Long-distance travel in China – zenme zou? | China Unlocked

A train full of passengers and luggage during Chinese New Year

By Duncan Gordon

In a  country as large as China, inter-city and inter-province travel presents a challenge in terms of time and distance. China’s largest province, Xinjiang is over three times the size of France, while its smallest, Hainan Island, is still roughly seven times bigger than the nation of Brunei. According to Statista, there were 277.47 million migrant workers in China in 2015, about 20% of the nation’s population. 77.45 million of them left their home province to find work. How do these people, as well as staff on business trips, tourists and government officials travel around China? Zenme zou?

Car and motorcycle

Shanghai highway.jpg
The Shanghai highway system

People who travel locally from a village into a city to work often go by car or motorcycle. According to the Ministry of Public Security, vehicle ownership reached 279 million in 2015, with over 61 per cent of them being cars. The switch from motorbikes to automobiles as the dominant mode of transportation has been a visible trend for a number of years. As of the end of 2012 (most recent available data) China had the world’s third longest road network, exceeding 4.24 million kilometres, while the expressway network, which measures over 96,000 kilometres is the longest in the world. With the rate of China’s development, these numbers are likely to be decidedly higher now.

Long-distance bus

Long-distance bus tickets tend to be cheaper than rail tickets, making the bus a more economic but usually slower alternative to an ordinary train. Buses are also necessary forms of transport for intra-provincial travel between towns and cities that are not connected to the rail network. For tourists both Chinese and domestic tourists, some bus journeys can provide views of spectacular scenery and village life that might be missed on a train. Two journeys that stand out for stunning landscapes are the nine hour bus from Chengdu to Jiuzhaigou National Park in Sichuan province and the two hour Yichang to Shennongjia Nature Reserve bus in Hubei province. The road to Jiuzhaigou winds through a valley of enormous and steep snow-capped mountains, passing Tibetan and other ethnic minority villages en route. Many of the towns and villages were destroyed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, but massive government investment and effort has enabled the area to recover and there are now few signs of damage. The Shennongjia route similarly winds its way through deep gorges and valleys, although the climate here is subtropical, so the hills are a lush green and mist hangs over the river that accompanies the road all the way to the nature reserve.

On the road to Jiuzhaigou


By the end of 2015, the total length of China’s rail network reached 121,000 kilometres and 2.5 billion passengers traveled by train in that year according to the State Council. Of that rail network, 22,350 kilometres are high-speed rail, making China’s the longest high-speed rail network on the planet, and accounting for 60 per cent of the world’s total length of high-speed rail tracks. The CRH (China Railway High-speed) trains connect 28 provinces and regions, including all of the major eastern cities. China also boasts the Shanghai Maglev, the fastest operational train in the world, which can reach speeds of 430 kilometres per hour. However, most of the CRH trains’ maximum speed is just over 300 km/h.

Made in China: CRH high-speed trains – a symbol of China’s development

Not only has the CRH network cut travel times enormously, but the the high-speed trains provide a clean, comfortable environment in which to travel. With the generous leg-room, soft reclining seats, and neat white and blue decor, the vibe is futuristic and luxurious, even if it feels somewhat sterile. From the outside, the long, sleek, stealthy trains are impressive, a symbol of China’s rapid development.

Yondingmen city gate CRH
A hihg-speed train passes the 500-year-old Yondingmen city gate in Beijing (Photo: Jiaye Liu)

The old trains, meanwhile, are a different story. Ticket prices are usually significantly cheaper than high-speed train tickets, but there are of course downsides. Journeys are longer, personal space is in short supply and cleanliness is not guaranteed. Tickets for overnight train journeys, of which there are many on the ‘slow’ trains in China, are either ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ sleeper. Soft sleeper tickets are a bunk in a cabin of six beds, while the hard sleeper tickets provide a normal, hard, non-reclining seat with not so ample leg room. While the facilities might not be as luxurious as on a high-speed train, the atmosphere often makes up for it. In this author’s personal experience, passengers sharing a cabin with each other for ten, fifteen, twenty hours plus end up talking to each other. While it’s easy enough to stay in your bunk and read a book, some passengers enjoy the opportunity to get to know their fellow travelers. Conversations are struck up over instant noodles at the window-side table, families sing songs together, children climb bunk bed ladders until mum spots them and pulls them back down to earth, while those not eager to socialise watch movies on their phone at full volume. If you’re looking for peace and quiet, it’s not the best option, but for a foreigner wanting to see how most Chinese people travel, the slow trains are good fun.

An ‘old’ train arrives at Pingyao station, Shanxi province, in the early hours of the morning.
A family sit around a table in the ‘hard’ seats on a standard train


Distances between cities and provinces can be so huge in China that sometimes an airplane seems like the only reasonable option. Ticket prices are usually not cheap, but this of course depends on the route. Unlike trains, airlines increase their prices during public holidays like National Week and Chinese New Year, when it seems as though the whole of China goes home or goes on holiday. This prices out most people, who opt instead for the fast-dwindling supplies of train tickets.

Hainan Airlines.png
Hainan is one of China’s most famous airlines

China’s transport infrastructure is very highly developed in the economically advanced regions of the country. Travel between the large eastern cities is comfortable, quick and convenient if you can afford airplane or CRH tickets. To get to smaller cities and towns, going by bus or private vehicle might be the only option but the vast majority of roads are good quality. These intra-provincial journeys through the countryside also provide outsiders a glimpse of life in rural China. The government plans to increase the total high-speed rail network length to 30,000 kilometres by 2020, penetrating deeper into this country’s far-flung provinces and making even more regions accessible.

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