There are so many words that come to mind when thinking about train travel in China. Intimidating, confusing, exciting. I spent about 2 and a half months in China this year, and I fell in love. China’s a wild place.
That being said, outside Beijing, Shanghai, and other big cities, it’s hard to get around without some Chinese.
That’s where I step in!
The best way to travel in China is by train. It’s an experience in itself! Taking a train to get from destination to destination is one of my best China travel tips. For the super long, 3-nights-on-a-train kind of journeys, you might want to look into flights. But overall, train travel in China is fabulous and convenient. I’ve taken trains to Lijiang, Dali, Shanghai, and a bunch of other places! They’ve all been 8 hours or longer, but I really enjoyed them!
Booking Train Journeys
Book ahead of time, as popular train journeys can sell out quickly!
Ctrip is a great resource. You book your journeys online and pick up the ticket at a railway station or office.
Travel China Guide is another good resource, however their booking fees are a little pricey. They can deliver tickets to you, though.
Personally, I think going to a railway station is the best option if you have time to buy your ticket in advance. Though many big city train stations will have a till that speaks English, it’s still helpful to try to speak Chinese.
Here are some useful phrases to know.
你会说英文吗？ Ní huì shuō yīng wén ma? Do you speak English?
我想去。。。 Wǒ xiǎng qù … I want to go …
我要买一张火车票。 Wǒ yào mǎi yī zhāng huó chē piào… I need to buy a train ticket.
The Train Journey: Berths
First, train classes.
There are typically three classes… Seats, hard sleepers, and soft sleepers.
Seats are “third class,” where it’s just a seat. I wouldn’t do this for an overnight journey.
Hard sleepers are “second class,” where there are three tiers of beds and six people per cabin. Ask for yìng wò when booking.
Soft sleepers are “first class,” with two tiers of beds and four people per cabin. Ask for ruǎn wò when booking.
Now onto the actual beds!
All beds will come with a blanket and pillow. They’re pretty comfortable, but a bit short for Western standards.
A bottom bunk is the most popular and comfortable bed. Ask for a xiàpù if you want this. People with upper berths might try to sit on your bed. I suggest spreading out your stuff to cover the bed if you want your space.
A middle bunk is a zhōngpù. It’s more comfortable than the top bunk, and fine if the bottom berths are sold out!
The top bunk is the least desired bunk. I would avoid it if you have a train journey longer than one night. The light is right in your face and it’s impossible to do anything other than lie down. It’s very cramped. If you’re keen to try it out, it’s called a shàngpù.
The Train Journey: Food & Drink
For quick train rides (one night or less), just bring snacks! Eat before boarding and grab something to eat when you arrive, and you’ll be fine!
For longer journeys, pack snacks and instant noodles! There are hot water dispensers on the train. Some people come by in carts and have snacks and instant noodles, but I’d still buy everything beforehand.
Also, the hot water runs out on longer train rides, so really, I mean it when I say STOCK UP ON SNACKS.
Stock up on water, as there’s no potable water on the train (except for hot water). You can also buy sodas or water from the people who bring the carts by.
The Train Journey: The Toilet Situation
99% of the time, toilets in China are going to be squat toilets. Honestly, on a bumpy moving train, this can get tricky. My only tip for you is to bring toilet paper/tissues and hand sanitizer.
Surprisingly, the toilets aren’t too gross!
Train travel in China is a great experience! Remember that sometimes flying turns out to be cheaper. I personally love travelling by train; it’s a peek into REAL China, away from big touristy spots. Enjoy your train journey!
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