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The most populous country in the world is stuffed to the gussets with not only people, but a vast number of historic attractions. Sporting bustling, burgeoning cities and a treasure-trove of culture and intrigue, China is nothing if not diverse. By car, visitors can head to the Great Wall, visit the Terracotta Army, explore the lakes of Sichuan and the canals of Suzhou or even kick back on a tropical beach in Hainan.
The main highways are good and signage with English is the norm in Shanghai, Beijing and other centres. Rural roads are inconsistent and city driving is hard going. Typically, only residents can drive here, although temporary licences can be had at Beijing’s airport. If you’re unsure, it is best to hire a car with a driver.
Driving licences: traditionally, the government has not allowed tourists to drive here. International Driving Permits are not recognised although local provisional licences can be obtained at Beijing Capital Airport.
Which side does China drive on: the right.
Motorways: 62-74mph (100-120kph)
Rural areas: 37-50mph (60-80kph)
Built-up areas: 18-37mph (30-60kph)
Alcohol limits: 0.02 per cent, which is stricter than the 0.08 per cent blood/alcohol limit in the UK.
Driving age: 18 years; 25 years to rent a car.
Seatbelts: despite the locals’ propensity not to wear seatbelts, it is the law that all passengers wear them if fitted.
Mobile phones and GPS: it is illegal to use a mobile while driving unless with a hands-free kit though locals commonly flout this law. GPS is available although is inconsistent and sketchy in the countryside.
Cost of fuel in China: petrol and diesel prices are roughly half those of the UK.
Car hire and fuel payment: fuel stations and car hire firms accept credit cards, although having cash to hand for fuel payment outside cities is advised. Be sure to notify your card supplier prior to travel overseas.
Insurance: third-party insurance is the basic requirement but having fully comprehensive insurance with excess is highly recommended, even if you hire a car with a driver.
Traffic and parking: avoid driving in the large centres like Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou as the traffic is congested at all times and parking scarce. Parking is also difficult. The big cities have good public transport so it’s best to leave the car at your hotel.
Railways are the mainstay of travel within China, with safe and comfortable services connecting most main towns and cities. Connections are frequent and cheap, and the main routes between the big centers, such as between Beijing and Shanghai, have multiple options/classes. Intercity trains are typically overnight, with two- or four-berth ‘soft’ sleepers the best way to go. Hard sleepers are cheaper, while soft seats are a feature of daytime expresses. The better services are prefixed with C, D, Z or T, with ‘C’ (the best) high-speed and ‘T’ express. A ‘C’ Beijing-Tianjin train costs about £7 for first class and £6 for second class, while tickets for the Beijing-Shanghai bullet train are around £50 per person. Visit China Rail for timetables and schedules. Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin all have metro systems.
Taxis in Chinese cities are mostly ubiquitous, useful and cheap. They can be hailed on the street or picked up at airports, train and metro stations, and hotels. Drivers usually use the meter, but make sure it’s on when you get in. Taxis are yellow with a taxi sign (in Chinese) on top. They are pronounced ‘deg-see’ and most drivers have only basic English language skills so having the address of your destination in Mandarin is recommended. Prices range from a flag fall of £1.50 in Shanghai to £0.50 in smaller cities, with a per kilometre rate in the £0.20-£0.25 range. Pedicabs can be better for short trips. Tipping is not necessary.
Buses are more common than trains and cover more of the country. They are clean and cheap, and okay for short and medium distance travel, but are typically crowded. It is best to go by train between major centres and far off destinations. A luxury bus from Beijing to Shanghai costs about £30, which is cheaper than the high-speed train though not as fast. City trolleybuses are air conditioned and you pay one fare regardless of distance.
Major cruise companies call at Xingang (Beijing) and Shanghai, while Star Cruises runs to Xiamen from Keelung in Taiwan.
Beijing Capital International Airport and Shanghai Pudong Airport are the main hubs and have connections with the UK’s London-Heathrow and London-Gatwick. These airports also serve domestic routes although Shanghai’s Hong Qiao Airport is a better bet when flying into the city as it is closer to the centre. It is best to buy domestic tickets within China, with the best discounts found at travel agents. Flights from Beijing to Haikou (Hainan Island) are popular and cost around £250 depending on the season. Chinese tourist visas should be applied for in your home country.
Beijing and Shanghai are the main cities, and most visitors either arrive or make their way to one of these cities at some point. Beijing is replete with iconic sights from China’s illustrious history, such as the vast Forbidden City (formerly home to the emperor) and Tiananmen Square. Also near to Beijing are the Yungang Caves, Buddhist temple grottoes.
Sections of the world famous Great Wall can be toured from Beijing, including the section at Badaling where you can walk the wall and discern its defences. The Juyongguan section is another popular daytrip from Beijing.
Shanghai is more diverse than Beijing, featuring glitzy malls and hotels alongside traditional Chinese buildings and many Western structures. Main sights include the Shanghai Museum, the Yuyuan Gardens and the Pearl Tower.
Former capital Nanjing is a bustling city on the Yangtze River, while nearby Hangzhou is one of the country’s prettiest cities and is famed for its silk, tea and bridges. Suzhou is also in this area and is a place of water gardens, riverside streets and innumerable historic sites.
Other main sights include the Terracotta Army of Xian at the end of the Silk Road, the Stone Forest near Kunming in Yunnan, the ancient parks of Chengdu (Sichuan) and the autonomous region of Tibet in the Himalayas. For beaches, visit Sanya on the south coast of Hainan Island.
China is huge and has various climates. The north, where Beijing is located, has hot summers and frigid winters. It is a similar story for central and most other northern regions, with summer daytime temperatures of 20-30°C and of around 0°C in winter. The south is subtropical and warm most of the year, but with high rainfall in summer (July to September) when typhoons are common in the southeast. Spring or autumn are generally the best times to visit.