We’ve done all of our traveling in China by train and we absolutely loved it. China has one of the most extensive train networks in the world and you can explore almost every corner of China by train. Doing so will get you great views, convenience, decent comfort, cheap travel and a brief look into the everyday Chinese life. Here are five reasons why you will love train travel in China!
Train travel gets you some of the best views of China you can get
Lush valleys, misty rice paddies in full growth or during harvest, gargantuan cityscapes, bamboo forests in the south of China, dramatic mountain scenes, stretches of desert in the north of China, gigantic rivers meandering through the land, there is simply no end to the list of things we saw from China’s trains. We’ve been amazed again and again by the beauty of China. China’s landscape, as seen from a train, is ever-changing. The views just keep on coming.
Train travel in China is convenient and easy
Almost every train station of the larger cities in China has at least one ‘English-speaking’ ticket booth. This means that with a lot of pointing on our side and some broken English on the other side of the window you’ll get the tickets. What always helped me was a guidebook or a note with the Chinese characters for my destination on it. Your hotel/hostel staff won’t mind writing such a note for you if you ask. The ticket-seller has a monitor facing your way with all the information on it, like date of the ticket, prices, train number and departure/arrival time.
The signage in Chinese train stations is always clear enough make out where the train is leaving, in what waiting room you have to wait and at what time you are expected to stumble onto the train. If you are ever in doubt, just follow the herd that gets up as your train is announced.
Chinese train-stations will generally be in the center of the city, and I always make sure to pick our hostel or hotel strategically, so we can either walk there or take a short bus ride. This is great compared to airports, which are usually located 10+ km outside of cities.
There are lots of different classes in Chinese trains all the way from ‘deluxe soft sleeper’ to ‘hard seat’. Deluxe soft sleeper is a private cabin with two beds and sometimes even a toilet and a sink. This class is offered on only a very small percentage of Chinese trains, so you’ll be very lucky to find one every time. Hard seat can be as spartan as wooden benches, but usually they’re just regular train seats in a not air-conditioned carriage.
In all day time trains I’ve taken so far, I always had a soft seat. These carriages are air-conditioned and not as busy as the hard seat carriages.
I also took a night train several times and I can recommend it. It saves you some money on a night in a hotel and it’s comfortable enough. As a couple, we opted for hard sleeper every time, and it’s fine. It’s six beds in an open compartment. Three beds above each other, facing another three beds. We only had a snorer once or twice and earplugs work fine in that situation. Watch out for the tiny, frail grandma’s though, they fart a lot and it isn’t pretty.
You can pick the berth (lower, middle or upper) when you get your ticket. I liked the middle berths best as they have lots more space than the upper berths. The upper berths are a quite cramped. The lower berths will seat the other people in your cabin until it’s sleepy-time (lights go out at 22:00 and on again at 7:00). The lower berths are a lot more spacious though and Angela prefers those. You get clean sheets and pillowcases every time. If not, complain with the train-attendant as they probably just didn’t feel like changing them.
Do some grocery shopping before you get on the train. In some trains there’s a dining cart, or train-attendants will come by with a food cart. I ate the food served on two separate occasions. The first time it was delicious. So naturally I took it again on the next trip. It gave me food poisoning. You can’t pick, they just serve one dish, or maybe two. The price should be on the cart, make sure you don’t pay too much, I speak from experience here.
There were some telltale signs the second time, I should have used my common sense. The first time it was served by a fresh-looking lady, with a clean uniform, from a well-kept food cart. The second time however, the food was served by a grumpy teen in (very!) dirty cooks garments, that obviously hadn’t been washed for a while. The cart was a little rusty, my rice was overcooked and the meat was undefinable. The first time it was clearly chicken, but I’m still completely in the dark as to what I’ve eaten the second time. That’s an common occurrence in China though.
The toilets in Chinese trains are squat toilets. After a little practice these are actually more hygienic than Western-style toilets because you don’t have to touch anything while you’re using them. Make sure to bring some toilet paper as it’s always out.
Train travel in China is cheap
We got our train tickets at a fraction of the prices of flights. For example, a hard sleeper middle berth ticket from Beijing to Xi’an costs RMB265, which is around €31,- with current exchange rates, and that’s for 1,200 kilometers of train travel! That same trip by plane ranges from RMB777 (€93,-) to RMB1300 (€156,-).
Make sure to bring your passports when you go buy train tickets. We forgot them once. We were in Beijing and it was Golden Week. It was horrifying. It was our first time buying a train ticket in China and it had cost us an hour and a half to get from our hostel to the train station (always go to the train station to buy tickets, travel agents and hotels/hostels will charge you extra), about 45 minutes waiting in line, 15 minutes of discussing the specifics of our tickets with a stressed out ticket seller only to be asked for our passports. We nearly shit ourselves. By the time we got back at the English-speaking booth with our passports, around two and a half hours later, it was closed. We had to wait in line at the information desk for another half hour to get the number of the new English-speaking booth. The tickets we wanted were sold out by that time, so we had to get hard seat tickets, for an overnight train journey of around 14 hours. We survived though.
After that, we took a night train several times and we found it convenient to know the Chinese signs for the lower (下铺), middle (中铺) and upper berth (上铺) when you’re buying tickets, so you can specify which berth you want. They differ a little in price, with the lower being the most expensive, and the upper the cheapest. The soft sleeper is around RMB200 more expensive than the hard sleeper. You get a compartment with a door and only an upper and lower berth for that.
Train travel in China gets you an inside look in everyday Chinese life
As much as the Chinese stare at you on the train, or everywhere else, it’s fun to watch them go about their business. The Chinese are very social people and will often engage in conversation with each other (about you). It doesn’t necessarily sound nice to our Western ears, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t. Chinese often shout in conversation, or just stop halfway through a sentence to retch and spit. It’s so completely different from our standards of human interaction that it’s very interesting to watch.
All in all, I loved train travel in China for these reasons and we know for sure you will too. Did you travel by train in China? What were your experiences? Did you love it or hate it? Let us know in the comments!