China is massive… like 3.7 million square miles big. For most of us, it is a long way from home as well. Therefore, once you make it over, you might as well take advantage of the country and see as much as possible. The most comfortable and cheapest means of transportation around China would be via a train. If it is your first time in China, the train experience can be confusing and complicated due to the difference in language. Therefore, I’m here to make it easy on you. Welcome to my backpackers guide on China train travel.

How to book?

First off, you need to know where you are going. If there is a direct train route, or if more than one train should be booked. I use Rome2Rio. It was super helpful to guide us around China. The best part of this app is you can search for directions from hostel to hostel.

Once you’ve decided on your route, the easiest way to book train tickets is via the Trip.com app. The app is easy to use and will keep all your bookings in one place. All you need to book is your passport and itinerary.

NOTE: Many cities have multiple train stations. Usually, at least one is within the city, but more often than not, one is wayyy outside the city. Those typically are named something like Beijing South or Xi’an North. Make sure you are aware of which station you should be booking tickets to. If you think you are saving money by booking the station outside of the city, you’ll actually end up spending more money on a Grab to your destination.

When to book?

Train tickets go on sale 30 days before the train’s date. A word to the wise, they go FAST! It would be my suggestion that you book as soon as tickets go on sale. I met a chap who ended up with a standing only ticket on a 13-hour overnight train…

Not fun…

What bed or seat do I want?

For your overnight trains, you have four options:

  • Hard Seat: Typically a hard bench with a table and then another bench, but sometimes just two seats facing each other. These cars can be overcrowded and uncomfortable. Though on a short journey, it is one of the cheaper methods of transportation.
Chinese Train Hard Seat
  • Soft Seat: More comfortable than the hard seat, similar to airplane seats, which recline slightly. 
  • Hard Sleeper: Each cabin has 6 beds and is not enclosed with two seats and a small table on the other side of the train. The bottom bunk has the most room with each lessening in height as you move up. For your reference, the bottom bunk it is possible to sit up (assuming you aren’t extremely tall.) The middle berth is 28 in and the top 26 in. You can’t sit up, but laying down is comfortable. Overall, I’d say these are the best bang for your buck. I slept pretty well considering there were over 60 people in one car. NOTE: These tickets typically get sold out the quickest.
Chinese Train Hard Sleeper
  • Soft Sleeper: These are legit cabins (enclosed with a door), and have 4 beds. These are pretty comfortable as well and give you some privacy. 
Chinese Train Soft Sleeper Aisle

For those desperate enough to buy a train ticket designated “standing”, you’re going to be in the hard seat area, wherever you can find room. Not the most comfortable of travel, but it’ll get you from A to B. 

For the standard day trains, you have 3 options:

  • Business Class: If you aren’t worried about ticket price and want a bit more luxury, then business class is for you. Think leather recliners, and amenities similar to a business class flight. 
Chinese Trains Business Class
  • 1st Class: Typically 2 seats on either side of the train and have heaps of legroom. Most likely there will be electrical outlets, but that isn’t guaranteed. 
  • 2nd Class: Usually 5 seats per row, 2 on one and 3 on the other. The legroom isn’t usually as spacious, but closer to what you might find on an airplane. The seats are comfy enough.

Obtaining your ticket?

You’ve picked your seat and have the confirmation on Trip. Next, you need to head to any train station to pick up your tickets. The nice thing is that you are able to print your train tickets for your whole trip from any station throughout China. 

All you need is your passport and the confirmation number from Trip.com. NOTE: If the confirmation is for more than one person, make sure you give all ticket-holder’s passports. The agent will only print the ticket for the passports they look at. It is an easy process but can be time-consuming.

At the station? What’s next?

Typically, the ticketing area and the entrance to the train station are different parts of the building. The entrance for passengers should be clear. You’ll have to go through security (like at an airport), i.e. checking your ticket to your passport and scanning your luggage. The lines go pretty fast, and at larger stations, there will be a specific line for foreign travelers (Chinese citizens scan their ID cards and tickets, foreign citizen’s passports must be reviewed manually).

Find your waiting hall…

Once through security, the first thing you do is to find the giant screen with all the departing trains. Think airport departure listing screen. It will give you information on which is your waiting hall and if the train is boarding/delayed/ canceled…

To be honest, a lot of times, these are only in Mandarin. I found that the train numbers and waiting gates were usually easy to distinguish, though the rest might not be. If you are truly lost, just ask someone. Shove your ticket in their face and look confused. 

On a side note, you’ll be truly amazed at how much you can communicate using gestures. In the end, you should be able to figure it out one way or another.

Once you know your waiting hall number, just follow the signs to the hall and wait to board. You will know that you’re in the correct place as each waiting hall typically has the departing train information as well. 

Boarding process…

Around 15 to 20 minutes beforehand the train’s departure time, they will begin the boarding process. You’ll have to either scan your ticket again or verify it with a ticketing agent. Just follow the crowd to your train, and search for your carriage.

On night trains, train personnel will collect your ticket either as you board the train or after everyone has boarded. They will return your ticket to you right before arriving at your station so you’ll know to get off. 

Reading your ticket…

So you’ve boarded, then what? Next, you’ve got to locate your seat or bed. Your ticket will give you all the information that you need, including carriage number and seat/bed number. Not sure how to read a ticket that’s in Mandarin. Check out my infographic below for helpful hints on reading train tickets.

Additional tips for train travel…

Now that you know the gist of train travel, here are a few last minute items to consider bringing to make the whole process more enjoyable. 

Bring:

  • Food: Typically there is a dining car and someone comes around with snacks, but for a longer trip, you might want your own food. If nothing else, all trains have hot water to make noodles.
  • Tissue and hand sanitizer: Depending on your train, ticket type, etc, there may be a western style toilet, but this is not guaranteed. Additionally, I’ve found to never rely on a train being stocked with toilet paper or soap. I always bring my own.
  • Portable charger: Outlets are not always included on trains and sometimes they’re broken. Also, due to a large number of passengers, they might always be in use. A portable charger gives you the freedom of charging your own devices without relying on your train. 
  • Entertainment: You are going to be on this train for ages most likely, therefore, bring yourself some entertainment. Books, cards, and downloaded movies are all good options. 
  • Earplugs or headphones: In my experience, once the lights go out, most people are quiet. However, early in the morning, many passengers get restless and move around. I was once awakened by an extremely loud Chinese man on the phone screaming at 5am. Do yourself a favor, and get some earplugs or headphones. 

Train travel is easy, right?

Traveling throughout China on a train may seem intimidating, but in reality, it is easy and can be fun! Once you figure out the process, it is definitely the most efficient and typically cheapest form of transportation. 

So get your ticket and get out there! As always, let me know if you have any questions, comments, or concerns!

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