To usher in our coverage of the Beijing Olympics, we asked National Geographic photographer Fritz Hoffman, who shot the beautiful images collected in National Geographic Magazine's Inside China issue in May, to give us some of his travel tips. In this first installment he offers some safety advice for getting around the country.
Holiday travelers pack the Guangzhou Railway Station in Guangdong Province. By Fritz Hoffman
Taxis: A few words of caution about travel in China. When you take a taxi make sure that the driver has a license and is familiar with the territory. Most taxi drivers will tell riders, especially foreigners, that they know where their destination is. This is not always true. You would rarely encounter a situation where your safety is in question by a dishonest taxi driver. Rather the driver just wants your business bad enough to lie and would plan to ask directions along the way.
Buses: Always check the bus out a little before buying your ticket. Old buses
are being replaced with new ones here in China but in rural parts, rust-buckets are still plentiful. One important thing to ask is whether the bus has
brakes or not. Also get a good look at the driver. Best to pick an older driver over one who is young and inexperienced. When traveling by bus, especially in rural areas, take a seat in the middle of the bus but do not sit over the wheels otherwise every bump in the road will be felt tenfold. Sit far enough away from the driver to take the edge off the bus horn noise which must be used every 10 seconds to avoid mowing down bicyclists and farmers.
A bleak roadside service area at Wudaoliang provides bus passengers a welcome break on the long highway journey north across the Tibetan Plateau from Lhasa. Driving the roughly 1,200-mile length of the Qinghai-Tibet highway, first opened in 1954, requires days of travel time. By Fritz Hoffman
Traveling During Harvest: It is wise to take extra caution riding the bus in fall during harvest. Peasants spread the wheat crop on the only paved area around, the two-lane highway, to separate the chaff. It is a totally insane scene to see old folks turn piles of grain under the wheels of speeding buses and freight carrying vehicles. Many people die each harvest this way. The grain covering the road makes an extremely dangerous situation in the event the driver tries to apply the bus brakes the vehicle may slide as if on ice or, rice. Always plan an escape route in case there is an accident.
Essential Items: When traveling by bus, it's always best to bring bottled water, food, sunflower seeds, earplugs, iPod, sunglasses and head ache painkiller. Always carry along a bandana when traveling.
Sleeping on the Road: It is not wise to ever sleep while riding in bus or car in China. You can save yourself if awake. Seatbelts aren't always the best practice in the countryside because they may prevent you from reacting quickly enough to keep from serious injury. I saved myself in Xinjiang once because I wasn't wearing a seatbelt.
A 'No Smoking' Trick: Bring no smoking stickers along to slyly stick to the interior of public buses and trains before asking your fellow bus riders to blow cigarette smoke in the other direction. Smoking on public buses has been officially banned in China but the word hasn't reached the countryside, so it's always best to take a window seat.
Photography While Moving: When traveling in China you may be tempted to stick your head out the window of the bus to photograph passing scenes. Take extreme caution when doing so. It is not advisable to do such a thing in a bus speeding through the countryside. Freak accidents seem to have a way of happening in China. Also keep in mind that someone might throw something or spit or vomit out the window in front of you. Many country-siders aren't used to riding in autos and they get motion sickness easily.
We'll be posting more tips from Fritz over the next few days. To see more of Fritz's photographs from this series, check out his What's Next? photo gallery at National Geographic Magazine.