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How to train it in China and survive

June 10, 2009

The idea of train travel abroad can be daunting and if you add the words China, crowded stations, and limited english facilities, it’s enough to bring on an anxiety attack even to the hardcore traveller. Yet it doesn’t have to be that bad, you can take a train through China and survive. I’ll tell you how.

yoyoor.com

yoyoor.com

Part of the plan on a recent trip to China, was to look and awe at the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an. Not because I had a fascination with them, but an obligation to my mother. A well-read lady with a deep admiration for this ancient wonder.

Xi’an is a city located in the northwest of China. To get there from Beijing where I was staying, you need to either fly, bus or train it–1000 kms each way. Most of you who have been following my travels know I prefer train travel. The jungle train journey in Malaysia was a highlight for me and a number of you. Naturally my trip to Xi’an was by train, an overnight sleeper that would take me there and back to Beijing a couple of days later.

While researching this part of my trip, I found that train tickets came in various classes from deluxe soft sleeper to hard seat. Prices ranged not just on the class but also on where you bought the ticket; and buying tickets directly from the station can be 50 percent cheaper than through an agent. Unless you can get a super deal through a travel agent, think about leaving the train tickets until you are in China.

Types of trains and seat classes

Because train travel is very popular among Chinese there several seating/sleeping options to choose from. Each depends on budget, time flexibility, destination, and availablity. I left my booking till the last minute and had to take what was available — hardsleeper. 

Hard sleeper– because you get hardly any sleep, this type of sleeper class is budget, open planned style with six bunks to each cubicle, three berths high. The higher the bunk the cheaper it is. A pillow and duvet is provided and depending on the train’s age you can have very good air conditi0ning or none at all. Food comes by every 15 minutes or you can bring your own, or go to the dining carriage. The bunk is very narrow but decent in length. If you are well proportioned this option could be uncomfortable.

Soft sleeper – most often preferred byforeign travellers. Four bunks to a room and more private. There is usally a soft-sleeper waiting lounge located in the train station which gives you some privacy and a chance to breath, away from hundreds of curious eyes.

Other options – deluxe soft sleeper, hard seat, standing – these depend on train type, destination and budget.

Should you book before you leave home or when you arrive in China?

That is up to you but there are some things to beware of:

Booking tickets with an agent inside China can be pricey and agents can double the price. Some reputable ones worth looking into are: trains-trip-into-china, Chinatripadvisor, Chinatraintickets. You can save money and buy tickets directly at the train station. For Beijing based destinations try Beijing or Beijing west stations.

My experience in Hard sleeper class

  • Hard sleepers vary in price, the higher the berth, the cheaper the price.
  • Don’t expect to sleep well in hard sleeper, people snore, attendents talk, loudly, light beams through gaps in curtains, children cry out in the night.
  • Toilet facilities vary depending on the age of the train– bring your own paper, slippers, and brace yourself.
  • Smoking is generally not allowed in the carriages but rules are often ignored. Be prepared for some passive smoking.
  • You can have some good basic conversations with the younger Chinese generations who share sleep area, the older ones tend to avoid you. In case they have to speak English.

Train Stations

 I can’t say what other stations are like, but expect them to be similar to Beijing or Xi’an:

Xinhua

Xinhua

  • Usually overcrowded, busy, noisy and hot.
  • Beijing’s west station has announcements made in English and Chinese.
  • Xi’an’s station is busy and old. Announcements are only in Chinese. It’s not difficult to figure out what is going on, just follow the crowd all pushing to get on the train.
  • Chinese characters and pinyang (alphabetised words) are usually written up.
  • Memorise the Chinese characters of the destinations you are going to. This helps you read the announcement boards.
  • Touts operate everywhere be aware, pickpockets also work the stations.

 The trip itself

This will be a memorable trip if you get to travel during the day time. Not ony do you see the locals at work in the fields but get a sense of just how vast China is. And at times charming. Personally I recommend taking the train even if it’s just a short trip. Flying can get you to your destination quicker, but trains show you much more.

Check out both these excellent sites for further information:  the man in Seat61 and Jessica, an expat residing in China, at China and Beyond

Sorry folks about the formatting, it seems like this blog doesn’t like bullet points. Time for an upgrade!

Caffeinated Traveller

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10 Comments
  1. Bear permalink
    June 11, 2009 12:25 pm

    Agreed, of course one sees more by train than by airplane. But what a mark up in ticket prices by agents — thanks I had not heard that. And all of those options 🙂 Did you here much snoring on the train trips that you took?

  2. June 11, 2009 2:13 pm

    There is simply no better way to get a sense of a country or continent than by driving it. Having been driven across the US and Canada several times as a kid, I don’t mind shortcutting trips around here with a quick plane ride now. But when I get to China, I believe I’ll have to take the train…

    Thanks Cate! Another great post!

  3. June 11, 2009 3:15 pm

    I make sure to bring my bucky travel essetnials where ever i go! They are the best and make me most comfy whether i am flying/driving or on a train.

  4. Cate permalink
    June 11, 2009 6:08 pm

    Bear – Yes a lot of snoring from older men 🙂

    Heather – You are welcome. I guess long drives can be mundane at times and so too can trains when the scenery doesn’t change.

    halle- Good advice, thanks.

  5. Erica Johansson permalink
    June 17, 2009 4:43 pm

    Useful information! I will share this on twitter.

  6. June 19, 2009 1:46 pm

    What a great post – practical and inspirational. Makes me want to get planning!

  7. June 22, 2009 9:40 pm

    Great post on China train travel. I was in Hong Kong but never made it to mainland China. I think I may correct that next time out.

    • June 22, 2009 11:20 pm

      Hong Kong has a very different feel to it than mainland China. if you get a chance I do recommend it. Thanks for your comments.

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