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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Call a Didi (or similar APP based driver)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Take the Bus
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!!
I’ve got lots to write about Langmusi! Stay tuned!!!