In my time in China, I have visited much of the country- 14 of the 23 provinces plus Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan- with many unique experiences I would not have seen in Shanghai.
Hong Kong and Macao are “Special Autonomous Regions” and require passports to enter. Chinese citizens must obtain visas- but not Americans! Despite the US’s long-standing “One China Policy”, Taiwan is a separate country in all ways, with an elected democratic government. The capital of Taipei is a direct 2 hour flight from Shanghai, and is very nice, surrounded by mountains. It is a clean and thoroughly developed modern city and country, quite a contrast to mainland China.
Traveling in China- across the street or across the country- is an adventure and can be downright dangerous. As you may recall from past blogs, paying constant attention is essential. Crosswalks mean nothing, you must put your head on a swivel, constantly looking around for vehicles- especially taxis and scooters- running red lights and going the wrong direction.
I have been fortunate to never see a serious accident. My uncle came to visit China recently and was not so lucky, witnessing 2 fatal pedestrian accidents. I often say that not having seen an accident is proof of God’s existence, since divine intervention is the only logical explanation there aren’t more. You have to see intersections to understand what we mean, 30 scooters running a red light with cars and buses coming right at them. Somehow everyone brakes and swerves around each other. It is not the craziest place I have ever seen- that distinction falls to India where roads are total anarchy- but China is a respectable second.
Unlike the US, where we travel mostly by car or plane, Chinese and most other countries rely on many methods. Walking is not just for people too poor to own a car. I was in Los Angeles recently for a trade show, and the Americans (myself included, I hate to admit) drove our rental cars or took a taxi from the hotel to the convention center, even though it was only a mile away. Our Chinese co-workers, who arrived later, walked without giving it a second thought.
Having visited large cities all over the world, walking in combination with public transportation is usually the best way to get around, both for sightseeing and practical everyday use.
Traveling- in China and elsewhere- is quite logical and is relatively consistent with distance:
|1 to 10 miles||Electric scooter, Subway, or City Bus (sometimes Taxi)|
|10 to 20 miles||Personal car or Taxi|
|20 to 250 miles||High speed train, or personal car|
|250 to 500 miles||High speed train; Bus or plane if limited rail connections|
|Over 500 miles||Fly (poorer people take bus and train trips of several days)|
Several of the engineers on my team have daily commutes of about 90 minutes– each way. They walk 10-15 minutes to a bus stop, take 1 or 2 buses to the subway station, then the subway the rest of the way to our office, changing trains once or twice. Fortunately, our office is located across the street from a station on the main east-west subway line.
Subways are convenient but are often packed, on weekends as well as rush hour. The individual lines and stops are marked in Chinese and English, by number, and by color, so you have 3 ways to figure out the right train and where to go. The subway is the best travel value by far. The minimum fare is 3 yuan (less than 50 cents), the maximum fare for a 90 minute ride across the city is about $1.50.
Passengers are aggressive, shoving their way onto the train before people have a chance to exit, and pushing and shoving from the train to the exits. Forming a line is virtually non-existent in China, but the behavior is cultural, and is definitely not considered rude. With so many people, Chinese seem to have an ingrained aggressiveness to get what they need. It permeates Chinese society, from yelling at waitresses, to pushing and shoving, to copying others’ work (that will be the subject of a future blog).
I commuted daily on the subway when I was here last summer and fall, and use it occasionally now. The constant shoving in public places has been one of the tougher adjustments to living in China. I often stopped at Starbucks on my way to the station, and used hot coffee as a shield against being pushed. It actually worked quite well!
Only about 10% of the Chinese population has a car, mostly using them for family trips, and less so for daily commuting. As car sales increase past 20 million per year (with China now the largest car market in the world), personal mobility will increase rapidly. In large cities such as Shanghai where traffic is already bad and air quality is horrendous, I cannot imagine how it will be in 10 years. Like most of the world, driving is expensive in China, considering gas (equivalent to $6-7 per gallon), tolls, and in large cities, parking.
Taxi rides can be hair raising. The taxis are poorly maintained, the drivers drive like maniacs at high speed (and I’m not known as a timid driver myself) on bald tires and worn out shocks, changing lanes and blowing the horn constantly. Buckle up, don’t eat a heavy meal first, and say your prayers are all good advice for taxi rides. The locals, of course, are so used to it, they don’t notice anything unusual.
We often depend on company cars with drivers provided by customers as we travel, rental cars are uncommon (I’ve never been in one in all my time here). Trips from the airport to factories and company offices are nearly as good as an amusement park ride. Routes weave and wind through cities (a great way to see the real China up close) and on modern freeways equivalent to any in the US. Highways can suddenly end for construction, and we find ourselves on rocky, dirt roads in the construction zone. These drivers often aren’t much different than Shanghai taxi drivers, hardly slowing down for obstacles.
Because the highway system was mostly built in the last 10-15 years instead of being developed over several decades, they have been tacked on top of the cities. The freeways are elevated, soaring 50 – 100 feet in the air, passing close to buildings, and the elevation provides for nice views. Bridges are modern and architecturally appealing- one of our pleasant surprises in Shanghai has been the amazing architecture throughout the city.
As for the cars themselves, the Chinese car companies have all set up joint ventures with global companies. VW and GM are the largest, cars are a mix of numerous local brands and international ones that you would recognize. Ironically Buick, which has struggled in the US, is GM’s leading brand here, along with Chevrolet. Ford and Chrysler were slower to expand to China. German luxury cars are very common with the newly rich of China, and driving one is not considered showing off, but is a sign of accomplishment. We have seen two Aston Martin dealers in the Pudong District of Shanghai alone. Style and quality are rapidly improving on Chinese built cars, but there is still a significant gap between the local and global companies, similar to Japan and Korea 20-40 years ago.
We saw our first Chinese car dealership outside China when we were in Tasmania, but whether we will see Chinese cars in the US is definitely a subject of debate. I personally think it is inevitable, maybe a decade from now. Consumers invariably purchase the lowest cost product they can find, hence Wal-Mart and other discount retailers’ successes. Countering that argument is the lack of success of Chinese brands to expand globally. Lenovo computers is the notable exception, but it got a jump-start by purchasing IBM’s personal computer business. Volvo cars is also now owned by the Chinese car maker Geely.
In 2010, I drove across Lake Pontchartrain (north of New Orleans) on what was then the world’s longest road bridge. But it is now #2 and soon to be #3. Last summer, my colleagues and I rode across the new title holder just a few days after it opened, an amazing 26.4 mile long bridge! (see the link below for photos of it). But another bridge in Guangdong Province (near Hong Kong and Macau) will open in 2016 that will be 30 miles long!
There are long distance buses between cities, and I have been in bus factories that make 2 level buses with beds on the upper level. But I have never ridden one, even my co-workers scoff at them as slow and uncomfortable. They are cheaper than trains, and only the poorest Chinese appear to ride them. Buses are everywhere in Chinese cities, subways were only built in the last few years.
There are several passenger ferries in Shanghai- they are the only pedestrian way to cross the Huangpu River from Puxi (Old Shanghai) to Pudong (New Shanghai). They are a great value, 0.5 yuan for a one way ticket, about 6 cents! Double that if you are bringing your bicycle, and 2.5 yuan for scooters. The 5 minute trip across the river provides great views- Jenna always insists on going to the upper deck. From our apartment we watch them dodge river traffic all day long.
Bicycles are still prevalent- there are millions in Shanghai, used by everyone from school age children riding multilane highways to police on their way to work to construction workers to professional females in dresses (which I’ve also seen in Europe, definitely not unique to China). Bikes are stolen often, so they are usually old and rusty beaters. I only ride my bike for fun and exercise, and never leave it out of sight if I do stop somewhere. There is a great cycling community here, both expats and locals, but I have a new appreciation for what I used to consider as boring rides amongst the corn fields of Indiana.
The high speed rail network is definitely the shining star of traveling in China. Trains are clean, fast, efficient, and very comparable to those in Western Europe. The major difference is the service. In Europe, there is a wide variety of food and drink, both in the stations and on-board. In China, there are few dining options, with just an unappetizing microwaved rice and beef dish and a few drinks. The stations are as packed as subways, with literally thousands of people milling around inside and out.
The train stops in the station for less than 5 minutes, and you join several hundred other people getting on. But the speeds are impressive, the newest trains travel 300 kph (~185mph) with an extremely smooth ride, comfortable seats, and power outlets for your laptop. It is definitely my favorite way to travel in any country.
Just saying where you are going can be fun as well. Some city names are hard to pronounce but my favorite trip was going from Hefei (“Hu fay”) to Wuhu (“Woo hoo”)!
As you enter a train station, after having your ID verified (foreigners must have their passport), you go through an airport style metal detector, but everyone sets it off. The manual check with a hand-held metal detector is nothing more than a quick swipe- which itself goes off- and then you are waved through. What the purpose is, I have no idea.
The Maglev (Magnetic Levitation) train in Shanghai is a bucket list item for anyone remotely interested in train travel. It is powered solely by magnets (no motor or wheels) and is the world’s fastest regular service train, peaking at 431kph (268mph), with banked curves and a very smooth ride. I bragged about it incessantly and when the girls finally rode it, they were surprisingly impressed, asking when we could take it again. Unfortunately, there is only a single line, running about 20 miles from the Shanghai airport towards the city. It is convenient enough that I ride it regularly when I travel for business, only about $7 one-way.
Flying is not much different than the US. Since overall air traffic volume is still relatively low and there are many large Chinese cities, it is more convenient with direct flights instead of the “hub and spoke” connections we are used to. Private aircraft, however, are rare. The US has over 50% of the entire world’s private airplanes, so private pilots and 4-6 seat Cessna type planes are uniquely American. That is starting to change with the increasing wealth of China.
On commercial flights, most of the same security rules apply such as no liquids, etc. but you don’t have to remove belts or shoes. Just like train stations, the metal detectors are set so sensitively that nearly everyone sets them off. Unlike the train stations, the pat-down searches with hand-held metal detectors are very thorough and would result in news stories and lawsuits in the US. To call them frisky is an understatement. I am very ticklish, and it is often all I can do not to burst out laughing.
Almost all flights are on jets, but one recent trip was on a turboprop (propeller) driven plane that seats about 50. I have ridden these many times in the US, they are noisy, bumpy, and slow but fortunately the flights are not much more than an hour. Out of curiosity, in the middle of the flight I asked my 2 co-workers if they had ever been on a propeller driven plane. Neither had, and our Chinese sales manager, without even turning his head to look at me, quickly replied “don’t talk to me right now, I am very nervous!” You have to know Robert, but I nearly laughed out loud at him!
Security signs are also a source of humor. I was in the city of Kunming recently, and next to signs for no knives, no lighters, etc. was a sign for- I am not making this up– no refrigerators! Well that explains why my carryon felt so heavy, I wonder who stuck one in. . .
Planes, trains, automobiles, boats, subways, buses, bicycles, walking: each one is an experience unto itself when traveling in China.