Getting a Chinese Visa
Applying for a Chinese Visa is relatively straightforward. Having applied for both tourist visas and student visas I never had any problems so far. Living in the UK, I have applied for my visas by post through the the Edinburgh branch of the Chinese Visa Application Service Center rather the the London branch, as the former one is less busy and it can occasionally take longer when posting the application form to London. The turnaround time for a postal application is about 5 to 10 days but I have always received my visa within a 5 day period. The price for obtaining a Chinese Visa by post is £175.
Alternatively you can travel to London, Edinburgh or Manchester and apply for the visa in person which will set you back £151 and you get the visa within 4 working days. In order to apply for the visa you need to provide the Visa Application service Center with:
- Your passport (valid for 6 months)
- A passport photo
- The application form (which can be done online or you can download the form)
- Photocopy of previous Chinese Visa
- Supporting documents showing the itinerary including air ticket booking record (round trip) and proof of a hotel/hostel reservations
- Prepaid Envelope
- Declaration Form
- Payment Authorisation Form (+Payment)
Personally, I would not use travel agencies or other agencies offering visa services to sort out my Chinese fees as they charge between £50 and £100 as a service fee on top of the price of the visa.
Although more and more businesses, especially large hotels, in China start to accept credit cards most of the time, when travelling in mainland China, you will need to pay by cash. However, this does not constitute a major problem as most sizeable towns and cities have 24-hour ATMs that accept international debit/credit cards where you can withdraw cash. The two largest networks of ATMs are run by the Bank of China and the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) and in my experience their ATMs all have dual language capability.
However, do no expect to be able to use credit cards everywhere and always have enough cash with you. This is especially true for the more rural (or less touristy) areas where it might be difficult to find an ATM.
The best way to get around China is probably by public transport, i.e. train and bus. There are not many places that cannot be reached by either of them and in that case (or if time is an issue) you can always rent a taxi for a day or two. Moreover, buses and trains run frequently and are mostly on time.
Travelling by Bus
Traveling by Train
Buying train tickets, however, can be a little bit more confusing, because of the large variety of trains and tickets that are available. Basically there are two categories of trains, namely high-speed trains and ‘ordinary trains’. Each of these categories is subdivided into three types. The high-speed traines are divided into:
- G-Trains: These are the fastest reaching speeds up to 350km/h and run only between the major cities
- D-Trains: These trains reach up to 250 km/h and generally only run between major cities
- C-Trains: The maximum speed of these trains is about 200km and they are used to connect two nearby cities.
and you can basically book business, first and second-class tickets. Note that the high-speed trains generally do not run overnight. The ‘ordinary’ trains are divided into
- Z-Trains run directly to destinations either non-stop or at one or two at major stations.
- T-Trains include more stops at large stations
- K-Trains stop at most middle-to-large stations.
and you can purchase soft sleeper, hard sleeper, soft seat and hard seat tickets (although these options might not all be available on every train. If you buy a soft sleeper ticket you get a berth in a shared, closed compartment for 4 people (with a door). If you buy a hard sleeper ticket you get a berth in a open compartment with 6 berths, which basically means that you are sharing a carriage with 60 or so people. Generally, I prefer the lower berth on long journeys, as it allows one to watch the scenery drift by from one’s berth. A soft seat ticket is basically the equivalent of a second class seat on a European train while a hard seat is exactly what it says and is not necessarily recommended for long journeys.
In addition to these classes of trains there are ‘Ordinary’ and ‘Ordinary Fast’ trains that stop at nearly every station along the way.
For long distances I generally try to book a Z or a T train as this allows me to save on hotel costs. You board the train in the evening, you sleep for several hours and you arrive for breakfast at your next destination. Moreover, if you happen to travel during the day, you get to lie in your birth and watch the world go by. What more do you want.
Ticket can be bought either at the train station/local ticket office (do not forget to bring your passport) or by using an online agency such as Travel China Guide or China Highlights. Tickets are available 28 days in advance at railway stations and 30 days in advance at the online agencies. The online agencies also deliver the tickets to your hotel or hostel in mainland China. Personally I have used China Highlights several times and I have never had any problems. Once, as the train I wanted to book was no longer available they send me an e-mail to sort things out. Similarly to bus stations, people at railway stations or ticket offices seldomly speak English (although I have come across a few) so the same strategy applies as for buses. Alternatively you can ask your hotel/hostel to book the train tickets for you
Finally, a note of caution – make sure you go to the right train station or the correct terminal, especially since the highspeed trains do not necessarily leave from the main stations in the cities. I once turned up at the wrong station and it was only due to the manic driving of a taxi driver that I made it to the correct station in time. For most of the drive I had my eyes closed!! Also some stations, like Chongqing North Station have got two terminals which are relatively far apart and if you turn up at the wrong one you are most likely to miss your train.
When to go?
China being such a huge country the best time to visit slightly depends on where you want to go. The only time I would avoid are the Chinese holidays, especially their summer holidays since during these periods all the major (and not so major) sites are heaving with people. I awlays found September/October to be a good time to travel around China since the temperatures are (still) acceptable in most places.