Travel China by Train
Belgium fits into China 314 times. One hour of train-sitting won’t bring you to the next big city, like in Europe. That’s why night trains are a perfect way to cover ground in China. Although an airplane ticket might be cheaper, the real China-experience is to be found on the trains in the epicenter of Chinese culture. The train network in China is immense and well used. Every small town, in China terms, is connected to the next by rail. To get to more rural areas, a local bus is probably the only way to go. We used quite a few train in China to get between destinations like Hong Kong, Shanghai, Xi’an, Yangshuo, Beijing and the grasslands of Inner Mongolia.
Types of trains
Trains in China are categorized by speed and comfort. You can find the train types in their number. Usually, trains have a letter and a series of number, which you can find on your ticket or booking. I’ll tell you more about finding stuff on your ticket in a minute. The letter specifies the train type. Some are high-speed trains, while others are night trains running great distances. The China Highlights website has a lot of useful information on train types. If you can find out the type of your train, you can look up if there will be wifi, boiled water, air conditioning and power sockets. Another thing that might be important: the bathrooms! Chinese style bathrooms can be compared to the old school French bathrooms. They are little more than a hole in the floor with some space to put your feet next to the hole. Using these bathrooms requires some hovering skills. I must say I’m more into the Chinese toilets over the Western toilets since they are easier to use without making any contact at all. Most high-speed trains have Chinese as well as Western bathrooms, leaving you the choice. The slow trains usually only offer Chinese standard bathrooms.
Bullet trains or high-speed trains
Bullet trains reach speeds up till 300 kilometers per hour and even more. These bullet trains are comfortable, convenient and fast, but they’re not everywhere, yet. You can catch these speedy trains in between large cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an and Hong Kong. It’s very likely they will get more coverage pretty soon. High-speed trains have the letters G, D or C, G being the fastest and C being the slowest. The bullet trains are comfortable and offer a lot of amenities like restaurant cars, wifi, and air conditioning.
Normal Speed Trains
Normal speed trains run 120 to 160 kilometers per hour, depending on the type. Trains with the letters K, T, and Z belong in this category. We used these trains a lot since most of the night trains are of this type. They tend to be much more dated and outworn. The normal speed trains and night trains mostly offer catering in a restaurant car, but most Chinese bring their own food: noodles. That’s probably why it’s so important to have boiled water available.
As you could read above, most night trains are of the slow type. The only high-speed trains that offer sleeping options are the D trains. We only used the normal speed trains as night trains, so I can’t really say if these D trains offer a lot more comfort or not. The most important choice you have to make when booking sleeper train tickets are the seats or beds you want to reserve.
The night trains run between important cities and they’re mostly pretty slow. You can feel the old tracks bobbling away underneath you. I must say, once you fall asleep, the train movement could be a good tranquilizer. It was for me. The bumps in the rail never woke me up, the people did.
Types of seating
Seating is recommended for high-speed trains or shorter trips. It’s also possible to book seats for night trains, but that’s not really the way to go, even though it might be cheaper than booking a sleeper. We used Second Class seating on a couple of high-speed tracks while we were in China.
Business Class / Superior Class
Superior Class Seats and Business Class Seats are the most expensive and luxurious seats available. The seats are spacious and comfortable. Superior Class Seats have a reclinable back, while Business Class Seats are fully convertible to beds. So Business Class is the absolute top-notch way of travel. The number of seats is limited and we don’t really recommend these unless you’re willing to book long beforehand and pay loads of money for your trip.
First Class Seats
First Class Seats are very comfortable as well. There is one more chair per row and the seats are divided per two. They are a little more comfortable and spacious than Second Class seats, but more expensive too.
Second Class Seats
Second Class is the most traveled class. For budget reasons, these are the most recommended seats on high-speed trains. The second class is still very comfortable and they are your best choice of seats for budget travel.
Types of beds
A lot of changes have been made in types of beds on sleeper trains. There are still a lot of old school wagons on the rails, but a new generation of sleeper options is already available on a lot of trains. Depending on the fact if you’re booking beds on a high-speed train or a normal speed train, the terms mean different things. Beds in high-speed trains are more comfortable and modern, while the normal speed train tends to be older and more worn out.
The hard sleeper beds are the most booked beds on normal speed night trains in China. These beds are the most economic option and they really submerge you into Chinese culture. The carriages consist of a long hallway on one side of the train. The hallways usually have a lot of seats and are not easy to walk through with your luggage. Next to the aisle, the carriage is divided into 15 to 20 open compartments with 6 berths each. You can book a bottom, middle or upper bunk. Take into account that there will always be noise and people stumbling around you. We used this options mostly for our night trains in China.
Soft Sleeper (older trains)
Soft Sleepers are little private cabins that usually sleep up to four people. Chances are good that you will be sharing your cabin with other people unless your company consists of four people. The cabins have room to store your luggage but don’t expect room for dancing. The door can be locked and these cabins provide a small amount of privacy. They are the way to go if the hard sleeper is too noisy or busy for you. We used a soft sleeper on our trip to Hohhot and shared a cabin with a young couple and a baby.
Soft Sleeper (modern trains)
In high-speed trains, new soft sleeper beds have been introduced. They are oriented in the longitudinal direction of the train and are more spacious than before. If you’re able to get one of these beds, you’re very likely to get a good night of sleep. The new soft sleepers are only available on a hand full of trains, but they will become the norm in the future. Each bed is equipped with power sockets, reading light and a curtain to provide privacy.
Deluxe Soft Sleeper
Deluxe soft sleepers are the most comfortable, luxurious and private beds that can be booked. These lockable cabins offer accommodation for two people and they are pretty spacious. We didn’t use these because they were beyond our budget and travel style. If you’re keen on your privacy and have some money to spend, these are the best choice.
If Chinese is not your first, second or third language, buying tickets might be difficult. It was for us. I didn’t plan on comparing the different Chinese characters to find the right destination. We had the feeling that buying tickets would be a big hurdle. Since we were short on money as well as short on time, we decided to book our tickets in advance. For both options below, it’s best to book your tickets well in advance. Trains tend to fill up quickly and most of the time, there aren’t any free beds. If you’re booking a seat on a high-speed train, you can wait a little longer and still find a seat.
Buying tickets online
Buying tickets online is very easy to do. It’s the same as buying a train ticket in your own country. The only thing that might get you in trouble, is picking up the tickets. You can’t print your ticket and be done with it. You have to collect the actual and authentic ticket in a railway station in China. For us, it was Beijing Railway Station. It felt more like an airport than a railway station and it had more entrances and exits than strictly needed. It took us quite some time to find the right place to pick up our tickets. Later, when we had to get to the actual train, we also had difficulties finding the right entrance. Maybe it’s just us!
Buying tickets in the station
This will be very difficult if you don’t speak any Chinese. Assume that you will not be welcome in English, so unless you talk Chinese or have a translator with you, don’t try this one 🙂 If you do opt for this method, these are the things to consider. You will need a passport for each traveler in order to buy them a ticket. Expect long waiting lines at the ticket offices. Make sure to book your ticket in advance, because trains can fill up quickly.
How to read your ticket
Train tickets mostly look the same and you can find information in the same location on every ticket. The China Highlights website offers a lot of extra information on reading tickets and other train travel information.
Getting on the train
Chinese train stations are exceptionally crowded and enervating, in my opinion. Everything in China is done ‘en masse’. The waiting rooms have enough space to hold thousands and left me feeling very claustrophobic. When queuing, Chinese don’t mind standing close to each other and breathe down the neck of the waiting person in front of them. I hate it when people breathe in my neck. If I can feel a warm breeze and an occasional cough blowing through my hair, you’re standing too close! I had to get used to that and I actually never managed to get peace with it. Here’s how to board your train:
Entering the station and security
The road to your train bunk begins outside the railway station. It’s recommended to arrive at the railway station 2 hours before your night train leaves in order to pass through all these steps. First, you have to wait in line to get into the station. You need your passport, your ticket and your luggage will be scanned. Due to local habits, this is a stressful activity, because people are pushing and trying to put their luggage in front of yours. Prepare to defend your spot in line! Once inside, the search for your waiting room can commence.
Railway Waiting rooms in large cities look like airport departure halls. The rooms are massive and still feel crowded. Depending on your train, you’ll have to find the right waiting room. Luckily, the signs have English translations as well. If you know the number of your train, the departure time and destination city, you will manage to find the right room. You can always compare the Chinese signs or try to find a staff member who speaks English.
It will be clear where the boarding gates are. People will be there, defending their spot in line in order to be the first on the train. We just waited until most people had already boarded, before making our way to the gate. If your train ticket is blue, you can use the check in machine without seeing a staff member. If your ticket is red, you will have to show your ticket to pass through to the platform. We had blue tickets and still went through the manual check. It’s good to know the number of your carriage. There will be a staff member waiting at the entrance of the train to check your ticket and point you in the right direction.
Claiming your seat
Finding your seat can be difficult. If you know which seat or bed you booked in English, you will be able to find it. But if you’re just relying on what’s on your ticket, it will be harder. We found that Chinese passengers are usually happy to help you find your seat. They will then exchange a few words with your neighbor and laugh about the fact that a foreigner will be sitting with them. Prepare to be photographed! Your ticket will be checked again when you get off the train later, so don’t throw it away.
Train habits and policies
Hot water and food
Chinese travelers carry big bags of food when they board night trains. As soon as they have stashed their luggage away, they start preparing dinner. Lining up at the hot water distribution system to supply the cups of noodles with hot water. Hot water everywhere!
Avoid restrooms in the morning
We quickly learned that mornings are not the best time to use the bathrooms in night trains. When the train leaves the station, toilets are reasonably clean and tidy. But during the night, it seems like hell breaks loose in these places. The first morning light then uncovers the horror that went on during the night. Try to do your business before you go to bed!
Bottom bed customs
If you booked a bottom bed in a hard sleeper carriage, be prepared to share your bed with entire families until everyone goes to bed. The lower berth serves as a seating area during the day and evening. People will sit on your bed. However, if you want them to leave, you can just ask and pretend you’re going to lay down. No guarantee that it will work!