After 17 years in China, Marco Polo was anxious to return to Italy. For some visitors, however, 17 hours in the country can seem too long. Unscrupulous touts, language difficulties and cultural differences has left many an exasperated exec exiting the Middle Kingdom muttering, “Never again!”
Here are a few tips, culled from our network of frequent travelers, to make your trips as painless as possible:
While four- and five-star hotels in urban centers meet Western standards on nearly all metrics, star-ratings in smaller cities are unreliable. Rely instead on feedback from other travelers (see TripAdvisor in sidebar). Beyond top hotels, English-speaking staff can be scant – pay more to avoid miscommunication misfortunes.
Serviced apartments combine the services of a hotel with the warmth – however contrived – of a home, and they are an increasingly popular option. From the luxe to the lackluster, varied properties cater to all budgets. Stay one night or a few months.
Air: Book domestic flights in China, because fares are significantly lower than those advertised abroad – and they continue to decrease as the departure date approaches. Nabbing inexpensive tickets on short notice is relatively painless. China Eastern and Hainan Airlines are recommended by frequent flyers.
Rail: While Chinese “soft”-class carriages are indeed comfortable, they can cost as much as economy air tickets and are not available on every route. Avoid the train stations and book tickets through your hotel or an agent. Obtaining a ticket, headache-free, is worth the small premium you pay. Agencies also have a magical way of clearing the frustrating mei you (don’t have) hurdle often erected at stations’ ticket kiosks by blasé employees. A word of advice: Avoid the Chinese “hard seat” experience.
Coach: Coach travel is not recommended due to highly irregular vehicle quality, and drivers’ inability to keep their hands off their horns. That said, coach routes are frequent, fares are easily available, and they can deliver you to practically any nook or cranny in China.
Car: Unless you have the resolve and patience to jump through hoop after hoop – it involves doctors and consulates – cancel driving in China off your list. Frankly, given the road conditions outside the urban centers, it’s better that way. If you are determined to drive, new regulations that came into effect in January allow foreign driver’s license holders to obtain a temporary driving permit after training in China’s laws and regulations.
Taxis: Taxis in urban centers are abundant and cheap by international standards. During rush-hour (5pm-7pm) and when it rains, however, they can be agonizingly absent. Your best bet will be to join the queue outside a top hotel – they get plenty of taxi traffic. Driver honesty, while steadfast in the past, is slipping, especially on long trips, so insist on using the meter before the journey begins. Have your destination’s address written in Chinese, as few drivers understand English or mangled Mandarin.
Drivers: A hired driver can be especially handy in smaller cities where sometimes unreliable local transport – like pedicabs and motor-tricycles — abounds. Some drivers also speak basic English. Find one through CITS, where a driver including a standard car starts at RMB650 per day in tier-one cities.
China’s telecom infrastructure is highly developed, so mobile phone service is delightfully abundant and cheap. If you have an unlocked GSM phone, buy a SIM card and prepaid package from any cellphone shop and you can start dialing out. China Mobile is the largest network and its basic package costs RMB80 for a SIM card and RMB50 worth of credit. SIM cards are valid for three months and phone credit can be topped up with vouchers available at China’s ubiquitous 24-hour convenience stores. If you have a CDMA phone, buy a package from China Unicom. To call abroad, buy an ‘IP card’ from street vendors. These calling cards require you to call an automated number and punch in a PIN before you are routed to your destination.
Traveling around China requires patience and forbearance, qualities most seasoned executives already possess. Best of luck or, as they say here, zhu ni hao yun.
China Help Line (registration required) gives assistance for travel and language issues. Available in English (RMB5/minute, 8am to midnight) and German (RMB6/minute, 8am to 8pm).
Tel: +86 400 880 8080, Web: chinahelpline.com
CITS (China International Travel Service) mainly arranges group tours, but can be useful for miscellaneous requests and advice.
Tel: 86 400 600 8888, Web: cits.net
Ctrip is best for online plane and hotel bookings.
Tel: 86 400 820 6666 (press 6 for English), Web: english.ctrip.com
Move and Stay is a free booking service for serviced apartments and offices. It covers 11 cities in Greater China.
Tel: 66 2634 3323 , Web: moveandstay.com
Serviced Apartments China has a database of serviced apartments in 17 cities in Greater China.
Tel: 852 3069 1693, Web: servicedapartmentschina.com
TripAdvisor publishes customer reviews of hotels. Useful for finding lodging outside the big cities.