The Joy of the Journey

Traveling on the east coast is easy.  You hop on a high speed train and go!  The trains are affordable, fast and run constantly.  It’s one of the perks of living in such a densely populated area. 

They’re comfy too!!!

Of course, traveling on the east coast can be quite different from traveling in central or western China, where things aren’t as well connected by high speed train. 

All those red and blue lines represent routes.  Many of those routes have trains leaving several times every day.
Gansu only has 1 train running through it, and it doesn’t go anywhere we’ve been traveling.  This is part of why we skipped this part of Gansu last October.

Fortunately, the high speed train isn’t the only way to get around.  Your other options you have pros and cons though, so I’ll do my best to outline them for you here. 

Hire a Driver

Our driver in Labrang, right before we set out for Langmusi.  He tied up our luggage onto his roof like a pro!

The Benefits

Hiring a driver certainly has a few perks.  You can generally book them a few days in advance, and they’re typically pretty easy to find.  Drivers are usually hanging out outside train stations and bus stations hoping for fairs, and many hotels have drivers that they can recommend as well, so you can always ask at front reception, whereever you’re staying.   

A business card that was handed to us as we left the bus in Labrang.

If you hire a private driver, you can also bargain (especially if you book them on your own), and you can usually get a reasonably good price.  Depending on how many people you are putting in the car (or van), there is sometimes more room than there is on the bus too, which can be really nice. 

Please don’t be a jerk though!  Keep in mind that these drivers are driving you there and back, and also possibly waiting around while you sight see.  Find a good price, but don’t take advantage!

Pit stops are another nice perk for hiring a private driver.  You can pull over if you see some random interesting thing, and if the driver is particularly good, they might stop at interesting places you wouldn’t have known about otherwise.  Our driver to Qinghai was a bit crazy on the roads, but he did stop in a few cool destinations.

The best part of hiring a driver, in my opinions, is that they pick you up wherever you’d like, and they’ll drop you off right at your hotel.  With buses or trains, you get dropped off at a station or depot, so it’s really nice not having that extra bit of travelling to do after you’ve arrived in your destination city. 

The Drawbacks

Even with all the advantages, hiring a driver might actually be my least favourite way to travel.  If you’re stuck sitting in the back, it can be really cramped (unless you’re travelling as a couple, and they aren’t picking up other fares).  The standard of vehicles can really differ as well, because you’re hiring someone privately, and they haven’t been vetted by Didi, or anyone really.  We’ve ended up in some pretty old vehicles, or smelly with cigarete smoke.

This was the roomier of the two trips we took with private drivers.

On our trip to Langmusi, I was a bit bummed because the windows in the back, where I was, were so dark that I couldn’t really see out of them, and they didn’t open either.  Everyone in the front or middle seats enjoyed a beautiful ride throught the Sangke Grasslands, but I really couldn’t see much. 

My view on the way to Langmusi…

The other drawback is that you don’t really know what kind of driver you’re going to get.  From Labrang to Langmusi, our driver was lovely.  He was pretty safe on the road and he offered to go the long way for us because the scenery was better that way.  He didn’t even charge us extra! 

Of course, you might also find a driver who drives like a maniac, or wants money upfront (which is a risk because they can easily just not show up…).  Our driver this week actually did ask for a deposit, but understood when we said we didn’t really want to pay upfront.  If he had pushed, we would have asked for photos of his licence and licence plates though 

In addition to the incessant honking, he loved driving like he is in a Nascar race.  There were a few close calls with oncoming traffic that left us all hanging on for dear life. 

Call a Didi (or similar APP based driver)

There are tons of options to hire cars, with apps similar to Uber.  Didi is the most popular in China, but there are plenty of others as well. 

The Benefits

Hiring a Didi or other similar car is a bit different from hiring an independant driver. Didi drivers make a lot less money for their work, but they are vetted by the companies they work for, and are part of a rating system that encourages them to have a clean and safe car for people to ride in.

In addition to being cleaner and safer, Didi is generally more comfortable of a ride as well. Because the drivers don’t swerve around as much, and don’t smoke in the vehicles, the whole experience is more comfortable. If you’re only traveling with 2 or 3 people, Didis are often the best way to go. The cars are usually newer, with plenty of room.

We took Didis to Kumbum Monestary last week. It is located about an hour from Xining and we had no problem getting a car. In total, it cost us 60rmb each (about $12 Canadian) each way. Very affordable!!

There is something to be said for the convenience of Didi within cities as well. Unless it’s pouring rain, it’s quite easy to get a Didi. And of course, as is the case with hired cars, Didi drivers pick you up and drop you off excactly where you want them to. It’s a great perk that can’t really be undervalued.

This option is excellent value for what you get.

The Drawbacks

Of course, there are some issues with Didi as well. Most of those issues pop up when you’re in less populated areas, or want to go a long distance. We experienced this going from Lanzhou to Linxia.

Ice cream was not enough to make up for this long drive.

When you’re in more remote areas, far fewer Didi drivers are available. Sometimes you will wait for ages and no drivers will become available. If this happens, you might have to book with one of the other car hiring apps, and those may not be as nice as Didi is.

Having an English option is nice in Didi as well. Most other ride hailing apps don’t.

We ended up getting a 55% fee tacked onto our ride AND had to share the car with a stranger. We also were in an older car that smelled smokey. Luckily, the driver never lit up while we were in the car, but the smell was still there from all the times he had in the past.

Of course, there’s also always a chance that even if you DO get a Didi, they might decide to reject you based on a variety of reasons. I’ve had countless didis drive off when they see that I have a dog or a cat with me (even in a pet carrier). I’ve also had Didi drivers leave because they don’t have room for our luggage. Just last week, Andy, Richard and Elizabeth had their driver leave as soon as he realized they were foreigners. We aren’t sure if he was just nervous about them not speaking English, or if he (like many people living in remote areas) think they are more likely to get the virus from a foreigner. Either way, they ended up on the bus with Dave, Ian and I.

Didi is GREAT in bigger cities and for shorter rides, but if you’re in a remote area, you might have a hard time.

Take the Bus

The Benefits

Our group of travelers has been very divided with the bus option. I personally like the bus (as long as it isn’t too full) for a variety of reasons.

On this trip, the bus we took had PLENTY of room.

As someone who is never sitting in the front of didis or hired vans, buses are more spacious for me. Once more, this is dependant on how full the bus is, but when you’re remote like we have been, this isn’t too much of a problem. In the Didi to Linxia, Dave couldn’t get any work done because there was no room. On the bus though, he set up a whole work station for himself (he’s self employed and trying to get things done on travel days).

You everyone has a better view on the bus as well. Windows are much bigger on a bus than they are in a van, and you’re also higher up, so you get a better view. I got so many beautiful photos on our trip to Labrang!

Of course, if you’re on a budget, buses are great too. To hire a car for a 4 hour drive cost 700rmb ($140 Canadian) but the bus only cost 360rmb. For half the price, to be in a more comfortable situation with a view, I’m a big fan of the bus.

I’ve made some pretty awesome memories in buses, on my way to SAPA. That might be why I enjoy them.


Not all buses are as empty or comfortable.

Of course, there are some pretty serious draw backs for the bus as well. I’ve been in some VERY crowded buses and if you have to share your seat, it can get pretty cramped.

No one wants to be on this bus.

Buses can also be pretty slow going, especially when getting out of the city. There are frequent stops to pick people up, so generally speaking, it takes longer to get anywhere on a bus. If it isn’t crowded, and you have stuff to keep you busy, it’s not a problem, but if it’s crammed, loud or hot… That extra time in the bus is not appreciated.

Some long distance buses even have standing room. I can’t imagine being on a bus for 4 hours without sitting down.

Enoy the Ride!

So, if you are traveling in rural areas that don’t have high speed train options, you might be faced with finding new ways to get around. We’ve used a mixture of all 3 of these methods of transportation. They all have pros and cons, and the one that suits you best might be different from what suits others. It can be tough appeasing everyone if you are traveling with a group, but just remember, it’s only a few hours, and your time is going to be what you make it! If you spend the whole ride complaining, it doesn’t matter what form of transportation you choose… It’s going to be miserable!!

Enjoy the journey!!!

I’ve got lots to write about Langmusi! Stay tuned!!!

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