Beijing's Capital Airport (Shoudu Jichang), one of three in the city but the only one to see foreigners, and which for now handles all international and nearly all domestic flights, is 25km (16 miles) northeast of the city center (tel. 010/6457-1666, information in Mandarin only; tel. 010/6601-3336 domestic ticketing; tel. 010/6601-6667 international ticketing). The new terminal building, opened in October 2000 and resembling other airports the world over, is straightforward to navigate, with a departures level stacked on top of an arrivals level.
Health declaration and immigration forms are usually supplied in-flight or are available as you approach the immigration counters, which typically take 10 to 15 minutes to clear on arrival. Have the forms completed and your passport ready.
There are no longer Customs declaration forms, and foreigners are rarely stopped. Immediately after Customs, you may be asked to put your larger bags through an X-ray machine, which may or may not be photo-safe.
There are signposted money-changers (branches of various Chinese banks, all of which can help you), ATMs accepting foreign cards (two at arrivals level and two at departures level), and even automated money-changing machines. Exchange rates are the same here as everywhere else, although this may change eventually. So exchange as much currency as you think you'll need, and try to get at least ¥100 in ¥10 notes.
Trains -- Twice-weekly Trans-Siberian services from Moscow (one via Ulaan Baatar in Mongolia, and one via Harbin), weekly services from Ulaan Baatar only, and services from Pyongyang in North Korea (which you'll only take if on a pre-arranged tour) all arrive at Beijing Zhan, Beijing's original main railway station, built with Soviet assistance in the late 1950s to replace one built by the British in 1901. Twice-weekly trains from Hanoi in Vietnam, and trains from Kowloon in Hong Kong which run on alternate days, arrive at the new and far larger but already disintegrating Xi Ke Zhan (also known as Beijing Xi Zhan), the West Station. Neither station has any currency exchange facility or ATM, although there are banks and ATMs accepting foreign cards 5 minutes' walk north of Beijing Zhan, at Citibank next to the Beijing International Hotel, and at the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (HSBC) on the north side of the COFCO shopping complex.
Domestic train services from Shanghai and most of the south, southeast, east, and northeast arrive at Beijing Zhan, which has its own metro station (210) on the circle line, with entrances across the forecourt to the right and left as you leave the railway station. The West Station will gain its own metro connection in a few years' time.
Getting Into Town
Taxis -- You will be pestered by taxi touts as soon as you emerge from Customs. Never go with these people. The signposted taxi rank is straight ahead and has a line that mostly works, although a few people will always try to cut in front of you. Line up at the two-lane rank, and a marshal will direct you to the next available vehicle as you reach the front of the line. Rates are clearly posted on the side of each cab. If you prefer a ¥1.60 (20¢) per-kilometer cab to a ¥2 (25¢) one, you can simply wait for it. After 15km (9 miles), rates increase by 50%, making a higher-priced taxi substantially more expensive, especially if you are heading for the far side of town. If you only want to go to the hotels (such as the Kempinski, Hilton, or Sheraton) in the San Yuan Qiao area, where the Airport Expressway meets the Third Ring Road, your taxi driver may be a bit grumpy, but that's his bad luck.
In a ¥1.60 (20¢) cab, expect to pay under ¥80 ($10) to reach the eastern part of the city and around ¥100 ($13) to reach the central hotels. These estimates include the meter rate and a ¥10 ($1.25) expressway toll, which you'll see the driver pay en route. Fares to the central hotels will increase significantly if you travel during rush hours (8-9am and 3:30-7pm). For most of the day, you can reach hotels on the Third Ring Road within about 30 minutes, and central hotels in about 45 minutes -- the latter trip may rise to more than an hour during rush hours.
Hotel Shuttles -- If you book a hotel room in advance, ask about shuttle services. Some hotels, such as the Kempinski, offer guests free transportation with a regular schedule of departures. The Peninsula Palace Hotel will send a Rolls-Royce for you, but for a fee.
Airport Buses -- Air-conditioned services, run by two different companies, leave from in front of the domestic arrivals area. The Airport Shuttle Bus runs three routes; the most useful, Line A, runs 24 hours a day, departing every 15 minutes from 8am to 10pm, less frequently through the night. The fare is ¥16 ($2). Destinations include San Yuan Qiao (near the Hilton and Sheraton hotels), the Dong Zhi Men and Dong Si Shi Tiao metro stations, Beijing Railway Station, the CAAC ticket office in Xi Dan, and Hangtian Qiao (near the Marriott West). Lines A, B, C, and D all pass through San Yuan Qiao, but only Line A lets off passengers at a location convenient for picking up taxis to continue to other destinations. Most hotels in the center of the city can be reached by taxi for under ¥20 ($2.50) from there. The Civil Aviation Traveler Regular Bus, to the left of the exit, runs the same routes, but it also offers stops at the CAAC ticket office at the north end of Wangfujing Dajie.
Check with your airline for the latest advice, but for international flights make sure you are at the airport at least 1 1/2 hours before departure; 1 hour for domestic flights. As you face the terminal, international departures are to the right, and domestic to the left. Departure tax for international and domestic flights is now included in the price of your ticket. Before joining lines for emigration, pick up and complete a departure card. Have your passport, departure card, and boarding card ready.
Traveling Beyond Beijing
By Plane -- There are daily direct flights from Capital Airport to nearly every major Chinese city, including Shanghai (¥1,130/$141), Guangzhou (¥1,700/$212), Xi'an (¥1,050/$131), Chengdu (¥1,440/$180), and Lhasa (¥2,430/$304). Prices vary widely, according to season and your bargaining skills, and may be reduced to half the amounts quoted here. Much Chinese domestic flying is done on a walk-up basis, but the best discount is never available at the airport. The aviation authority officially permits the airlines to discount to a maximum of 40% on domestic flights, but discounts of 50%, sometimes even more, are not uncommon at ticket agencies.
Tickets for domestic flights (and international flights) on Chinese airlines are best purchased through a travel agent, such as Airtrans (next to the Jianguo Hotel; tel. 010/6595-2255), or in one of two main ticketing halls: the Aviation Building (Minhang Dalou; tel. 010/6601-7755; fax 010/6601-7585; 24 hr.) at Xi Chang'an Jie 15, just east of the Xi Dan metro station; or at the Airlines Ticketing Hall (Minhang Yingye Dating; tel. 010/8402-8198; fax 010/6401-5307; 8am-5pm), opposite the north end of Wangfujing Dajie at Dong Si Xi Dajie 155. Both ticketing halls accept credit cards and offer discounts similar to those of an agent. When pricing tickets, always shop around and always bargain for a discount. And don't expect agents inside major hotels to give you anything like the reductions you'll find elsewhere.
Booking from overseas via websites offering tickets for Chinese domestic flights, most of which do not appear on international ticketing systems, is always a mistake. You'll nearly always be charged the full price, which is generally only paid by a handful of people traveling at peak times at the last minute, and probably a booking fee, too.
Most hotels can arrange tickets for flights on foreign airlines, but they tend to levy hefty service fees. The airline offices themselves do not usually attempt to match the prices offered by agents, but are merely a source of the price to beat elsewhere. Special offers are often published in Xianzai Beijing, a weekly e-mail newsletter (www.xianzai.com), but sometimes agents undercut even these, or they bend the rules on advance booking requirements to give an advance-purchase price at the last minute.
By Train -- The main railway stations are Beijing Railway Station (Beijing Zhan; tel. 010/5182-1114) and West Station (Xi Ke Zhan; schedule information tel. 010/5182-6253). Tickets can be purchased at these stations for any train leaving Beijing up to 4 days in advance, and during the busiest seasons up to 10 days in advance. It is possible to buy round-trip tickets (fancheng piao) to major destinations like Shanghai or Xi'an up to 12 days in advance, subject to availability.
There are now 19 brand new Z (direct) trains connecting with other cities, which depart at night and arrive early the following morning. Cities served are: Changchun, Changsha, Harbin, Hangzhou, Hefei, Nanjing, Shanghai (five trains), Suzhou, Wuhan (four trains), Xi'an, and the newly opened railway station in Yangzhou. All compartments are spanking new, and staff is more enthusiastic than on other services. Television screens have been installed in soft-sleeper compartments, which may disturb your night's rest. Tickets for Z trains may be purchased 20 days in advance.
Satellite ticket offices (tielu shoupiao chu) scattered throughout the city charge a negligible ¥5 (60¢) service fee; convenient branches are just inside the main entrance of the Sanhe Baihuo (department store), south of the Xin (Sun) Dong An Plaza on Wangfujing Dajie (9am-9pm); at the Shatan Shoupiao Chu further north at Ping'an Dadao 45, west of Jiaodaokou Nan Dajie (8am-6pm; tel. 010/6403-6803); and at the Gongti Dong Lu Shoupiao Chu (tel. 010/6509-3783) in San Li Tun, opposite and slightly south of the Workers' Stadium east gate. Tickets for all trains from Beijing can also be booked free of charge at Beijing South Station (Beijing Nan Zhan, tel. 010/6303-0031) and at Beijing North Station (Beijing Bei Zhan, tel. 010/6223-1003), which is more conveniently located just north of the Xi Zhi Men metro station. Ordinary travel agents without computers on the railway system will usually also handle rail-ticket bookings. The fee per ticket should be no more than ¥20 ($2.50), including delivery to your hotel, although some agencies like to take foreign visitors for a ride in more than one sense. Ticket desks in hotels may charge up to ¥50 ($6.25) per ticket. Mandarin speakers can check train times and book tickets using one of several hot lines (tel. 010/9510-5105, 010/5165-3050, or station numbers below).
At Beijing Railway Station (Beijing Zhan; tel. 010/5182-1114), the best place to pick up tickets is the "ticket office for foreigners" inside the soft-berth waiting room on the ground floor of the main hall, in the far left corner (5:30am-11pm). Tickets for both versions of the Trans-Siberian, the Russian K19 via Manchuria (Sat 10:56pm) and the Chinese K3 via Mongolia (Wed 7:40am), must be purchased from the CITS international railway ticket office inside the International Hotel (Mon-Fri 8:30am-noon and 1:30-5pm, weekends 9am-noon and 1:30-4pm; tel. 010/6512-0507) 10 minutes' walk north of the station on Jianguo Men Nei Dajie (metro: Dong Dan). Both trains travel to Moscow (¥2,512/$314 soft sleeper), but only the K3 passes through Mongolia and stops in Ulaan Baatar (¥845/$105). There is a separate train, the K23, which goes to Ulaan Baatar (Sat 7:40am).
At the West Station (Xi Ke Zhan; schedule information tel. 010/5182-6253), the best ticket outlet is not the main ticket hall but a second office inside the main building, on the second floor to the left of the elevators (signposted in English); this is also where you go to purchase tickets for the T97 express to Kowloon/Jiulong (10:06am; 27 hr.; ¥1,028/$129 soft sleeper, ¥662/$83 hard). The West Station is also the starting point for trains to Hanoi, but you have to buy tickets (Thurs, Sun; ¥1,163/$145 soft sleeper only) at a "travel service" booth (9am-4:30pm; tel. 010/6398-9485) inside the Construction Bank on the east side of the station complex. The nearest airport shuttle stops at the Aviation Building in Xi Dan , reachable by bus no. 52 from the station's east side. The taxi rank is on the second floor.
Warning: Larger baggage is X-rayed at the entrances to most Chinese railway and bus stations. Keep film in your hand baggage.
Several major airlines fly to Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Kunming and Hong Kong, budget seats can prove hard to come by. For good offers, book as early as you can.
Particularly busy periods are usually when Chinese students are flying home for Summer, flying back to Universities around the world after Summer or around Chinese New Year (early February). Tickets at these times are often hard to get and/or more expensive.
If you live somewhere like Toronto or San Francisco with a large overseas Chinese community, check for cheap flights with someone in that community. Sometimes flights advertised only in the Chinese newspapers are significantly less.
Tiger Airways and Air Asia offer low-priced flights from Southeast Asia (Bangkok, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Manila) to various destinations in southern China, including Xiamen, Guangzhou, Haikou and Macau.
Oasis Airways is due to start flying in late October 2006, offering cheap no-frills flights between Hong Kong and Europe. Initial route will be Hong Kong to London with fares starting at $1000 HK ($125 US) one way, $6600 HK ($825 US) for business class. Flights to several other European cities plus Oakland and Chicago in the US are planned for later.
Many fliers prefer Asian airlines, which generally have more cabin staff and better service. Hong Kong based Cathay Pacific is an obvious possibility for flights to China. Others include Singapore Airlines, Japan Airlines, and Indonesia's Garuda.
Taiwan-based China Airlines does not fly to mainland China, but their Amsterdam-Bangkok-Taipei-Hong Kong route is sometimes cheaper than more direct flights and stopovers are possible.
Korean Air often have good prices on flights from various places in Asia, such as Bangkok via Seoul to North America. One person on a mailing list reported that taking a train to Southern China, cheap Macau-Bangkok flight, then Korean Air Bangkok-Seoul-LA was $200 cheaper than flying direct Shanghai-LA. Korean Air also fly to a dozen or so Chinese cities, including Shanghai, but we do not know if the big discounts are available there.
China's own airlines are growing rapidly and working hard at becoming highly competitive in both service and pricing. They include China Southern, China Eastern, and Air China.
North American airlines: United Airlines, the dominant US carrier serving China, currently flies to Hong Kong, Beijing, and Shanghai from Chicago and San Francisco. Continental Airlines flies to Hong Kong and Beijing from Newark. Northwest Airlines and American Airlines also fly to China. Air Canada has flights from Toronto and Vancouver to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.
European airlines: Air France flies from Paris to Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai. British Airways goes to Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing. KLM fly direct Amsterdam-Chengdu, as well as to other Chinese cities. Finnish Airlines have a direct Helsinki-Guangzhou flight.
If you are coming into Hong Kong or Macau and then flying on to somewhere in mainland China, consider crossing the border to Shenzhen or Zhuhai and picking up a flight there. These are usually significantly cheaper.
The Trans-Siberian railway originates in Moscow and terminates in Beijing, stopping in various other Russian cities, as well as Ulaan Baator, Mongolia.
From Almaty, Kazakhstan one can travel by rail to Urumqi in the northwestern province of Xinjiang. There are long waits at the border crossing for customs, as well as for changing the wheelbase for the next country's track.
Regular rail service links mainland China with Hong Kong.
There is also a train from Nanning in Guangxi province into Vietnam.
There are four weekly connections between the North Korean capital Pyongyang and Beijing.
For most travellers Hanoi is the origin for any overland journey to China. There are at the moment 3 border gates open for foreigners:
Dong Dang (V) - Pingxiang (C)
You can catch a local bus from Hanoi's eastern bus station (Ben Xe Gia Lam, Ben Xe St., Gia Lam District, Phone: 04/827-1529). That will take you to Lang Son, where you have to switch transport to minibus or motorbike to reach the border at Dong Dang. Alternatively there are many offers from Open-Tour-Providers. If you are in a hurry, they might be a good option for they take you directly from your hotel to the border gate.
You can change money with freelance-money changers, but check the rate carefully and beforehand.
Formalities take about 30 minutes. On the Chinese side, walk up past the "Friendship-gate" and catch a taxi (about Y20, bargain hard!) to Pingxiang, Guangxi. A seat in a minibus is Y5. There is a Bank of China branch right across the street from the main bus station. You can use maestro-cards on the ATM.
You can either travel by bus or train to Nanning.
Lao Cai (V) - Hekou (C)
Mong Cai (V) - Dongxing (C)
At Dongxing, you can take a bus to Nanning, a sleeper bus to Guangzhou (approximately Y180), or a sleeper bus to Shenzhen (approximately Y230, 12 hours).
From Luang Namtha you can get a bus leaving at around 8 a.m. going to Boten (Chinese border) and Mengla. You need to have a Chinese visa beforehand as there is no way to get one on arrival. The border is close (about 1 hr). Customs procedures will eat up another good hour. The trip costs about 45k Kip.
Also, there is a direct Chinese sleeper bus connection from Vientiane to Kunming (about 32 hours). You can jump in this bus at the border, when the minibus from Luang Namtha and the sleeper meet. Don't pay more than Y200, though.
The Karakoram Highway from northern Pakistan into Western China is one of the most spectacular roads in the world. It's closed for tourists for a few months in winter.
The road from Nepal to Tibet passes near Mount Everest, and through amazing mountain scenery. Entering Tibet from Nepal is only possible for tourists on package tours.
There is regular ferry and hovercraft service between various points on the mainland, such as Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Zhuhai to Hong Kong and Macau.
There is a 2-day ferry service from Shanghai and Tianjin to Osaka, Japan. Service is once or twice weekly, depending on season.
A twice-weekly ferry also connects Qingdao to Shimonoseki.
To South Korea
There is a ferry service from Shanghai and Tianjin to Incheon, the main port of South Korea. Another line is from Qingdao or Weihai to Incheon.