A guide: Travel by train in China
Firstly, let me say that I found travel by train in China wasn’t as difficult as you would expect, especially with kids.
Ok, there are challenges but once you have some basic knowledge it helps things run a little smoother. It’s hard enough to read the signs and symbols but to navigate them when you are rushing to find your train, can get quite stressful. The key is to be organised & knowledgeable. Or as much as you can be!
Here are a few simple rules that you can follow to reduce the stress:
Booking train tickets
Pre book your train tickets with www.travelchinaguide.com
You need to pay an admin fee but at least you are more likely to ensure you have seats together. If you book them yourself or close to your departure date the likelihood is that your seats will be spread out.
Train tickets are only issued 25 to 30 days prior to departure. By booking with travel China guide you are in with a good chance of getting the seats (and train you want).
Try and reserve ALL your tickets early then when you go to the train station to collect them, you can pick them all up. It took almost half an hour to collect all ours! You have to enter your passport details for each ticket! Painfully slow.
There are different classes of train. These are denoted with a letter. Read here for details about train classes.
Arriving at the train station
A train station in China is like arriving at an airport. There are baggage scanners. Your passports are checked. Your tickets are checked and you have to wait to be called to your train. It’s a very organised affair. And clean!!
Note: you can leave the station after you’ve entered. Just make sure you take your ticket and passport with you!
Allow yourself at least 1 ½ hours to be at the train station. The stations (especially in the cities) are like airports. There is a ticket check and bag check you must go through. You then need to find the gate that your train is departing from.
You are not allowed to go to the platform though. You must wait in the lounge area. Some are huge, like airports, but smaller towns just have a large hall
Then 15 minutes before the train is due to depart the gates will open to allow you to go to the platform.
Yes, this means it’s chaotic and rushed! But we’ve never had an issue!! Just keep watching the boards. Trains always leave on time. If not it will show the delay time.
There is always a shop inside the station and sometimes eateries (the bigger and newer stations may have Starbucks or McDonald’s), but mostly expect Chinese takeaway. And don’t forget the hot water stations!
You will also find eateries outside the train stations. I recommend you stock up on snacks and noodles for every journey! However, if stuck there are some drinks and snacks trolleys or a dining cart on board (inflated, of course). A few times we have also seen snack carts on platforms, but not often.
On board the train
Each train station and train carriage has toilets and a hot water dispenser.
There are either seated carriages or sleeper carriages. For daytime trains we took the comfortable seats with power outlets.
There are always hot water dispensers for tea, water bottles or noodle pots. (Or if you like coffee and have your aeropress then it’s a brucey bonus!)
Just sit back and watch the world go by!
If you are on an overnight train then there are either 4 soft sleepers or 6 hard sleepers. We usually got the 4 sleeper, which was contained with a door and plenty of space for 4!
Also, I liked that we could hide away from the world in our cabin. We are mini celebrities in China so being bombarded by locals, although sweet, can be annoying at times! Once during a train journey a gentleman tried to seat his son in-between our boys, which they were not happy about!! There’s no such thing as ‘personal space’ in China.
There also 6 bed hard sleepers (2nd class), which are much more of a squeeze and with no door (most of the time!). As a family we have opted for a soft sleeper everytime and slept very well!
You receive a pillow & clean linen on all sleeper trains.
All carriages are comfortably air conditioned.
When you board the sleeper train a ticket inspector will come and take your tickets and will replace this with a card. When it’s time to get off she returns your ticket and you return the card. This means the conductor knows who needs to get off when and where.
She did have to wake us one morning when we arrived a little earlier to our station! This takes some of the stress off.
Reading the ticket
As with anything in China, reading is the most complicated aspect. But I’m not even going to attempt to explain it. Google translate will come in handy, as you’ll know from reading my most useful apps tips here. But again, Travel China guide covers this!
Read here how to decipher the train tickets!
Travelling by train in China
Train travel in China can be easy when you get to grips with it. But there are lots of rules to consider. That’s why we found booking through a travel agent, www.travelchinaguide.com to be less stressful. You’ll have enough to deal with when you get to the train station!
Through the agency we were able to book in advance and once the ticketing opened, the agency would reserve the tickets we required. This guaranteed we would likely get the tickets we needed but also sit together. The trains are extremely popular and are booked up very quickly!
We booked many sleeper trains during our travels through China and they were always very comfortable and clean (including the toilets!). Plus this was a means of travelling large distances and having a nights accommodation included!!
Don’t forget your noodles! And enjoy the scenery.