Ok, so you have arrived in China, you have a hit list of places to visit and now you need to work out the best way to travel to all those great places. When it comes to how to travel inside China, your choices are almost unlimited. You can travel by plane, train, car, bus, the back of a truck (did that in Inner Mongolia), walking, biking, horse, camel and I could go on.
Hands down the best way to travel in China if you have the time is by train. I simply cannot emphasise enough just how good trains are. Here is a basic cut down list (the full list would be at least 2-3 pages) of why trains are so good for travelling in China
-Comfortable. Your choice range from hard and soft seats to hard and soft sleepers and even deluxe sleepers on some trains. Just imagine travelling through the heart land of China in the way to see a magnificent world heritage sight while lying stretched out on your back enjoying the view outside.
Most trains have a restaurant car that services good meals. Attendants regularly go up and down the train selling everything from hot meals to toys. You can get of at each station to stretch, buy food from platform vendors and have quick one if you are a smoker. You can even smoke on the train at each end of the carriage. Try doing that on an airplane.
The toilets (essential features of travel) are hygienic and cleaned regularly, comfortable and queues are rarely if ever a problem.
-Cheap. Train tickets are normally at least twice as cheap as plane tickets.
-Cultural experience. Planes and airports are the same world over where as travelling by train in China is a unique cultural experience, a great way to meet local Chinese and make friends. The locals will play cards with you, exchange photos, share food, tell you about China, invite you back home for dinner and in general make the trip a delight.
-Efficient. The Chinese are experts at train travel and have built up a train system second to none. Every major location in China can be reached by trains that leave at least daily and are extremely reliable and fast.
-Scenery. You can see so much of China without even leaving the train. Going from Harbin in the north to Shenzhen in the south, you can see how the climate, vegetation, weather and even culture changes over the distance.
-Safe. Planes occasionally fall out of the sky. Trains on the other hand never blow up, explode, over take the run way or experience any of the numerous calamities that can befall planes. Every train carries at least 2-3 members of the police force and numerous carriage attendants who make sure passengers are safe and protected.
-Environmentally friendly. Face it. Travel is not the most environmentally friendly practice and even the famous lonely planet travel guide founders admit this. So do your bit to save the planet and travel by trains which have a much lower carbon footprint than planes.
-Convenience. Most train stations, Beijing being a great example, are in or close to the center of the city and easily accessible by buses, subways and taxis. Airports on the other hand tend to be out side city limits and not easy to get to. No annoying security and queues that take ages. Travel is often over night so you catch the train in the evening, sleep and arrive refreshed the next day.
To illustrate just how good train travel is, I’ll give you an example of my last trip from Beijing to Xian. Spent all day seeing the sights, had a relaxed evening meal of beef noodles then caught the 9:20pm from Beijing West train station. The trip from the hotel to the train station took 25 minutes maximum. Arrived just 20 minutes before the train left which was plenty of time. Boarded the train 10 minutes early, found my bed (hard sleeper) and stowed my gear. Lights went of around an hour after the train started and went to sleep. Arrived the next morning at 8:20am 11 hours later at the Xian train station which was a quick taxi ride from my hotel.
Now if I flew from Beijing to Xian I would have left my hotel at a similar time. Taken at least an hour to arrive at the airport. Would need to be at the airport at least an hour in advance. Land in Xian at some god forsaken hour of the morning. Disembark, find my luggage, stagger out of the airport to the taxi rank, haggle with the driver who’d be asking for 3-4 times the going rate. Finally arrive at the hotel, recover, have breakfast and be ready to see the sights by around 8:20am.