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Chinese trains are inexpensive, punctual and a great way to see the country. Let’s look at travel by train…
The Trains –
Domestic trains run by the China Railway are broken down into “classes” which vary by speed and service. A letter (C, D, G, Z, T & K) preceding the numbers indicate the type of train. The “G” trains are the fastest and normally only service two end-points with maybe a couple of intermediate stops. These are fast trains that run on the regular passenger tracks. "D" trains are next fastest while "T" trains are quite slow.
Unless you are into punishing yourself, for overnight travel, you will want to travel in a sleeping car, not by coach. Within the sleeping car category, there are three types of accommodations available: Hard Class, Soft Class and Deluxe Soft Class.
The Hard Class sleeper consist of compartments with 6 bunks – three on each side. If you are unlucky enough to be assigned a top bunk let’s hope you aren’t claustrophobic as you will have only about 18 inches of vertical “space” to accommodate you (not to mention the effort and contortions required to get up there!). Something like what you would imagine a submarine crew would sleep in. The compartments are not enclosed, but are open to the aisle way, so are noisy. Across the aisle from the compartment is a single seat that folds down out of the wall. You can sit here (if it is available) but have to contend with a constant flow of passengers scraping by you.
Hard Class sleeper compartment Hard Class sleeper aisle
The Soft Class sleeper is where you will want to be. Each compartment has 4 beds – a lower and an upper on each side. The compartment has a door that is closed at night and can be locked. There is an expansive window with a small table under it. Within the room and extending over the outer aisle way is an area to place your luggage. There is also space under the two lower bunks which everyone shares. Lower berth space is more expensive than upper berth space but it is worth the extra cost. Spending hours and hours in a windowless upper bed is not a great way to enjoy your visit to China.
Soft Class sleeper compartment
Soft Class sleeper aisle
You will have a variety of “roommates” and this can be fun and interesting. It is not uncommon to have English-speaking passengers (Chinese or foreigners) in these rooms. Or, you may sit in silence and just listen to their conversations in Chinese. Your compartment mates may be students, businessmen or a mother and child traveling. Since Soft Class is more expensive, the Chinese who travel this way tend to be better off than the average.
Soft-Class sleeping compartments may vary from the above. Some have no over-head storage at all and the under-bed storage is limited by a steel bed frame. In this case you get to sit on your bed with your luggage. Most do have storage, though.
Since it is uncomfortable spending hours sitting in the upper berth with no window to look out, it is customary for the upper-berth passengers to sit on the aisle-end of the lower berth during the day.
Deluxe Soft Sleepers are two-bed compartments. This is perfect for a traveling couple as you don’t have to share with others and you have a level of privacy you don’t get with the Soft Sleeper compartment. The Deluxe Soft Sleeper is usually more modern and may have an actual closet in which to hang things, a hotel-type safe and even in-room sink and toilet facilities – it all depends on the luck of the draw. Not all trains include Deluxe Soft Sleepers. Many “Z” trains do have these, but most “K” and “T” trains do not.
Deluxe Soft Sleeper compartment
While China has an extensive rail system that interconnects all of the major cities, and while it is collectively known as “China Railway”, in reality there are various companies. So the locomotives and passenger cars are of different colors based on the company. And the types and levels of service vary from company to company and train to train. The staff of the train stations and of the trains themselves all wear a common China Railway uniform though. So while you might expect consistency from train to train, you will not get it.
The CRH system is independent from the normal trains. This is the new high-speed rail system being built in China. The railroad right-of-way is elevated whereas the regular trains are at ground level. The facilities for the CRH are first-rate – similar modern airports. In some cases the CRH station is completely separate from the regular train stations and in other cases they are combining existing regular rail station with the CRH station. When this is done the station is often modernized. With this, gone are the dark and dingy 1980’s stations. Everything is new and modern.
CRH station and train
While CRH “G” trains are technically capable of going 380 km/hr, they are currently limited to a little over 300 km/hr and less for energy conservation and safety reasons. Sleeping car service is not provided. A normal “fast train” trip from Beijing to Shanghai used to take 12 hours. The CRH can take less than 5 hours on this 1318 km route.
The following discussion relates to the normal China Railways trainsTrain Tickets –
There are various ways to buy train tickets in China
Tickets usually go on sale 60 days prior to departures via the official centralized website: www.12306.cn This website is only in Chinese and requires a Chinese bank-issued card to pay but for those who do have a Chinese bank card you can follow the screenshots here to navigate the purchase process: http://www.travelchinacheaper.com/12306. (process is now somewhat different). Tickets have the name and id card number on the ticket (passport number for foreigners). This was put in place to eliminate scalpers. If you have someone buy tickets for you, you will need to provide them with your exact name and passport number (as with plane tickets). They will also need a copy of your passport if you wish to have the tickets delivered to you. If tickets are bought on-line and you do not wish them to be delivered, you are given a confirmation number which you need to bring along with your passport at the train station to pick up the paper ticket. You can do so just before your departure.
If you wait until you arrive in China to buy your tickets, tickets go on sale at the station or with ticket sellers all over town 58 days prior to the travel date. In some cases it may be difficult to obtain the tickets you want (such as deluxe soft sleeper or sleepers in general on popular routes) and alternatives may be either coach seating or Hard Sleeper, if anything. At peak times it is very difficult to get tickets as they may sell out in the first hour after going on sale. It is best to avoid train travel during major Chinese holidays.
If you are worried about obtaining a ticket there are ticketing agents that can procure your tickets but you will be paying a fee and it is more expensive than obtaining your own. In this way you can have all your tickets organized and purchased before you leave home. Such premium can be quite high depending on who you use. Look at the various prices on http://www.seat61.com/China.htm As with the advice they give on other train travel around the world and while they now sell advertising on their website, the seat 61 website gives excellent advice on how to buy tickets & what to expect with train travel in China . Another option is to have your hotel purchase the tickets for you in advance as soon as they go on sale. Some hotel concierges/travel desks are willing to do this, but others decline to, since you are not there in person with your credit card. Tickets are good only for the name and passport number printed on them and this will be checked when you enter the station.
Some agents will deliver the tickets to your hotel. Those cost more and require advance payments. Remember that no ticket agent can guarantee anyone a seat before tickets go on sale. Read all the fine print, every word of it. Many times these agents are selling their product on an "if available basis," speculation on busy routes that they can get to the ticket window before others. Also, you may not get confirmation (or rejection) until other transportation alternatives are sold out or at a much higher last-minute price.
Most ticket agents now show live schedules and ticket availability on their website. Their system is linked directly with the official website (12306.cn). Also understand that in some cases, they will show you a price but you only find their fee in the last step of the booking process. Make sure you are using a reputable organization. You should also pay attention to their cancellation policy.You can find reviews of some agents on TA: http://www.tripadvisor.ca/Attractions...
If you do opt to buy your own tickets at the station, plan to be there early as you will have to wait in lines – and you may find your train sold out. Major stations in bigger cities will have an English-speaking ticket agent (with a sign designating such). Most stations will not. Don’t rely on your pronunciation of the destination city - you may want to go to Nanning and end up in Nanjing. Have your destination city written out in Chinese to be sure you get the correct tickets. Your hotel will do this for you, or you could print out this information prior to your trip.
Automatic ticket dispensers (does not work with passports)
To research trains and their schedules, you can check out the English website of an agent. The most popular ones on TA would be www.china-diy-travel.com and www.chinahighlights.com While this is generally accurate, understand that any train schedule in English may be out of date with respect to schedule and prices. It is nevertheless a good tool for planning.
In most cases your ticket will be checked again at your destination city. So do not throw away your ticket. If you don’t have it when you arrive at a city you may find yourself paying again. This applies to the subway and mass-transit systems as well.
Some examples of Soft Sleeper prices (per person):
Guangzhou to Guilin – 311 to 382 RMB (USD$ 55 to 65)
Guilin to Xi’an – 611 RMB ($ 105)
Xi’an to Suzhou – 485 RMB ($ 85)
Beijing to Xi’an – 416 RMB ($ 70)
Shanghai to Beijing – 696 RMB ($ 120)
Hong Kong to Shanghai (Deluxe Soft Sleeper) – 1039 HKD ($134)
The Train Stations –
The train stations are nearly always located in the center of town, but less so in the case of the stations for high speed trains. Many large cities (and even some small ones) have more than one station! Be sure you know which station your train leaves from!
In Guangzhou there is a main Guangzhou station that serves the west and north and a Guangzhou East station that serves the east, south and north. Finally there is a Guangzhou South station that is the new CRH high-speed train station. If you are passing through Guangzhou you may find that you have arrived at one station but are leaving from another. Pre-planning will eliminate this problem and needs to be considered in your planning. In some cities it is possible to take a subway from one station to the other, but this is difficult and involves changing subways along the way.
The larger train stations usually have a large “square” out front. Many Chinese arrive hours early for their trains and are not admitted into the station. So you will find these squares filled with people sitting on their luggage, waiting for their train time.
Guangzhou East station square
There may be a very large electronic reader board above the entrance or off to the side with lists all the upcoming trains so those waiting will be informed.
Guangzhou East Station
Train Status Board
Large stations also may have the “cattle gates” where you snake back and forth before arriving at the station entrance. Once at the entrance you will find a security screening area. This is nothing like the TSA security. Place your bags and other carry items on a moving conveyor belt (it is low, so easy to use) and walk around the machine to get your items on the other side. Some stations also have police to “wand” you, but foreigners are rarely asked to stop for this.
Once inside the station, look for the large electronic train board. If there are many trains, the screen may change a couple of times until you see your train listed. Look first for your train number and then the departure time – this should match your tickets. Then look for a number. This will be your train “waiting area” or the gate number. Now all you have to do is find the appropriate area. In smaller city/stations all passengers wait together in the same room. Larger cities/stations will have a designated “Soft Sleeper Waiting Area”. Look for this if it is available. It will be relatively un-crowded, have soft, cushy seating and will be a pleasant place to wait for your train. If you have trouble finding the proper waiting area, show your ticket to a railway employee. They will motion the direction to you.
All waiting areas will have restroom facilities and food and beverage vendors.
Train station interior and waiting area
While waiting, watch the TV monitors which will show you many of the scams designed to separate passengers from their luggage and valuables.
Keep an eye on the electronic reader board that displays your train number. It may or may not be in English but the train number and departure time are easy to figure out.
Waiting area Train Status boards
Generally the trains are loaded 30 minutes in advance of departure in originating cities. In intermediate cities, you may have a little as 3 minutes.. When your reader board changes from the red to green color (or tells you it is boarding time), and you see masses of people pop up and head for the gate, that is your indication it is time to board. Note the platform number so you get the correct train. You may have your ticket punched as you leave the waiting area.
Follow the crowd. Again, every station is different. You may have to go up a few flights of stairs to cross over the tracks to your platform or you may have to go down to a subway to cross under the tracks. If you are lucky, there will be an escalator. More often than not you will have to carry your luggage up or down stairs. Some stairs have a small ramp to the side for pulling your wheeled luggage up or sliding it down as you go. Most do not. Some stations have ramps that you bump your luggage up or down. In any case, this is not the most pleasant part of your journey as you are wrestling your items up and down stairways with a mass of other people doing the same.
Once on the platform there may be a train on both sides. Look for an overhead electronic reader board that displays your train number, departure time and often the current time. Most long distance trains will also have a placard on the center of the car showing the origin and final destination of the train. The car number is usually also written on a column or on the floor. Position yourself near the proper car so as to save time on boarding, especially in an intermediate city.
Shanghai - Hong Kong route (Jiulong is how the Chinese know it)
Beijing - Guangzhou route
*** Note that the information below deals with the old overnight train. This route now has fast train droing the trip in about half the time.***
Now you need to find your car. Notice on your ticket that following the date will be a two-digit number followed by another number. The two-digit number is your car and the other number is your berth number in that car.
Every second car will have a vestibule open and with an attendant at the bottom of the stairs. There will be a small tab hanging out perpendicular to the train with the car number on it. Find your orientation (to know if the car numbers go from left to right or vice-versa) and head toward your car. At your car you will need to show your ticket to the car attendant who will motion you into the car to the right or to the left. Now all you have to do is to find your compartment and berth.
Boarding the train
Berths are numbered from one end of the car to the other. You may enter either the low numbered end or the high numbered end. The berth numbers are indicated either outside of the compartment on the wall or on the door. Or, they may be displayed inside the compartment above the window (and obscured by a curtain).
From the low end of the car, the first compartment in a Soft Sleeper will house berths 1 through 4. The second will have berths 5 through 8, etc. As you enter the first compartment, the lower berth to the left is #1 the upper berth to the left is #2, the upper berth to the right is #3 and the lower berth to the right is #4. In the second compartment these would be #5, #6, #7 and #8, etc.
How it works on the train –
Once in your compartment, you will stash your larger luggage overhead, under the lower bunk or (if there is no other space) under the table which is under the window. The Chinese tend to use the trains as a way to transport large items and to avoid shipping these, so you may find that they have every available space stuffed with their boxes and oversized-bags.
Plan ahead and put all the items you will need on the train in one small bag which you can easily access. Removing a suitcase from the overhead storage is very difficult and dangerous while the train is moving.
The beds are generally comfortable. When you enter your compartment each bed will have a stack of bedding – a sheet-covered comforter and one or two pillows. At bedtime you unroll your comforter and make up your bed. If you are a light sleeper it is recommended that you bring along a pair of ear-plugs. Each berth has a reading light and a small net shelf to store necessities. Many compartments have a flat-panel TV for each berth and some just one for the room. Unfortunately all the programming is in Chinese. Most do not have these, though.
If you are unfortunate enough to have been assigned an upper berth, to get to it you step on the lower mattress and then on a fold-out step in the wall. Grab a handhold and pull yourself up.
At the end of the hall will be a hot-water dispenser that the passengers use to make noodles and tea. Use this water at your own risk – it will likely make you sick as it is “local” water and not purified. Never drink the water in the washroom – or use it to clean your toothbrush – even if you see other passengers doing this. Plan ahead and bring a bottle of water (or buy one on the train).
Shortly after departure your car attendant will come to visit. She may or may not speak English but will speak enough to get by. She will want your passport and your ticket. The passport and visa number are recorded in a book (the domestic Chinese will present their identification card in lieu of a passport). She will put your ticket into a space in a folder and hand you a plastic credit-card sized berth identification. Keep this with you for the duration of the trip. (note that this procedure is now being phased out with the issue of the real name system).
Prior to your arrival city the car attendant will return to exchange your ticket for the berth identification card.
Sleeping cars are all Non-Smoking cars. However it is not unusual to find people hanging around smoking in the ends of the cars and in the vestibules.
Meal Service –
You have a number of choices for your meals:
You can bring your own and eat in your room. Every train station has multiple vendors who can sell you tubs of dehydrated noodle dinners, sandwiches, and all manner of packaged goods and beverages. Most Chinese who travel by train bring their own food onboard and eat in the compartment.
You can eat snacks or meals in your room. During the meal periods, an attendant will pass through the train about every 15 minutes with a cart that has pre-packaged meals from the dining car. She may also have packaged sandwiches, noodles, beverages, etc.
You can eat in the dining car. The dining car generally separates the Soft Class sleepers from the Hard Class sleeping cars. Your car attendant can point you in the right direction to find the dining car.
The Dining car
Each dining car setup is differently. In some cases you just go in and find an empty seat and sit down. The waitress will bring you a menu to choose from. It often (usually) will be simply a written menu in Chinese. If you are lucky, there will be some photos of the dishes. If it is really your lucky day, there will also be an English description (often quite humorous!). If you can’t read the menu, then there are only two possibilities for you. A considerate waitress will find someone in the car (or on the train) to translate for you. Your other option is to see what other people are eating and point to that.
Other dining cars are handled differently. Instead of sitting down you go to the steward who will either be at one of the tables or will be behind a counter at one end of the car. You look at the menu and make your choices (see above) and pay him. He will give you your change and a few receipts. Find an empty seat and place your receipts on the table. A waitress will gather these up and then bring your meal in good time. Meals generally cost between 15 and 30 RMB.
Breakfast - you never know what it will be!
Often you will enter the dining car to find every seat taken – usually by train staff and police officers. They tend to have priority. Once they clear out it may be time for the dining car staff to eat. While this happens you aren’t going to be waited on, so you might as well return to your compartment. When the staff has been fed, it is then the passenger’s turn to eat.
Dining cars are clearly marked as No Smoking. However you will generally find police officers and railroad staff sitting under these signs and smoking heavily.
Policeman smoking in the dining car
Train Staff –
There is many uniformed staff on the train. In addition to your car attendant (normally a woman), there is the train conductor and his crew of male assistants. Most trains have 8 or more railway brakemen and assistant conductors. You will nearly always find them at one end of the dining car.
In addition there are generally as many as 6 to 8 police officers on the train. They can also be found congregated in the dining car – and usually smoking. There is nothing scary or intimidating about these police officers (nor any police officers in China).
Toilet Facilities on the Train –
Each sleeping car has two toilet rooms. These may both be at one end of the car or there may be one at each end. Most are the traditional hole-in-the-floor type of facility. (Be careful not to lose your cell phone or other items down the hole). If you are lucky you will have a car with a “western” toilet. Some cars have both types.
Toilets in the “K” and “T” trains (and all normal class trains) dump directly on the railroad right-of-way. As such, the restrooms are locked while in the stations, for 10 to 15 minutes before arrival and a similar time after departure. The “Z” trains have holding tanks so are always available.
Toilet paper (and toilet seat covers) is generally not provided! Be sure to bring your own. Most food vendors sell a small packet of paper napkins that will suffice.
There is a separate room for shaving and makeup. This is near the toilets and will have from 2 to 3 sinks. Nothing is provided except water. So, plan ahead and bring your own washcloth and towel (travel stores carry a type of high-absorbency/quick drying towel) and soap.
WashroomThe washroom is also the normal place for the Chinese passengers to get rid of their food items. There is usually a hole in the floor where they dump their soups and tea and a garbage bin where they stash their food packaging. So, it can be a busy place.
Arriving by Train –
Arriving in a strange city can be a challenge.
When your train arrives in the station, retrieve your luggage and join the human stream of people out onto the platform and up or down to the passageway into the station. Note that in most larger cities, the train station is often connected to the subway system.
Once inside the station proceed to the main exit. Upon leaving the platform you may have to pass through a gate where an attendant will want to see your ticket. They don’t usually check everyone passing through, though. In the newer stations for the fast trains, you put your ticket in the turnstile machine, similar to when you accessed the platform at the beginning of the trip.
As you exit the station head straight to the taxi area. This is generally off to one side or the other of the main entrance. If there is no taxi queue, then head to the main street to flag down a taxi. In most of the major cities, the trains stations are connected to the subway network.
Exiting the Shanghai station
Beijing taxi queue
Now there are many scams you may/will encounter upon your arrival. The first is “fake” taxis. People will excitedly approach you and say “Taxi…Taxi”. They will either want you to follow them or will attempt to take your luggage for you. These people are “runners” who get a commission from the fake taxi drivers. A fake taxi is just a private vehicle – a car or van that the owner will use to take you for a ride – literally.
Avoid these at all costs! No legitimate taxi will approach you. In fact you will have difficulty getting their attention. The fake taxis, at best, will take you to your hotel at double or triple the cost – you won’t know any better. At worst, they may take you to a strange neighborhood where they rob you and steal your belongings.
Only use plainly marked taxis that have painted signs on the doors and a light mounted on top. Give preference to taxis that have meters as you will be assured of not being cheated (be sure that when you begin your trip that they zero the meter and you don’t also get charged for the last fare’s trip!).
When in the station you will be approached by many “helpful” people. NEVER get sucked in by these scams. All these people want to do is to separate you from your money – remember that.
In a like manner, no “official” will ever approach you to offer help. Railway employees and police officers need to be flagged down. You may be approached by a person in an official-looking uniform. They may have an ID tag, epaulets, and all sorts of pins and emblems. But if they approach you, then be on your guard as they are likely nothing but a commissioned runner for a taxi, hotel or travel agency.
This is not to say that the Chinese people are not helpful – they are. If you are looking lost or unsure of yourself, a fellow passenger may stop to help you with directions. You can tell it is a fellow-passenger as they will going the same way you are going and also lugging their stuff along. It is the person who approaches you from the other direction and who is carrying nothing that you need to be wary of.
When approached, do not make eye contact or allow them to engage you in conversation. If they are speaking in English, just say “no thank you.”
NEVER let someone else help you with your luggage. It will likely be the last time you ever see it!
High speed train routes
In the last few years, a large number of high speed train routes (G trains) have been added. In some cases, these routes are quite competitive with flying while offering a more relaxed journey. The key routes loinking popular cities would be the following:
Shanghai-Shenzhen (Hong Kong)
Helpful Hints –
You can make your trip much less stressful if you do some pre-planning and organizing.
Taxi drivers in China do NOT speak English. So giving them a hotel name and address can be problematic. Prior to your departure to China research each hotel. Go to their website and copy the Chinese version of the hotel name and address. Paste this into a document and print it out the size of a business card. Also print out the same information in English. Tape the English version side to the Chinese version side (or laminate them back-to-back). These are very handy when dealing with taxis. (The English side will help you keep the hotel cards straight and help you know which hotel you are actually showing the driver).
Likewise, when staying at a hotel, ask the concierge or front desk to write your destination (tourist attraction or train station) in Chinese to give to the taxi driver so you end up where you want to be. And make sure they know which train station you are going to if there is more than one.