Before we arrived in China we were a little concerned about how easy it would be to travel independently and having to rely heavily on itineraries and tours provided by the hotels and hostels.
The main issue we were concerned with was that we don’t speak (or more importantly read) any Mandarin and outside the main cities little English is spoken.
However, since arriving we have found that with a little preparation in advance it’s not too difficult to get around. This is mainly due the friendliness and curiosity of the locals.
Preparing to travel on public transport does take a little time but it pays off hugely and it well worth the effort.
Firstly, always look up the route in advance according to the travel book/hostel/website.
Secondly, maps given out in hostels are often not to scale and very misleading, so use Google maps to view the route in advance, this will cache the route for later reference. Mobile internet can be slow, so this is important. Searching on Google is banned, but maps and your gps location dot will work. You may need to switch to gps only mode.
Thirdly, and most importantly, on a notepad, using a page per step in the journey, write down the instruction you are following.
The instruction written in a large font should include English, Pinyin and Mandarin. The writing should be in a large font so it can be read from a distance. This means that the many helpful old grannies who are curious to see a westerner standing looking at bus times can point out the correct bus to get on.
Writing it in English should be obvious but it’s very easy to get your own instructions confused!
Pinyin is a form of Mandarin writing in the Latin alphabet. It is widely used on signs and can be read by most people. It is often used as a method to type on computers and mobiles. Pinyin is also a phonetic langauge so with a little help from a phrasebook it can sort of be pronounced by a westerner.
Writing out the Mandarin will help you recognise it in signs. Hand written Mandarin characters can be difficult to recognise, so check the way it looks in typed font. I have been using Google translate and the guidebooks to check what the text looks like in a typed font.
The local busses are all numbered in latin numbers. We tend to show the written destination to the driver/attendant who normally states the price, or points to the correct bus. Most local busses we have used have a fixed fare of 2 Yuan (20p). We then use the phones gps to check when we are near our destination and get off. It is not always clear where the entrances to sites are so it worth showing the written destination to a fellow passenger who is normally happy to help.
Long Distance Buses
The long distance buses are normally modern coaches and depart from custom-built coach stations. All the services we have used so far have been direct services so it is impossible to get off at the wrong stop.
Hostels normally offer a service, for a reasonable charge, to book tickets for you. This service is well worth it to ensure you get the right ticket, especially since trains are often fully booked and there maybe alternative seating classes, times and speeds of train.
The train stations can be very large and have airport style security, so leave plenty of time before your train departs.
Larger station are normally split into several waiting lounges for different trains. Access to your platform is only given via the correct lounge. This is done along with the ticket checks a few minutes before departure. It seems to work reasonably well and makes it difficult to get on the wrong train.
On high-speed services, the announcements have been given in English.
On slower services we have had to rely on a gps and google maps to ensure we get off at the correct stop.
Google translate is an excellent app with allows translation from typed text in either English or Mandarin to be converted even in offline mode. Unfortunately, due to the Chinese firewall, all the online features will not work online in China (without a VPN) which limits its usefulness.
The android app store (‘the play store’) will also not work so you need to download all the apps you might need before entering China.
Also, remember to include a Mandarin keyboard in your download list, as there is no point in asking a question unless they are able type a response back!