Riding the Chinese Rail System

China’s railway network has been incredibly helpful to Andrew and I in facilitating rapid and affordable travel throughout the country. All of our travel in China (save one flight) has been overland and predominantly by train. In this post, we’d like to highlight some basic information about the train system and our experience as frequent riders. 

As non-Chinese speakers, navigating the train system in China was surprisingly easy. There are two ways as a foreigner to purchase tickets. The first involves booking through one of about three third party English language websites (we used www.chinahighlights.com) and paying a $10ish commission for the service. The websites are simple to use and navigate and the companies that run them respond quickly. The company gives you a reservation number, which you present at the ticket counter of the train station to receive your actual ticket. 

The second method involves researching the train on one of the above-mentioned websites and then having someone from your hostel or hotel write down your travel information (destination, time, train number, class, bed type), which you bring to a train station or post office to purchase tickets. In both booking methods, we found the Chinese ticketing officials to be exceptionally quick, competent and professional regardless of city or station and never had a problem securing our selected seats. Good job, China.

Chinese citizens also have the ability to make a reservation for themselves online. These websites are entirely in Chinese and not open to foreigners, so we did not experience this method.

China has different class-levels of trains; some are nicer than others, including the newer and impressive bullet trains. We most often took K-trains, which is the most common class of train in China. They are older trains and make up the bulk of the Chinese train fleet. 

When purchasing your K train ticket, there are usually five seating options:

  1. Standing room. We ended up with standing tickets on one hour train ride between stations in Xi’an and we ended up just standing in the aisles of a hard seat cabin. A crowded, noisy experience where we constantly had to step in and out of the aisle to let food carts past.
  2. Hard seats. Unlike their name, hard seats do actually have cushioned bench seating, usually with two benches facing each other with a small table in between. The high straight backs make for an uncomfortable, but bearable ride for a couple hours. We took a hard seat between Lijiang and Dali.
  3. Soft seats. Clean cars, lots of leg room, comfortable individual seats that lean back. We enjoyed our rides between Beijing/Tianjin and Congquing/Chengdu this way on bullet trains, feeling a bit like the Chinese elite.
  4. Hard sleeper. The best bang-for-your-kwai (slang for “yuan”) for the budget overnight traveler, this was the car we traveled in most frequently for between 100-150 yuan (about $16-25) per night. Hard sleepers, like hard seats, aren’t actually “hard”; these cars offer an open row of bunk beds with three beds to a bunk and each set of two bunks facing inward, like a cubby. The mattresses are thin, the blankets slightly stale, but overall it’s a not-too-unpleasant experience and the cheapest tolerable way to get between major cities. Bottom bunks are prime real estate, since the offer the most head room, but crawl into the top bunk for both privacy and people-watching. Your ticket dictates which bunk is yours, and if you want the bottom it usually costs slightly more.
  5. Soft sleeper. The one class we haven’t tried, soft sleepers are the ultimate in Chinese train luxury. Sleeping cars have private cabins of two bunks each (four beds total), private bathrooms, larger tables, are probably cleaner, and we’ve heard a rumor that there are a plethora of doilies. At almost twice the cost of a hard sleeper, we didn’t think them worth the cost. 

Hard sleepers are the frequent go-to for the Chinese middle class. On our first ride, we were crowded in mostly with middle aged Chinese couples who found it pretty entertaining to have us in their bunks. It was especially funny to watch Andrew, easily the tallest person in sight, squeeze into his tiny top bunk, and I got a few laughs by miming chopsticks to get a spare set from the lady with the food cart. I was also impressed that despite the large number of people in our cabin, it never got too loud and regular trash pickup kept things in a semi-clean condition. 

Below is look from inside a hard sleeper car and, yes, that is the Chinese version of "Let It Go" playing over the speakers in the train car.

On our second overnight train, we had secured the very last hard sleeper seats available and so were placed in different cabins. We used an explanatory note written in Chinese by someone in our hostel to ask someone to switch places with us so we could be together, and the other passenger kindly obliged to swap. 

Andrew demonstrates the ample relaxation provided by the lower bunk in a hard sleeper

Sunflower seeds and these noodle cups are the staple meal of Chinese train traveler. All Chinese trains have hot water spigots and there are lines around meal time as people clamber to fill up their cups. Most travelers also bring a pair of travel slippers that they slide on just after settling into their compartment. 

This guide from The Man in Seat 61 served as our guide for understanding what our train tickets said. Source: http://www.seat61.com/China.htm

Besides the bathrooms (but hey, have you ever had a clean train bathroom? I thought not.), my one complaint would be that the inconsistent air conditioning at night makes the upper beds uncomfortably stuffy at night. Before you scoff at our budget-minded travel, however, it’s wise to keep this in mind: an overnight ride on a hard sleeper is far superior to just about every red eye economy class trip I’ve taken on either an airline or on Amtrak trains in the USA. While hard sleepers may not be the pinnacle of train luxury, there’s a lot that the USA could learn about improving domestic train travel in both price and comfort! 

(PS- For anyone considering traveling on Chinese trains, or trains pretty much anywhere for that matter, the website to read is www.seat61.com. The author has traveled the world by train and has extremely detailed information about train travel in almost any country you could imagine visiting!)