When it comes to transport, China offers the full spectrum, from the convenient yet expensive domestic flights to the cheap yet lengthy (and at times odious) long-distance train journeys. China buses fall somewhere in the middle, offering a cheap but sometimes less convenient means of travelling between cities.
To be clear, I'm not talking about China's long-distance sleeper buses, a topic covered before in
The China buses I talk about in this article refer to inter-city buses and coaches without sleeper compartments. Although less accessible than planes and trains for non-Chinese speakers, China’s intercity buses are a great option once you become familiar with them. And as far as my experience goes, the hygiene standards of other passengers tend to be fine.
Costs and benefits
As experienced travellers know all too well, planning a journey involves weighing up the cost of tickets versus the time spent on the road. Travelling by bus in China is no different. Sometimes Chinese buses offer a slower yet cheaper alternative to other transport, while sometimes the opposite is true. Let’s look at two unscientifically chosen examples:
The first is a journey I plan to take from the port city of Dandong to the smaller prefecture-level city of Ji’an. Both lie on the border with North Korea in Liaoning and Jilin provinces, respectively.
A 9-hour train journey via the nearby city of Tonghua costs just 35 RMB. A direct bus to Ji’an, on the other hand, takes just 4 hours, 30 minutes and cost 90 RMB. The 55 RMB saving by taking the train is not worth the extra 4.5 hours travel time, if you ask me.
The second is a journey I make regularly from my home in Zhuhai to Hong Kong, either by bus via Shenzhen or ferry direct to Hong Kong’s Kowloon or Central pier. Priced at 175 RMB each way, the 1-hour ferry journey is an expensive but convenient way of getting into the centre of Hong Kong. From experience, I find the immigration checks at the ferry terminals are significantly faster than at any of the Shenzhen ports of entry.
Alternately, a 2-hour bus to Luohu, one of Shenzhen’s main entry points into Hong Kong, costs 93 RMB, but usually involves a lengthy wait at immigration given the number of mainland Chinese tour parties passing through. Personally, I don't mind this too much as I enjoy spending time in Hong Kong’s New Territories, the greener, quieter part bordering Shenzhen. For those looking to get straight to the central business district without delay, however, it’s probably worth shelling out for a ferry ticket.
The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, an over-budget and over-schedule project linking the Zhuhai-Macau border to Hong Kong Airport, is finally due to open this year. I’ve heard rumours that bus tickets will cost 80 RMB and the journey will take only an hour, offering a cheaper and quicker way to get to Hong Kong than anything else currently available.
Plenty of tickets, limited English
Chinese public holidays are synonymous with sold-out air and train tickets, something which the author of the aforementioned blog post found out the hard way. Bus tickets however, tend to still be available on the day of travel, even during holiday periods.
Even if one bus station doesn't have the tickets you want, chances are another one nearby will. There are eight bus stations in Beijing alone, and even in the smaller Guangdong city of Zhuhai has six.
The difficulty for non-Chinese speakers comes from the fact that tickets cannot be bought online. There’s an option to buy bus tickets on the Chinese version of the travel website Ctrip (now trip.com), but customers are required to enter a Chinese ID card number. Foreigners, therefore, need to purchase bus tickets in person at a bus station.
While larger stations such as Tianhe in Guangzhou are easily navigable for non-Chinese speakers, smaller stations lack even the names of destinations in pinyin, the Romanised form of Chinese words. However, buying bus tickets at these locations can still be done with a translation APP and a few well placed hand gestures if you lack Chinese language skills.
With China buses available in almost every city, town and village, a whole range of journeys are available to adventurous travellers. Below are some of my most memorable.
The two-hour bus journey rom Zhuhai to the smaller Guangdong city of Kaiping costs no more than 70 RMB each way. Chinese-born American chef Ken Hom, known for his innovative wok designs, is perhaps Kaiping’s most famous son. Otherwise tourists come to see the famous and elaborately-designed watchtowers in the country villages.
Some bus journeys exist for the sole purpose of tourism, such as in Urumqi, the capital of China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region. The city’s Béijiàobus station runs a service to the Heavenly Lake via the smaller town of Fukang. The three-hour journey is certainly worth it for the sight of the glistening lake against a background of snow-capped mountains. This is a location that really lives up to its name. It’s somewhat spoilt by the artificial walkways and excessive amount of shops selling tasteless souvenirs, but the fresh air and stunning views provides a healthy break from the smog-ridden city.
Something similar can be said for the bus journey between Urumqi and Nanshan, a rural area of Xinjiang populated mainly by the Kazakh ethnic minority. The one-hour bus journey costs no more than 50 RMB, allowing travellers to stay in traditional Kazakh yurts, go horse riding or just stroll in the mountains and enjoy the scenery. As usual with Xinjiang, security can be tight. Expect the bus to make random stops where police will ask to see your passport, which you should have with you anyway given that it’s a necessary requirement for buying a bus ticket in China.
I found security was more relaxed in the small town of Nandan, a suburb of Hechicity in Guangxi province, which I visited during the 2017 October National Week holiday. I arrived at the local bus station to buy a ticket to nearby Bapingvillage. Following the usual procedure, I handed my passport over at the ticket desk, only to be met with a blank stare from the employee. I can only guess that either she had never seen a passport before, as it was clear very few foreigners visited the town, or that the rules were applied flexibly here. Regardless, I bought my ticket and got on board.
The bus made its way up a winding mountain pass before stopping at the entrance to Bapingvillage. Here, I learnt about the farming history of the local Zhuángethnic minority and viewed the sweeping rice paddies from the top of a nearby mountain.
The 20 RMB return ticket for the bus was an absolute bargain and a world away from the extortionate English-speaking tours I’d experienced a few years earlier around the popular tourist city of Guilin.
Traveling by bus in Chinese not for everyone, especially not for those expecting clearly communicated information in English and luxury travel options. Once you are familiar with them, however, China buses offer a cheap and convenient option for visiting an extensive network of popular locations.
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In keeping with much of the rest of the world, China is extending its Wi-Fi access to other, more prestigious locations, as well as the more upmarket travel options, such as cruise liners on the Yangtze River. Free Wi-Fi is now being tested on some bullet train services. It will be more convenient for you to use the Internet and work during the journey.
May 11, 2021 10:49 Report Abuse
The only problem I have had is when you occasionally get a propane natural gas bus and they are so scared of them blowing up, so when they fuel the bus, the passengers are dropped off at the gate of fuel depot and picked back up after fueling to continue the journey.
Jun 12, 2018 17:57 Report Abuse