10 things to know about travelling by overnight trains in China
I’ve only ever travelled on an overnight train in China, do you find that weird?
With the country being so large and all, it’s a really great way from getting from one place to another and combining travel and accommodation costs at the same time, as well as being able to meet and interact with the Chinese.
So what advice can I impart to a first time overnight train traveller in China?
Here are ten things that you need to know about overnight train travel in China: berths, food and drink, travelling time, entertainment, people watching, toliets, queing, buying ticket, overnight trains vs. high speed trains (G trains), getting to the station / arriving at your destination.
1 - Berths of Trains in China
- Soft sleeper is the most expensive class of train travel in China.
- 4 wide beds to a cabin where you can shut the door away from the rest of the carriage - great if you are traveling as a family or group.
- Space for your luggage underneath the bunks and usually also on a shelf the same height as the top bunks. (Learn about luggage limitation)
- Hard sleepers have 6 beds to a cabin, but no door.
- As comfortable as the soft sleeper, but the beds are not as wide.
- Cabins are set out in triple bunk bed style and the middle bunk bed is the happy medium between no-one sitting on your bed but still being able to climb onto the bed with ease.
2 - Food and Drink in China's Trains
- Drinking water is available on the train but it will be hot, so bring your own bottles of water if you prefer drinking water which is not boiling.
- There is some food available on the train. Most overnight trains have a restaurant car of some sorts and dinner, breakfast and lunch can be found here, although expect a Chinese breakfast of porridge, noodles and some interesting, possibly unidentifiable items.
- There is also sometimes a trolley where you can buy food such as Chinese pot noodles and drinks such as milk tea. These are a great thing on the train as the boiling water can be used for these.
- However it’s usually better to buy these things in a supermarket before you board the train as then you are certain you will be able to eat, as well as paying a more sensible price in a supermarket.
3 - Travelling Time of Overnight Train Travel in China
- Overnight train travel usually lasts 12 hours or more and are classes as K, T or Z trains:
- K trains have a top speed of 120 km/h and are the slowest overnight trains as they make a lot of stops en-route.
- T trains are faster than K trains with a top speed of 140 km/h and stop less often, in major cities only.
- Z trains are a direct express train with top speeds of 160 km/h and have the fewest stops en-route to the destination.
- The longest train routes can last up to 2 days.
- Chengdu to Lhasa trip by train is actually better for your health than taking a flight as you get acclimatised to the altitude much better by taking it slow. The journey is breathtaking. Check for more
Other Popular Railway Routes Include:
|Chengdu||Shenzhen (for Hong Kong)||42 hours|
4 - Entertainment in China's Trains
- During long train journeys you’ll want to keep yourself occupied.
- iPads are becoming ever more available in China, but be wary of where you keep it while you sleep, I’ve never felt unsafe in China but better to be safe than sorry.
- A pack of cards is always a great thing to take and maybe you can get involved with your fellow passengers in a game.
5 - People Watching in China's Trains
- On the train it’s a great way to try and understand the Chinese way of life.
- You’ll watch couples sharing a movie on a tablet, the whole family travelling together, the grandmother taking the grandchild with the split pants to the toilet.
- Don’t be worried about watching them, because as much as you are watching them, they will also be watching you.
- People may even come up to you to ask for a photo with you, whilst others may come over to practice their English with you. It’s a great way to interact with the Chinese.
Views and Scenery Along the Tibet Qinghai Railway
On of the most popular train routes in China is the Qinghai Tibet Railway, along with being the world's highest railway at over 4,000 m. (13,123 ft.) that extend 2,000 km. (1,215 mi.). It offeres spectacular scenery and views as you arrive towards Lhasa on the second day.
There are a total of 45 statsions along the Qinghai Tibet Railway that the Tibet train will pass through. While you don't stop at all of them, several all places where the train will stop and afford you the chance to exit and take photos from the viewing platform.
6 - Queuing, or Lack Of in China's Trains
- There is always an initial rush to get on the train, but everyone has designated seat numbers.
- If you have a lot of luggage, you may require special help, as just like airlines, the limit is 20 kg per person.
- You don’t really want to be carrying more than this on the train anyway as it would be difficult to put in the baggage areas in your cabin.
7 - Toilets in China's Trains
- You will likely to be familiar with the squatter toilet before you get on the train.
- These may not be your favourite facilities however the Chinese believe that they have health benefits.
- As with all toilets in public areas in China, be prepared for the worst.
- Always carry tissues wherever you are in China as generally there is never toilet tissue provided in public restrooms.
- More questions about toilets and other details can be found in the China Travel FAQ Travel Guide Page.
8 - Overnight Trains vs. High Speed Trains (G trains)
- The high speed train network is growing larger every year.
- Some of the trains can reach up to 350 km/h and the travel time is greatly reduced.
- The trains generally cover less distance than overnight trains, however there are some which could be taken instead:
- Beijing to Shanghai on a fast G train can turn 12 hours into just 5 hours.
- Beijing to Guangzhou (for Hong Kong) can be done in 8 hours rather than 21 hours.
- Tickets are usually sold for first and second class on G trains, as being no overnight, there are no sleeper berths.
9 - Buying Your Tickets
- There are many different ways in which you can buy your train tickets as it can often be a trying experience buying tickets in China because of both the language barrier and the demand during some parts of the year for tickets.
- The best way to purchase tickets without hassle is by booking a tailor made tour through WindhorseTour as they will deal with all the necessities leaving you worry free.
- There are many ticketing agencies than can assist you with your ticket booking. Many hotels will offer this service for a fee.
- There are usually many train ticket offices located in cities and as long as you have the name of the city you are going to and can understand the time given to you - this is an option for the brave!
- One big rule in China is that your tickets will have your name on it. You must take your passport to the ticket office if buying it in person, or your agency will ask you for the name and passport number for each of your party who needs a ticket - it is to stop touts, especially during the busy holiday periods.
- Tickets are usually available 20 days in advance of the travel date, longer during the holiday periods.
10 - Getting to the Station/Arriving at Your Destination
- Always leave plenty of time to arrive at the station - not only can the train stations in China be huge, there are security scanners for luggage just like at airports, although noticeably not as strict either.
- Also make sure you get to the correct station, as for example in cities like Beijing there are at least 4 stations, Beijing North, South, East and West.
- There will be train attendants standing at each doorway of the train, looking at your ticket and directing you to the correct carriage.
- At your destination, be wary of taxi touts if not travelling on a tour. If you are on a tour, the representative with either have travelled with you or be awaiting your arrival.
I hope I’ve covered any unknowns about Chinese trains in this list. If you have any further questions about train travel in China, don’t hesitate to leave a comment or contact Windhorse Tour directly to organise your tour needs!
Enjoy your trip on trains in China!
Start Your Tibet Train Trip Now!
Sarah moved to China in August 2011 for 6 months to teach English but actually ended up leaving 2 years and 2 schools later! A fan of exploring the lesser known spots of China, as well as the more famous ones she could be found snapping pictures of the interesting English translations all over the country and recording these and more on her blog, "The Adventures of Bennett".
China has had such a profound effect on her that she has recently collaborated with friends from another blog on a new ebook about working, living and travelling in China: “Add Your Brick to the Great Wall” which is a collection of experience and advice for anyone wanting to work, live or travel throughout China.
She can currently be found residing in New Zealand, having swapped teaching children English for babysitting dogs and cats.