If you’re a seasoned expat like me you’ll no doubt be familiar with the travel chaos that is Spring Festival. And you’ll be aware that you have two realistic options for surviving it: 1) go on holiday abroad – don’t foray into the madness that is traversing the mainland during this time, or 2) stay holed up at home with stacks of boxsets, movies, beer and food and wait it out as if you’ve been snowed in. However, if you’re a newbie or fancy trying your hand at dicing with travel death, then here we take a look at some options for where to go, what to do and how to get there this upcoming Chinese New Year.
Photo: James Jin
Where to Go
If you’re looking for sunnier climes, are sick of the cold weather and are having withdrawal symptoms for a beach then there are no better places to go than Beihai in Guangxi Province, located on the southwest coast of China or Hainan Island in the south where you can head to the beach at Sanya. Temperatures around this time of year peak at a balmy 25-28 degrees in both destinations so what are you waiting for? Pack a bikini / swimming shorts and go tan that skin!
Conversely, If you’re looking for something more active and prefer the snow and colder weather how about heading up to Harbin in the northeast to check out the Ice Festival – held annually in January and February depending on the lunar calendar. This year’s 2015 Ice Festival runs from January 5- Feb 25 and the theme is “Ice Snow Harbin, Charming China Dream”. The festival showcases a variety of stunning ice sculptures as well as winter sports activities. After participating in the festival, there’s always the option to get your blood circulating and head off to the slopes for a spot of skiing at the famous Yabuli International Ski Resort - the biggest in China - located 200km (124 miles) east of Harbin city itself. If heading out there is too far for you, then check out a list of some of the other resorts that are much closer to the city.
Getting to Your Destination
Buying train tickets in China can be fraught with difficulty and the policy is confusing since there appears to be little clarification on when you can actually buy them, with staff at train stations singing from different hymn sheets. Thanks to some translation and assistance from a number of Chinese friends in using the official website for buying train tickets – www.12306.cn – we’ve managed to condense the information down to some important points:
▪ China’s train ticket policy now uses a “real time name system” and this has been implemented for a few months. In order to book a ticket, your name and passport number are now required. Upon entering the station to catch your train, these will be checked against your ticket to ensure that they match. One of the major reasons for this implementation was to prevent ticket touts from bulk buying so many and then selling them on for profit, which has been a massive problem in the past.
▪ As of December 2014 the new policy for buying train tickets states that online and telephone tickets are now available to buy 60 DAYS in advance. They ARE available for foreigners to book and you need your passport in order to do this. If you are unable to read/speak enough Chinese, ask a Chinese friend to make the booking for you. When booking online, an email confirmation will be sent to you. This can be exchanged for the tickets at the station on the day of travel so be sure to arrive in plenty of time.
▪ Buying tickets at stations in person are available 3 DAYS before travel. During extremely busy periods in the run up to major holidays this may be extended to 5 days. Again, you need your passport in order to do this.
▪ Buying tickets from train ticket booking offices (which are located in many places across the city) are available 5 DAYS before travel. This is often a more convenient way of purchasing if you don’t live close to the train station to go there directly. Buying at a ticket booking office incurs an additional 5 RMB cost on top of the ticket price.
▪ Each station has a number of self-service kiosks available, which are available in English. Don’t be fooled: foreigners are unable to use them since after going through the booking process it then asks you to enter your Chinese ID number. The kiosks have no facility available for accepting passport numbers and so it is essentially a dud feature in supplying English translations. Train station employees are aware of this. Foreigners can ONLY book tickets at the window directly through staff so don’t waste your time using the self-service kiosks.
▪ The online tickets for each destination are released in a staggered format each day, not all at the same time. So, if you’re looking at travelling from Ningbo these go on sale at 8.30am, Hangzhou – 10.30am, Xinjiang – 9.00am. Smaller, lesser known stations go on sale later in the day: Jingzhou (Liaoning) 16.30pm, Yushan (Jiangxi) 17.30pm, Huanggang (Hubei) 18.00pm.
It’s important to note that stations in the same city are also on staggered release times: Beijing West – 8.00am Beijing Main – 10.00am and Beijing North 12.00pm.
▪ If you’re confident enough in using the train ticket website mentioned above, a very helpful tutorial on navigating through it in Chinese is available on this site. Since it’s only available in Chinese with no English translation, going it alone may be difficult.
An example as to how train tickets are distributed for sale:
Let’s say a train has 1000 tickets available to sell. They are distributed amongst the various purchase methods but not always equally. So for example, 500 may go to online booking, 200 may go to telephone booking and 300 may go directly to the station for the 3 day window prior to departure. On top of this, in addition to the 1000 seated tickets available, there will also be standing tickets available in a much smaller number (for example, maybe 100 in total). The number depends on the length of the train journey and the type of train. So in total there would be 1100 tickets available. As mentioned above, online and telephone tickets go on sale 60 days in advance, so 700 of these tickets (plus a percentage of the standing ones) can be bought. Once they are gone, it’s a case of waiting for the remaining 300 (plus remaining standing ones) to be released 3 days prior before you can buy them.
If you’d like to see the train timetable complete with train numbers, times, duration, prices and destinations then check out www.chinatrainguide.com – a handy site produced wholly in English.
Many budget airlines now offer us the opportunity to reach far flung destinations that we may previously have not had the opportunity to go to. These may be some useful ones to consider booking flights with whether you’re travelling in China or beyond …
▪ Spring Airlines – China’s cheap domestic carrier has branched out into some popular tourist destinations in South East Asia including Thailand, Japan and Korea.
▪ Air Asia – 6 times winner of the Skytrax World’s Best Low-Cost Airline, this carrier headquartered in Kuala Lumpur regularly has big sales and discounts such as their current one offering bookings “with no fuel surcharge” added.
▪ Singapore-based airlines Tigerair and Scoot are big contenders for providing low cost air travel. Scoot are predominantly a medium to long haul route provider whilst Tigerair – established in 2003 – has won the CAPA Low-Cost Airline of the Year award twice.
▪ Bringing up the rear, Australia’s low-cost carrier Jetstar is a budget, wholly owned subsidiary of Qantas Airlines. However, with only three departure airports located in China (Haikou / Hangzhou / Shantou-Jieyang) these may not be convenient to use unless you live within the vicinity of these airports.
All of the above can be compared to the likes of Europe’s well-known budget airlines Easyjet and Ryanair in terms of price, value and quality.
Closer to home, China Eastern and China Southern are well known, popular airlines that have quite a monopoly on the market thanks to the sheer number of daily flights they offer to destinations both in China and abroad. Their prices are relatively low with some excellent bargains to be had.
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Keywords: Spring Festival Travel Guide How to buy train tickets China Cheap airlines China
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I can't imagine how crowded the railway system must be in China around the Spring Festival. If I ever live in China, I hope to have frequent flyer miles stocked up so I can use them to leave China during the Spring Festival to escape the crowds.
Jan 18, 2016 08:29 Report Abuse
Anyone with even a tidbit of common sense leaves China via the nearest exit at this time of year, I haven't spent a single CNY in the country in 5 years nor do I ever intend to. It is almost impossible to travel anywhere, prices for everything imaginable skyrocket, and the weather is shit.
Feb 02, 2015 00:37 Report Abuse
I had some of the most amazing experiences out of my entire time in China spending the spring festival in little villages in Guangxi (where it's actually quite warm) and Shaanxi. Yes the living conditions were harsh, and yes now that I've been in China longer I fancy the idea of leaving the country for the whole holiday much more. Having said that, for a newbie the Spring Festival can provide some great experiences.
Feb 04, 2015 23:00 Report Abuse
Guangdong province is at its best during CNY, all the uneducated hordes of migrants leave for their hometown in dumbfuck Hunan, the factories are being shut down for two or three weeks which means the skies are clear, and the traffic is smooth.
Jan 21, 2016 10:32 Report Abuse