Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Train Travel in China

While touring my family around China last week/dealing with their culture shock, I got to thinking about all the things I desperately searched the internet for before and shortly after moving to China. So, I thought I would start a new segment of this blog for other people who are moving to China and may also be desperately searching the internet. I'm sure they're out there, and it is very literally my job right now to know these things. I'm still trying to think up a catchy name for this, so let me know if you have any ideas. I'm going to start with describing everything you could possibly want to know about train travel. I'm open to suggestion for future topics!


Often the best way to travel around China is by train. The long distance trains are for the most part cheap and efficient, and access far more places than planes (especially on the Eastern half of the country). That said, before you go all in on a train, check some flight prices, because travel between major cities, say Beijing to Shanghai, may be cheaper (and faster!) by air than by train. (Do factor in though, that overnight trains save money on hotel rooms).

(four sections of this post, short-linked here)
Kinds of Trains
Buying a Ticket
Reading a Ticket
Boarding and Riding a Train

Kinds of Trains

Before talking about how to get a ticket, I should explain the different classes of train travel. There are 4: soft sleeper, hard sleeper, soft seat and hard seat.

A soft sleeper is the highest and most expensive class - about twice the price of hard sleeper. Contrary to the name implications, the mattress isn't any softer than in second class, but there are several other amenities. Soft sleeper cars are composed of 4 person private berths. There are 2 bunk beds and a small table in each. Each bed comes with two pillows and a comforter. The cabin will also have a hot water thermos and a trash can. Many trains will also provide a bottle of water for each passenger. Most never trains have temperature control and individual television sets (5 CCTV channels, no English) in soft sleeper cabins. Soft sleeper cabins can also control their own overhead lighting and have individual reading lights per bunk. All luggage must be stored under the lower bunks.

The second class hard sleeper cars are composed of six person public berths. Unlike the soft sleeper, you cannot close a door on the public hallway. There are 2 three person bunk beds per berth. The top bunk has significantly less headroom (and is the worthy location where I learned I was claustrophobic). Each bed comes with a pillow and comforter. The cabin will also have a hot water thermos and trash can. Opposite the cabin, in the hallway, is another small table with two fold up chairs. The tray under this table is for trash. Because there are six people instead of four, there is also an overhead luggage rack that runs the length of the corridor. Since the berth is public, there is no individual temperature or light control. Lights typically turn off around 10 or 10:30 PM, and on again around 7 AM. Newer trains have individual reading lights, but I would advise bringing a flashlight as getting a reading lamp is a bit of a gamble.

Soft seats are similar to airplane seats, or upper class seats in European trains. They're typically two, sometimes three across on either side of the aisle. Sometimes they recline, sometimes they don't. There is an overhead luggage rack.

Hard seats are not wooden benches, but they aren't particularly comfortable either. THey are most similar to padded or cloth-covered subway car seats, or maybe the benches in airport gates. Often these seats aren't reserved or assigned, so it's possible to get your seat stolen if you leave it. Hard seat cars also often sell standing room tickets, so you may fight that the whole car is crowded with people, or someone might have requisitioned the space below your seat as their bed. There is not much luggage storage.

There are several different kinds of train, as indicated by the letter in the train number. Here they are in order of niceness and speed: A "D" train (动车组) is a bullet train, usually travels between major cities. A "Z" train (直快) is a direct express train. A "T" train (特快) is an express train. A "K" or "N" train (快车or管内快车) is a fast train (but not as fast as you think, it stops at all big train stations). An "L" train (临客) is a temporary train (typically less well-managed). Any train with no letter and just a four-digit number fall somewhere between K/N and L.

Buying a Ticket

So, now that you want to go by train, how do you get a ticket? First check teh schedules and prices at (for non-Chinese speakers, that means The site is all in Chinese, but you can easily figure it out!

When you first get to the site, the top bar looks like this. I've labeled what matters in English. (Click to enlarge).

Use any online translator to get the city names you want to go to. Copy/paste them into the correct spaces. Then hit the big blue button to get the schedule.

The next page will return a grid that looks like this. Again, I've labeled what matters in English.

Figure out which trains fit your schedule and budget, and then write down the train numbers.

Now you're ready to go buy your ticket. No English-speaking window, no problem! Bring a paper with you that says exactly what you want. Even if you've never written Chinese before, you can print or copy from this template:

Just add in the missing stuff. You can use ordinal numbers. Do your best to copy the city names from a dictionary or translation website.

You can buy inter-regional tickets up to 21 days in advance (starting at 3 pm on that 21st day) and regional tickets starting 11 days in advance (starting at 3 pm on that 11th day). I would recommend buying as soon as you're able. You can go to the train station. Or a ticket vendor. This character, 票, pronounced piao (or pee-ow), means ticket and will be over the windows you want. Make sure you have enough RMB before you go, they only take cash!

When it's your turn, hand the agent your paper. You should already know about how much the tickets will cost, and the agent will likely point to the amount on their cash register. Hand over the cash and they'll give you tickets. You're done! (On a side note, you can return this ticket at a main train station for 80% of the face value).

Reading a Ticket

Ok, now you have a ticket. How to read it? Tickets are typically pink squares about the size of a business card. Here are some examples:

Soft Seat:

Hard Sleeper:

Soft Sleeper:

Boarding and Riding the Train

The day of your trip has come! The train station is a bit more streamlined than the airport, so you don’t have to be there as early. But it will be crowed, so I recommend getting there at least 30 minutes before your train departs. I usually allow 45.

At the train station you’ll have to go through a metal detector and a scanner. Odd as it sounds, I would recommend putting any Swiss army knives or similar blades in your jacket pocket rather than your luggage. They seem to be a bit more lax on the boxy scan than the luggage x-ray. This is especially true of any souvenir daggers you may have purchased. Put ‘em in your pocket.

Once through security, look for your train number on the big board. The number at the end of the row (after the times and destinations) is the platform number. If you have a sot sleeper ticket, there may be a fancy waiting room for you. You will know with it is time to board because everyone in the waiting room will make a mad dash at the ticket collector. Don’t panic! Stay calm. You have a reserved seat. If you want to join the panicked dash go or it, but it’s entirely unnecessary. Show the ticket collector your ticket. He will hole-punch it and give it back to you. Don’t lose the ticket (on a general note, if you’re ever given some sort of paper or form in China, don’t lose it. You will likely need it again).

Find your car. The seat numbers are fairly self-explanatory. For the sleepers it depends on hard or soft. In a soft sleeper, ignore the cabin numbers. Your ticket lists the individual bunk number. The placards have a large cabin number with the four bunk numbers in the corners around it. For the hard sleepers, the number refers to your half of the cabin. After the number is a character: 下 (bottom), 中(middle) and 上 (top).

Once the train gets going, the conductor will come around to check your ticket. They may simply glance at it, or they may exchange it for a plastic card. If you get a plastic card, they will come around again at the end of your journey to trade back. During the ride, if you want to take a breather on the platform of other stations, make sure you have your plastic card or ticket with you. When you get leaving the station!). This typically only happens when you get off t non-terminus stations, but it doesn’t hurt to be safe.


Each train car has two bathrooms (typically one squatter and one Western, but sometimes to your destination, have your ticket handy, as someone may collect it as you leave the station (no ticket, no both squatters – regardless bring your own TP), a few sinks, and a boiling water dispenser. Most trains have a dining car, and every train will have snack cart vendors.

The majority of your fellow passengers will bring ramen with them for meals. Bring the kind in a bucket – you can use the hot water dispenser to cook it. Water dispenser is also good for tea and instant coffee. If you’re not into drinking hot water, bring water bottles with you. In terms of food, drink, alcohol, you can bring on board whatever you can carry. The dining cars and cards are pretty overpriced and not that delicious, so I would recommend bringing your own food and snacks. Other stuff to bring includes: sandals or slippers (for walking around the car), games, books, a flashlight or headlamp, etc.

Pack your suitcase so anything you might need during the ride is on top, they will be hard to access once they’ve been cosied away under bunks or in overhead compartments. Better yet, pack a small day bag you can keep on your lap or in your bunk bed.

Finally, make sure all of your ipods, cellphones, computers etc are fully charged. You have only a 50/50 chance of getting available or working outlets on your train.

Enjoy the ride! Any other questions or suggestions feel free to leave a comment or email me. How this helps someone!!



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