Taking Trains in China
Trains are easily the best way for the budget traveler to move around China. The Chinese train system is reliable and fairly easy to navigate, even with minimal Chinese. And considering how far you can go, tickets are incredibly inexpensive. The train from Changsha to Beijing costs about as much as an Amtrak ride from New Jersey to Connecticut — and it’s 10 times as far. Recent improvements to the train infrastructure have added ultra-fast, modern trains on certain routes, such as Beijing—Tianjin or Shanghai —Nanjing.
Can’t find the answer you were looking for? I answered questions about train travel on my blog in October 2009. If you can’t find the answer there, e-mail me at jessica (at) tochinaandbeyond (dot) com.
Chinese train tickets can typically only be purchased 10 days before travel. The date of travel is included in that count. So tickets for May 10 could be purchased May 1. On popular routes, tickets will sell out. During peak travel times, such as Chinese New Year or the October 1 National Holiday, there will be huge lines outside train stations as soon as tickets go on sale.
You can buy tickets either at the train station or at countless small travel agencies and ticket vendors. Look for signs for a shoupiaochu, 售票处. The vendors add a small charge, around 5 RMB, but the lines are much shorter. Train station attendants will likely not speak much English, so writing down your destination and date of travel ahead of time will make the transaction smoother. Your hotel or hostel may also be able to help you make train arrangements, even ahead of time.
If you have a tight itinerary and want the comfort of purchasing tickets farther in advance (or want English-speaking help), there are a few travel agencies catering to foreign tourists. These tickets can be picked up or delivered to your hotel within 10 days of travel. The main disadvantage is that they can be very expensive. On one site, a ticket from Shanghai to Beijing that normally costs 320 RMB (less than $50 at current exchange rates) costs $155. If you are desperate, however, The Man In Seat 61 suggests a few: www.chinatripadvisor.com, www.chinatraintickets.net, www.china-train-ticket.com.
Classes of train
There are five main classes of train tickets on Chinese trains:
Hard sleeper:In terms of value-for-money, hard sleeper (seen right) is the best way to move long distances in China. A hard sleeper ticket buys you a reserved berth with sheets, a pillow and a comforter. Standing ticket-holders are kept out of sleeper cars, so your extra RMB buy you significantly more personal space. Still, there are no doors on compartments, and the lights for the entire car are controlled by the conductor. On some Z trains, hard sleeper bunks have their own reading lights, but don’t count on it.When you buy your 硬卧铺票 (ying4wo4pu4piao4, hard sleeper berth ticket), you will have a choice between the upper, middle and lower bunks. The lower bunks are great for the daytime because there is room to sit up straight(er). But you may be asked to share space with your compartment-mates. If that bothers you, stick to the middle or upper bunks. Lower bunks cost slightly more than middle bunks, which cost slightly more than upper bunks.
- Soft sleeper: Soft sleeper offers a bit more comfort than hard sleeper, for a significant increase in the price. Berths are roughly the same size, but instead of three bunks per row, there are just two. Compartments have their own doors and overhead lights, and each bunk has its own reading lamp. If you’re buying soft sleeper, ask for 软卧铺票 (ruan3wo4pu4piao4).
- Hard seat: This is the lowest class of reserved ticket. You are assigned space on a bench seat meant for three people, usually facing another bench with a small table in between. It is acceptable for short journeys, but the amount of space allocated to each individual is fairly small. Prepare to cuddle with your neighbors! You may also have to share space with people with standing tickets, who will often try to squeeze onto the end of your bench. If you are really uncomfortable, a glare will often suffice to get them to move. To buy a hard-seat ticket, ask for 硬座位 (ying4zuo4wei4).
- Soft seat: Many of the short-distance, high-speed trains — like those between Beijing and Tianjin or Shanghai and Suzhou — are soft seat-only. The seats are bigger and more padded, and standing-ticket-holders are not permitted.
- Standing ticket: After hard seat tickets are sold out, it may still be possible to buy a standing ticket for the train. On popular routes, the aisles in hard seat compartments will be packed. Some people bring their own stools, others squat. It’s not a comfortable ride.
Understanding your Chinese train ticket
Your ticket contains key information for navigating the train station and the boarding process, so make sure you understand it before getting to the train station. Here is my ticket for a recent trip from Guangzhou to Changsha:
1. N558: This is the number of the train. Because you may not be getting off at the train’s final destination, you’ll want to use this number to look up your train on the announcement board at the train station. Train numbers also give you useful information about the overall quality of the train. Train numbers beginning with T, Z, D or C are the most desirable (and the most expensive), as they are the fastest and the newest. Trains that have no letter in their name are the local trains, so they are slower and typically use older, more dilapidated train cars.
2. 2009年03月29日22:46开: This tells you the date and time of departure. This train departed at 10:46 p.m. on March 29, 2009. Note that the Chinese train system uses military time. You’ll want to arrive at the train station at least 30 minutes early to get through security, locate your waiting room and board the train.
3. 11车06号上铺: This is your car and berth information. This ticket is in car number 11, row number 6. In hard sleeper class, there are three bunks per row. 上铺 (shang4pu4) indicates that this ticket is for the top bunk. A middle bunk ticket would say 中铺 (zhong1pu4). A bottom berth ticket would say 下铺 (xia4pu4).
At the station
writingbee.com Get to the station at least 30 minutes before your train. You’ll need to present your ticket and put your luggage through an X-ray machine before entering the train station. Once you get through the door, look for the announcement board. Use your train number to figure out which waiting room your train is assigned to. About 10 minutes before your train departs (earlier if you are leaving from the train’s origin), conductors will direct passengers from the waiting room to the appropriate track. This announcement will probably trigger a thundering horde, but if you have a reserved berth and not too much luggage, there’s no reason not to wait until the lines subside.
When you get to your car, the conductor will ask for your ticket and give you a plastic or metal card in return. The card will have your seat number on it and helps the conductors keep track of all of the travelers. You’ll need to return the card when you debark.
Once you’ve boarded the train and stashed your luggage, relax! There is not much to do until the lights go out. Vendors selling prepackaged meals, ramen noodles, fresh fruit, snacks and drinks pass through the car frequently. The food in the restaurant cars is over-priced, but edible.
In hard sleeper, lights-out will usually happen between 9:30 and 11 p.m. The lights will come on again in the morning, but the exact time will depend on what stops the train is making. If your train is getting in in the middle of the night, you might want to set an alarm. Otherwise, the conductor will probably wake you up — but not very nicely!