Taking an internal flight might be the quickest way to travel vast distances across China, but they can be expensive and are often subject to long delays and random cancellations.
Travelling by train is convenient and affordable, and a bit more of an adventure – you get to meet different people and experience how most ordinary Chinese people travel cross-country. And, unlike air travel, you get to wake up early in the city centre of your new destination, ready for a full day of sightseeing.
But, taking the train can seem a bit daunting at first, especially if you can’t speak Mandarin. These top 10 tips will help you know what to expect:
1 Read www.themaninseat61.com
I won’t repeat here the extensive knowledge that this website shares, but if you are travelling by any international train, anywhere, this is your trusty guide. Via this website we found a great booking agency (see top tip no. 2).
2 Make use of a good booking agency
Normally, I’d avoid using a ticket agent as it increases costs, but sometimes you need some expert knowledge to get you through. We used China DIY Travel and they were fantastic. They did charge $10 per train journey, but for this we received an excellent service. We left booking tickets quite late, but within 6 hours of first emailing them we had received booked tickets in accordance with Chinese name regulations (names on tickets have to match your passport exactly), instructions in both Mandarin and English to present to the ticket office for ticket collection so you can just show the email on your phone, instructions on how to read your ticket, and even information guides for the major train stations. China Highlights is another great website offering this service.
3 Know which class of train you want
If you’re on a day train, the different types of seat are fairly straightforward: first class, second class, hard seat (third class). We travelled from Beijing to Shanghai by bullet train, averaging 303km/h, in second class and it was excellent. The seats have double the amount of leg room as UK trains and there are hot and cold meals, snacks, fruit and drinks available to buy at a reasonable cost during the journey.
On a sleeper train, the options are a bit more complicated:
Hard sleepers are open berths sleeping 6 passengers, with a top, middle and bottom bunk. The top bunks are not for the claustrophobic – you’re nearly touching the roof.
Soft sleepers sleep 4 passengers and have a top and bottom bunk, with more room in between each. There is a sliding door which is lockable from the inside so it gives you a bit more security and privacy (but unless you are a group, you are still probably sharing with random passengers).
At the extreme opposites of the scale, there is a hard seat option, or a deluxe soft sleeper compartment for two passengers (sometimes with an en-suite).
For us, the soft sleeper was the most cost-effective option, without having to sacrifice too much in the way of comfort.
4 Arrive at the station in plenty of time
You have to go through airport-style security at every Chinese station and trains typically begin boarding around half an hour before departure, so bear this in mind. We always aimed to arrive at the station an hour before our train set off. Signs are displayed in Mandarin and English, and helpfully each train is numbered (you can find your train number on your ticket) so you know which waiting area to go to before your platform opens.
5 Get your elbows out
Polite British queuing will get you nowhere, literally. With a population of 1.3 billion, it’s everyone for themselves in China, so expect to be pushed and shoved when the platform gates open and don’t be offended by it. Try to hold your ground – easier said than done when you’ve got 15kg on your back!
6 Or, use the soft sleeper waiting area
We only discovered this on our second overnight trip, but each station has a separate waiting area for soft sleeper passengers. Much quieter and less stressful than the main waiting area; you can actually get a seat. There’s usually a hot water tap and shop, so if you’ve time to kill you can eat your pot noodle before you board.
7 Find out what an overnight train is like
I was a bit daunted by the sleeper train experience, but it was actually a lot better than I expected. We travelled by Z class train from Shanghai to Xian and K class from Xi’an to Chengdu.
On both trains there is a small shared table, plug sockets for the lower bunks (handy for charging your phone), individual reading lights, coat hooks and small trays. There are also individual TVs but we couldn’t get these to work – presume everything was in Mandarin anyway!
There is space to store bags under the lower bunks and at the end of the top bunks, but pack a small bag with your essentials as it’s difficult to access big bags once you’re in your compartment. If you’re concerned about security, put your valuables in your small bag and sleep with it by you, or use it as an extra pillow.
It’s an unwritten rule that during the evening and daytime passengers in the top bunks sit on the lower bunks, so fold your bedding away when you’re not using it. There are also folding chairs to sit on in the corridors.
8 What should I pack for an overnight train?
The trains do have sheets, pillows and duvets, and they seemed clean, but as we had silk sleeping bag liners it was good to use these on top of the sheets.
There are both squat and western toilets – neither are particularly nice. Bring tissues and soap, as they are not provided.
There is a wash area with three small sinks and mirrors, so you can wash your face and brush your teeth to feel like you are getting ready for bed. Bring a small face cloth, face wash, toothbrush, toothpaste, small cup (I have a very handy folding cup) and bottled water (don’t drink the tap water). There is a trolley selling basic toiletries that comes round if you’ve forgotten anything.
There’s not really much of a changing area, but I changed my jeans for some slouchy trousers and brought a hoodie in case the air-con got cold, as well as a change of clothes for the next day. Flip flops are a good idea if you’re taking your shoes on and off. Face wipes, deodorant and dry shampoo make you feel half-human when you get off the train at 9am the next day. Definite essentials for me.
We had books, cards and our phones and iPad to pass the time. No wifi is provided.
At the end of each carriage there is a hot water tap, so you can bring pot noodles and a plastic fork and eat as the locals do, or even have a cup of tea. Hot meals and snacks are also brought round on trollies, and on some trains there is a dining car, but we decided to have an evening meal at the station and just brought bottles of water and fruit and croissants for the morning to make things easier.
9 Don’t forget your stop
The ticket conductors come and take your tickets from you, so they know to wake you up when it’s your stop. The trains don’t stop for long at all – so this is handy if you are a deep sleeper, even on a train.
10 Enjoy the experience!
Take time to talk to your fellow passengers; you may not have the opportunity to talk to Chinese people in such close quarters at any other point of your trip.
On our first train, we got chatting to a Chinese man who was having English lessons and wanted to practise his English with us. He acted as a translator for our fellow roomie, who didn’t speak much English but had asked where we were going in China – we’d managed to give him the gist earlier by going through our holiday snaps of Beijing and the Great Wall.
On our second train, we ended up having a two and a half hour chat with two other Chinese passengers (one who was just randomly walking past our compartment but wanted to try out his English) covering everything from traffic signals to street food, via Communism, the British first past the post voting system, and fish and chips.
A Chinese sleeper train may be the most random, and the most fun, train journey you ever take.