In four years I’ve traveled in China by train at least for 165 hours. I’ve tried soft sleeper, hard sleeper, standing ticket changed to hard seat and comfortable soft seat in a bullet train. I’ve traveled alone, with my boyfriend, with a friend and with twenty classmates. So what is train travel in China actually like?
The first hurdle will be buying the tickets and it’s best to buy them in advance if you want to avoid waiting at the railway station for hours (days) or settle for a standing ticket. Especially during holidays, Chinese New Year being the worst, you have to buy the tickets in advance.
According to the official website, tickets for Chinese New Year 2014 will be on sale on 28th December (for 16th January’s tickets). According to my knowledge you can only buy tickets maximum of 18 or 20 days before the trip.
You can buy tickets at railway stations, from ticket sellers or online if your travel companion has a Chinese ID card. Many hotels and hostels also have a ticket service that will help you buy the tickets you need with a small service fee. You will need your foreign passport to buy the tickets as the passport number will be printed on the ticket.
Timetables and prices can be found easily in English at Travel China Guide.
Photo by Ken Marshall
Boarding the train
In big cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou the railway stations can look like airports. When you get to the station, first check the big screen for your train number and which waiting room you should go. It can be bit hard to figure out the screen if you can’t read Chinese, but don’t worry, just ask any worker by showing your ticket to them and they will point you to the right direction.
I always arrive too early at the railway station, but I think it’s better to be early than late! Arrive at least half an hour before the train leaves and wait for your turn at the waiting room. On the screens you can see your train number again and possibly how long until it departs. The screen will also show you when it’s the time to board the train and an announcement is also made through the loudspeakers in Chinese.
If you don’t understand Chinese, keep an eye on the screen and ask the workers. Every time it’s time to board a train (it might be yours or some other train) massive amount of people will stand up and rush to the gates. If you are unsure, always ask the staff.
Only when the train arrives will they open the gate and let you to the platform. It’s pretty much impossible to wander to a wrong platform. Check the correct car number on your ticket and head to the right door. The train staff will check your ticket before you board so you can’t accidentally board the wrong train.
Once you have found your seat or your berth, hold tight on your ticket. The tickets might be checked again when you get off the train or during the journey.
If you have a berth (hard or soft sleeper) the staff will change your ticket to a plastic card (picture above) for the time of the train ride. Before you arrive to your destination, the staff will wake you up if necessary and give back your paper ticket.
Different seats and berths
In general there are five types of tickets from the most to the least comfortable: soft sleeper, hard sleeper, soft seat, hard seat and a standing ticket.
The soft sleeper isn’t really that soft, but it’s a cabin with four beds and a door that can be closed. This is ideal if you are traveling with friends in a group of four as you can have your own privacy. Soft sleeper tickets are the most expensive ones.
Hard sleeper ticket is the one I’ve traveled the most with (picture above). It has six beds in one slot and it’s open to the aisle. The price is cheaper the higher you go, but it can be bit uncomfortable on the top berth. I personally prefer the lower berth, but the middle one is ok too. The lights will be closed at 10pm and opened at 7pm if I remember correctly.
Hard sleeper is great alone, with friends or with 20+ classmates as we did last August. It’s easy to make friends on a train, especially if you look foreign, people will come and talk to you if you can find a common language. But you can also concentrate on reading your book too if you want to.
Keep your valuables on your bed when you sleep, but put your luggage under the lower berth or on to the luggage rack above the aisle. As a foreign woman traveling alone in 2010, there was always at least one gentleman helping me with my backpack.
Soft seat is a normal common and quite comfy seat great for a few hours train trip. Bullet trains only have soft seats which reminds me of seats in Finnish trains.
Hard seat on the other hand is a wooden bench where you sit with two other travelers on one bench. It’s like sitting in a metro for hours and hours. I had the opportunity to try it out once in 2010 when I was coming back to Guangzhou from Shanghai. I bought the ticket the same morning I was coming back, a big mistake, and got a standing ticket! Yes, that’s right, no seat available, but I could at least board the train.
After sitting on my luggage for 15 minutes, one Chinese guy with passable English offered his seat to me. He had paid more for his ticket of course, but he was willing to help a foreign girl in need. I refused first, but he insisted on giving his seat to me. He ended up sleeping on the floor for the 15 hours.
The lights may stay on the whole journey and as the food cart comes and goes, everyone on the floor has to stand up once a hour or so.
As I wrote, standing ticket allows you to board the train and find a spot in the hard seat car. It’s up to you if you choose to stand near the toilets or lay on the floor.
Toilets in a train
Soft sleeper cars have western toilet on one end and Chinese squat toilet on the other end of the car. Other cars have only squat toilets, which is actually a good things as you don’t have to touch anything.
It’s entirely up to your luck how clean the toilets will be after hours or a day of train traveling. Bring your own toilet paper and wet towels.
There is a separate area for washing your hands, face and brushing your teeth. It will be crowded in the morning so you might want to get up early so you don’t have to queue up.
Snacks, food cart and the dining car
I have never eaten in a dining car on a Chinese train, but there is one available for the longer journeys. You can also buy snacks or even dishes from the food cart that comes and goes at least every hour. Prices are of course more expensive then normal shops, but still tolerable.
Best thing would be to buy your own snacks before you board the train. Bigger railway stations have shops and restaurants where you can buy food to take away and eat in the train. Remember to buy enough water as well and bring a thermos if you want to drink tea. Hot water is available in every car.
If it’s a long journey, you might want to consider bringing some snacks you can share with other friendly passengers.
Things to remember
* Charge your mobile phone and other gadgets before the trip. Buying a portable mobile charger is also a good idea as in most cases you can’t charge in the train.
* Bring you own toilet paper and wet towels for basic hygiene. Also bring a small hand towel for washing your face in the morning.
* Put your valuables in a small bag you can carry around with you even when you go to the toilet. This is important especially when you travel alone and can’t have anyone to watch your stuff. Your bigger luggage should be safe under the lower berth or on top of the luggage rack, but don’t leave anything valuable inside it.
* When you get off the train and walk out of the station, always find the official taxis or use bus or metro. There will be numerous black taxi drivers shouting at you and trying to find a customer, but those are always much more expensive than the real taxis.
So here we are, my all 165 hours of wisdom in one blog post! I will continue to update this post according to your comments and my future adventures in Chinese trains.
Have you traveled in a train in China? Please share your exprience in the comments!