Go Travel China | A survival guide to the Chinese bus conundrum

If you want to go off-the-beaten-path travel destinations, visit ancient and ethnic villages in rural China and enjoy pollution-free air far from overcrowded cities, planes and trains will get you near your destination, but you will have to take a bus.

Here is a post about traveling by bus. Here, I focus essentially on the basics : choosing the right bus stations, how to buy a ticket, demystifying Chinese bus schedules and other bus-essential things to know.

Choosing the right bus station

China by bus

All cities and towns have several bus stations, some are destination-oriented and some are not. The ‘where should I take my bus’ has no obvious answer and sometimes asking locals is useless, simply because they don’t take the bus much. In general, guide books have the main bus stations and their destinations covered. It’s not always the case however. Here are a few general tendencies to take into consideration :

  • Bus stations have moved out from the cities’ downtown core. They are located next to ring roads and highways. This system allows for getting rid of bus traffic in city downtown, but getting to and from these bus stations can be long and costly.
  • Large cities have kept their old bus stations within the city center. They are usually located near the main train station.
  • With the development of high-speed railway network, some high-speed train station (usually located way out of cities) are emerging into train-to-bus transportation hub.
  • Many bus stations are ‘destination-oriented’, but not always.
    For example, Guiyang East bus station has bus leaving to eastern Guizhou destinations only like Kaili, Congjiang, Liping, Zhenyuan, Tongren.
    From Kunming,  if you want to go to Jianshui, Wenshan or Xishuangbanna, you will have to go to Kunming South bus station. If you want to head to Dali, Lijiang, Zhongdian or Tengchong, you will have to go to Kunming West station.
  • In small towns, there is usually a long-distance bus station outside of town and several smaller destination-oriented bus terminal for local destinations in the town itself.
  • Many small towns have only one bus station for local and regional destinations. In front or near these bus stations, you will find a micro-bus (mianbao che 面包车) or tuk-tuk (sanlun che 三轮车) service that provides cheap rides to nearby villages.

Reading timetables

Bus Timetable in Liping, Guizhou

Bus Timetable in Liping, Guizhou

  • Upon arrival to your destination, it’s not a bad idea to ask about bus schedule to your next destination. If you are on a day-trip, find out when is the last bus.
  • Many bus stations do not have comprehensive bus timetables like the one on the picture above and everything is in Chinese. You will need to be able to visually recognize the Chinese characters of the name of the place you want to go to.
  • Some bus stations have a ‘information desk’ (咨询台), but not always. Of course, the desk employee does not speak English and if you disturb them during their nap / while they are texting, they may be cranky and not be very helpful.
  • Never take a “mei you” – there is isn’t – for granted. Even bus station employees do not know everything.

Here are some clues on how to read to timetable on the picture above :

  1. The first column gives you the destination (终点站). It will give you a headache if you don’t read Chinese. Have some aspirins ready.
  2. The second gives the mileage in kilometers (里程).
  3. The third column (日发班), gives the daily (每日) amount of buses (班) heading to the destination.
  4. The fourth column gives the scheduled departure time. Do not assume that what you see is the current and most updated schedule! For regional destinations with frequent buses you see the following : “6点至13点每班间隔40分” which means that between 6 AM and 1 PM, there is a bus every 40 minutes.
  5. The last column gives the route (which is an indication whether the bus will take a newly built highway or an old bumpy road). Some buses specify : 全程高速 – highway all the way.

Some bus station classify destination by province and direction (方向). For example, in Sanjiang, a town in north Guangxi province and bordering on Guizhou and Hunan, destination are listed by direction (whether they’re heading to Guizhou, Hunan or to the south of the province.  In any case, being able to recognize the name of key Chinese cities, the place you are heading to and provinces can be very useful.

Purchasing bus tickets

China by bus

So you made it to the right bus station to buy your ticket, possibly in advance.
Your first task will be to find the ticket hall usually indicated by the sign “售票厅” or “售票处”. Here are a few things you should know :

  • You are allowed to buy bus tickets in advance in the cities. In rural areas, it is not always necessary to do so and this service is sometimes not offered.
  • If you know there is a high bus frequency between two places, you don’t need to buy your ticket in advance. Just show up early at the bus station. Sometimes, going all the way to a bus station to buy your ticket for the next day will cost you a lot of time and money.
  • Unlike the train system, there is no national-wide comprehensive and reliable bus timetable you can check to plan your trip. Many bus stations offer to buy tickets online or via an app. Do so if you read Chinese perfectly and have a Chinese bank account.
  • You thought there would be multiple buses between Yangshuo and Wuzhou?  That there are many buses between two close towns ? … Think again. In general it’s easy to find quickly a ticket for your next destination, but get psychologically ready to be frustrated, change your travel plan or make a detour.
  • Bus stations employees and people who sell bus tickets are not always the happiest and helpful people on earth. There are exceptions to this rule though.
  • In rural areas, you don’t always need to buy a ticket. You will pay on board.
Sample of bus ticket

Sample of bus ticket

This is a typical bus ticket without English nor pinyin.
It gives the usual suspects :

Station of departure and arrival. In some cases, the name of the bus station of arrival (instead of the city) is written on it.

date of departure (乘车日期),
time of departure (发车时间),
bus number (车次) and, very important your
seat number (座位号). In small buses in the countryside, nobody cares about the seat number.

The ticket also gives (but not always) the bus license plate (云L34637), so you can find it easily.

Hidden by the stamp the word ‘检票口‘ which refers to the ‘boarding gate‘.

On queuing

  • In cities, people have become more “civilized and harmonious” and have accepted the idea that queuing is better than joining a messy pack of dozens of people around the ticket counter pushing each other to be the next.
  • In the countryside, you will have people cutting in line (if there is a line). When it’s your turn, taking advantage of the fact that you are a foreigner to push you and buy a ticket (people actually do that). The key is to put your money right under the nose of the ticket lady and say where you want.

Regular bus vs Sleeper bus

Most buses are regular buses with seats which comfort and cleanliness vary.

  • Sleeper bus are quite popular for very long distance. Sleeper bus are shifted regular buses with three rows of narrow double-bunks. They are not very comfortable (it’s a euphemism).
  • If you are planning to ride straight from Kunming to Shangrila (12 hours) and don’t want to lose a day in the bus, you may want to get on a sleeper bus (卧车 woche). In general, most buses that leave late afternoon or evening to a far away place are sleeper bus.
  • If you are a tall Caucasian traveler, sensitive to the smell of feet and claustrophobic,  you may want to reconsider riding a sleeper bus. I met North American travelers who just love them, but I tend to I avoid them like the plague. Then again, it always is an unforgettable travel experience and some people have masochist tendencies.
A sleeper bus, viewed from a upper middle bunk.

A sleeper bus, viewed from an upper middle bunk.

Refund and change of schedule

  • Refund and change of time of departure is in theory possible. Each station and bus operator has its own rule. You will need to be able to speak basic Chinese.
  • Refund (退票 tuipiao) is in theory possible in every bus station before and after the scheduled departure time against a small ‘administration fee’. They will not refund you the full price of the ticket and if you ask for refund after the scheduled departure time.
  • Change of schedule (改票 gaipiao) is also possible. Again, it’s up to the policy of the bus station. I was once in Hunan asking to change my departure time (from 9 AM to 8 AM) and the ticket lady was puzzled. She had to fill a form, have it stamped by someone else who had to show it to someone else and if approved I was able to change my ticket. So, I decided to get a refund and buy another ticket. I lost 5 RMB in the transaction for ‘administration fee’.
No comment

No comment

Departing : security check and waiting room

  • All bus stations have airport-like security check and all passengers are required to have their bags screened (in theory). In cities you can’t really avoid it. In the countryside, however, you can easily skip it.
  • In theory, you have to check your gate number (检票口) on your ticket and have your ticket checked at the correct gate to enter the bus. Again, in large, well-organized bus stations in cities, this system works very well, but in the countryside it’s another story.
  • Bus stations Waiting rooms in the Chinese countryside are probably the most fantastic places to be stuck for a couple of hours, specially in rural areas. Don’t you think?
Waiting room at Kaili bus station, Guizhou.

Waiting room at Kaili bus station, Guizhou.

If you need more specific information, want to add more tips and share bus-related stories, leave a comment.

There are 6 comments

  1. buntymcc

    Intimidating, to say the least. But very thorough, clear and well illustrated, and entertaining. I would definitely want to be able to read Chinese before attempting this.

    1. Gaetan

      I am glad you like this post. Taking the bus in China can be difficult for first time, independent travelers. The Lonely Planet gives very thorough information about the different bus stations in the major cities. When I first started traveling in China and did not speak a word of Chinese, I had a ‘Speak Chinese in 40 lessons’ which was very useful to get around. Also there are apps now for smartphone (like Pleco) that have Chinese character recognition and the Google translation app is actually pretty good for basic sentences.
      Reading (and being able to write) Chinese is actually easier than most people think. In addition there are quantities of good quality website that will help you teach yourself enough Chinese for you to be able to get around without much trouble.

      1. pbrasser

        There are simple things you could do if you do not speak Chinese, like me, make some simple card, like where is the bus to ……. And on a other card the name of the place. Gaetan suggestion to use Pleco is something we going to try this time, we normally use the lonely planet phrase book plus cards with questions we think likely to ask. Ask your hotel, guesthouse to write down the places or simple questions.

        To my experience, not speaking Chinese should not prevent you to travel this beautifull country, it wil take maybe a bit longer and maybe sometimes you end up in a different place, but that is the charm from traveling and who knows what little gems you maybe discover.

        Chinese can be a bit shy and sometimes they can not read or do not understand the question, the problem for us is to recognise that, but if you get only smiles and laughter you should try someone else, in general china is very safe compared with many other countries. Don’t wait start traveling as soon you have the time, the china from today is changing rapidly

      2. Gaetan

        Thank you Peter for this comment. You are entirely right. When I started traveling in China I did not speak Chinese, but with a phrase book I used to write the name of the city I wanted to go to on a piece of paper.
        Take advantage as much as you can of Chinese people who speak English. Many will come to you to practice their English and they will help you write down anything you need on a piece of paper.
        Pleco (available in the for IOS and Android) can be very useful for travelers who don’t speak Chinese. The basic dictionary is free, but the optical character recognizer costs 14.99 – I haven’t tested it personally.
        The language barrier makes traveling in China a challenging adventure everyday, on every level. Food, buying tickets, accomodation. That’s the beauty of it. A lot of Chinese do speak English, they are just to shy to talk. You don’t know how many times Chinese people say to each other :’Hey, there is a foreigner. Can you speak English to him?” And the other person replies “I don’t dare speak English to him, my English is so bad”. I hear this almost every day.
        China IS a very safe country to travel.

  2. pbrasser

    maybe you have find the ultimate cure for the masochist……. take the sleeper bus!
    re the destinations off the beaten path and the often confusion between old town and new town with the same name and because they are not always in walking distance from each other, what would be in english the best description, historic town, old town, or…..? and what would that be in simple chinese?

    1. Gaetan

      Haha! China is a complex country. In Chinese, new town is xincheng or xinqu (新城 / 新区). The old town laocheng (老城) is not the ‘ancient town’ with cobble-stone streets and Ming – Qing dynasties building, rather, the laocheng is the communist era grey concrete blocks (in smaller towns). The ‘ancient town’ and ‘ancient village’ are called guzhen (古镇), or gucheng (古城) and gucun (古村). The word gu means ‘ancient’.
      If you ask were is the guzhen and they say mei you (there isn’t any), ask for an old street laojie (老街) or even ancient building gulao de jianzhuwu (古老的建筑物) and ask several people.
      I have no idea why the old town and the new town are not within walking distance. We’ll have to get inside the head of the city planners.
      Once I complained to a taxi driver that some Chinese cities were badly designed, specially roads. He laughed and told me that the people in charge of urban planning were born during the Cultural Revolution and did not go to school …
      Hope this answer your question.

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