I've got (no idea how to get) a ticket to ride
April 29, 2006 8:57 AM   Subscribe

I'm heading off to China in August to do some volunteer work in a rural area near Xi’an. Can anyone help me work out how to get there and what to do once the project is over?

I'm heading off to China in August to do some volunteer work in a rural area near Xi’an. Can anyone help me work out how to get there and what to do once the project is over?

Trying to get a direct flight from the UK into Xi’anyang (XIY) airport seems to be pretty complex.: the quoted prices are crazy, and all involve at least one changeover. It would appear to be much cheaper to fly direct to Beijing and catch a train on to Xi'an (found a good site on China's railways here) where I should be able to get a lift from the project organiser. As a fairly inexperienced international traveller unable to speak the language, is it realistic to expect to be able to land in Beijing, get to the station and just hop on a train? Alternatively, I could fly in to Shanghai and travel on from there.

The project lasts for a month, and once it's finished I'd need to make my way back to Beijing for the return flight. I've got no job to return to, so I could stay in the country as long as finances/visa allow (can I stay for more than a month on a type L tourist visa, as long as I have an outgoing flight booked?). Does anyone have any ideas on (inexpensive) things to see/do while heading in that direction (rather than stuff to do while in Beijing). I'd want to avoid the roads as much as possible, I think, given China's record on road safety and my general clumsiness.

Also, any tips on how to travel/eat/stay relatively cheaply, or anything at all China related for a first-time traveller would be greatly appreciated.
posted by boosh to Travel & Transportation around , China (7 answers total)
 
If you book your flight from Beijing to xi'an separately from the UK to beijing flight for some reason it's alot cheaper, (at least using Flychina.com, booked together the total price was about 1400USD, booked separately the total price was 670 for the Heathrow beijing flight and 314 for the Beijing xi'an flight). For convenience you should definitely fly into Beijing instead of Shanghai. If you talk to a knowledgeable travel agent you could probably get a cheaper price as well.

If you want to take the train it will probably be cheaper but it will be a big hastle. Neither Beijing train station is near the airport so that mean that you will probably spend at least 50 on a taxi and you have to figure out how to book your train ticket. Then you have to negotiate the train station which is crawling with migrant workers. Then after that you probably have at least a two day train trip, where you will probably make some good friends but you wouldn't be very comfortable.

As for your visa if you wanted to stay in China for a over a month the easiest way is to get an F "business" visa. These are generally valid for 6 months. Since you are going to china to do volunteer work you may actually be able to get one of these in England. If you can't get it in england you can buy one in shanghai for about 100USD.

As for traveling around there are too many places to mention. If you have the opportunity it is really worth it to go out to the western regions of Xinjiang or tibet.
posted by afu at 9:45 AM on April 29, 2006


Then after that you probably have at least a two day train trip, where you will probably make some good friends but you wouldn't be very comfortable.

I'll grant you all the points about the train being a hassle; the train stations in China are always crowded and something of an adventure, especially if you're travelling alone and don't speak or read any Chinese.

That said, I really doubt it's two days on the train from Beijing to Xi'an. I've taken the train from Guangzhou to Xi'an, and that was, oh, 20 hours or so.

Also, the Xi'an airport is a goodly distance outside the city (but a lot nicer than the Xi'an train station), so if you need to meet somebody actually in Xi'an city, you'll have to hire a cab or ride the bus.

If you get some tourist time in Xi'an, everybody knows about the Terra Cotta Warriors, but I thought the Forest of Steles was at least as impressive, in an understated sort of way.

And, FWIW, my rules for happy living in China that aren't usually in the tourist guides:

There is no 5 second rule in China. If it touches anything but your chopsticks or rice bowl, don't pick it up.

Speaking of chopsticks, if you don't know how to eat with them, learn before you go. Get a bag of regular M&Ms, and only eat the ones you pick up with the chopsticks. Even if you can't speak any Chinese, being able to eat with chopsticks will earn you some points with people you meet, and save you from having to haul silverware around.

If you've got long shoelaces, double knot them so the ends don't drag on the ground, because the ground is quite often nasty.

Wash your hands before and after using the bathroom. Would you rub Mr. Happy on the doorknob?

Don't root around in your mouth with your fingers; you know damn well where your fingers have been. Would you lick the handrail, money, etc?

Carry a roll of toilet paper with you everywhere. Restaraunts also hand out little napkin packs, keep a couple of those handy, too.

I always carry a tiny thing of hand sanitizer (Purell or the like) and a few Pepto-Bismol chewable tablets around with me.

Get your shots before you go, especially if you're going native. In the US now, there's a spiffy Hepatitis A & B vaccine that I got a couple of years ago; you might be ok with an immune globulin shot, though, if you're not going to be there too long. Have a chat with your doctor; you might want others (Malaria perhaps) as well.

Personally, I'd bring some kind of small gift for the people I know there. If you do that, make sure that what you get wasn't made in China in the first place (bring something local from your home).
posted by doorsnake at 11:14 AM on April 29, 2006


Beijing to Xi'an on the train is 12 to 16 hours, depending on the class of train. Here's a schedule I found accurate three months ago. Train rides are also rather cheap, I think I recall paying something around or below 400 RMB for hard sleeper, which isn't super-comfortable, but if you don't take the bottom bunk, you won't need to interact with anyone you don't want to meet.

Beijing airport to train station (trains to Xi'an leave from the west station) should be doable for a foreigner equipped with a Lonely Planet China volume. Taxis are dirt cheap, and you get by well enough without a word of Chinese if you can point to the name of the place you want to go. I didn't buy train tickets in Beijing myself, but in Xi'an the people at the ticket counter speak English well enough.

While the train stations ARE crowded and you do indeed spend a lot of time croweded together with Chinese, China might not be the place for you if that's a situation you're afraid of.
posted by themel at 11:53 AM on April 29, 2006


doorsnake makes some great points. I would add that you might want to bring extra deodorant, cold meds, antacid and the hand sanitizer that doorsnake suggests. Most people that live in China for any amount of time say they would have brought less clothes since they are so cheap here.

Yeah, the train is an easy overnighter that runs nightly from Beijing to Xi'an. I recently traveled with a visiting friend and recall that we, (she, I'm to cheap), paid for soft sleepers for a few hundred each. The car was filled with French seniors on a group tour.

Xi'an. Hmm. Let me begin this by telling you not to be afraid but to be very aware of yourself in Xi'an as my two experiences there are that they will price gouge and overcharge you whenever possible. They do this to Chinese tourists as well, it is just the nature of their local economy. The train station is at the North Gate of the City Wall, (restored and shiny new but still cool to see early in the morning like you'll arrive), and a taxi on the meter will run about 7-10rmb all the way to the South Gate. I'm even being generous, it cost us 6rmb in November but only after I turned down several cabs who wanted >35rmb. My friend was ready to pay, her with her fat American money, but I wouldn't allow it.

Also, if you carry a bag cross yor body with it and keep the bag in front. Same with a backpack. In a short visit to the Muslim Quarter we were trailed by a theif for a while and it isn't uncommon in Xi'an although the penalties for a crime against a foreigner are pretty harsh most of these guys are confident they won't get caught. I lost, (gave? I wasn't careful enough), a digital camera last year beneath the Bell Tower. Be aware of yourself at all times, especially so in crowded places.

A Lonely Planet would be a great thing to have but don't be tempted to buy the new edition Chinese Phrasebook, it is atrocious - read the reviews. There are a few phrases in the back of the LP and even as you learn to say a few simple phrases the Chinese are generally very appreciative. You might even check out ChinesePod for free spoken Chinese lessons in mp3 format. Some of them are very basic and can be quite useful. As far as gifts, bring a few coins from home, (I have rolls of pennies and nickels and they are always glad to get one and I don't worry about it's value), or since you are coming from the UK, maybe some British tea.

Exit strategy? Depending on finances, I'd head from there to Tibet then fly into Chengdu to see the Pandas and such then head over to Shanghai, (maybe the boat trip from Chongqing to Wuhan for part of that leg), before going up to Beijing for your return flight.

My email is in my profile. Have a great time!
posted by geekyguy at 5:46 PM on April 29, 2006


doorsnake makes some great points. I would add that you might want to bring extra deodorant, cold meds, antacid and the hand sanitizer that doorsnake suggests. Most people that live in China for any amount of time say they would have brought less clothes since they are so cheap here.

Yah, bring a medicine cabinet along; anti-diarrhea is another good one (Immodium or the like). Oh, and sore throat drops, lots of 'em (I'm partial to the "Ricola" ones, I buy a Costco mega-pak). In August, the air in Xi'an will probably not be great; I was there during October, and the pollution made my throat scratchy.

One thing I've found pretty easily in China is contact lens stuff (solution, rewetting drops, etc). Never looked in Xi'an, but that stuff is easily had in Guangzhou.

The only exception I'd suggest to "bring less clothes" is shoes, especially if you have big feet. And "big feet" aren't really very big in China; I wear a size UK 10 1/2 Europe 45 US 11 and shoes are really hard for me to find in China.
posted by doorsnake at 7:04 PM on April 29, 2006


I took a sleeper train from Beijing to Xi'an with a friend and it was a fine, somewhat comfortable trip, (we booked First Class tickets, which gets you a sleeper car that sleeps four people per car, on tiny bunk beds). However, it took us 4 separate tries to actually get the train ticket. We didn't use a travel agent when we were in China and we went to two separate train stations 3 different times. I didn't speak chinese and my friend only spoke minimal basic Chinese and each time, we couldn't communicate enough to find out the schedule or book a ticket. And the main train station was completely packed, chaotic, and frenetic. A couple of clerks who could speak some minimal English kept telling us to come back on another day. Finally, we ended up going to the American Express office in Beijing and they booked us on a kind of standby (they basically got a ticket for five days later but were only able to give us one night's notice). So it wasn't easy getting the ticket.
posted by gt2 at 12:17 AM on April 30, 2006


Thanks for your responses guys, this is all great advice.

geekyguy: ChinesePod is an amazing resource. I've just finished downloading 160ish free lessons from them via BitTorrent. Many thanks for the link.
posted by boosh at 2:08 PM on May 2, 2006


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