China overland travel guide
China, 中国, Zhongguo, the Middle Kingdom… at once fascinating, infuriating, beautiful, polluted, serene, brash, hi-tech, old-school, travelling China overland isn’t the easiest and it can wind me up like nowhere else; yet it’s also one of the most rewarding destinations there is, and as I started writing this blog I suspected I’d end up writing more about China than most other places I’ve been. With its huge size, good public transportation, long border (with a total of fourteen neighbouring countries), and its position at the eastern ends of the Silk Road and the Trans-Mongolian & Trans-Manchurian railways from Moscow, visiting China overland works well both as part of a long-haul trip and as a stand-alone trip in its own right.
Click here to see all my travel stories & blog posts on China.
To and from China overland
A huge country sharing its long border with fourteen others, China obviously has many overland possibilities, although the number of route options actually open to foreign overlanders is less extensive than you might think.
(If you’re entering China overland from Hong Kong, or doing a visa run from China to Hong Kong, see here)
China’s land borders
In the south-east, China shares its border with its SE Asian neighbours Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar. There are several Vietnam – China overland routes, through the southern cities of Nanning and Kunming; one route across the short border with Laos (from Kunming); and, despite the length of the border, just one route to Myanmar, also via Kunming but presently closed due to violent clashes between the Myanmar military and rebel groups in the area and also requiring expensive & restrictive permits even when open (this border situation changes frequently though, and I’ll update this page whenever it does; see my Myanmar page for more information).
The Vietnam border can be crossed by rail from both Kunming and Nanning to Hanoi (the Hekou / Lao Cai border on the Kunming route is near the Vietnamese mountain town of Sapa, which is a popular first or last stop in Vietnam); the Myanmar border at Ruili is road only, from Kunming via Dali, but with a high speed rail line planned for some unspecified future time; the Laos border is by road from Jinghong (capital of the Xishuangbanna region, to the south of Kunming), with a high(ish) speed rail line now under construction from Kunming to the Lao capital Vientiane (which should enter service in the early-2020s).
The direct Mekong river boat between China and Thailand was discontinued in 2011, but thanks to the 2015 opening of a bridge between northern Laos and northern Thailand it’s now also possible to do same-day crossings between China & Thailand by bus through Laos.
For full details on all these overland routes between China and Southeast Asia, see my guide here.
The long southern border with Bhutan, India, and Nepal is mostly closed; the Chinese side of this border is Tibet, and the only routes into Tibet permitted to foreigners are by Chinese domestic flights, domestic trains (through Xining), or the one international border open with Nepal (presently closed however, following the 2015 earthquake in the area – as of 2017 it remains closed. Update: this border finally reopened again in September 2017 as reported on Land Of Snows). China shares three separate border sections with India, including the disputed regions of Arunachal Pradesh (Indian controlled but claimed by China) and Aksai Chin (Chinese controlled but claimed by India), plus the short Sikkim – Tibet border; but none of these are options, so you have to go through Nepal (or Pakistan). The Bhutan border is likewise not an available overland route. Furthermore, all foreigners visiting Tibet must travel on a pre-arranged tour with a licensed operator, so the long and short is that to travel from China overland to Nepal / India, the only route is a pre-booked tour from Lhasa to Kathmandu – and I can say from experience that these aren’t so easy to arrange, especially if travelling solo.
China also has a long-term plan to build a Tibet – Nepal – India railway; this highly ambitious idea is a long way from fruition, but could eventually open up an awesome new overland route.
China’s western border consists of the borders between Xinjiang and seven neighbouring countries: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Mongolia. Despite the length of this border there aren’t all that many route options; there is one crossing for Pakistan on the famed Karakoram Highway (one of the top routes on my to do list), and no crossings with Afghanistan or Tajikistan; two routes exist for Kyrgyzstan (Kashgar to Osh or Bishkek, see Caravanistan for details) and multiple options for Kazakhstan (you’re most likely to be crossing by train or bus between Urumqi and Almaty); the narrow stretch of Xinjiang – Russia border sandwiched between Kazakhstan and Mongolia in the Altai mountains can’t be crossed; and there is one crossing between Xinjiang and western Mongolia which is open to foreigners. These Xinjiang ‘Silk Road’ borders are shown on this awesome Carivanistan map.
Apart from that remote western border with Mongolia, there is one more China – Mongolia border at Erenhot; this is by far the main crossing between the two, and is where the Trans-Mongolian railway crosses. If you’re doing a Moscow – Ulaan Baatar – Beijing train journey, you’ll be at this border for hours while they change the bogies for China’s narrower gauge.
Finally, northeastern China (i.e. Manchuria) has a lengthy border with Russia‘s far east and with North Korea. The Trans-Manchurian branch of the Trans-Siberian railway crosses to/from Russia at Manzhouli, and there are multiple other crossing points but the ones of use to likely overland routes are those at Khabarovsk and Hunchun. The latter is the crossing for Vladivostok and can now be reached on China’s high speed rail (and then it’s a bus from there to Vladivostok, though the bullet train is slated to eventually run all the way through). If you’re in Manchuria and want to head for Japan via the overland route through Sakhalin without detouring through Vladivostok, aim for Khabarovsk; take a train from Harbin to Fuyuan on the border and from there a boat/hovercraft/bus (depending on the season i.e. how solid the river is) over to Khabarovsk, and then continue to Vanino by rail or road for the ferry to Sakhalin. However, note that these days you’ll have to fly from Sakhalin to Japan:
Update (2019): the original Sakhalin-Hokkaido ferry stopped running in 2015; there was a new on-off passenger service running 2016-2018, but this was also discontinued in 2019. The same company still runs a ship on the route, but from 2019 onwards it’s a freight only operation. Overland travel China-Russia-Japan via Sakhalin & Hokkaido is therefore no longer an option. You can still get as far as Sakhalin overland, but from there you’ll have to fly to Japan (flights go to Sapporo and Tokyo).
North Korea can be visited overland from China, via the railway bridge crossing from Dandong. Other than flying, this is presently the only route available; several overnight trains per week run between Beijing and Pyongyang. Visiting North Korea requires that you be on an organised tour, which involves having a government guide / minder with you at all times; this is the only way to get a visa. Tours can be arranged through specialist North Korea travel agents in your own country or in Beijing; the Beijing-based Koryo Tours is widely known as a reputable service.
Note that it is absolutely impossible to travel from China overland to South Korea through North Korea; an overland visit to North Korea will involve returning to China again. If you want to go overland from China to South Korea, you have to go by sea.
International ferries for China
These days there are just two routes to Japan. The Suzhou Hao does weekly runs each way between Shanghai and Osaka, taking two days. They have a good English website, and you can search and book it online with Direct Ferries.
The Utopia IV does two round trips per week between Taicang (Suzhou) and Shimonoseki, taking 33 or 40 hours. Their website is only in Japanese and Chinese; you can see the schedule (Japanese) here. 下関港 is Shimonoseki Port, 太倉港 is Taicang Port; the days are 日曜日 Sunday, 月曜日 Monday, 水曜日 Wednesday, 金曜日 Friday; 出港 is departure, 入港 arrival.
This ferry is usually called the Suzhou – Shimonoseki Ferry, as Taicang Port is officially part of the city of Suzhou in Jiangsu Province. However, Taicang is a long way from Suzhou City itself; it’s located near the mouth of the Yangtze, just upriver from Shanghai, in between Shanghai and Suzhou cities. You can see a map here; note that the Japanese name for Taicang is Taisou, and the Chinese name for Shimonoseki is Xiaguan. Shimonoseki’s ferry terminal is a short walk from JR Shimonoseki Station.
(You may read about other Japan – China routes e.g, Kobe – Tianjin, but they have all been discontinued; notably, the Wikitravel page is out of date in this regard)
There’s a much wider choice of routes for the shorter crossing to South Korea, with over a dozen routes available (I’ve done it 4 times, on 3 different routes). See my detailed China – Korea ferry guide for all the information on those.
There are also ferries connecting China with Taiwan, from the ports of Mawei & Pingtan (both near Fuzhou) and Xiamen. See my ferries to Taiwan page for the details.
Overland travel within China
China has an extensive railway network, which has in recent years experienced a boom in high speed rail construction. The bullet trains make a huge difference in travel times, for example when I first visited China, Beijing to Xi’an was an overnight job; now it can be done in under 4.5 hours. Although I must grumble that the shiny new train stations are still just as ridiculously user-unfriendly as ever, the trains themselves are every bit as fast and comfortable as those in Japan and Korea (though your fellow passengers may be a little more rough and ready, and the scrum to get on is still sometimes absurd). Buying tickets in person is still a complete pain in the ass, but thankfully it’s easy to book online these days. You can only use the official booking site if you have a Chinese residency number, so Trip.com (aka Ctrip) is an absolute godsend – you can use them to search & book Chinese trains here. Annoyingly it’s still necessary to line up & collect your tickets at the station (so they can manually check the ID of every single passenger… Big Brother is watching), but that’s way better than doing the whole booking in person – just make sure to arrive at the station well ahead of your departure time if you still need to pick your tickets up, or better yet book multiple journeys then go pick all the tickets up in one go (you just need your booking reference, in addition to your ID). Alternatively, use a travel agency to sort your train tickets for you – generally worth the small markup, and many hostels & hotels have in-house travel desks that can do this for you.
The bullet train network covers most of eastern China now, and is rapidly expanding to and between the main western cities. It’s a lot more expensive than the old trains of course, but still amazingly cheap compared to high speed rail in most other countries that have it. Meanwhile the old trains continue to trundle along their old tracks, providing routes not covered by the bullet trains and providing a cheaper alternative for those that don’t like paying more for the bullet trains.
A good website to be aware of is chinatrainguide, on which you can search all trains between designated points. Unfortunately it doesn’t work out transfers for you, so if there’s no direct train from A to B you just get a “computer says no” response. In that case, have a look at the map and see if there’s an obvious major city you could try to transfer at (be careful about different stations in large cities though, they can be many miles apart).
You may notice the train numbers all start with a letter. G and C trains are the fastest of the fast, with C trains being intercity shuttles e.g. Beijing – Tianjin and G trains being longer-distance e.g. Beijing – Shanghai. D trains are a bit slower (and stop more), but still considered high speed. The rest are the old-school conventional trains, with Z the fastest (stopping least), followed by T, followed by K; if there is no letter (only digits), it’s a snail train stopping at most stations en route.
China’s roads and highways are also impressive, with the newer highways in mountainous areas managing to be quite spectacular with their vertiginous bridges and soaring viaducts; they cover the whole country and are well-maintained, and buses can get you places the trains don’t go. Finding out where buses go from in a given city isn’t as obvious as with the trains, so it’s best to check locally. Road safety in China, though far from perfect, is generally a lot better than in neighbouring countries, and I’ve usually found the buses to be decent. That said, I’ll still always take the train when possible, especially over longer distances (breaking a long distance down into several bus legs isn’t a good plan, unless it really is the only option e.g. travelling through the Amdo Tibetan prefectures of Qinghai and Gansu). Basically in China I’ll take the bullet train when available, or a conventional train if not; if there’s no rail option, I’m happy enough to take the bus.
Domestic ferries in China
China’s long coastline is home to many islands large and small, and the inhabited ones are all connected by bridge or ferry to the nearest mainland towns and cities. There are far too many domestic ferries to list, and the majority would be of little interest to international travellers anyway; the ones which are likely to be of use are those crossing the Bohai Sea, those connecting up the cities of the Pearl River Delta, and those for Hainan Island.
The Bohai Sea ferries connect Yantai (Shandong) to Dalian (Manchuria) in 6 or 7 hours (which is much faster than the long way around by land); Yantai’s a (relatively) short distance from Qingdao. In the Pearl River Delta, fast boats run between Hong Kong, Macau, and the mainland; you can search & book these here (Hong Kong) and here (Macau).
Ferries to Hainan
For Hainan Island ferries leave from Hai’an, a short (under an hour) crossing. It’s a train ferry, meaning you can actually take trains right through to Hainan (the trains physically roll on to the ferry and off again on the other side); you can check the schedule and book tickets for the Guangzhou-Hainan train/ferry journey here. They’re old-school slow trains though, taking 10 to 12 hours from Guangzhou to Haikou; they take another 4 hours from there to Sanya on the south coast, but there’s a Hainan high speed railway you can use which does Haikou to Sanya in 90 minutes. Buses use the same ferries, should you take one (not recommended from Guangzhou, but could be useful from e.g. Nanning). A high speed railway is planned, of course, which will connect Guangzhou to Hainan in a couple of hours and render the other overland options obsolete (as of mid-2018 this is still years away from happening).
Yangtze river boats through the Three Gorges
China’s inland waterways used to be major transportation arteries, but modern road & rail developments have largely ended that; a notable exception is boats through the Three Gorges on the Yangtze. When we did this we didn’t have time for a 3-day cruise and just took the hydrofoil from Chongqing to the Three Gorges Dam (and a connecting bus from there to Yichang); it would’ve been nice to have a little more time to take the Gorges in (as the hydrofoil blasts through them pretty quickly), and there was no deck so we had to take photos out of the hatches, but we were still glad we did it because it looked like this:
Unfortunately, the hydrofoils were completely taken out of service in 2015 (following the completion of a new road connecting the riverside towns along the Three Gorges section to the rest of the road network). This leaves the 3-day tourist cruises (from Fengjie (near Chongqing) to Yichang) as your only option if you want to go through the gorges.
Some China Highlights
Eat whatever weird and wonderful things you can find – while they’re not exactly common, you can test your stomach with snake soup, fried scorpions, or bird foetuses, to name a few. Sadly the bull’s penis soup was out of stock when we tried to order it (that isn’t a joke)
Visit the panda sanctuary in Chengdu, and sample some fiery Sichuanese cuisine (Chongqing hotpot is famed in particular for being the hottest dish in China… in our experience it’s also the most hilarious!)
Take a boat down the Yangtze.
Travel through the breathtaking landscapes of Yunnan province.
You could try to visit Tibet – though this can be difficult.
Resources and Useful Links for Visiting China
See all my China posts here
For info on overlanding to Hong Kong & Macau see here
Search for hotel deals in China
World Nomads offer flexible travel insurance that you can buy even if you’re already overseas (this can be a crucial point, as I once learned the hard way in Bangkok). Also check out their snow sports cover if you’re planning on hitting the slopes.
Check the Air Quality Index for levels of PM2.5 (the most harmful type of air pollution); their pollution forecast is vital for planning which dates to book tours etc (for example, try to visit the Great Wall on a clear day – for the sake of both your health and your photos!)
If you’re entering China through Hong Kong and want to get your visa there (useful if you want to fly in on a one-way ticket, as return tickets are usually necessary to get the visa at the Chinese embassy in your home country), or want to do a visa run (i.e. leave mainland China, get a new visa, and re-enter), Forever Bright Trading have served me well.
For extending your existing visa at a PSB within China, see here
If you’re planning to reach China via a Trans-Siberian adventure, check out the Seat61 page and also my write-up of the experience (I travelled from the UK to Japan overland via Russia, Mongolia, China and Korea).
For those aiming for Tibet, The Land of Snows is the most thorough online resource you could possibly hope for; the site owner (Lobsang) takes the time to reply to everyone who emails with questions about planning trips to Tibet. It’s also full of gorgeous photography and an easy place to lose an hour or two!
For travel to Xinjiang, Far West China is the best resource out there.
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