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Old May 22, 11, 3:51 am
Ambassador, China
Join Date: Oct 2007
Location: Beijing
Programs: TG, OZ, UA, AA
Posts: 6,624
Intercity Travel--Road

Intercity Coaches and Buses

Coaches/buses are often overlooked by foreign travelers as a viable method of transportation, yet they can be very useful in a number of situations.

• When train service doesn’t exist. In places such as southern Yunnan, buses may be the only public transportation option between cities and towns.

• Where train service exists but the route is longer, or when service is at odd hours. Huangshan (Tunxi) is one such example where the train to major cities to the east is many, many hours slower than the bus, and leave at mostly crappy times.

• Where there are many frequent bus departures but train departures are sparse. Beijing to Chengde (mountain resort 3 hours’ distant), for instance.

• Where a shorter distance bus journey between intercity railhead or airport, and actual final destination completes the transport sequence. Guilin to Yangshuo (1 to 1.5 hours) is a prime example of this.

• Where trains are completely sold out or only standing room is available. This happens often (even non-holiday times) at a place like Pingyao (Shanxi province). The alternative solution: take the bus to/from major hub Taiyuan.

Locating the Station, the Bus and Purchasing Tickets

Every town in China has a long-distance bus station, some cities have two or three stations, and larger cities such as Beijing have many stations. In cities with multiple stations, generally buses are organized by destination: the west-bound buses leave from the west bus station, etc. etc. Popular routes may be served by multiple bus stations—so you would have a choice. Any Chinese hotel or hostel will either know this information, or with a quick phone call, can find out which bus station you need to leave from, and departure times. Some may even be willing to purchase your ticket for you, with a small surcharge. A bit of quick internet research can also pull up the relevant schedule and price information, though bus schedules adjust frequently, so current information is vital.

Purchasing a ticket at the bus station is very straightforward at the ticket window. Identification is not required nor asked for, at least for foreigners. Most Chinese purchase for the next bus heading to their destination. There is normally a timetable posted on the wall, but check with the agent at the window in case the timetable is out of date. Non-Chinese speakers should have their destination written down in Chinese, as there will likely not be an English speaking staff member. In general, purchasing tickets at a bus station is less pressured and much easier when compared to purchasing tickets at a train station. For some reason, there is either not much of a queue or the bus passenger queue is better behaved, a phenomenon we don’t entirely understand either!

For journeys requiring sleeper buses or for a seat at peak travel times of the year, purchasing a ticket a day in advance is a good idea to ensure you get a seat or berth on the bus that best fits your needs. Often a good strategy if you are larger-sized, have a bag of valuables with you that you cannot be separated from, or just want more to purchase a pair of adjacent seats. This is particularly useful if the journey is on a local type bus rather than a large touring-type bus, or if the journey is more than two hours. If you do this, make sure the driver/ticket taker knows you purchased a double-seat, so they don't try to sell it, and so they can help thwart potential seat-poaching passengers.

Purchasing will require cash RMB only. Pricing: on a per km basis, a seat on a long-distance bus actually comes out a little more expensive than Hard Seat on an equivalent route train—this is largely due to fuel prices. In general as of 2012, for planning and budgeting purposes, you can roughly estimate what range your bus fare will be by calculating Journey Km x 0.35 RMB/km. For a sleeper bus (which exist on long-distance routes but which we do not recommend except in emergencies), use 0.50 RMB/km. Depending on bus, your fare should be within 20% +/- of this number. All routes do have established flat fares which can be researched via the internet, and there do not seem to be recent reports of dual-pricing or of foreigners being overcharged by normal public bus companies.

Bus Quality

Most Chinese intercity buses plying major routes are surprisingly comfortable, a few can be reasonably luxurious. Only in rural areas or the farther outposts of China will you still find the classic Third World “Chicken Bus” experience. A few have on-board bathrooms, but the Chinese are not known for their high-capacity bladders, so a journey of at least 3 hours will be broken up by a comfort break of about 15 minutes or so. Longer journeys will have extended breaks for meals, usually at a simple roadside cafe or restaurant grouping. Small items and valuables should always stay inside the bus with you, or taken with you on comfort/meal stops. Larger luggage including rollaboards, are easily carried in the hold below. Note that on most buses, the overhead compartments or shelves above the seats are slim, and can only accommodate things like briefcases, shopping bags, or very flattened daypacks. It is possible (though not sanitary) to place bags on the floor.

Bus safety in East China is generally decent, mostly because road infrastructure and services are more developed. However, particularly in mountainous areas of China, there are lingering safety concerns and particularly with overnight sleeper buses. We recommend caution on bus selection in this area, and avoid after-dark services whether seat or sleeper.

Minibuses ply some routes, and are more of a gray area since in some areas they are part of the governmental official transport system, and in other areas they are operated by private entrepreneurs/companies. The latter very more widely in vehicle and driver quality, and tend to be more dangerous "wild rides" than the larger buses and coaches and the government-operated minis. Note that many of the privately-owned minibuses in heavily touristed areas tend to congregate at prime locations but NOT at the official bus station, and they may drop off at the terminus end at an inconvenient location vs the official bus station. Or try to charge extras once they have you and luggage captive. Try to do a little research on specifics for your destination(s) in advance, and be alert and aware. When in doubt, go with the official bus.

Minibuses are often used as shuttles between regional hub towns and nearby villages, and in many parts of rural China, may be the only public transport option available. Typically these charge per seat, and when all seats are filled, the minibus heads to it's designated destination. If you don't wish to wait, you may purchase all the empty seats (or the entire minibus) and the driver will leave immediately. Usually these are reasonably safe, in daylight and in decent weather.

Intercity Private Vehicle

We refer here to hired car with a Chinese driver, not self-drive. With rare exceptions, almost no foreign visitors travel long distances this way. This form of travel is most useful when one or more of the following applies:

• The geographic region on the itinerary is circumscribed within approximately a 500 km diameter circle (250 km out from a hub city).

• There is a lot of travel to be done in this region, and on a relatively inflexible or tight time frame OR the destination is uncommon and poorly served by public transport. (i.e. Old ruins sites out in Inner Mongolia).

• “Exploration” type trips where maximum flexibility to stop and go is required. This includes photography-focused journeys.

• Travelers with mobility or medical problems needing special assistance or needing to avoid public transport situations.

• Groups of 3+ travelers that make the private vehicle proposition more financially attractive.

• Tibet travel—under current government policies, this is the ONLY option for foreign travelers and must be prearranged before arrival in Tibet.

There are too many variables to provide cost estimates here, but it is by far the most expensive form of travel on a per km basis. Drivers for this type of trip should come from a solid private recommendation, or a hotel, or a travel/tour agency. Expect to pay more for a driver that speaks a little English—which on this type of trip is a necessity if you do not have a basic Chinese speaker in your travel party. Remember that most Chinese drivers will not know much about routes, streets, landmarks, etc. in cities they don't normally travel take along patience and a time cushion, and give the driver an upfront OK to stop and ask for directions when the route is unclear--many drivers hate to "lose face" by asking, and would rather drive aimlessly.

Using taxis for shorter daytrips returning to the same city are covered under the Local Area Transport section.

Last edited by jiejie; Aug 23, 12 at 9:44 am Reason: updated information
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