If I have learned one thing from this adventure in China, it is that as a foreigner who does not speak mandarin, traveling in this country during National Week is the equivalent of trying to find a hooker who hasn’t had sex with Tiger Woods: it’s damn near impossible.
First of all, only residents of China can book train or bus tickets online. In other words, if you are planning on traveling from one point to another during National Week, you will not be able to book your train or bus ticket until you arrive in China (unless you know someone in China who can buy your tickets for you, which we did not). Of course, travel agencies would be able to help, but our budget does not allow for us to be using a third party to be booking tours for us all over the country, and quite frankly, it’s not how we prefer to travel. So in other words, if you’re like us then you’ll need to figure it out upon arrival. This is not an easy task, as there are a number of obstacles you will need to overcome, all of which are pretty much entirely out of your control. They are as follows:
- In order to obtain your Chinese tourist visa, you will need to tell the Chinese government all of the hostels/hotels that you plan on staying at and on what dates. In order to do this, you need to provide them with the official booking receipts, which means that you actually need to book all of your hotels/hostels ahead of time.
- The most obvious work-around for the above requirement would be to book all of your hostels and then cancel each and every single one as soon as you have your travel visa. This would rid you of the obligation to be in a certain place at a specific time. DO NOT DO THIS. It is nearly impossible to book one bed in a dorm-room during National Week, never mind two beds in a dorm or a private room. You will need to book your hostels far enough in advance as possible to ensure you have a place to stay for every day of the holiday.
- Since it’s crucial to book hostels in advance to make sure that you don’t spend the majority of your vacation in the halfway house, you will need to do your best to get to the various hostels in question. As mentioned previously, you cannot book your train or bus tickets until you are in China. However, everyone else in China is booking their tickets months before you arrive, as during National Week, the entire country goes on vacation. Just to enlighten you, 1.3 billion people will be taking a holiday and visiting any place of interest in China that you have ever heard of or read about. HOLY SHIT BALLS DOES THIS EVER SUCK. Naturally, this means that nearly every train and/or bus is sold out ahead of time. Of course, you won’t know this until you try to book your tickets.
- There are two ways to book your tickets: first is through your hostel. The concierge at your hostel will be able to book any train that you need to hop on, between any two points in China. This sounds easier than it is. Although most people working at international hostels speak proficient English, the language barrier proves to be quite difficult when trying to plan the exact details – including dates and departure times – pertaining to various trains and buses. On the topic of buses, your hostel will be able to book you a bus ticket from the city in which they are located, but not in any other city. You will need to coordinate this with the hostel in the city from which your bus will be departing. Therefore, although you can book all of your trains at once when you arrive in China, you cannot book your buses until mere days before you need to take them. The second option is to book your ticket at the train/bus station. In cities that receive many foreigners such as Shanghai, those working the ticket booth often speak decent English, though this is not a given. In Beijing, we decided to book our tickets from Beijing to Shanghai and Shanghai to Huangshan at the train station to avoid the service charge the hostel applies to the tickets when booking. We had our concierge write down the information in Chinese regarding the trains we needed to take, the dates, class preference (economy), and the departure time. Only a few days later did we clue in to the fact that the teller had booked us two trains on the same day. One leaving from Beijing to Shanghai on September 28, and another leaving from Shanghai to Huangshan, also on September 28. Our stinginess resulted in us wasting far more than the puny 20 RMB service charge the hostel would have applied to our bookings. Unless you can speak mandarin, book your tickets through the hostel that you are staying at.
- Once you have decided that booking your train tickets through your hostel is the wisest method, they will tell you that the train you had planned on booking is sold out. The next train with available seats (usually standing room only) leaves 2 days after you need to arrive in your next destination. If you are lucky, as Jamie and I were, the hostel that you are currently staying at will allow you to stay in your bed for an extra couple of nights. However, if you do not show up at your next hostel on time, they will be giving your bed away. So you are actually better off to skip the next destination entirely and cling on to the bed that you have in your current location for as long as possible, or until you can catch a train to another place that you were planning on seeing, and in which there are hostels with availability (there won’t be).
- If by sheer luck you manage to book a train or bus to the destination you had planned on staying at, your hostel will give your room away to the first person who shows up at their door asking for one. Apparently our hostel, or what was supposed to be our hostel, in Huangshan has a “must check in by 11am or we give your room away policy,” according to the owner.
- Whatever it is that you plan on seeing or doing will be overcrowded beyond your wildest imagination. If you’re lucky enough to work your way through the line to enter the attraction, it will be so crowded to the point where you cannot move at all.
In summary, you must book hostels in advance to avoid being homeless during National Week. You cannot book your transportation tickets until you arrive in China. Once you arrive, they will all be sold out. If they are not sold out and you are lucky enough to arrive at your pre-booked hostel on the day that you had scheduled, they will have given your room away anyhow, rendering you homeless.
In case I have not made myself clear, DO NOT TRAVEL IN CHINA DURING NATIONAL WEEK. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.
National Week dates: October 1-7 (but buses and trains start filling up right before and slightly after these dates).