a shed, this is one of the planet’s largest and yet least complicated to navigate: a vast, UFO-like ellipse designed by Britain’s Sir Terry Farrell.

Security at the entrances includes both X-ray machines and wanding. The platforms are buried beneath a vast open concourse lined with restaurants and shopping, with individual train waiting areas roped off adjacent to escalators that lead directly to the relevant platform. VIP lounges for those with first-class tickets are on the southeast side. High-speed trains to Shànghǎi, Tiānjīn, and Tánggū port leave from here, as well as standard (and much cheaper) services to Shànghǎi and points in the east and southeast.

Ticketing windows (5.30am–midnight) may be found at several points inside the oval-shaped main concourse, and there’s a further window at basement level. For now the automated ticket machines are not available to foreign visitors, except the one selling platform tickets which requires a ¥1 coin. There are left-luggage services in the form of attended lockers, information desks with some English spoken and which also sell the ¥2 local timetable booklet. Shopping includes books (‘Bright Brainpower’, but little in English) and gifts. There are cafés, a bakery, McDonald’s and other food options. Bank machines include one from Citibank on the West side near ticket window 4. There’s more shopping and eating one floor down, including pharmaceuticals (e.g. toilet paper, handwipes), bottled water, biscuits, and other snacks to take on-board, and a decent Japanese ramen restaurant.

Běijīng West Station

北京西站 Běijīng Xī Zhàn, m Běijīng West Railway Station (Lines 7 & 9), b to 北京西站: 特2, 3, 特6, 9, 特13, 特14, 特18, 特19, 21, 40 50, 52, 快速直达专线52, 65, 67, 89, 96, 运通102, 373, 374, 387, 414, 616, 661, 662, 663, 673, 694, 741, 840, 843, 901快车. 北京西站南广场 (S side): 专3环行, 特17, 53, 109, 122, 309, 349, 410, 616, 820, 821, 890, 941快车, 982, 997. 北京西站南广场(大方饭店北) (S side, N of Dàfāng Hotel): 机场7线 (airport shuttle).

Directly west of Qián Mén, between the Second and Third Ring Roads. A contender for the title of most hideous building in Běijīng, the West Station is a hideous, white-tiled mish-mash of traditional Chinese motifs clumsily executed in modern materials, and with a complete lack of any sense of scale. High-speed services to Guǎngzhōu (and eventually Hong Kong), as well as conventional trains to from Hong Kong’s Hung Hom Station, connections to Vietnam, and trains to numerous cities in the south, southwest, and west, including Lhasa (but don’t expect to obtain tickets at this station), and Xīnjiāng cities in the far northwest, all leave from here.

The main ticketing hall is on the ground floor, with windows 1 and 16 offering a limited English-language service. Platform tickets may be obtained from counters 37 and 38, ¥1. There’s a bank machine that accepts foreign cards at the east end. The counter for ticket refunds is downstair at sub-basement level. Ticketing for the Hong Kong train is at foreigner-friendly windows on Level 3. There are several left luggage counters marked in English at main entrance Level 2, and elsewhere. The train to Hong Kong has its own separate entrance, with customs and emigration facilities. There’s a baggage allowance of 20kg (10kg for children), and check-in is expected 90 minutes before departure, closing 20 minutes beforehand.

The Level 2 information desk has limited English and a food court, which includes Korean, Běijīng duck, and homestyle offerings for surprisingly reasonable prices. (Yángfāngdiàn Lù, 羊坊店路, running straight north from the station has a larger selection of Chinese and Western fast foods, snack shops, etc.) Waiting rooms for soft seat and soft sleeper passengers are signposted. Up an escalator in the northeast corner there’s simple accommodation available at hourly rates and usable overnight for those with an early morning departure, and there are smarter chain hotels outside the station to the east, and wannabe-glitzy Chinese hotels outside the south entrance.

Běijīng North Station

北京北站 Běijīng Běi Zhàn, m Xī Zhí Mén (Lines 2, 4, & 13), b to 西直门: 快速直达专线35, 运通106线, 332, 360, 362, 534, 563, 632, 651. 地铁西直门站: 16, 26, 运通105线, 438, 651.

At the northwest corner of the Second Ring Road. Until recently just a shed, Běijīng North has now been spruced up, and fitted with the standard security measures at the entrance, but is very small and easy to deal with. Ticket windows are in a separate hall to the right. Trains are nearly all to rural areas not far from Běijīng and slow services north to Inner Mongolia. Visitors mainly come here for the S2 service to the Great Wall at Bā Dá Lǐng (eight services Tue–Thu, 12 services Fri–Mon), for which tickets must be purchased here. Note this service ceased operation on 1 November 2016 for a forecast three years, and now runs from Huángtǔdiàn, a 200m walk from m Huò Yíng (Lines 8 & 13).

Běijīng East Station

北京东站 Běijīng Dōng Zhàn, m Dà Wàng Lù (Lines 1 & 14) and walk S 20 mins, b to 北京东站 31, 专87, 595. 北京东站西 (just W): 专165电动车. 北京东站北 (just N): 11, 30, 31, 54, 专165电动车, 486, 595, 605, 621, 973, 985.

Outside the East Third Ring Road, and 20 minutes’ walk from the nearest metro (m Dà Wàng Lù — walk east to Xī Dà Wàng Lù, 西大望路, then south, turning east after crossing the tiver and immediately after Bāwángfén Bus Station). Before the building of Běijīng Station this shed, now the smallest of the city’s stations, was the city’s chief railway terminus. Now few even know it exists, but trains to destinations within commuting distance to the north and east stop here, as does the daily afternoon service to the imperial summer resort of Chéngdé. If any train you happen to be taking from Běijīng does stop here, then boarding is certainly simpler than at Běijīng Station, and if booking tickets for departures from any other Běijīng station this would be the quietest place to do it. Ticket windows are open 6am–11.30pm with short breaks. There’s a token X-ray machine at the entrance. There are no other facilities except for a single bank machine, although there’s some shopping in Xī Dà Wàng Lù.

By Road

Cart transport is the most practical way of conveying a traveller and his goods over the main trade-routes of the Gobi, but unfortunately it necessitates the use of a carter and, as the Chinese proverb has it, ‘As to carters, there’s ne’er a good one.’

Mildred Cable with Francesca French, The Gobi Desert, 1942

By Bus

Běijīng is ringed by bus stations offering long-distance services, and now that China has constructed an immense network of highways it’s possible to travel thousands of kilometres by bus, although no good reasons to do so if trains are available, except for a measure of economy. But a number of destinations are served with regular departures on comfortable and even luxurious coaches that reach their destinations in six to eight hours, sometimes arriving more swiftly than trains, and departing more frequently. Suburban and rural destinations described in this book are generally reached by more robust and less comfortable, but still perfectly adequate buses, although foreigners may sometimes find themselve wishing there was more leg space. Passengers picked up en route are often seated on fold-out chairs or miniature stools down the aisle.

Ticket offices in bus stations are open all day. With the exception of certain special services such as those to airports, ticket prices are calculated according to the distance to be travelled, with sleeper buses costing more. Prices are also increased as much as 30% around Chinese New year. Except at that time there’s rarely a shortage of tickets, which may be bought a day or two in advance at the point of departure, but are most typically bought on the day. There are no charges for ordinary quantities of baggage.

The buses usually leave the station more or less on time, but diversions for the driver’s own purposes, searches for further passengers, stops to pick up those who flag the bus down (who usually have heavy items to load on the roof), and a pause for accountancy on the outskirts of town, may make the real departure time considerably later.

Bus stations tend to offer less in the way of snack shopping or eating options, and fewer facilities in general than railway stations, although bank machines are common. Luggage is routinely scanned, airport style, at the entrance.

Dōng Zhí Mén

东直门长途汽车站 Dōng Zhí Mén Chángtú Qìchēzhàn, t 6467 1346, m Dōng Zhí Mén (Lines 2, 13, & Airport Express). b to 东直门枢纽站: 3, 106, 107, 123, 131, 132, 401, 404, 416, 418, 852, 866, 915, 915快车, 916, 916快车, 918, 980, 980快车. 东直门: 机场13线, 24, 快速直达专线32, 117, 123, 131, 413, 635, 850快车, 909, 916, 918, 935, 935快车, 935快车区间, 966. 东直门北: 特2, 特12外环, 特12内环, 44外环, 44内环, 75, 123, 130, 612, 966.

Northeast corner of the Second Ring Road with buses mostly to Běijīng’s northern suburbs including some Great Wall destinations, p.341, the Hóngluó Sì, p.393, and the Jiāozhuānghù Tunnel Warfare site, p411. Some weekend tourist services travel as far as Tàiyuán, several hours southwest. The station is part of the 东直门枢纽, Dōng Zhí Mén Transit Hub, which links three metro lines including the Airport Express (marked ABC), the Airport Expresway, and long-distance and suburban bus routes departing from both inside the terminal and from neighbouring streets. There’s plentiful shopping and eating including a food court, Western fast food, and a bakery, and several bank machines.

Lìzé Qiáo

丽泽桥长途汽车站 Lìzé Qiáo Chángtú Qìchēzhàn, m Xī Jú (Lines 10 & 14), exit F. b to 丽泽桥: 特2, 特8内环, 特8外环, 专27,快速直达专线97, 运通103线, 300内环, 300外环, 300快内环 300块外环, 323, 349, 458, 459, 480, 483, 531, 631快车, 651, 958, 968. 丽泽桥北 (N): 特17, 840. 丽泽桥东 (E): 特17, 395, 458, 631, 821, 958, 977. 丽泽桥南 (S): 63, 395, 459, 483. 丽泽桥西 (W): 83, 323, 483, 531, 840, 958.

Southwest Third Ring Road. Long-distance buses to Shíjiāzhuāng, Tàiyuán, and even as far afield as Nánjīng, Shànghǎi, Hohhot, and Dàlián. There are buses as often as every ten minutes to Yìxiàn for the Western Qīng Tombs. It’s a ten-minute walk east and over to the north-east side of the interchange from m Xī Jú (Lines 10 & 14), but m Lìzé Business District (Lines 14 & 16) may possibly be closer when opened. Tickets are sold through a separate entrance on the right. There are snack stalls in the lobby, and something vaguely resembling a hamburger available in the waiting hall, as well as a rice porridge (zhōu, 粥) restaurant on the corner, and a few other options. Left luggage is open 8am–6pm with a charge from ¥5, and there’s a bank machine.

Liù Lǐ Qiáo

六里桥长途汽车站 Liù Lǐ Qiáo Chángtú Qìchēzhàn, t 8365 6693, m Liù Lǐ Qiáo (Lines 9 & 10), exit C. b to 六里桥客运主枢纽: 机场15线. 六里桥长途站: 运通201线. 六里桥西: 57, 68–554联通, 309, 477, 568, 941, 941快车, 982.

A major passenger terminal just outside the Southwest Third Ring Road, also known as 六里桥客运主枢纽 (Liù Lǐ Qiáo Kèyùn with buses to Zhāngjiākǒu and Chéngdé, and as far as Yínchuān and Xiàmén. Buses to Zhāngjiākǒu every 30mins may let you off at the turning for Jī Míng Shān Yì, but consult. Otherwise there are buses to Shāchéng hourly from 6.30am (2.5hrs, ¥50) and change there. m Liù Lǐ Qiáo (Lines 9 & 10) is just outside. Note taxis are charged ¥2 to enter. There’s not much in the way of food, but there are bank machines.

Zhàogōngkǒu

赵公口长途客运站 Zhàogōngkǒu Chángtú Kèyùnzhàn, t 6723 7328, m Liú Jiā Yáo (Line 5) and walk 15 mins W. b to 赵公口桥南: 7, 特11, 43, 69, 525, 820, 829. 赵公口桥西 : 17, 54, 69, 93, 运通103线, 运通107线, 434, 741, 821, 839.

Near the middle of the South Third Ring Road. Buses to destinations as far away as Shànghǎi, but more conveniently there are services at assorted comfort levels to Tiānjīn (high-end buses every 15mins, 6.50am–7.15pm), and directly to the port at Tánggū. Four services run every afternoon to Dàtóng, and to Shànghǎi and destinations very far beyond. m Liú Jiā Yáo (Line 5) is a 15-minute walk east. Facilities limited.

Mùxī Yuán

木樨园长途汽车站 Mùxī Yuán Chángtú Qìchēzhàn. b to 木樨园桥: 快速公交1线(BRT1), 快速直达专线41, 快速直达专线47, 300内环, 300外环, 324, 366快车, 496, 526, 652, 665, 678, 679.

A collection of stations south of the South Third Ring Road on the city’s central axis. Services leave from here for various Héběi destinations but also to others as faraway as the Mongolian border. Until sometime in 2017–19 when the southward extension of Line 8 will open, the nearest metro is m Liú Jiā Yáo (Line 5), reached by a 30-minute walk north to the Third Ring Road then east.

Sìhuì

四惠长途汽车站 Sì Huì Chángtú Qìchēzhàn, t 6557 4804. m Sì Huì (Bā Tōng Line), exit A. b to 四惠枢纽站: 1, 机场12线, 57, 58, 快速直达专线75, 专113电动车, 专167电动车, 312, 322, 363, 397, 405, 450, 455.

Just outside the East Fourth Ring Road directly east along the main Cháng’ān/Jiànguó Mén axis, south directly across a footbridge from m Sìhuì. The section that’s the terminus for numerous city bus routes is connected by a short passage to the long-distance section. Buses travel as far as 1600km to destinations in the Northeast but most are to Eastern Héběi and frequently to Tiānjīn. Buses to the summer resort of Chéngdé every 30mins to 1hr pass through Gǔ Běi Kǒu for Pánlóng Shān Great Wall. There are frequent departures to Zūnhuà en route to the Eastern Qīng Tombs. There’s an assortment of Chinese fast food available at around ¥20 per dish, and there are several bank machines.

Bāwángfén

八王坟长途汽车站 Bāwángfén Chángtú Qìchēzhàn, m Dà Wàng Lù (Lines 1 & 14) exit B, and walk S 20 mins. b to 北京东站 31, 专87, 595. 北京东站西 (just W): 专165电动车. 北京东站北 (just N): 11, 30, 31, 54, 专165电动车, 486, 595, 605, 621, 973, 985.

Between the East Third and Fourth Ring Roads south of the Jiànguó axis. There are buses to the far northeast, but also to nearer east coast destinations such as Qínghuángdǎo and Tiānjīn. There’s a snack shop, but little else.

Tiān Qiáo

天桥长途汽车站 Tiān Qiáo Chángtú Qìchēzhàn. b to 天桥: 观光1线, 7, 特11, 17, 20, 专30路 35, 36环行 69, 72, 93, 105, 106, 110, 120, 622.

Just west of the west entrance of the Temple of Heaven. There are buses from here to nearby countryside destinations, and most interestingly towards Yúnjū Sì.

Yǒngdìng Mén

永定门长途汽车站 Yǒngdìng Mén Chángtú Qìchēzhàn. m Běijīng South Railway Station (Lines 4 & 14). b to 永定门长途汽车站: 特12外环, 20, 25路 63路 84路 102路 106路 377路 381路 454路 458路 828路(跨省) 830路 849路(跨省) 849快车(跨省).

Just north of Běijīng South Railway Station. More distant destinations include some in Shāndōng Province, and, closer by, Zhāngjiākǒu, west of Běijīng (but buses from here will not not stop at the Jī Míng Shān Yì exit).

By Car, Motorbike, or Bicycle

Injuries from road traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for Chinese aged 15–45, according to the World Health Organisation. China annually doctors its road casualty figures, which are thought to be more than double what it admits, and heading for 1300 deaths per day by 2020.

That planning to drive out of Běijīng is unwise should become evident simply by observing driving behaviour in and around the capital. An understanding of the vital roles played by stupidity, belligerence, and a complete indifference to the official rules of the road come only to the seasoned expat, as does the understanding that since 2013 an amber traffic light has been equivalent to red, and that this is irrelevant except at lights with visible traffic cameras. When there’s an accident it is always the foreigner who is at fault.

Although familiar car rental logos may be spotted at the airport, rental vehicles are in general not available to short-term visitors, although at times it has been possible to obtain a temporary Chinese driving licence by brandishing an international licence at Capital Airport. However, regulations change all the time, and even in periods when self-drive car hire has been available it has come at high cost, and with huge deposits and insurance deductible arrangements. Taking a car beyond the borders of Běijīng has also often been restricted, and returning it to the point at which it was rented almost always mandatory. In short, forget it on safety, cost, convenience, and predictability grounds.

Even hiring a local car and driver to travel outside Běijīng involves either dealing with the major travel agencies at vast expense, or dealing with local drivers too timid to drive far, with questionable insurance, and completely lacking in knowledge of the roads ahead. Out-of-town licence plates, particularly on taxis, tend to attract unwelcome attention.

Taking your own vehicle into China is an option, but takes a long time to arrange and is highly expensive. You must work with an official agency beginning several months in advance, reams of paperwork must be completed, your route must be agreed in advance, with all your accommodation booked by the agency, and you will be required to carry a guide with you. If you are on a motorbike then a guide will follow you in a car with a driver, and you’ll have to pay for all of that. If money is no object, begin by contacting your nearest branch of the China National Tourism Organisation, the China International Travel Service, or similar.

A pushbike is the fastest form of truly independent self-drive travel easily available to visitors. Travelling across China by bicycle is now fairly common. Cyclists come across relatively few problems and often get to stay in very out-of-the-way places never seen by those on buses, encountering highly invasive levels of curiosity combined with a friendliness and hospitality rarely found in destinations more popular with tourists.

A large assortment of different types of bike, almost all Chinese-made, can now be bought (see Shopping), but reliability is highly variable, although roadside bike menders with a can-do approach to even the most severe problem are everywhere. There are numerous stories of frames being welded back together and other apparently terminal problems being solved, but equally tales of the impossibility of finding replacement parts for high-tech, or even relatively low-tech, foreign bikes. Serious cyclists should take everything they need.

The Chinese also make rather nifty lithium-ion electric bicycles for a little over ¥3000 (and lead-acid ones even more cheaply) which can be charged in six to eight hours and need no special paperwork, although Běijīng has now begun to banish them from certain major routes in the city.

There are public buses or various kinds of organized transport (a seat in a trailer behind a tractor, for instance) to even the remotest corners of China. If a travel agent tells you that his company’s vehicles are the only way that you can visit a place, that is almost a guarantee that there’s some alternative. Hitching, however, isn’t usually it. If you do end up hitching because you simply can’t find any other form of transport, be sure that you’ll have to pay, and negotiate the price first. There is still very limited casual private motoring of long distances in China. Imported limousines and off-road vehicles contain officials or belong to travel companies, so if you do succeed in hitching you’ll be in a truck, usually perched amongst the goods it’s carrying.

By Sea

The nearest port is at Tánggū (塘沽), outside Tiānjīn (天津), which is where cruise ships dock, and there are still international ferry services to Incheon in South Korea (see www.jinchon.co.kr/schedule.asp). The service from Kobe in Japan has now been suspended. There are also domestic services from Dàlián (大连) in Northeast China and ferries to Japanese ports from Shànghǎi.

There are plans to extend the high-speed line from Běijīng right to Tánggū, but for now Tánggū Railway Station is 11km from the ferry docks by road. b 102 runs every 10 minutes but still takes about 1½ hours to make the journey, so bargaining with rapacious taxis remains the best option. ¥30 would be a fair price but you’ll struggle to get it.

Cruise ships leave from Tiānjīn International Cruise Home Port, which is about 32km from the station, and by public transport a combination of bus and light rail taking nearly four hours. This seems particularly absurd when the 160km from Tánggū Station to Běijīng South takes merely 1hr 1min. There are eight services a day, departing between 08.36 and 21.52, although these had been temporarily suspended at the time of writing, leaving a longer journey from Tiānjīn. Alternatively, there’s an hourly direct bus from the cruise terminal taking three hours to reach Běijīng’s Capital Airport for ¥94, as well as services to Běijīng’s Zhàogōngkǒu Bus Station (see above).

There are still ferry services to Japan’s Shimonoseki from Qīngdǎo, further north up the coast and only a few hours by train from Běijīng (www.orientferry.co.jp), and from Shànghǎi to Osaka and Kobe to (www.shinganjin.com/index_e.php, www.shanghai-ferry.co.jp/english). Shànghǎi is 5½ hours by high-speed train from Běijīng South.

Tour Operators

A new law came into force on Oct 1 2013 requiring all domestic tour operators to register their itineraries and forbidding the peddling of low-price tours which then deviate from their routes and include more time shopping than sight-seeing. Local media estimated that fully 90% of day tours from Běijīng were of this nature, and the new law was purely cosmetic and widely ignored.

If taking a one-day tour or longer from hostels or hotels confirm the shopping content. It is essential to read Tours. Everything said about booking China tours from overseas applies to tours booked in China, too. Note that if you book a China tour from Běijīng usually marketed to local Chinese, expect to be short-changed on quality and on sight-seeing time versus shopping at every turn. Booking a local operator with English-language web pages from overseas merely guarantees overpayment, and does not guarantee delivery of any services promised.

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