My Love/Hate Relationship with China's Transportation

There are 1.3 BILLION people in China.  Personal cars are a fairly recent addition to China's roads, and thankfully so! Even with the government-limited issuance of license plates through a monthly lottery, the roads are already congested with their inability to contain such an explosion in numbers and constantly needing repair, and air pollution hangs thick. China will likely never hold such numbers like America does in percentage of the population with private cars.  So for the 95% who don't own cars, there have to be efficient, available methods to get around.


Crowded roads in China


For a "developing" country (I often argue that China CAN'T be a "developing" country because of its extensive transportation system), China has its transportation act together! It doesn't really matter how small or remote the place, there are long distance and local buses available. Many of my students can't comprehend that in America, I "must" own a car. There is no public transportation option available to get from my home to work or the grocery store. Yes, I live in a small town, but even in America's larger cities - there are bus systems within those cities, but they don't reach far outside. But not here! I think it's amazing to be able to access any other place through public transportation. While long-distance bus travel is not the most comfortable, it is fairly efficient and very affordable. In contrast, America's long distance bus system is extremely inefficient AND expensive.  An 8-hr trip (by car) from where I live in SC to my parents' home in FL takes almost 24-hrs and $200 on a bus! I can almost fly home for that price.  The same trip in China holds a comparable time to the car trip and costs about $30. My favorite part is that I can show up to the long-distance bus station and usually buy a ticket for my destination that leaves within a half-hour. Other than the waiting in the bus station itself, I personally love the long-distance bus system.


The local bus system, on the other hand, I really hate. I live in a remote area outside the main city. Most of the time I am thankful for the quiet tranquility of my location, but getting anywhere is a day's ordeal. If there's one thing I've learned in China, you should only schedule one major "task" to accomplish any given day, as your transportation will take up most of your time and effort before you ever make it to your destination. If you put too many goals on a day's list, you will be disappointed and frustrated. Our remote location lends itself to delayed or infrequent buses and too many stops along the way. Plus, the local bus drivers just drive so rough and jerky. I am often physically exhausted by the time I arrive from holding myself and my daughter safely in the bus seat.  


Let's move to the skies. America's airline service has continued to see major decline over the last few years. Ticket prices have continued to rise, along with new additional fees for baggage. And the included in-flight service? No more. Food and drinks must be purchased and you can't even use cash! On my last domestic flight, I asked for a blanket. The response? "I'm sorry, blankets are for first-class passengers only." Wow. Just wow. Get it together, America, the Asian world is kicking our butts in airline customer service! I LOVE flying in China. On my most recent 2-hour flight (that cost less than $200, by the way), I was served breakfast and two rounds of drinks. Even the shortest flights during non-meal times are served bottled water and a snack. I have also never experienced a delay on any Asian flight. 


Another "fun" China travel experience is taking a train. When taking a train, you can purchase a business-class or economy-class seat, a "hard" sleeper (6 bunks per compartment), a "soft" sleeper (4 bunks per compartment) , OR a standing ticket! Yes, a standing ticket. There are really no capacity limits followed on the older trains, and often, especially during Chinese holidays, public transport is packed to the gills. There are elements to any China travel experience to which a westerner should learn to adjust in order to maintain sanity. On trains, people love to eat sunflower seeds and other snacks from which the trash produced will be spit on the floor. Attendants come along regularly to sweep it away. You should also be prepared for the blaring sounds of the Chinese movie being played throughout the train. And finally, booking the bottom bunk in the sleeper has its perks and drawbacks. The major perks are bottom bunk is perfect for sitting and you don't have to climb into your bed. The major drawback is the bottom bunk is perfect for sitting - and all your compartment-mates will think so too. Chinese have no sense of personal space and will freely join you in sitting on your bottom bunk - even if you are trying to sleep.


Taking the sleeper train in China

We chose the middle and top bunks to avoid everyone sitting in our space.


The major form of transportation within China's large cities is, of course, the metro. Oh, the metro. Guangzhou's metro is beautiful and new and quite convenient. The major problem with the metro, however, is the people who use it. I talked in a previous article about how Chinese people don't stand in line or show what we call "common courtesies" on public transportation. The metro is the worst. Pushing a baby stroller only makes things worse. Guangzhou's metro is the surest test of my patience when people step over the stroller to get on the metro before me, rush the door to take the only open seat when I am carrying Laila, and when people push past me on the stairs when I am carrying baby and stroller (some of the station have no escalators, only stairs). There are moments of redemption, however, when someone else on the bus tells the young, able guy to stand up and let me sit down with my child.


Taking the Metro in China


Don't get me wrong, I love exploring Guangzhou and have used the metro system to get to popular tourist areas like Canton Tower, CITIC Plaza, the Guangdong Provincial Museum, and the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees. These attractions are easily accessible by public transit and if you visit during a less busy time of day, you are more likely to enjoy your experience. Keep in mind that the city is very popular with Australians and, therefore, you are sure to bump into some people from down under while staying in Guangzhou.


Each of these systems in themselves are quite efficient, tolerable, and helpful.  My biggest "hate" in my China transportation relationship is the transitions. Ugh. Transitions in travel are the worst. As Americans, we are spoiled by the door-to-door service we enjoy in driving our own cars. My latest travels from my college in Huadu District, Guangzhou, Guangdong to Dali, Yunnan were full of transitions. Picture this: the night before "trip begins", hire a private car for $25 to drive me an hour to the city (only to avoid a couple of transitions and unknown location huntings!) to stay in a hotel, hand-picked because it has free shuttle service to the airport. The next morning, depart at 0530 on airport shuttle. Leave at 0750 on plane, arrive at 1000 in Kunming, Yunnan. Take airport bus for $3 about 1 hour downtown to unknown  location. Ask locals in broken Chinese where the Kunming West bus station is located. No one understands. Finally, someone understands in English and points to a bus stop down the road and says "Bus 82." Take Bus 82 for about $0.20 a half hour across town to the long distance bus station. Buy a ticket for $18. Board the bus 15 minutes later for the supposed 4-hour ride. Stop one time along the way and arrive 6 hours later in Dali, Yunnan. Begin showing locals your hostel address and someone directs you to the bus stop for the half-hour $0.20 ride to "Old Town." After arriving in "Old Town", we walked about 20 minutes to find the hostel. After about 15 hours of travel and transitions, we finally arrived at our destination.


This is how I travel - 50 # with baby and pack

This is how I "travel" - 50 lbs with baby and pack


At the end of the day, I really enjoy letting someone else do the driving. I can write, play games, read, sleep, or just enjoy the scenery and take pictures. Getting back to America, though - my car, a place to load as much stuff as I want, and door to door journeys - will be a first-world luxury I am ready to embrace!







Joslynn is the China Editor for Wandering Educators.  Her husband has dubbed her "former Marine and roller derby queen" - two descriptors that represent her hardcore nature and adventurous spirit.  Joslynn currently lives in China with her 13-year old son and 2-year old foster daughter on what started as a year's adventure while her husband is working in Afghanistan.  She is an English teacher at a college in Guangdong Province and spends her free time traveling, writing, and visiting a special group of local orphans ( 

Joslynn recently completed her Master's degree in Community Economic Development and hopes to return to the United States this fall to begin her PhD.  You can read about more of her experiences at     


Photos courtesy and copyright Joslynn J. McLaughlin