Traveling by train may not be the fastest method of transportation in China (though some bullet trains will get you to close destinations far faster than a plane), but it’s definitely one of the cheapest, most convenient and most fun. You’ll not only get a chance to check out the countryside as small towns and villages pass by over backdrops of green plains and mountains, but you’ll also get a truly local traveling experience.
A typical bullet train
A regular train
Trains are usually always marked with a letter, followed by numbers (e.g. K558). The digits indicate the train’s number while the letter tells the speed of the train:
G (G stands for Gāotiě;高铁) – These High-Speed Electric Multiple Unit (EMU) trains are the fastest and reach speeds of more than 350 km/h (217 mi/h). They usually only service non-stop long distance routes. When counting the time it takes to check in and go through security, total transit time by Gaotie is often less than that of flying.
C (C stands for Chéngjì;城际) – These inter-city EMU trains are the same as the G, but only service shorter routes between nearby cities, like Beijing – Tianjin.
D (D stands for Dòngchē;动车) – Aka the bullet trains, these EMUs that reach 250 km/h (155 mi/h) connect the largest metropolitan zones on the east coast like Beijing – Shanghai, Shanghai – Nanjing and Guangzhou – Shenzhen.
Z (Z stands for Zhídá; 直达) – These trains are slower than the others, but usually offer direct routes or routes with a few short stops. They max out at 160 km/h (100 mi/h).
T (T stands for Tèkuài;特快) – With a top speed of 140 km/h (86 mi/h), these express trains mainly pass through major cities and service multiple stops.
K (K stands for Kuàichē;快车) – Though known as the “fast” trains, they are some of the slowest at 120 km/h (75 mi/h). They also service more stops, especially in rural areas, than the T.
L (L stands for Línshí lièchē;临时列车) – Temporary trains that only run during national holidays and special events.
S (S stands for Shìjiāo;市郊) – Vey slow suburban trains that connect the suburbs with the cities.
Accommodation Fast (pǔkuài;普快) – These are identified by the starting digits of 1, 2, 4 or 5 (with no initial letter), and they cruise at 120 km/h (75 mi/h). They also have a lot of stops, many more than the K.
Accommodation (pǔkè; 普客) – The slowest of the slowest, they chug along at 100 km/h (62 mi/h), have a gazillion stops mostly in rural areas, and are identified by the starting digits of 6, 7, 8 or 9 (with no initial letter). These old-school green trains stick out like a sore thumb when compared to the others, and they have no AC or beds, only hard seats.
There is a wide selection of seating and sleeping options you can purchase. As a rule of thumb, the more expensive, the more comfortable.
Deluxe Soft Sleeper (háohuá ruǎnwò; 豪华软卧) – These cabins have two comfortable beds, a closet and a TV. Many Z trains have these, but the K and T do not.
Deluxe Soft Sleeper
Soft Sleeper (ruǎnwò; 软卧) – The cabins have two bunk beds for four passengers. There is also a door to separate cabins from the outside hallway, but if you’re not in a group of four, you’ll be sharing the room with strangers. Any long distance and/or overnight train should have this option.
Hard Sleeper (yìngwò; 硬卧) – The term hard doesn’t relate to the padding in the mattress. Hard sleepers are open rooms (with no doors) with a total of six beds (three on each side) stacked on top of each other like hot-cakes. It may be a little difficult to climb up to the top bunk, so keep that in mind when booking a ticket.
For the bottom bunk ask for xiàpù (下铺); for the middle bunk ask for zhōngpù (中铺); and for the top bunk as for shàngpù (上铺). Also keep in mind that the bottom bunk is the most expensive (only by a little bit), while the top bunk is the cheapest. Any long distance and/or overnight train should have this option.
Seats – There are standard (èrděng zuò;二等座) and first class (yīděng zuò;一等座) seating options on the G, C and D trains. The seats in first class are slightly bigger, and they’ll offer you snacks (and sometimes a glass of champagne) while on board. Other than that, there are 4 seats (2 seats on each side divided by the middle aisle) in a row for first class and 5 seats (2 seats at one side and 3 seats at the other side) in a row for standard class.
Hard Seats (yìngzuò;硬座) – For those on a tight budget who don’t mind a little pain, agony and torture, you can ask for a hard seat. These rock hard plastic benches are only designed to sit two or three, but somehow the locals always figure out a way to fit more, especially when crying babies are part of the picture. These seats also face each other, so your legs will inevitably get tangled with the person’s in front of you. These cars are crowded, smoky, loud and extremely uncomfortable, but anyone looking for a real Chinese experience should take the hard seat just once on an overnight journey to rub shoulders with the salt of the earth. Think of it as your China right of passage. Hard seats are available for any of the slower, non EMU trains.
Standing Option (zhànpiào; 站票) – If you have completely lost your mind or the seats and sleepers are sold out, you can actually buy the extraordinarily cheap standing ticket and literally stand whole trip (or possibly cram yourself into an uncomfortable squat or sit on your luggage). You won’t have a seat or a bed, but what many do is find an open space on the floor – usually near the bathroom or between someone’s legs – and make themselves at home. However, if you’re lucky and there is an unoccupied seat, feel free to take it until someone comes along and kicks you out of their chair.
Purchasing a Ticket
There are several places to purchase train tickets around a city, the most obvious is the train station. There are also small booths located around town that say “Ticket Office,” but as of March 2014, these booths are no longer allowed to sell tickets to those using a passport as an ID, which means all foreigners. Now, your only other option for tickets if you don’t want to go all the way to the train station is to get them through your hotel or hostel. They will invariably charge a fee for this service, but you won’t have to make the commute to the train station.
In larger cities there is an English speaking booth at the train station for foreigners, and you’ll need to present your passport each time you buy a ticket. Tickets also go on sale 18 days before departure, and it’s not uncommon for sleepers to sell out quickly. During Spring Festival, May Day, Mid Autumn Festival, National Day and certain summer holidays (early July or the end of August when student finish or start school) it can be downright impossible to book a sleeper. Plan ahead if you want to ride comfortably.
Once you enter the train station and pass security, you’ll first want to find your gate. Identify it by matching the train number written in the middle of your ticket (e.g. K558) to the one on the huge LED screen in the front of the station (look up) when you enter. It will tell you which gate (aka boarding room) K558 is leaving from, so just follow the signs which would also have English.
First and foremost, make sure you get to the right station! Keep in mind that many cities have multiple train stations, so if you don’t see your train displayed on the screen, you’re probably in the wrong train station. For example:
Beijing has four railway stations: Beijing Railway Station (北京站); Beijing West Railway Station (北京西站); Beijing South Railway Station (北京南站); Beijing North Railway Station (北京北站).
Shanghai has four major stations: Shanghai Railway Station (上海站); Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station (上海虹桥站); Shanghai South Railway Station (上海南站); Shanghai West Railway Station (上海西站).
Find your gate and wait peacefully for them to start boarding. They will only announce the boarding call in Chinese, but if you see a mob of people stand up simultaneously and start crowding their way through the entrance, that’s the sign to get up and do the same. If you’re still not sure, ask someone by your side. If you can’t speak Mandarin, point to your ticket, and if it’s correct they’ll show you on your way.
Follow the mob of people to the train and get in the appropriate cabin. Your ticket on the upper right hand corner will have some characters and numbers. If you’re in a soft sleeper, for example, it may look like this: 10车16 号 下铺. The first number is the car, so find the number 10 car and board it. The second number is bunk number. Walk through the aisle until you see number 16 and note which side of the small room it is on. The next characters indicate whether you’re on the bottom (下铺), middle (中铺) or top bunk (上铺), but seats and non-bunk beds won’t have these characters. So, in this particular example, you’re in car 10, room/bunk 16 on the bottom bed.
On the Train
Once you find your seat or bed, sit back and enjoy the ride. Every once in a while, a food cart will come offering fresh fruit, snacks, drinks, alcohol, meals and cigarettes. Smoking is permitted in between cars (but not in them) on most trains, but not on the EMUs. Long distant and overnight trains with sleepers also have a restaurant car where you can sit down and order a below average, overpriced meal. You are also permitted to bring as much food as you’d like onto the train, so the best idea is to stock up before hand. Every sleeper cabin also has a hot water dispenser for tea or instant noodles.
There are toilets, which means you won’t have to break any world records for “holding it in.” That being said, as you may have already imagined, they’re not the most hygienic pots on the planet. Even though the crew constantly washes them down, this is China – a land constantly plagued by horrid bathroom conditions. Still, you’ll be thankful the option is there when nature comes pounding at that door.
Although there are no showers, there are sinks that one may use for washing. However, do not drink from the sinks, use the hot water dispensers or buy bottled water instead.
A few hours into the journey, everyone else will be just as bored as you. Listening to some music, reading a book, watching a movie on your laptop, checking out the scenery through the window, eating and sleeping will occupy most of your time, but remember, you’re in China, so try to get the true local experience. Check out our Mandarin Phrasebook (pg 1,324) and try striking up a conversation with your fellow cabin mates. Most Chinese are delighted to have a conversation with a foreigner on the train, no matter how broken Chinglish is between the two of you. Politeness and a smile go a long way, so just keep that in mind when sharing the cabin with others.
While the train is far from a boarding school, 22:00 is lights out. It’s recommended to get to sleep at this time too since the Chinese are early risers; you’ll be woken up at dawn with people moving around drinking their morning tea and eating their noodles while chatting with the other early birds.
After the Train
The crew will notify you once you’re about half an hour away from your final destination. Once off the train, follow the signs through the exit, which will lead you to the front.
You’ll immediately be confronted by people hawking taxis, but you’ll want to stay clear of them because most are black taxis and will rip you off terribly. Follow the signs and people to the taxi line to grab a legal, metered taxi, and make sure to have the address of your destination written down in Chinese to show the driver. Having the telephone number is important as well, in case the driver cannot find the place.