Archive for October, 2007

Major changes in Beijing’s traffic system?

October 5, 2007

Everything is becoming more expensive in China right now, analysts calculated an inflation rate of close to 6 percent, much more than China had in the past years. Especially prices for food have gone up steeply in the past month, the prices for pork and eggs have risen dramatically. I personally have felt the price acceleration of entrance fees at tourist attractions, some prices have doubled since my travel guide was published in 2005.

Recently the city of Beijing announced to reduce the fare for its subway to a 2 yuan (about 0,20 Euro) flat fee per trip, including limitless times of transfer. It is not as much a step to fight inflation, more is it an attempt to fight traffic congestion. Beijing’s traffic it well known for its common traffic jams and the city is doing various efforts to reduce the number of cars in the streets with the upcoming Olympics. Since the subway was opened in 1971, it is the first time that the tickets are undergoing a price cut. A reduction of subway prices from 3 yuan (or from 5 yuan for change to line 13 respectively) will hopefully bring more people from their cars into public transportation. Other measures that will come into effect during the games was the ban of ca. 50 percent of cars that was already tested in September.

Traffic at Wudaokou
The new ticketing system is supposed to reduce traffic congestion in Beijing.

The new fare system was chosen on a meeting with city officials and traffic experts. There was an alternate plan to introduce a fare depending to distance traveled. However, the majority was favoring the flat fee that is also cheaper for consumers since the alternate plan’s proposal was to have a starting price of 2 yuan and have a maximum fare of 4 yuan. One reason for this choice might be that since many tickets are sold individually as single trip tickets, the administrative need to sell and check different fare tickets is much bigger. Beijing’s subway tickets are not yet sold at vending machines and paper tickets are used so the distance would have needed to be checked when getting on and off the subway. There is also a electronic traffic card, but there are still lines in front of the ticket counter at some times.

The new system was decided on in late September and is going to come into effect as early as October 7. This is also the date of opening the new number 5 subway line that will run in north-south direction. I have already seen the new stations Yonghegong and Baixinqiao in early September, but at that time the line was only performing test runs. Other subway lines are going to follow, mainly to ensure better transportation during the Olympics.
It seems a little strange to me to introduce the new system just after the “golden week” of nationwide vacation after October 1, the national holiday. At this time many tourists from all over the country are coming to Beijing and would have enjoyed to use the new subway line.

Xizhemen subway station
Will the reduced fare make the subways even more crowded?

What impact might the new system have? It is hopefully reducing traffic and the lowered fare might be an incentive for more people to not use their private car and switch to public transportation. The subway line will also make it possible to cross the city from north to south faster than before.

However, there are still some remaining problems: At present, the subways in the city center are already at their limits during rush hour and new customers might increase the number of peak hour passengers. It is unclear whether the frequency of the heavily used, but relatively old line 1 and line 2 subways can be improved. Another problem is that at the moment many people are preferring the bus that is much cheaper; instead of a 3 yuan subway ticket it only costs as less as 0,4 yuan when using the Yikatong card. When reducing the price to 2 yuan the cost for a subway ride will reduce 31% percent on average, according to a calculation by city officials and traffic experts. I assume that more people are switching from bus to subway now as the price difference has been reduced so more people might be using the faster subway instead of the buses that often get stuck in traffic jams. On the other hand, many people who are using a private car in Beijing are rather rich people who can effort a car and are not going to be considerably willing to switch to the subway just because it reduced the price one yuan. For them the car is a status symbol and the subway’s biggest incentive towards them is that it is faster then overground traffic during rush hour, not the price.


Youth Hostels in China

October 4, 2007

YHI LogoWhen being on my trip for more than a month in China, I found it most convenient to stay in one of the International Youth Hostels (国际青年旅舍, Guójì Qīngnián Lǚshè). It seems that only a few years ago such youth hostels were a rare found and when leaving behind the more international cities they were virtually not existing.

In recent years China is more and more becoming a country for Westerners attending not only tours as part of a tourist group but individual backpacking and low budget travelers as well as a becoming a country in which Chinese more and more use their chances to travel on their own. With a growing importance of this clientèle new youth hostels in the many cities are springing up like mushrooms while one even has the possibility to chose from several youth hostels at major travel destinations.
The youth hostels are often located in the city center, often in old hutong building or other special houses, like the youth hostel in Jiuzhaigou that was in an Tibetan style building.

Xiangzimen Youth Hostel in Xi’an
The entrance of Xiangzimen Youth Hostel in Xi’an leads into an old courtyard.

As they were mostly opened not too long ago, the interior is generally very modern and often much better than other low budget hotels. When looking at their mission statement, it is clear that many do not simply see themselves as a provider for chap accommodation but also as a service provider, sometimes offering bike rental, free movies and laundry service. However, some hostels were opened inside a larger hotel, so one floor of the hostel has rooms with more beds but these kind of youth hostels lack a bigger room for gathering. Youth hostels that have such a room sometimes even feature a free pool table like Chengdu’s Loft Hostel or the Xi’an Xiangzimen Hostel.

Loft Hostel in Chengdu
The Loft Hostel in Chengdu.

A lot of hostels also have free Internet available or charge only a small fee (Internet is generally cheap in China and a Net Bar (网吧, wǎngbā) down the street will only charge very moderate prices, anyway). Some youth hostels also feature a small library which can be quite useful because when being on tour with a backpack since one is happy about every item one does not need to carry. Sometimes one can also find some travel guides that are more detailed for the specific region and therefore much better than a book that covers the whole country.

If one seeks information about nearby tourist sites, the current weather condition or what local food is a no-miss, one can usually go to the front desk and gets some comprehensive information – no matter whether you speak Chinese or only speak English. Many hostels have maps available and tell you where to go and how to get there, it is very convenient to have the staff reserve bus, train or flight tickets and saves a the way to the station and waiting in line for quite a bit.
In some hostels we met highly motivated staff, in Chengdu we even happened to spend one evening having some beers with one of the staff members. She told us that it was her day off – she still came to the hostel because of “the atmosphere”. The atmosphere in Chinese youth hostels is indeed very special: There are a lot of international guests who are open to share their travel experiences, some Chinese tourists, many of them in a youth hostel for the first time. Most of the “first timers” were very impressed and some were considering to become a member of hostelling international (A membership card that is valid worldwide gets you an average discount of 5 yuan per night and cost 50 yuan).
Even it not a member, a bed in costs only about 25 to 40 yuan per night in a shared room. It can be fun to be in such a room because I was able to hook up with other travelers when I was on my own. Often the hostels also have single or double rooms that are more quiet – I have never came across a guy who snored as loud as one Chinese who shared a room with us in Jiuzhaigou.

Youth Hostel in Jiuzhaigou
Tibetan style youth hostel in Jiuzhaigou.

Looking for a hostel at the next stop is very easy and in the youth hostels usually the staff can recommend another youth hostel at the next city you are going to and make a reservation. To check for hostels online, there is the official web page of Hostelling International, but since many of the Chinese hostels are very new, they have not been added yet. The page of the page of YHA China offers a map and also links the newly opened hostels.
One bad thing about youth hostels in China: It’s often hard to find them, since they tend to hide their blue “HI” sign so I often had trouble getting to the hostel even with directions…

Kaiyue Youth Hostel in Qingdao
The Kaiyue Youth Hostel in Qingdao used to be a church building.

Last but not least is an (incomplete and unsorted) list of the youth hostels the I can recommend:

  • Chongqing Nanbin Lu: Tricky to find but very cheap rooms and friendly staff.
  • Teddy Bear Hotel, Mt. Emei: Friendly staff and conveniently located at the foot of Mt. Emei
  • Shanghai Mingtown Youth Hostel: Located right in the city near People’s Square
  • Qingdao Kaiyue Hostel: Located in an old church building
  • Lijiang Old Town: In one of the narrow streets of Lijiang’s ols town – on clear days one is supposed to the the snow covered Yulong Xueshan from the hostel.
  • Loft Hostel in Chengdu: Has a cool loft and the best staff I have met in Chinese youth hostels
  • Jiuzhaigou (郎介之家, phone 0837-7734818 or 0837-7734616): I did not expect to find a youth hostel there, not very much comfort, but it’s in a Tibetan style building and the owner and manager also makes some Tibetan style food.
  • Xiangzimen Hostel Xi’an: After getting a free pick-up from the train station the friendly staff welcomed us in this old but newly renovated Chinese house with a courtyard.