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China :: Survival Guide :: Trains

Chinese Bullet Train [Photo by 颐园新居, Wiki Commons]

China Survival Guide posts

China is like no other place we’ve traveled. As a result, we are constantly finding ourselves problem-solving, researching, making mistakes and learning. For this reason, I thought that a China backpacking survival guide might be in order.

Yeah, we’ve got the most recent copy of Lonely Planet, regular access to all the resources the world wide web has to offer, and even have friends and family who have traveled through many places we will be going to in China. Yet, there are enormous gaps in knowledge and resources, especially if you don’t speak or read Mandarin.

I’m beginning this post about half way into our China travels but will also be adding to it as time goes on. We hope it proves helpful for others who are planning or engaging in a similar type of trip.


I could easily devote an entire blog to this topic, but don’t really care to, so I’ll give you the Cliff’s Notes version.

China’s train system can be massively confusing, made even more so by the fact that even the most up-to-date travel guides are useless when it comes to China’s bullet trains. Furthermore, there are very few English resources on the internet, made more difficult by the fact that train travel seems to be the third rail of travel discussion boards (pun intended) – no one touches it.

Here’s the lowdown. In select parts of the country, China’s got an AMAZING rail system. Far superior to perhaps any place on Earth when considering price and the distance traveled. Unless you are on a Buddhist monk’s budget, you should strongly consider taking bullet trains whenever possible. Doing Shanghai to Beijing?Take the 4-6 hour bullet trains. Don’t be lame and take the 14-hour overnight train to save $20 bucks (you don’t even save money if you end up getting a soft sleeper). Bullet trains currently can’t be found in the central or western part of the country, so if you’re doing an extensive trip, do the high-speed trains when you can and leave the cattle calls and overnight sleepers for your Xi’an-Chengdu / Chengdu-Kunming runs.

Bullet Trains [EMU]

As of now (July 2012) China’s bullet trains in operation consist of the C, D, and G -class trains. I have yet to see a C-train, and am not even convinced they actually exist. G-class trains are the fastest [and they are FAST] with a cruising speed of around 200mph! And they’re extremely comfortable, even in 2nd class (which is the default class of seats). Picture brand new business-class airplane seating. Air-conditioning, food service, extremely clean and roomy western toilets, they put Amtrak to absolute shame.

For these ultra-high-speed trains, China ponied up big time. They didn’t just revamp the old infrastructure, they created a brand new high-speed elevated structure from scratch burrowing miles and miles through mountains, and the pay off for the traveler is huge: silky smooth ride, commanding view of the country side, and clearly spoken and written announcements in Mandarin and English.

D trains have similar amenities (actually nearly identical) but with a cruising speed of around 150mph and a lower ticket price. If you don’t mind adding an hour or two to a very comfortable journey, D-class trains are definitely the way to go.

China’s also home to the famous Shanghai Maglev train, the fastest train in the world that hovers over the track with the aid of electric magnets. However, at present, such trains only run from Shanghai Pudong Airport to Pudong center.

New high-speed rail track is being laid daily, rapidly expanding the number of high-speed destinations but making finding a current rail map nearly impossible.

Express Trains

It’s our understanding that China’s got some pretty nice express and overnight trains (T and Z class trains) but in our experience these are few and far between, and tickets sell out extremely fast. But if you plan on traveling long-distance (5+ hours) on a line not serviced by a C, D or G trains, look for seats or sleepers on these trains.

Everything Else

China’s a huge country, and in many ways the high-speed system is still in its infancy. If you are in China long enough and traveling extensively, you will at some point be confronted with the prospect of riding on a K train or, even worse, a no-letter train. Here are some things to consider about K (“fast”) trains and everything else:

Hard seats on these classes of trains can be hell on earth. If it’s a four-digit (inner-province) train, you’re in for quite the adventure. Lots of standing vultures eying your seat, ready to pounce the minute you make a move for the loo (which is a sweaty, pushing, putrid journey in its own right). In summer, it’s HOT (likely no air-conditioning on Kxxxx trains). And these cars are PACKED with sweaty, smoking, spitting Chinese who don’t give a flying flip about you and your easily-agitated American nose and lungs. Three-digit (inter-provincial) trains are generally nicer (we hear), with A/C, but the same cattle-call experience persists. If you can get soft seats on these trains, it will be the best $5 you ever spend The catch though is that “soft seats” (which really aren’t that much more plush, just generally nicer and a bit more expensive) are only offered on trips lasting five hours or less. On longer trips, your only alternative to hard seats and standing are hard and soft sleepers. Hard sleepers do have padding, but differ from soft sleepers more with regards to the configuration. Hard sleepers are arranged in open compartments of six beds (three per side) with limited privacy, while soft sleepers are private berths with four beds in each berth.

More on classes of trains and seats in China can be found at www.seat61.com and here.

Passengers stranded during a holiday weekend outside of one of China’s busiest train stations [Yahoo Images]


Something that wasn’t properly conveyed to us before our departure was that trains in China fill up FAST. No joke. Thinking of traveling by the seat of your pants, winging it in fits of tramp-like train hopping from one exotic locale to the next? Not in China! Well, perhaps in the dead of winter (November-January) but certainly not during the summer months. In order to avoid disappointment, you best be booking your tickets 1-3 weeks in advance — SERIOUSLY. Not a true believer? Try it. Try arriving at the train station on the day-of and seeing if you don’t find yourself back at your hostel with your tail between your legs for another couple of nights. The Chinese are traveling at unprecedented numbers with more disposable income than they ever before. You think Yellowstone or Yosemite National Parks in the U.S. are busy in the summer time? Take the number of visitors on any given summer day to one of those locations and multiply it by ten, then double it. That’s how many people are vying for your same seat on any particular Chinese train. And given the fact that they know Mandarin and can book their tickets online (foreigners generally can’t), your Chinese tourist counterpart is likely going to win.

Booking Tickets

The joys and frustrations of traveling in China come to a head at the train ticket office. This experience separates the men from the boys as it were, the intrepid from the meek. In no uncertain terms, the Chinese train ticket office is where you earn your wings.

Apparently, there exist magical ticket machines in some railway stations that have an English function and operate much like a metro card machine which foreigners are able to use to purchase any non-high-speed train (non- C, D, G) ticket, but Lori and I have not found said machines. Generally, the experience of acquiring tickets for a non-Chinese national involves visiting one of three places: 1) The railway station ticket office, 2) an independent rail ticket office, or 3) your hotel or hostel’s concierge/ travel coordinator. I’ll talk briefly about 1 & 2 but not three, given that hotels/hostels charge a 30 RMB per person per trip fee (about $5) to book tickets, getting your hands on said tickets can be tricky, and, quite frankly, that’s not the way Lori and I roll (unless we have no other option of course).

A little about the layout of Chinese train stations. Most are split into a “Check In” section where you commence your rail journey, and a “Ticket Office” section. These are generally completely separate from one another but under the same roof (requiring different entrances and varying levels of security checkpoints). The biggest train stations sometimes have an “English” window in the ticket office, but in our experience these have been very unreliable. Luckily for you, dear English speaker, the Chinese generally recognize numbers as we write them out (1,2,3…) even though Mandarin has corresponding characters of its own for numbers. Ticketing officials will generally recognize a bit of pinyin as well. If you’re feeling confident you can try saying your departure and destination cities, but remember that many cities have multiple stations (we’ll talk about this later), so you may want to get familiar with directions (“nan” is south, “xi” is west, etc.). We’ve found it helpful to write out our ticket details clearly as follows:


Pingyao => Xi’anNan


Ticket officials usually seem to be able to recognize the train number (e.g. K689), departure and destination cities (e.g. Pingyao and Xi’an South), and the date, written as above (though the latter two are best spoken (e.g. Say Pingyao [mime here/down] XianNan [mime ‘over-the-mountain’/’tomorrow’/etc.], and say ‘seven-twelve’). Then show them with fingers how many tickets you want, and there you have it. That’s the easy part, the hard part is getting a ticket official who is willing to engage in happy-fun-foreigner time with you (smaller stations and ticket offices are more willing than, say, Beijing Central Station), and fighting off the angry pushing and yelling Chinese contingent swelling and closing in behind you.

The most important part of buying tickets yourself is doing your homework ahead of time, basically doing most of the work already so that all the ticket official has to do is listen carefully and type. www.seat61.com is a tremendous resource for all things trains. I’ve used this website with great success in multiple countries and it is generally up-to-date and comprehensive. The most helpful resources from seat61 that we’ve utilized are the real-time ticket availability site at www.chinahighlights.com, and the ticket route/ schedule/ price site at www.cnvol.com.

And one last tip on riding the rails in China: Make sure you know what station you are departing from and arriving to. BeijingNanZhan IS NOT the same as BeijingZhan or BeijingXiZhan. If you’re taking a taxi to the rail station, before saying a word to the cabbie show him your train ticket and point to your departure station and make sure he looks at it and doesn’t just assume he knows where you are departing from. This was the basis for a near catastrophic mistake we made in Suzhou where the taxi driver insisted on taking us to one train station when we were really departing from another 10 miles out of town. We made it with 3 minutes to spare which can only be attributed to a crazy second taxi driver, the convenient layout of the station and divine intervention. Save yourself a heart-attack by knowing where you are going and making sure your cabbie knows the same.

Best of luck!

3 Responses to Survival Guide :: Trains

  1. Devouring your stories like a hungry tiger—!
    Taking the trip with you mile by mile!
    Thank You , stay safe ! GM/T.

  2. WOW !!!

  3. Hi Lori and David,
    This is the greatest! I feel like I am traveling right along with you and enjoying it so much! Keep up the good writing.

    Happy traveling,
    Shirley MacD