I’ve traveled extensively throughout China mostly by train. When I first came to China, I knew very little Chinese and I still got to everywhere I needed to go. It’s by far one of the best methods of transportation in China and can be a really interesting experience, too. While below I may explain some of the annoyances of train travel in China, I’m just trying to point out everything so nothing is unexplained. The train service in China really is fantastic and I highly recommend it. The prices are also really great.
Booking Train Tickets Is Easy
There are two methods to buying train tickets and both are easy. The first is asking your hostel or hotel to do it for you. It’s likely the laziest and simplest way. The charge is usually from 10 to 25RMB on top of each ticket. The ticket is then delivered right to you without ever having to leave your hostel or hotel.
The second method is a little more difficult but can be a fun adventure. It’s booking the train tickets directly at the train station. You’ll want your hostel or hotel to write down the Chinese characters for the destination you’re going to, the date, time, type of bed, and which bunk (top/middle/bottom). I’ve heard some stations have a window for English speakers but I’ve never seen them. Most train stations in China are packed and with lots of lines. Pack yourself in and battle yourself through. You’ll find a whole lot of line cutters so keep on pushing.
Always Confirm Your Ticket
I’ve made the mistake once of not checking the ticket and it ended up the train had already left the day before. Oops.
Soft Sleeper or Hard Sleeper Should Be Your Only Choice
My personal preferences are the sleepers. I would never get the seats (don’t even ask me about the standing room). It’s nearly impossible for me to sleep on those seats. Way too many people in one room and usually the rooms smell bad. I usually get the hard sleeper. Hard sleeper beds are reasonably comfortable. Can be a little small but it’s still okay. There are six beds to a room and goes from top, middle, and bottom bunks. There are enough Chinese people around for a good local experience. There have been a few times that I was offered tons of alcohol and fruits. It made for a few long nights on the train. With my limited Chinese, it usually goes into sign language but it’s always a good time. They love taking pictures, too.
Soft sleepers are a good option as well and are usually very quiet. If you want a good night’s rest, this may be the better option. There are only 4 people to a room and some trains even have plugs for your computer. Prices can sometimes be dramatically higher than hard sleepers.
Top, Middle, or Bottom Bunk?
If you’re getting the hard sleeper, you’ll be asked which bunk you want. I prefer the top. The top gives you privacy. On some trains, there’s easier access to your luggage from the top bunk. You’ll lose some head space on the top bunk though. It’s also much harder to get down and especially annoying when you need to go the restroom in the middle of the night and have to climb down then back up. I don’t recommend the top bunk if you’re not fit enough to do a bit of climbing.
Some people prefer the middle. It’s a bit easier to climb on your bed and you get the extra head space that the top bunk does not provide. Because I’m a bit more noticeable on the middle bunk, I don’t always go for it. Being noticed means every Chinese person that passes by will look and want to speak to you. I’m okay with that but when I’m trying to sleep, it gets annoying.
I never go for the bottom bunk unless I’m in a soft sleeper. The hard sleeper bottom bunk means you’ve got the couch. It becomes a communal couch for everyone who sleeps above you.
Bring Food With You
Train food isn’t that good. Most Chinese don’t even buy it. It’s also expensive. The most common food to bring is the instant noodle bowls. All trains provide hot water. I try to avoid those bowls though. Another option is fruits. If you didn’t bring anything, carts pass by often with fruits and drinks. The fruits are quite good. The best option is to bring your own food. On my last train, I brought a foot long Subway sandwich which counted for two great meals. On other trains, I made my own sandwiches.
What to Expect On the Train
If you’re an obvious foreigner, you’ll be approached and talked to. Remember that many of the people who take the trains are Chinese people who may have never seen a foreigner before. It’s a popular choice of transportation for them to transport goods made from their hometown and distribute it to the big cities. Take this as an opportunity to communicate with the locals. You’ll have a great time. The restaurant cart is a good place for a few beers and meeting people.
During over night trains, all lights go off. Bring a flashlight. If you’re on the top bunk, you’ll REALLY need a flashlight. Lights turn back on at 7am with blasting music.
As you may already know, Karaoke is popular in China. Well it’s more serious than you may think. They’ll blast away music on their cell phones and sing at 8 in the morning. It doesn’t seem to bother anyone. Another mysterious thing to me is the loudness of the Chinese. Once the lights are on, expect full on screaming.
You’ll know your destination is coming when a lady asks for the card she gave you in the beginning of the journey. Once you’ve made the trade for your ticket back, it means that your destination is less than one hour away. You can start by packing up and waiting in the bottom area. Take a seat and enjoy the rest of the ride.