Traveling in China is completely unlike travel I have experienced in other countries. First of all, China is a huge country, much bigger than people realize. So when you are traveling within it’s borders you are likely to encounter flight times that are much longer than you anticipated and train and bus journey times long enough to make you think of intergalactic space travel. Beam me up Scotty and prepare for warp speed.
When you are traveling long distance in China things like travel times are beyond your power to control. They will be what they will be and all you can do is try to grin, bear it, and make the best of it. The good news is there are choices that you can make to help make your long distance travel more comfortable and restful. So, without further ado, (drum roll please…) here are my tips for long distance travel in China.
Ow, My Freakin’ Ears!
So, you have traveled by high speed train in Japan and Korea, and consider yourself an accomplished train traveler. You are ready for anything. Wrong! What awaits you on Chinese trains is a far different experience. You can forget the peace and quiet of rail travel in those countries. Prepare for noise and get yourself some ear plugs.
When you first get on board you may be struck by the clamor. It seems like there are overladen people heading in every conceivable direction and then some. They all seem to be in a panic to get to their seat before the train starts moving. Boarding and getting to your seat is chaos. Finally, you manage to evade the endless stream of people carrying enough food for a week’s grocery and get to your seat. You expect that the madness will gradually subdue. Except it doesn’t.
When traveling on the train system in Japan and Korea there is seldom any loud noise to draw one’s attention. In Japan in particular, it is so quiet that a rider may think they have stepped into a mausoleum. In contrast, there are times when traveling on Chinese trains that feel as though I am on the wrong side of the safety glass at the zoo. People are constantly milling about. They lean against the side of other people’s aisle seats infringing on their space. People talk to each other from a few feet away at volumes better suited for a conversation held from opposite ends of a football field. Children are running and climbing as if the cabin space were a preschool playground. On one of my train rides this summer one kid was even playing a harmonica! Really dude?? And then, on the train to Chengdu, there was the doll!
Across the aisle from me was a kindergarten aged girl. She was sweet and nice in all the ways that a kid that age can be, except clutched in her arms was evil in plastic cast form with long luxurious synthetic blond hair and perfect makeup. She had a singing doll!
The voice on this foul beast would make fingernails on a chalkboard sound soothing. And she kept playing the same song over and over and over. I conceived of any number of heinous plots to send that foul beast back to the abyss from whence it crawled, but for the sake of the child I relented. I assumed she would tire of it eventually, or her mother would have a limit to how much of that thing she could tolerate. Just when it seemed there were no limits to the love and/or tolerance for this creature, the entire car seemed to shut down for nap time. Ahh. A respite from the depths of the Inferno. Temporary I knew, but a respite all the same.
Some time later as the car slowly awoke from it’s slumber the voice of the mass produced plastic demon once again split the air. This time it gathered more followers. At one point there were 4 young girls standing in the aisle singing and dancing along with the wretched crow of the tinny voiced diva. They moved their little feet in unison as they waved their arms in the air, eyes clenched tight in rapture like some weirdo backwoods occult spiritual. I thought to myself, if that little plastic thing starts levitating and people’s heads start spinning in full rotations I am out of here! Fortunately, it didn’t come to that. But yeah, bring ear plugs.
(Note: I have found that domestic flights, sleeper trains and sleeper buses are substantially quieter than the high speed trains.)
I have the Power!!
Yeah, okay, settle down there, He-Man. Changing into a superhero is not the kind of power I am talking about. I am talking about battery power. And if you are planning a long trip whether by train or bus, you best bring a portable charger for your electronics.
Many trains in China provide an outlet in each group of 2 or 3 seats where you can plug your adapter directly into a power source, but many don’t. I had traveled on several trains in second class seats and had a power supply readily available. On my trip to Chengdu I took a first class seat so I assumed there would definitely be a power supply available. I assumed wrong.
At this point I hadn’t yet bought my portable power supply, but was instead relying on 3 batteries. This turned out to be a mistake as there were only 2 outlets in the entire car. Pretty soon my phone was eating through batteries and the available outlets were in constant use so I was unable to get a charge. Finally, in desperation I disconnected the phone of the person who had been hogging the outlet and plugged my own in. I wouldn’t have had to resort to this if I had had a good power supply.
There are many quality chargers available to suit your purposes. Mine is a Pisen (pictured above) and has a power rating of 10,000 mAH. At full power it can recharge my phone fully 4 times.
An alternative, or addition, that you may also want to consider is a Chinese V-adapter (see photo right). Pretty much any outlet in China has a regular slotted receptacle as well as one that has the two prongs turned inward to create a V-shape. In my travels I have never seen anyone with the adapter so those slots have always been open. If I had had mine on my 15-hour trip I could have had a power source to myself for its entirety. I bought mine at Pearson International Airport in Toronto, so I imagine that they are available at other major international airports with direct flights to Hong Kong and China. And of course they are readily available in the country as well.
Whether it’s 15 hours on high speed train to Chengdu, 14 hours by sleeper bus to Lanzhou, or the 52-hour sleeper train ride to Urumqi that I almost took you will definitely want something to keep you entertained during your journey.
I am not really a games person so my go to gadgets for entertainment are both sources of reading material: Kobo and Texture.
Kobo as I am sure most of you- maybe all of you- are familiar with, is an app that you can easily download to your phone or tablet. All it takes then is a trip to the Kobo Store to search their impressive data base of books and magazines and find some reading material to suit your taste, complete your purchase, download, and read away.
Texture, on the other hand, may be unfamiliar to a lot of people. It is strictly a magazine provider, but like Kobo it is easily downloaded to your phone or tablet. If you are a magazine reader, Texture is well worth the $10 CAD+ tax per month for a subscription. It provides you with access to dozens of popular magazines from a wide variety of genres, including Rolling Stone, National Geographic, and Good Housekeeping. For an additional 5 CAD per month you can get a Premium membership and get access to great weekly magazines like Time, Maclean’s, and The New Yorker.
One thing that you should keep in mind is that downloading on Kobo and Texture in China requires a VPN. If you are already living here, you are already familiar with VPN’s or you soon will be. A VPN is a Virtual Private Network and it enables people living behind the Great Firewall of China to access such social media sites as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram as well as many new and information sites. So if you are coming to China for a vacation, download plenty of reading material before you come here to avoid being frustrated later on.
If you are already in the country and you are interested in purchasing a good quality VPN then I would recommend either of Express VPN or Vyper VPN, both of which are available either as a month-to-month or 1-year subscription and offer free trials.
If you are a reader that hasn’t yet switched to e-books then I suggest you bring as much reading material as you will need for your trip with you. Outside of major centers like Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, books and magazines in English are practically non-existent.
Are You Sitting Comfortably? Then Let Us Begin.
When you are setting off on your long distance trip, dress comfortably. It may seem absurdly obvious to some people, but I see many people clambering aboard trains and long distance buses dressed more appropriately for a fashion runway than a 15 to 20-hour train or bus ride.
I recommend dressing in loose fitting pants and shirt with easily removable shoes. I would also suggest keeping a warm sweater or equivalent within easy reach in case you get a little cold under the steady breeze of the air conditioning. Comfortable clothing is most essential on the long distance sleeper buses as you are more or less confined to your reclined bed while on board as is there is really no room to stand up and walk about.
BYOP! What?? Oh, Bring Your Own Paper!! Toilet Paper That Is…
If you are newly arrived in China and your first foray into a bus or train station convenience store has left you bemused as to why there seems to be an infinite supply of small packets of tissue, you will learn very well why the first time you find yourself hovering prone over a squatter toilet and searching the small cubicle desperately for toilet paper why they have so much in the little shops.
Public toilets in China are the thing of which nightmares are made for many a reason and the lack of provided toilet paper is only one of them. The little tissue packets are so wide spread they are practically an accessory. I hope for your sake that you are a slightly faster learner than I was. My being slow to pick up on the lack of TP put me in a most awkward position in a rest stop in northern Sichuan. Details are not really necessary. Suffice it to say, I was happy I was wearing shoes and socks and not barefoot in flip flops…
So that’s my list of tips to help you survive your long distance travel in China. You may also want to consider bringing your own food and snacks, especially for a train ride. There are things available on the train but like traveling on an airplane it is overpriced and of questionable quality. A lot of people bring quick serve noodles that only need hot water added, and hot water is available on all trains. The bus offers no on-board snacks but makes relatively frequent stops so you can top up as you go. I would also suggest you pack as much patience as you can muster. China is a beautiful country with a lot of amazing places to visit. Getting there can test your resolve, but in the end it is well worth the little annoyances you will encounter along the way. Happy travels!