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China - Getting there & away, getting around

China - Getting there & away

Despite over 115 ports of entry and exit, most visitors to China travel via Hong Kong or Shanghai. The national carrier is the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC, known on international routes as Air China), which also operates a company called Dragonair as a joint venture with the Hong Kong airline Cathay Pacific (bookable through Cathay Pacific worldwide). If you are leaving China by air, there's a departure tax of Y90, payable only in local currency, so be sure you have enough yuan to avoid a last-minute scramble at the airport moneychanging booth.

You can travel to China and back from Europe or Asia without having to leave the ground. Exotic routes include Vietnam-China, the Trans-Siberian railway, Tibet-Nepal, Xinjiang-Pakistan and Xinjiang-Kazakstan - but don't even think about bringing your own car, as foreigners are rarely allowed to drive in China. Other entry points include Zhuhai-Macau, Kashgar-Islamabad (Pakistan) via the Karakoram Highway, Urumqi-Almaty (Kazakstan), Kashgar-Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan), Beijing-Pyongyang (North Korea) and Pinxiang/Hekou-Dong Dang/Lao Cai (Vietnam). You can take a slow boat to China from Japan or South Korea. Popular places to sail to and from include Shanghai, Xiamen (opposite Taiwan), Tanggu (near Tianjin), Macau and - of course - Hong Kong.

Getting around China

Now that private carriers have been allowed to set up operations in China, CAAC has assumed the role of 'umbrella organisation' over airlines including China Eastern, China Southern, China Northern, Great Wall, Yunnan Airlines and several others. There is no such thing as a discount, no matter where you buy your ticket and you'll usually be slugged with an agents commisioning fee. There is an airport tax of Y50 payable on all domestic flights.

Long-distance buses are one of the best means of getting around on the ground; they're frequent and cheap (which also translates as crowded and stuffy) but there's extensive services, passable roads and interesting towns and villages en route. An even better mode is the train, which reaches into every province (apart from Tibet) along a 52,000-km network. It's cheap, relatively fast and a safer proposition than buses; the only dangers on the trains is getting your luggage pinched or dying from shock at the state of the toilets.

As land transport improves, the romantic days of domestic boat travel are fading. But there are still a number of popular boat trips to be had between Hong Kong and the mainland. The best known river trip is the three-day cruise along the Yangzi River from Chongqing to Wuhan.

Taxis don't cruise the streets except in the largest of cities, and while most cabs have meters they usually only get switched on by accident. Motorcycle taxis, motor-tricycles and/or pedicabs hunt in packs around most major train and bus stations. They're a motley bunch, but they're cheap and useful if you don't mind sudden traffic-induced adrenalin rushes. But really, once you've settled in somewhere, the best way to get around is by renting a bike and joining the pedalling throng.

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