China is a vast country, for many travelers, train journeys are an excellent way to see the beautiful scenery. The Chinese train network is extensive. Trains in China are punctual, fast, and safe, and are a reliable transport option. It is advisable to either buy your ticket well in advance, or ask your hotel or travel agent to arrange your bookings.
China has an efficient and extensive train network that covers every province. Chinese trains can be quite comfortable, and there are fast services running between most large towns and cities.
Each train is identified by a train number, written on the outside of each carriage, that indicates its route and destination. As a rule, incoming and outgoing trains running between two destinations are numbered sequentially. For example, train K79 travels from Shanghai to Kunming, while train K80 runs from Kunming to Shanghai.
Trains are of three types: those with numbers prefixed by the letter “T” or “K” are express (te kuai) or fast (kuai) trains, and those whose numbers have no prefix are ordinary (pu kuai) trains, with frequent stops. Express trains have carriages of all classes, and are the most modern and comfortable, with few stops and superior services. Double-decker trains with soft-seat carriages run on a few short intercity routes such as Beijing–Tianjin or Shanghai–Hangzhou. All long-distance trains are equipped with sleepers.
There is no smoking permitted within compartments, except in hard-seat carriages, although most trains allow passengers to smoke in the corridors. Most trains have dining cars, and staff will continuously push trolleys through the carriages selling noodles, snacks, mineral water, coffee, and newspapers. China’s modern trains are clean.
Chinese trains have four classes. The most advanced class is Soft Sleeper (ruan wo), with four comfortable berths per compartment. Offering more security, and cleanliness than less-expensive classes, soft sleeper tickets are expensive, and are not much cheaper than air tickets on certain routes.
For long journeys lasting over six hours, Hard Sleeper (ying wo) is the best way to travel. Hard sleeper can be an economical choice when traveling between cities overnight, as it saves the cost of a night in a hotel. Carriages consist of doorless compartments, each with six bunks. Tickets are of three types – upper berth (shang pu), middle berth (zhong pu), and lower berth (xia pu), with a small price difference between each. The lowest berth is the most expensive, while the top one is the cheapest. The best berth, however, is the middle one. The upper bunk has little head-room and is closest to the speakers. During the day, the lower bunk acts as seating and fills with fellow passengers. Pillows, sheets, and blankets are provided by the railways, as are two thermos flasks of boiling water. Once aboard the train, the inspector will exchange your ticket for a metal token, and return the ticket at the end of the journey.
The cheapest class is Hard Seat (ying zuo), which seats three people side-by-side on lightly cushioned seats. It is possible to upgrade (bu piao) once aboard the train, if there are seats available in the class of your choice. Note that hard-seat tickets bought on the same day are usually unreserved. Available only on certain routes, Soft Seat (ruan zuo) carriages are much more comfortable and spacious than hard seat, and seat two people side-by-side in numbered seats.
When buying tickets, it is essential to plan in advance. On most routes, it is vital to buy tickets at least two or three days before you travel, although tickets are available about five days before departure. On short routes, you may be able to secure a ticket just before departure, but it is safest to buy in advance. Tickets on longer routes are certain to sell out, especially those for hard sleepers.
Train fares are calculated according to the class and the distance traveled. All tickets are one-way, so you will need to buy another ticket for the return journey. Joining the crowds at station ticket counters can be very trying, so unless the station has a separate ticket office for foreign visitors, which is the case at Beijing train station, consider asking your hotel, tourist office, or travel agent to buy tickets for you – they should be more than happy to do so for a small fee.
Before boarding the train, visitors wait in a hall before filing past ticket-checkers to the platform. Retain your ticket as inspectors will ask to see it again, just before you reach your destination.