Travelling China by bus: useful tips


Picture credit: Flickr/Helga’s Lobster Stew

China. A place that changes so much and so fast, one can never know how it’s going to look next.

However, there are always a few rules of thumb for first time travelers to the Middle Kingdom, especially for those who cannot speak any Mandarin Chinese. I am going to give you some helpful tips to move around the country by bus. Such a fantastic, cheap and sometimes cramped and scary way to get around China!!

The Bus Station: mayhem
Yep, it usually is. Bus stations are generally crowded and full of touts pushing you in every direction and shouting in Mandarin… and generally, the smaller the town, the louder they will scream and push! But do not worry, they are only trying to help you to get your ticket… Bus stations in China might seem quite daunting places, at times: huge and crowded, or small and deserted, you’ll get both sides of the spectrum. The important thing is to keep calm, know where you are going, and make sure you get the destination name written in han zi (Chinese characters) on a piece of paper, so that it will be easier to purchase a ticket or ask for directions.

Types and kinds of bus
Being China a country of variety and contrasts, its bus system aptly reflects this situation. You can get a ride on a vehicle that is as close as a luxury coach with a/c and reclining seats, or a rattler that was used to ply busy city routes. Usually these kinds of older, scarier vehicles shuttle people between major cities and smaller towns or villages. Do not worry if the engine shrieks and the exhaust puffs black smoke, as usually the driver knows how to handle it. This kind of buses is usually smaller, and when full, it is not uncommon to end up seating in the aisle, on a plastic stool or an emergency seat which slides out from the side. Your journey will definitely be jam packed and uncomfortable, but this is a must do Chinese experience. Medium length routes such as Kunming to Dali in Yunnan use this kind of buses over their 4 hours journeys, so make sure you get a real seat before boarding, or wait for the next connection, usually quite frequent.

Night Travel via Bus
Let’s put it straight, the train can take much longer than the bus, and although sleeper trains generally offer a leisurely paced way of travel, a traveler’s time can be limited. Sleeper buses are a pretty comfortable and fast way to get from point A to point B overnight without particular hassle, and in decent comfort. To my knowledge, the kind of sleeper buses found in China are unique in the whole East Asia: they are organized in three rows of small bunk beds (one central and two next to the windows) and fit around 35 people per coach. The berths are soft and comfortable for small people, but if you are a normal sized Caucasian, you might feel like you have to sleep in a go-kart. But again, this is another must-do experience in China. There is no separation between berths, so it is quite obvious that getting close to your neighbor’s sounds and smells will be part of the experience. Sometimes, ear-plugs are recommended. Most of these buses ply longer routes, – such as Chengdu to Lijiang via Panzihua – and are long, tedious journeys equipped with screens and DVD movies glaring non-stop throughout the night. Did you forget earplugs and eye mask? Well, I guess it will be a trip you will remember.

Posted by | Comments (5)  | June 27, 2013
Category: Asia, On The Road

5 Responses to “Travelling China by bus: useful tips”

  1. rubin pham Says:

    i plan to visit china next year. thanks for the tips.

  2. Chris Raybould Says:

    All part of the deal with travelling, I’m afraid. It feels awful at the time, but it’s something to tell your grandchildren! We’re visiting China later this year and will be spending a lot of time on these buses, so I’ve bookmarked this post – thanks!

  3. Luke Says:

    “To my knowledge, the kind of sleeper buses found in China are unique in the whole East Asia: they are organized in three rows of small bunk beds (one central and two next to the windows) and fit around 35 people per coach.”

    They also have buses configured like this in Vietnam, running the tourist route between Hanoi & Ho Chi Minh City.
    I also heartily recommend having a bandana or something of that sort on hand – useful if you need to plug an overly-open air-con vent which, if left unchecked, will give you frostbite.

  4. Marco Ferrarese Says:

    @Luke, you are right. Vietnam has those as well and I traveled on them. The detail just “slipped through the cracks” of my edits… thanks for the pointer. A similar bus (Chinese) also shuttles tourists from Kashgar to Kyrgyzstan, although hitching the route is much more rewarding/interesting.

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