The train remains the most common and least expensive way to get from city to city in China. A train ride here can be a delight...I've had great times and met nice people on a variety of Chinese trains. It's usually at least tolerable. At its worst it can be a nightmare right out of the Twilight Zone.
One encouraging note: train travel here at its worst can be no end of uncomfortable, inconvenient, stupid, and weird. However, it IS safe. Train accidents that produce passenger injury or death are virtually unheard of here.
First thing you'll need is a ticket. In theory it's a simple cash transaction....tell the agent your destination and they will display a screen of available trains. Pick what you want and exchange the money for the ticket. Note that Chinese trains run 'round-the-clock; they will think nothing of a 3:47am departure or arrival time. BE SURE TO SAVE YOUR TICKET UNTIL YOU'VE LEFT YOUR DESTINATION'S TRAIN STATION!!!
There WILL be a test...
The number of stops can make a huge difference in travel time. Train numbers starting with T or K are generally faster with fewer stops. Those starting with L, N, or no letter tend to be slower and stop more. The new D trains use the CRH system...not a Maglev or anything, but still very nice trains (at least still nice at this writing) that can cut the travel times of the T trains by half.
Another consideration is the class of the car/seat in which you are placed. Your choices are Hard Seat and Soft Seat for shorter trips, and Hard Sleeper or Soft sleeper for overnight travel. Sometimes your only choice will be No Seat... We'll examine these classes below.
Buying RETURN tickets from your starting city can be tricky. Often they can only be bought remotely at least 3 days in advance. Return tickets for many small towns can't be bought remotely at all because their ticket offices aren't on China Rail's creaky, stupid, apparently 1960s-vintage computer system.
Larger train stations often have "Soft Seat" or "Foreign Guest" ticket offices...worth an ask because the lumpen
ticket offices can be pretty horrible. Line waits of an hour or more are not at all uncommon. Another alternative is to buy tickets from a travel agent or hotel travel offices. Many cities also have train ticket offices located throughout the city.
When coming to the station, you'll have to show your ticket at least once before entering the departure areas. Inside, you'll see signs indicating which gate to find for your train numnber. The gates will have a waiting room that often offers restrooms, smoking areas, one last chance to buy souvenirs and instant noodles at vastly inflated prices, and a vast throng of gawking fellow passengers, many of whom will gladly stand in line for weeks to make sure they get to board first.
Just hang loose until a station employee comes to the gate and opens it. You'll know about it when the entire mob leaps forward and all tries to squeeze through the gate at the same time. The gate person will examine your ticket and wave you through. There will generally be signs telling you the correct platform for each current train number. Go to the indicated platform and wait for the train. There will be guards on hand to whistle you away from the platform edges when trains are moving through, and to gawk and snicker at your obvious foreignness. When the train stops, the doors will eventually open and all the arriving passengers will all try to squeeze through the door at the same time, while departing passengers all rush the door. You should now be looking for the car number that matches your ticket. When the arrivals have escaped, the departures will all try to squeeze through the door at the same time. My advice is to hang back, smoke if you got 'em, and let the madding crowd settle a bit before boarding. A whistle will announce that the doors are about to close again. When you get on board, look for your seat/bed number (usually on the windows between seat rows, the front of hard sleepers, and soft-sleeper compartment doors), chase out the squatter with a no-seat ticket, and take your seat.
Now let's look at the trains themselves.Hard Seat
(ying4 zuo4) places you on anything from a plastic bench to a cruelly undersized cloth or wood seat. A good way to get down wit de homeys...the bulk of passengers on most trains will be in this class. Smoking and spitting, etc. are pretty common sights here. Can be cool for shorter trips.Soft Seat
(ruan3 zuo4) puts you in a larger, plusher seat. Conditions are usually cleaner. Worth the extra cost for longer day trips...sometimes the difference in comfort level is considerable.
In all seating cars, there are overhead luggage racks. You'll be amazed at how much stuff can get crammed into these babies. Chinese people tend to travel heavy, and on crowded trains space may not be available. There is no baggage check on most trains.
Seating cars will also generally feature a small table good for setting your drink, playing cards, or spitting chicken bones.
Technically there is no smoking in any train seat. This isn't always enforced. In hard-seat cars you can smoke in the car's end caps; many soft-seat cars and all CRH trains are smoke-free.
All seating cars (or sometimes every other car) are equipped with a tiny toilet area. You may wish they weren't. These can be pretty filthy- as in a half inch of urine and worse sloshing around the floor- and generally only have squatter-style toilets that empty directly onto the tracks below (this is part of why bathrooms are usually locked in or near cities...). NO TOILET PAPER IS PROVIDED; carry it or buy it from the train staff.CRH Trains
are a new addition to the Chinese train system, and their use is rapidly expanding nationwide. In addition to greatly reduced travel times (differences can be as high as 50%!), these trains are nice and new and sleek and modern-looking. They are glaring exceptions to the descriptions of the car descriptions below. Most of them- at least the ones I've seen- are seating only, no sleepers...more like commuter trains. There may be longer lines available now that warrant sleepers and dining cars. The best amenity may be the fact that very few "no-seat" tickets are issued, and the aisles and endcaps are nice and clear. Local lines offer nicer toilet and other facilities; there's also a "canteen car" where you can comfortably consume the same cart-borne crap seen everywhere else. As a kicker, those sitting in the canteen car (these cars are being used to add on a few overflow passengers; seating even here is not guaranteed.) MUST purchase at least 10 RMB in merchandise, or beat it. These trains use separate gates and platform facilities (and often ticket lines) from the other trains in many stations. Look for the 'CRH' signs. The car interiors are designed to resemble jetliners, and the engines are pimped out with dramatic-looking nose cones to resemble "bullet trains", but these are really just a new generation of the usual train technology. But they are nice. And fast.Hard Sleeper
(ying4 wo4) gives you a small bed equipped with a pillow and blanket. (The linens on train beds often look well-worn but usually seem to be freshly washed.) Beds are arranged in bunks of 3 levels, with 2 bunk sets facing each other for a total of 6 beds per "compartment". There may be a luggage storage area over the entrance.
Compartment is a loose term here...there are no doors. You'll find yourself sleeping alongside up to 5 of your new best friends (and maybe their small children as well) plus an endless stream of other passengers walking up and down the corridors.
If you're less than extremely limber, be sure and order a bottom-level berth. The other beds are reached by tiny steel ladders; that top berth is waaaaay up there. Upper levels have rails to help keep you from rolling out and breaking your neck. The downside of the lower berth is that, outside of sleep times, your neighbors in the higher berths may feel entitled to sit on your bed.
There are usually no lights in your berth that you can control. At some set time between 10 and 11pm, all the lights will go out except for enough for safe passage of the corridor. At this time it'll be taken right kindly if you go right to sleep. Sometimes I take refuge in the dining car (see below) and drink beer until I'm actually ready for bed.
Hard sleeper bathrooms are an awful lot like bigger versions of the noisome holes in the seating cars. Again, no paper is furnished. There is a bigger area of sinks and mirrors so passengers can freshen themselves.
Hard sleeps can be a lot of fun. People there are generally anxious to talk to you as best they can, and sometimes you'll meet an English-speaker. When they aren't running in herds on the street, the common man in China can be a pretty decent fellow and this is a great way to meet him. On the other hand, there is NO privacy here. In the hinterlands you may become something of a tourist attraction, with people constantly coming by to gawk at you. And while usually nice, Chinese people ain't too hygienic by Western standards...I've had way too many bottom hard berths where they guy in the opposite top bunk would frequently spit onto the floor beside me all night.Soft Sleeper
(ruan3 wo4) is the luxury class of Chinese trains. You get a small private room with a door. There are only 4 bunks rather than 6. (Sometimes I've had an entire room to myself; nice when you want privacy or when you've oversampled the drugs you bought in Hong Kong.) You get a light YOU can control; a few soft sleeper cars even have electrical outlets. The beds are bigger and softer. The bathrooms have Western sit toilets and might even be clean; again there is no paper provided.
Soft sleeper cars offer a higher level of comfort and privacy. On the plus side, they cut you off from the madness of the crowd outside. On the down side.....they cut you off from the madness of the crowd outside. It's a matter of taste and tolerance.
All trains with sleeper cars have a dining car, and passengers with sleeper tickets have access to it. They serve 3 meals a day; meal times are pretty strictly limited and enforced. If you plan to eat train food on the trip it'll behoove you to find out when those mealtimes are and take them seriously. Prices, food, service and sanitation can vary wildly from train to train...from the sublime to the inhuman. Many dining cars (by no means all) offer an amusing English menu. Even outside of mealtimes, dining cars can be cool places to sit and smoke and drink. Slide in at the end of a mealtime or late at night and you'll likely be welcome to sit there as long as you want. One dining car crew once tried to marry me off to one of the pushcart girls. She was a Hunan hottie, too, and I gave the matter some thought.
A No Seat
ticket means one of two things:
1) The train is lightly sold and you can just pick the seat you want. It happens often on late-night trains. This is great!
2) The train is sold out and there ain't a chance in hell of you finding a place to sit down.
God help you if this happens. Some Chinese trains can be oversold by what will seem like 500%. The car endcaps, the aisles, the sink areas....every square inch of space on the train will be jammed with a solid writhing, stinking mass of miserable humanity. There will still be people shoving their way frm car to car in search of space that doesn't exist, and the Pushcart People will still grimly peddle their wares from car to car come hell or high water. These trains can be a terrible and uncomfortable experience even if you have a seat.
If all you can get is a No Seat ticket on a sold-out train, and your trip is much more than an hour, please strongly consider traveling at a different time. Sometimes you're just stuck with this.
On all cars and all trains, from early morning to late night various products will be offered to passengers. Train staff or a self-dispensing machine will provide hot boiled water free of charge. Staff will sell you a paper cup and a packet of either green tea or Nescafe coffee mix for around 5 yuan. There's also a profusion of pushcarts. Some will sell mostly drinks- water, fruit drinks, sodas, beer, baijiu- and none will be cold. Some are small convenience stores- dried noodle bowls, all kinds of packaged snacks (all, of course, catering to Chinese tastes), cigarettes, playing cards, toilet paper, and all manner of other necessities. Some feature a selection of books and magazines- all of course in Chinese for your convenience. Pushcart prices run pretty high, and for Westerners the choice pickens will be pretty slim. It's recommended you bring these things with you if you want them.
Train staff will also sell all kinds of other things. Some sell bowls of cut assorted melon pieces. Some sell extremely dodgy box lunches. Some will offer hotel deals at various destinations. Some trains have people loudly hawking toys. My favorite is the multicolor-flashing disco pens/flashlights/bill checker lights on rainbow-colored neck straps. I am the proud owner of several of these. Another favorite is Railway Socks- some poor bastard goes from car to car screaming about socks bought in bulk from some desperate overproducing Zhejiang textile mill. A high point is when the staffer stretches a sock and takes a wire brush to it to show you how durable they are. At 3 pair for 10 kuai it's not a bad deal, and the quality is good. I take a wire brush to mine often.
As stations approach, they will be announced- usually only in Chinese. Unless the train is really crazy, if a kindhearted train conductor sees a struggling foreigner, they will often come over and tell you that your stop is approaching.
You made it.
When you step out onto the platform, follow the signs (and the herd) to the exitway common to all platforms. In many places, entering the station from the platforms is difficult or impossible; you must exit first. There will usually be some metal gates manned by station personnel; they are there to check your ticket and make sure you're getting off where you're supposed to. So save that ticket until you've exited the station!SOME GENERAL TRAIN TIPS
- If you travel on the national holidays, be prepared for madness. Buy tickets very early. Carry a hip flask of strong drink. BE ESPECIALLY CAREFUL OF YOUR WALLET AND BELONGINGS DURING HOLIDAY TIMES!
- In general, buying early- days before if you can- is a great idea. Many trains sell out quickly!
- Be careful of valuables. It's true on the trains themselves, and at least 10 times as true in the train stations. Chinese train stations are veritable hives of scum and villainy. Your bags will be fairly safe within your bed area, if you're in a sleeper, but keep money, passports, and things like cameras well-guarded.
- Travel light...try not to carry more than you can reasonably haul around by yourself. Most of the time there is NO porter service...and when there is, you may not want to trust them with your bags. There is also no baggage check service on most trains except those traveling from the mainland to Hong Kong.
- Carry supplies on long trips. Bring snacks, drinks, toilet paper, maybe even sandwiches or some other portable meals. Entertainment such as books, games, or personal music players will also be welcome.
- A dictionary might be useful on long trips. China Rail personnel are apparently genetically incapable of learnng English; do not count on being able to get help in any language but Chinese.
- When leaving the train station, don't use the pirate taxis...the guys parked up close shaking car keys at you. You WILL get ripped off. Ignore them and march on to the official taxi queue, even if you have to wait in a long line for a ride.
- Bring your senses of adventure and humor. A Chinese train is a lousy place to have a tense, uptight experience. Trust me.