how to take the train in china

How to Take the Train in China [Tickets, Sleepers, Trash and Crowds]

We’ve done a lot of miles in China. A lot. We’ve traveled by fast train, slow train, by long distance bus and by city bus, by subway, we’ve taken one taxi and we’ve slogged around on foot an awful lot

Trains have been by far the biggest element in our journeying, yet if you were to believe the guidebooks and the travel agencies trains can be your biggest nightmare and that’s before you’ve even got on them!

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Buying your Ticket.
First of all – once, you’ve figured out where you want to go, you have to buy your ticket. Now China railways have a fabulous online system, that you can use if you can read and write in Chinese characters – and if you have a Chinese ID card, so that one is out. Tickets go on sale on between 15 and 20 days before travel and sales stop somewhere between 3 and 15 minutes before the train departs, if of course there are any tickets left available.

Many western travelers use the services of an agency to buy their tickets – organizations like China Highlights and Travel China have fabulous systems that show you the online – in English – train departure times and the ticket availability. And then let you buy via them. Tickets cost an additional $10 US per ticket as the fee to the agency and any courier fees, or you can elect for an e ticket and use a machine at the station and collect your ticket there. It’s a very easy way to buy tickets, but if you recall, our budget is $50 a day and paying ten dollars each in fees, is scarily high and would mean we probably wouldn’t eat!

There are other ways to buy tickets of course. You can get your hotel to buy them for you, (for a fee), you can go to a train ticket agency office and get tickets for a 5 yuan fee, or you can go to the station and stand in the line and buy your own tickets.

We bought one ticket from a train ticket agency office in Beijing, just because we happened to spot it walking past on the way to the station. We actually tried to buy two, but failed miserably, as I’d transcribed the details into Chinese characters, but managed to ask for two tickets to our destination, but completely forgot to ask where the start of the journey was. No wonder the clerk look at me as though I was a stupid westerner. All our other tickets we bought from a railway station.

Buying Tickets in Beijing
Buying Tickets in Beijing

It’s pretty overwhelming the first time, oh heck, each time, you do it. First of all there are LOTS and LOTS of people. Each and every time we’ve bought tickets, there are LOTS of people. The shortest line we’ve used to buy tickets was 40 minutes. There are some automatic ticket purchasing machines, that have instructions in English (!!!) BUT you need a Chinese ID card to buy tickets. Gnash gnash. So stand in a line it is.

It's Really Really Noisy
It’s Really Really Noisy

You’re promised, in all the guidebooks, that in the major stations, there will be some line where someone speaks English, or where there is a special desk for foreigners. Don’t believe a word of it. We’d stood in the line that the scrolling LED said was for English speakers for 20 minutes in Beijing’s main station before a Frenchman stalked back from the front and said “It’s not this one, it’s line 2 over there”. Even when we got to line 2, the English extended to “Hallo”.

If you can't make yourself understood, point to a WORLD map!
If you can’t make yourself understood, point to a WORLD map!

What worked for us each and every time was figuring out exactly what train we wanted. Then figuring our what our ideal seats would be. Then we transcribed those details into Chinese characters alongside the English and Pinyun, put them onto my iPhone (because face it, I copied most of what I needed from Google or Wikipedia) and then I just hand over my phone, or hold it up at the window. Easy. It helps to have a notebook with a pen handy as well, just in case they need to let you know something. This worked for us each time in Russia too.

We generally were asking for Hard Sleeper Class, middle and lower bunks.

Of course what throws a spanner into the works is when there are no seats left on the train that you want – this is usually signaled with the clerk ruefully shaking their head and turning their computer screen to you and shrugging. (at which point, you scribble down your next suggested date, or train number — so you need to have done your research). The next thing that can go wrong is that the seats that you want aren’t available and you end up with something else.

This might sound strange to Western train users, but in order to understand you need to take a quick lesson in Chinese trains.

First of all there are different types of trains. The high speed ones, the really fast ones, the fast ones, all the others. Generally the faster they are the more expensive they are, and it goes like this G = high speed, D = really fast, K = fast, T or no letter = all others. (there are others too). The quality of train (and it’s age) drops off the slower it gets too. So the 2463 from Datong to Pingyao was pretty grungy, but the D from PingYao Gucheng to Xi’an was fast, sleek and had the prettiest, slimmest, best dressed cabin crew.

The Fast D Train from PinYao Gucheng to Xián
The Fast D Train from PinYao Gucheng to Xián
D Train, Nice Seats, more legroom
D Train, Nice Seats, more legroom
Fast D Train
Fast D Train

Then you need to pick your seat. Those high speed and really fast trains generally have first class, or business class, or both and second class and then standing only tickets. The K’s and lower have Soft Sleeper, Hard Sleeper, Hard Seat and Standing Only tickets – going down in price from the top.. (there are others that have super soft sleepers, but I’m generalizing here.. if you want an in depth lesson in Train seats, then travelguidechina has a great set of links).

Standing only is the cheapest. Then its hardseat, where you literally get a hard seat for the duration of the journey, along with 119 other folks in a carriage, plus all the others standing. Next cheapest and the holy grail is Hard Sleeper. Those with money travel Soft Sleeper, or even Super Soft Sleeper.

Soft Sleeper means that there are essentially four beds in a compartment, two upper and two lower. There’s a door you can close, you get bedding and a duvet, there’s a LCD TV and reading light. You’re advised by the travel guides that you get a better class of Chinese traveler in these, that usually speaks English. We took this type once, because hard sleeper was sold out, and I can say that if you’ve got someone who snores, it just bounces around the compartment. ALL NIGHT. And snoring translates into all languages.

Soft Sleeper, minus snorer
Soft Sleeper, minus snorer
Soft Sleeper
Soft Sleeperhekou

In Hard Sleeper, it’s like those Russian Trains, a big carriage with no compartment doors between each group of seats/bunks. Only on Chinese trains, they go three high. Lower bunks are more expensive than middle bunks which are more expensive than the top deck, which is only for contortionists and those who are used to climbing mountains for a living. It’s a very social way to travel. People will generally talk to you, especially if they have kids. They will also bring around their relatives. At one point in the area meant for 6 people there were 10 of us. It’s fun, but it’s nowhere near private or spacious.

Hard Sleeper Middle Bunk View
Hard Sleeper Middle Bunk View
The Middle Bunk
The Middle Bunk
Not a Train, a Playground!
Not a Train, a Playground!
The Carpet is Rolled Up as we roll in
The Carpet is Rolled Up as we roll in

Hard seat tickets have carriages with usually 120 seats, in groups of 10, and boy they’re hard. The luggage storage is on shelves above the seats. These carriages also have to deal with those who have bought a standing only ticket. And standing only means just that. People literally stand in the aisles for hours on end. Dodging the vendors selling kids toys, fruit, food, toys, and those navigating to the hot water dispensers, toilets and trash cans. It’s not much fun.

Give it a go. Buying a ticket in a line at the station, I mean. It’s fun, it’s how China lives, it’s how a regular person would buy a ticket, if they didn’t have the money to pay fees for someone else to do it, or if they couldn’t buy it online. It’s a great people watch and people genuinely want to help.

Hard Won Tickets
Hard Won Tickets

As a westerner, you’ll be a novelty in the line. But don’t be a soft touch. In Xi’an, trying to buy tickets for our trip from HangZhou to Shanghai, I must have got into the line for “today’s tickets only” as the line magically morphed out when I reached the front. I ended up surrounded by folks trying to push to the front, trying to push their ID cards through the glass and jump the queue. You learn to sharpen your elbows pretty quickly. I think the clerk took perverse pleasure in ignoring them and taking the extra time it takes to sell a foreigner a ticket.

Scrum buying tickets in Xián
Scrum buying tickets in Xián

Want to do more than just buy train tickets in Xian? Our guide to the best things to do in Xian is here.

Controlling the Line at the Ticket Office
Controlling the Line at the Ticket Office

Not that it made any difference in the end. Our HangZhou – Shanghai train may have been cancelled, we don’t actually know, when we arrived it was running “probably 4 hours late” and all other trains prior to it to Shanghai on that line had been delayed, some up to 10 hours. We resorted to English to swap our tickets to a train an hours later “it’s standing room only in the hard seat area”.

It was only a two hour trip, so we swapped. You’ll never be bored in hard seat class. Again, the only westerners around, we made new friends, had a superb chat with a student of printing, amused half the carriage with games with the children and watched wide eyed at all the Chinese vendors. There were more than 150 people in the space designed for 120, plus the vendors trying to sell you things, plus the guy trying to clear the trash and then those wanting to go backwards and forwards to the toilet, to the hot water dispenser.. And while I wouldn’t recommend it for a 16 hour trip, I’d say try hard seat class at least once. Meet the real China, you’ll give your fellow travelers something to talk about, and I’m pretty sure you’ll dine out on the experience for years too.

Amusing the Kids in Hard Seat Class
Amusing the Kids in Hard Seat Class
Vendors selling ANYTHING
Vendors selling ANYTHING
HardSeat Class when it's emptied out
HardSeat Class when it’s emptied out
The Fruit Man comes back AGAIN
The Fruit Man comes back AGAIN

Getting into the Station

Buying your tickets is only half the fun. Entering the station adds another queue or line to your life. And then once you’ve made it through that check point, you’ll need to put your bags through security and get frisked (sometimes literally!) by the security team to make sure that the phone is your pocket really is a phone.

Ticket check to get into the Station.
Ticket check to get into the Station.
Security Check and Bag Screen to get into the station
Security Check and Bag Screen to get into the station
Now Head to the Waiting Room
Now Head to the Waiting Room

Find your Waiting Room

Made it into the station? Now you’ll need to head for your waiting room – just spot your train number and go from there. It’s hard to get lost in Chinese Train Stations, although the bigger ones are literally like funky new airports, they’re so big.

And Wait
And Wait

Boarding Your Train

Once your train is called, (somewhere between 10 and 40 minutes before it departs), you’ll line up and head through the ticket checking barrier (either automatic or a real person checks) and then you’ll head for the platform. There’s no rush (unless you’re late) There is plenty time to get there, because once you get to the platform, you’re going to get another ticket check. And then either as you board the train, or after you’ve arrived at your seat or bunk, you’ll get your ticket swapped for a plastic card, which will be swapped back for your ticket about 20 minutes before your station. You’ll never miss your stop in China ,the providnit will make sure you’re off!

Now head to the platform..
Now head to the platform..
No number 4 carriage. It's unlucky!
No number 4 carriage. It’s unlucky!
Ticket Checking as you board
Ticket Checking as you board
Tickets swapped for cards, you'll not miss your stop!
Tickets swapped for cards, you’ll not miss your stop!

In both Hard and Soft Sleeper you’ll get a sheet, pillow and duvet with fresh bedding, so you can snooze away your time if you so want.

Hard Sleeper, its a long way up there..
Hard Sleeper, its a long way up there..

The Toilets on board

And of course, this wouldn’t be complete without details of the toilet facilities. Some trains have western toilets, but most have a couple of Chinese style per carriage, with an area for washing hands, face, cleaning teeth and washing out your noodle and food dishes. There’s also a hot water dispenser in each carriage.

Train Toilets. China.
Train Toilets. China.
Washing up, washing room, Chinese Train
Washing up, washing room, Chinese Train

It’s a great way to travel, and we haven’t (yet) had a bad journey, our trip in hard seat, standing was the most fun train journey, when we expected it to be the least enjoyable. We’ve found the Chinese trains much more sociable than the Russian trains, a lot more comfortable than the buses and in a lot of cases it saves a hotel room cost, as you’ll be traveling overnight on them.

We’ve got another month in China, once we return for our second entry on the visa, so I’m sure something will go wrong, but in the meantime, we’ll keep racking up the miles and watching the world go by, because some of the views truly are spectacular.

View from the Train to Beijiing from DaTong
View from the Train to Beijiing from DaTong

Resources

Travel Tips for Exploring China

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