Getting Around China Using Public Transportation

Public Transportation In China

If you want to learn a thing or two about Chinese culture, spend a month crossing the country in a public bus. Expect days of bouncing along dirt roads, breathing cigarette smoke plumes as they puff around the bus. The trade-off is an experience of a life time. You will see things that will amaze you. You will reach places that you've read about in text books, and can’t be described by words. The culture will never fail to “stop you in your tracks” and leave you wonder-struck.

You've got to be mentally tough for long bus rides in China. But then there’s the other factors that come with Chinese public transportation. If you’re planning a budget travel trip in China, taking advantage of China’s massive network of public transportation is essential. Riding trains and buses in China is an experience in itself, so read on and learn what to expect.


Take the bus, Gus

Over the years, I have developed a love / hate relationship for Chinese public buses. Chinese public buses have their place for the budget traveler. I’m not sure about you, but unless I’m all out of other options, there is no way I’m spending 40+ hours on a seated bus. For short trips (Less than 15 hours) seated buses are a great option. I have typically used buses to get from city to city.


A typical sleeper bus (This one was just over 20 hours - Dunhuang to Turpan in Xinjiang)

The Good:

  • Cheap
  • Tickets are easy to get, and intercity busses generally leave frequently
  • If train tickets are sold out, bus tickets are usually still available
  • Offer views of amazing scenery in certain areas of the country
  • Offers you a chance to mingle with very curious locals
  • “sleeper” busses are a great alternative for overnight trips


The Bad:

  • The relentless bouncing, bumpy ride that last for hours
  • Cigarette smoke from other passengers
  • Dirty and uncomfortable seats
  • Busses can break down
  • Busses typically only stop for bathrooms every 3 hours, so you had better not hold it.
  • Bus routes are typically never closed during dangerous rainy seasons, so you had better be careful to do your own research when traveling through mountainous regions like Sichuan and Yunnan. Check for mud-slide reports. Even a road closure on a short trip can hold you up for 20+ hours.

Trains in China

If you could see the train map of China it would blow your mind. The entire country is connected by rail, and this offers a budget traveler a great way to get around. Trains can be a big step up from public busses, but offer their own set of drawbacks. For one, tickets can be difficult to purchase in peak travel seasons. Also, different trains travel at different speeds. Slow trains are insanely slow….avoid if possible. Purchasing overnight sleeper car tickets save you hotel costs and serve two purposes.


The Good

  • Cheap (Although not as cheap as buses)
  • More comfortable then buses
  • Faster than buses
  • Long trains are a social experience – expect to meet a TON of curious travelers who will want to play cards, drink, hang out, and tell you the few English words they know.
  • Bathrooms are on every car and are much cleaner than the highway stops for busses.
  • Refreshments and snacks are for sale on each train
  • Sleeper cars are comfortable (especially soft sleeper cars which typically have good air conditioning)
  • Long cross-country train rides are very comfortable as you can freely sleep, get up and walk around, etc.

The Bad

  • Screaming children – bad for light sleepers
  • Lack of consideration from other passengers if you’re in a seated or hard sleeper car – if your unlucky, fellow passengers can carry on into all hours of the night drinking and carrying on.
  • Bathrooms can back up and make the whole passenger car stink like poo
  • Tickets are harder to book than bus tickets
  • Sleeper tickets can get expensive
  • Busses offer more routes when compared to trains. Also many rural areas of China will require bus travel to be reached.
  • Train car couplings “bang” into each other as the train speeds up and slows down. Sometimes these jolts are violent and periodically wake you up.

Written by Matt


Matt founded Backpack In China in 2010 to help travelers make the best of their trips to China. Since that time he has been living and working in Florida, USA. Each summer he for vacations in China for several weeks.

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