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Life Travel

Living in China: Public Transport in China

Public transport in China… What can I say?

The answer is a lot. I can say a lot of things about it.

Imagine if you will, you are maintaining a fast paced walk down the street to the subway. You arrive at the subway station, quickly rushing inside and down the long corridor with no indication of what time your train will arrive. Finally, breathing heavily you reach the entry gate.

You see that your train is 2 minutes away.

Quickly, you place your bag onto the conveyor belt to be scanned. You wait painfully as it slowly crawls through and try to grab it before it falls onto the hard metal tray beneath. You wouldn’t want your new iPad to be bashed unnecessarily would you?

1 minute left.

You start a slow run towards the turnstile, swiping your ticket and rushing through before it closes on you. Now you run down the escalator. Your train is inside the station, at each door 5 or more people stand waiting to get in. Being the last one to arrive you squeeze yourself inside.

You breathe a breath of sweaty air in relief. Knowing that you won’t be late today. With your arms locked to your sides and the poor lunch in your bag squashed by the mass of people surrounding you. You wait. Until slowly but surely, every eye finds you. A carriage full of people begin to stare at you. As you look at them, they turn away, embarrassed or something else entirely.

Then you watch in horror as the train arrives at the next station, two people get off and 10 more get on. Knowing all along there’s nothing you can do as an old Chinese man stares at you with curiosity for the next 20 minutes. Silently you scream curses at the concept of public transport in China. You should have learned to drive.

The Subway

Of course, this was an exaggeration. But it’s not that far from the truth.

The Shenyang subway costs 2 yuan (more or less 20p) to travel significant distances. 2 yuan is still a bit expensive for the experiences you will endure during rush hour. The subways run from about 7am to 10:30pm. Morning, lunch and after work tend to be more or less as I described. The staring, the squeezing and the hot, sweaty air. It’s all included.

Other times, (past 8pm or so) usually provide you with a near-empty train. Which in my opinion is public transport at it’s best.

Be careful what you have in your bag

Each station is guarded by several security officers. You are required to scan your bag the same way you do at an airport. They don’t allow obvious things such as guns, knives and  nuclear… things. But they also refuse aerosols. Something I learned the hard way. See, they wont let you pass without scanning your bag. But most of the time they’re don’t even look at the scan. This is how I took 4 subway journeys with my can of Lynx spray before the 5th decided to take it from me and never return it.

Additionally, they will ask you to drink any beverage you are carrying. To… check for poison? Or something…

Subway Etiquette

The trains themselves run about every 6 minutes on both of Shenyang’s two lines (many more lines are planned for 2020). The wait isn’t bad considering I’ve had to wait much longer for buses in England.

There are lines to wait at each door along the subway station’s floor. These are ignored by most Chinese people and they will just force themselves onto a train whilst others try to leave. Giving you the option of pushing on too or waiting calmly. They wont mind either way.

When the trains are particularly busy you will find yourself hopelessly squashed against others. Truly I prefer to take a taxi instead.


Taxis, similarly to the subway, are cheap. Compared to the UK at least, a place where public transport costs an arm and a leg.

Taxi fares start at 8 yuan or 9 yuan at night. A reasonable price for any distance. The fare rises by 1 yuan after an acceptable distance. I would pay 15 yuan (about £1.50) to go to work where as the English counterpart is £4 already. All in all taxis are a great alternative to being squashed on the subway. BUT, and it’s a big but (see I capitalised it) there are two significant drawbacks to be aware of. Once you conquer these, you will have no problems.

Multiple Mishaps

Taxi drivers almost exclusively speak Chinese and in Shenyang they have a particularly strong dialect. To learn the correct pronunciation of a word might be wasted time in a city where the word for ‘gate’ is pronounced ‘men’ in Mandarin but in Shenyang dialect is ‘mer’. Did I mention that unlike English where a foreigner can say “delichurs” and we understand it as “delicious”, in Shenyang they will not understand you whatsoever. Eventually they will work it out and repeat the same word back to you in a rough accent with a different vowel.

This particular circumstance resulted in Natasha and I being driven to the wrong place regularly. Often times we guessed that the driver didn’t understand what we asked so he just took us somewhere and charged the full fare. At which point we were forced to pay, exit, find another taxi and pay again.

Top Tip: Learn the phrase ‘stop here’. Taxi drivers might drop you off close to where you want to go but drive anywhere between 10 and 100 feet down the road. I think they do this to charge you 1 or 2 yuan extra. Something which we learned the hard way every morning travelling work.

The taxi drivers will try to communicate with you, particularly if you’re on your own. They may know some simple words in English and will try to ask you a multitude of questions in a rather quick manner. If you’re interested in communicating with them I would suggest learning the phrase “hold your horses I’m not a native speaker I can’t keep up with you”. Or some variation thereof.

Potential safety issues with public transport in China

Taxi drivers will not let you wear seat belts, save for a few passenger side seats.

They cover them with a sheet which is supposed to keep the actual car clean. But in 10 out of 10 cases is permanent and not cleaned… as I thought was the intention of using a removable cover…

Nonetheless, you may find yourself in uncomfortable situations if you require a taxi but have a sense of self-preservation.

Unless you’re a formula 1 driver you won’t be prepared for the driving in China.

Cars swerve to and fro like they’re in a race with each other and the police watch them do it, uncaring. I learned quickly that when the road splits with one direction straight ahead and the other to the side, despite a red light, cars will turn into the side street. Regardless of who is crossing. Though, no forms of public transport in China exactly scream safety to me so maybe it’s fine.

Be careful, look left and right, fasten your seat belt… if you can… You know the drill.


Buses are just as cheap as the subway but offer access to many more locations.

They aren’t as modern as the Shenyang subway, I don’t think anyone cleans them very often, but they’re a means to an end.

Their price reflects their quality and I would recommend using buses only if you have no other options. My most memorable bus trip being my journey to QiPan mountain to ski, as seen in the fantastic QiPan Mountain Skiing video featuring Natasha and I… The mountain not the bus, no real reason to film the bus after all.

The experience was OK, we had to swap seats to move away from some chicken on skewers that had been left on the window ledge. Also there was a guy who brought a box of live chickens… Yeah. I’d stick to the subway if I were you, buses are far from the best form of public transport in China. Far less chicken.


Beijing offers a pleasant contrast to Shenyang in two of three forms of transport.

Firstly the Beijing Subway has 15 lines and faster times. We were able to effortlessly travel around the city on the subway. In Beijing the subway costs 4 yuan. Absolutely worth the extra two coins. People didn’t really stare, but we never got on at rush hour so I couldn’t tell you about that. I imagine it’s similar though.

Secondly the taxi’s were a dream come true. Despite speaking just as much English as their Shenyang counterparts, they were able to understand the Chinese addresses and basic phrases we gave to them. From there they used GPS to get us to where we wanted to go every time. In comparison when we arrived back to Shenyang the driver took us in a large circle way past our apartment because he misunderstood one word.

Finally, buses, they were similarly crowded to the Shenyang buses, maybe a tad cleaner. Nothing to cheer about though.


If you’re going to take public transport in China you can make your own mind up on which to frequent. Other cities in China will have varying levels of comfort, cleanliness and efficiency on its public transport, but I think our experiences will share several similarities.

Personally I pick the taxi as the best form of public transport in China. Whilst being fairly dangerous and having many drawbacks, you save a lot of time for a reasonable amount of money. If you happen to speak Chinese or learn it, I can’t imagine you having any problems other than the safety aspect.

If you plan on living in China or are interested in hearing more, let me know what you would like to read about next. Any of you who have actually been there, please comment about your experiences with public transport in China. Perhaps you relate 100% or maybe you couldn’t disagree more. I would love to hear your opinions.

Till next time.

– Adam Pemberton

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