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Section II: Living in China continued

Transportation and Domestic Travel

This chapter will summarize what you need to know about getting around in China: ground and air transportation, buying a motor vehicle, and obtaining a Chinese driver's license.

Ground Transportation

China's urban infrastructure has a fairly extensive, although antiquated, transportation system. Buses can be taken to just about anywhere within the city for anywhere from one to four yuan (depending on location) but, in all but the capital city, don't expect the buses to be new, clean or even safe (there doesn't appear to be anything even remotely related to routine maintenance and the buses will just run until they break down en route).

Subway Station in Guangzhou, China Typical Subway Station, Guangzhou, China

Taxis are abundant and relatively cheap. Some municipal governments allow taxis to charge for time and distance while some only allow for the meter to be based on distance alone. Depending on the city, the first kilometer can run anywhere from 8 to 10 yuan (about $1.12 to $1.40) and taxi drivers in most cities will expect you to bargain with them for any distance greater than the first kilometer. It is generally easy to reduce the total fare by 10% if you know where you're going (i.e., how much it should cost) and can speak even a little bit of Chinese. Be advised that a few provinces, such as Guangdong, do provide for a one (1) yuan fuel surcharge to be added to the metered fare and most drivers will balk if you ask them to give you change in excess of the cost of the fare, i.e., handing them a 100 yuan note for a 15 yuan fare.

In most cities in China, as is true the world over, the a few taxi drivers will try to take advantage of a foreigner by taking the longest route possible or by failing to use the meter and charging an exorbitant rate. However, once you know how much the fare should be, this becomes exceedingly more difficult for them to do. Until you acquire some Chinese language skills or know your way around, simply have a colleague or friend negotiate price for you in advance and you won't have any problems.

Finally, Chinese taxi drivers are notorious for passing fake notes as well as their oldest and most tattered bills when giving change, especially to foreigners. You should check your change carefully for counterfeit bills, particularly if you have been handed a 50 yuan note, and you are entitled to reject a bill if it is falling apart or torn (the Chinese do precisely this all the time). For information on how to spot a counterfeit bill, please see the chapter on Currency and Banking.

Every city has a bus terminal and train station that will take you from one city to the next and fares are inexpensive by Western standards. Some foreigners find adventure in riding the trains and others would rather have a wisdom tooth pulled. As a rule, trains that travel great distances are over-crowded and it is best to purchase the best accommodations possible. However, the train fares for "soft sleeper" compartments are often just slightly below what it would cost you to fly.

Trains and buses in China are best for short excursions, i.e., two hours or less, and, if available, paying a little extra for the first-class train coach is usually worth the added expense in terms of greater comfort and the better personal hygiene of one's traveling companions.

Air Transportation

Beijing International Aiport The newly inaugurated Terminal 3 of the Beijing International Airport

By Western standards, domestic airfares in China are relatively inexpensive especially if you are not traveling during Golden Week holidays or Spring Festival. One can probably travel by plane from Harbin (in the upper northeast) to Guangzhou (in the southeast) for under USD $100 (about 800 yuan) during off-peak traveling times. There appears to be no advantage in price to booking your flight well in advance and most Chinese airlines will not accept reservations more than 45 to 60 days in advance of your departure. Generally speaking, and barring holiday periods, booking a seat about a week or two in advance is sufficient for ensuring both availability and the best price. In every case, the government owns a majority share of and thus controls all airline carriers in China: Consequently, airfares tend to be rather consistent across airline companies as there is no genuine competition between them.

An excellent online resource for both checking and booking discount airfares and hotel reservations is Their customer service is superlative (they once called me to advise that one of my flights had been postponed by 10 minutes) and you can pay either by cash (RMB) or credit-card. If you are paying by cash, they will deliver the ticket to your apartment in person and you pay upon receipt. If you have a Bank of China (or other local) credit card, you will be issued an E-ticket and most major airline carriers have electronic ATM-like machines inside the airport that allow you to select your seat and issue your own boarding pass (assuming you don't have any baggage to check).

For those interested in domestic travel within China, you can also take a look at the China Travel Guide for information about major cities, popular attractions, and tour packages.

Driving in China

Many foreigners who plan to stay in China for the long haul find buying a motorbike an inexpensive and convenient way to travel about. However, owing to the sheer abundance of these relatively cheap modes of transportation and the havoc they play on traffic, many cities have stopped issuing license plates and registrations for the use of motorbikes within city limits. The cost of these motorbikes run anywhere from CNY 4,300 to 8,000+ depending on make, model and engine size (either 125 or 150cc), including a two-year registration and insurance (which should come to about 500 to 600 yuan). As an alternative to the gas powered motorbikes, many foreigners are now opting to buy very reliable and efficient Chinese manufactured electric bikes instead, which, depending on the maximum speed and tire size, are perfectly legal and do not require a driver's license or registration. Excellent models that travel up to speeds of 40kph (25mph), can be purchased for under 2500 RMB.

In addition, Chinese brand cars such as the QQ, the Xiao Li, and the Breadbox (an SUV-type vehicle) can be purchased for under 50,000 yuan (less than USD $7,100). Foreign imports, including all Japanese makes, will run considerably higher in China than you would pay back home. The current price of gasoline, as of this writing, is about 6.43 yuan for one liter of 93 octane.

Traffic jam in Xiamen, South China Traffic Jam in Xiamen, South China

Legally speaking, you do need a Chinese driver's license to drive a vehicle in China (excluding electric bikes and regular bicycles) and, contrary to popular belief, an "international" designation on your Western driver's license is entirely insufficient for driving legally in China. The amount of time, effort and money involved in procuring a driver's license seem to vary considerably from province to province. In some provinces, the license is almost given away to any foreigner who presents his valid Western driver's license while, in others, both a driving class and road test are required. For legally obtaining a valid Chinese driver's license, it is suggested that you check with another foreign teacher about what is required. Although many foreigners have been driving in China for years without a Chinese driver's license or proper registration and have never had a problem doing so, this is not recommended.  Finally, you will need to adopt a Chinese name for the purposes of obtaining a Chinese driver's license as the space provided for the driver's name can only accommodate up to four characters.  Most foreign teachers do acquire and adopt a Chinese name well before they ever apply for a license that has been provided to them by their students.

Keep in mind that driving in China, as well as the rest of Asia, is not the same as driving in your home country. According to a 2004 article originally reported in the Shanghai Star, "Latest research shows that every day in China at least 300 people are killed in traffic accidents, ranking the country top in the world for both the death toll and the death rate. And the figure is accelerating by 10 per cent every year." In China, the right of way—in the event of an accident—is always determined, as a practical matter, by "who got there first." So, if you run into a car with your motorbike because the other driver flew out of a blind alley and there was no "humanly way possible" you could have avoided him, as a matter of common practice, you are generally considered to be fully responsible because you struck him and you will be required to pay for all estimated repair costs and any anticipated hospital bills. What typically happens is that the policeman on the scene will act as a mediator and will help both parties agree to a settlement amount, payable on the spot. In the case of a more serious accident, or where immediate hospitalization is required, the vehicle that struck first will typically be impounded and later an investigation will be conducted during which time the contributory negligence of both parties will be determined. Your insurance company will then reimburse you for the expenses you have already laid out based on the percentage you were deemed not responsible for.

Driving in China takes some getting used to as many motorists simply do not obey the traffic laws. Old foreign veterans of China seem to acquire a "sixth-sense" after awhile and are able to drive without incident.


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Middle Kingdom Life is the premier award-winning educational website for foreign teachers and Western expats in China. It was founded by an American professor in psychology and sociology for the purpose of disseminating valid and reliable information about living and teaching in China. The site's mission is to protect and enhance the interests and social welfare of foreign teachers and Western expats in China.

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