This post provides tips on travelling China’s slow trains rather than their bullet trains.
Preparation is hugely important and has helped me travel by train from Hong Kong to Beijing, Beijing to Xi’an and I’ve just booked a train from Xi’an to Shanghai. This last journey will be a ‘standing ticket’, not a sleeper ticket, so ensure you check out my experience travelling with a standing ticket in my article, My experience of using a ‘standing ticket’ on China’s long distance trains. Holy cow….
1) As hardly anyone speaks English in China, I would suggest you download ‘Google Translate’ or similar and have a page of phrases in Chinese which you can point to when purchasing your ticket. Try to purchase your on-going ticket the day you get into a new city as the trains fill up pretty fast. Alternatively you can book online using the website chinahighlights (https://www.chinahighlights.com). There is a small handling fee for this service. You collect your online ticket at the train station, by showing your booking number and passport. To help you understand your ticket, download an image of a Chinese ticket translated into English.
2) Make sure you go to the correct train station! Some cities have more than one station. For example Xi’an has two stations. One is for the fast bullet trains and the other is for the slow trains.
3) Get to the station at least two hours before. Before you get into the departure lounge, you will need to pass through security, (have your ticket and passport ready), and have your bags scanned.
4) Once inside stock up on noodle pots, water and other snacks. There is free hot water on-board.
5) From departures, go to your platform number, which is written in English on the screens. Once on the platform, go to your carriage. The carriage number will be on your ticket and is written in English on the side of the train. As you step onto your carriage you’ll be asked for your ticket and you may be asked for your passport again. The staff will swap your paper ticket for a plastic ticket. They will want this back prior to you getting off the train. The plastic ticket will not have your bed or seat number on it is so take a picture of your paper ticket before you hand it over.
6) Once inside locate your section and ‘berth’. The ‘berth’ is which level your bed is on. In a hard sleeper there are six beds on three levels at each side. There is little room between each berth so you will be unable to sit up fully. The lower berth is slightly more expensive and the top is the cheapest. There is no outside view from the top berth. In the daytime people may want to sit on your bed if your bed is on the lower berth. It can get cold on the top bunk and you’ll need to be fit enough to get up and down from your bunk. The middle berth is the best option in my opinion.
7) In all soft and hard sleepers, a duvet and pillow are provided. There may or may not be lights above your head depending on the train so take a reading light. All six people need to fit in their luggage so bear this in mind. I keep my backpack at the end of my bed and keep my valuables on me.
8) In a soft sleeper, (more expensive), there are four beds, two bottom and two top beds. There is enough room to sit up. The door can also be closed for privacy so it’s much quieter. There was no Wifi on the trains I used so bring a book and music. There are plug sockets but these get used a lot so have everything fully charged before you go. To help you sleep, bring ear plugs and an eye mask.
9) There are other types of train tickets, such as a two bed carriage (I’ve not used these as they can be expensive) and hard seats consisting of four seats with a table in the centre.
10) For all journeys, set your alarm thirty minutes before your arrival time so you can freshen up. The staff will also wake you up.
The spitting, smoking, loud voices and disgusting toilets can seem worse with nowhere to escape, therefore if you have the cash and want a good nights sleep and privacy, I recommend a soft sleeper or a private room. I personally love travelling the trains on long journeys as it allows me some downtime, a night train saves me a nights accommodation and the scenery can be incredible so happy snapping!