China Train Travel - A Complete Guide to Travel in China by Train
Traveling by train is an adventurous, fun and efficient way of getting around the China, a unique experience that should be added into your China tour.
The advantages of taking trains in China:
- The railway network covers almost every province in China.
- Trains travel is very safe in China.
- Train tickets are comparatively cheap.
- Chinese train journey is an experience in itself, a total contrast with environmentally-unfriendly internal flights.
- Train travel is comfortable.
- Train travel provides a chance to meet the local people.
- The new fleet of trains that run inter city routes are much faster and plush, with meals thrown in on some routes, mobile phone charging points and well-designed bunks.
- The high-speed /bullet train are mostly on time.
The disadvantages of the trains in China:
- Compared with flights, normal trains are much slower.
- Trains in China can be crowded, especially during Chinese New Year when most of Chinese people seems to be on the railway.
- You need to have a detailed schedule on train travel. Booking the tickets in advance is required.
- The toilet conditions can be a problem on the trains, The food is more expensive and usually in poor quality.
- The slower train could be delayed sometimes but 90% is always on time.
Facts of the Trains in China
- The network of Chinese railway covers every province. The link to Lhasa was completed in 2006, it is the world's highest railway.
- The Spring Festival Travel Rush, also known as Chunyun in Chinese, is considered to be the largest annual migration in the world. You should avoid taking trains during this special period.
- The Chinese train network is the largest and busiest in the world. With enough track for a round trip train from China to the Moon and back.
How to Buy Train Tickets in China
Never wait until the last minute when you want to buy the train tickets in China. Booking the tickets in advance is required to ensure you will not be stuck in a city you want to leave.
When Do Reservations Open?
Reservations normally open 30 days before departure for all the trains. You cannot buy tickets before reservations open.
Tips from WindhorseTour
Long-distance train tickets are best booked as soon as reservations open especially when you plan to travel in China during the high peak tourism season from May to October or during the Peak holidays. Peak holiday periods means on and around the Spring Festival, and National Day on 1st October. Usually trains will get very fully-booked weeks ahead.
Please be aware that the train tickets to Lhasa could be sold out right the moment when the reservation opens, as it is in a very high demand at the peak months of May to October. It is better that you reserve the train tickets to Tibet with the travel agency that you book your Tibet Tour in advance.
Top 4 Ways to Book Train Tickets
From Travel Agency
Travel agencies like WindhorseTour will buy all train tickets for their clients. This will save you the headache and stress of going to the train station to buy tickets or book on line.
A local travel agency knows the tricks of the trade, they will take your booking well ahead of the time when train reservations open 30 days before travel. They know how to get in first and secure your tickets on your chosen date, train and class ahead of the crowd.
At the Train Stations
Many train stations offer special windows that deal with foreign travelers. So it's not very hard to buy tickets yourself at the station.
When buying tickets at the train station, there are 3 tips shared from our Travel Advisors:
- Take your passport. You'll also need your passport to board the train.
- You can normally buy tickets for any route, not just ones starting at the station you're at.
- You cannot use the self-service ticket machines at stations in spite of their English language facility, as they only accept Chinese ID cards, they don't recognise foreign passports which are now necessary to buy tickets.
At the Local Ticketing Windows
In addition to buying tickets at the station, you can also buy train tickets at small local ticketing agencies all over town, for an RMB 5 fee.
Don't expect English to be spoken, so ask your guides or hotel to write down what you want.
The official train ticket booking website in China is 12306.cn. However, foreigners cannot use it as it's only in Chinese and only accepts Chinese debit & credit cards.
Some Chinese website such as Ctrip.com or Elong.com offer train tickets booking service for foreign travelers. Both of them have English language websites.
Another Important Tip
There are many black market peddlers that swarm around train station's entrance and exits selling black-market tickets.
Do not buy tickets from them, as the price is usually much higher, and you will be under the risk of buying a fake ticket.
Boarding Your Train
Step 1: How to Read Your Train Ticket
Before boarding the train, you need to figure out all the information on your ticket. These include the departure time, your cabin and seat number.
Step 2: Enter into the Railway Station
We strongly recommend you to get to the station 30 minutes before you departure time. To enter the station hall, you need to wait in lines by showing your ticket and having your luggage examined by the X-ray machines at the entrance.
All the luggage including your carry-on bags has to be placed on the conveyor belt for examining as some items are limited and some are prohibited.
Step 3: Check-in
After entering the train station, you will see a large LED screen showing all the train schedules and status. You can find the right waiting room according to the information on your tickets, or ask station personnel for help if you are in trouble with Chinese characters.
In most cases, check-in starts 30 minutes before departure time in a starting station. You may be required to show your valid ID certificate (or your passport) when check-in.
There will be a paid service that a luggage porter carries your luggage to the platform. If you pay for this service you can check in ahead of schedule following your luggage.
- Tips When Boarding the Train
- Be prepared to cope with the crowds and some inconvenience when entering the station.
- Be careful to guard against theft. Keep your luggage safe and take the valuable items in your carry-on bags rather than in the suitcases.
- Never give your personal information to strangers, and never accept their food and drinks.
- The announcements in the railway stations are broadcast in Chinese, but in some big cities like Xian, Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu they are also broadcasted in English.
- All train station have left-luggage rooms where you can safely dump your bags.
Luggage Limit on Trains
In theory at least, the luggage limit on Chinese trains is 20 Kg for adults, 10 Kg for children, and the maximum dimension of any item should not exceed 160 cm. (this is reduced to 130 cm. on all C, D & G category high-speed trains).
However, in fact no one will weigh or measure your bags. For some really vast quantities of luggage you can pay for a baggage ticket for bags in excess of the official limits.
Train Conditions in China
Categories of trains
Chinese train numbers usually start with a letter, which indicates the category of train.
The better the category of train, the faster it is likely to be, and the more modern and comfortable the carriages are likely to be. Slightly higher fees are charged for the better train categories.
C, D and G trains (modern high-speed daytime and sleeper trains): These are top-quality high-speed trains with ultra-modern air-conditioned coaches and streamlined power-cars at each end. Some are high-speed 200-300 km/h daytime electric trains, a few D-trains are high-quality 200 km/h sleeper trains.
Z trains (high-quality express sleeper trains): The previous top-quality sleeper train, the Z-trains are now the second best, but still with very modern air-conditioned coaches.
T trains (extra fast): Trains with a T in the train number are the next best category.
K trains (fast): Trains with a K in the train number are 'fast'. Slightly higher fares are charged for better categories of train.
Classes of Seats and Sleepers
Soft Sleeper: Each compartment is enclosed by a lockable door, and contains 4 berths, with two to a side.The bunks are wider and most comfortable of any class. Air-conditioning is provided, and there is a shared toilet for each car.
This class of service is the highest level provided on China Railways.
Hard Sleeper: There are 6 berths in each cabin where. There is a small difference of price between the berths, with the upper berth being the cheapest and the lower berth the most expensive. A clean pillow and sheet are provided.
Hard Seat: We do not sell Hard Seat to any travelers.
The coaches are usually overcrowded as standing tickets are sold for these carriages. It is the equivalent of a 3rd class ticket.
1st and 2nd class seats: These 2 classes of seats are only available on the new high-speed C, D & G category trains. Both of them are soft seats, and 1st class seats will offer a larger space.
Dinning cars, toilets, smoking...
Toilets: The toilet conditions are not good on the trains. Western toilets are not offered on most of the trains. However, The toilets on the modern D, G & Z category trains are immaculate, so no worries there!
Additionally, it's always a good idea to take your own supply of toilet paper.
Dinning cars: Most long-distance trains have a dinning car, with waiter service of drinks, snacks and meals. Some of them have menus in both Chinese and English.
Hot meals cost on average 30 yuan per person. Many locals express the flavor is not up to snuff. In addition, railway staff also regularly walk by with pushcarts offering snacks, mineral water and drinks.
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the sleeping-car compartments or corridors on any Chinese train, or anywhere at all on board high-speed trains or the pressured trains to Tibet. But smoking is allowed in the vestibules between carriages and in some restaurant cars on the regular T & K category long-distance trains.
Qinghai Tibet Railway
Taking a train ride along Qinghai Tibet Railway is one of the most popular ways for those who want to travel to Tibet.
This world's highest railway extends 1,956 km. (1,215 mi.) from Xining to Lhasa. About 960 km. (596 mi.) of the route is at over 4,000 m. (13,123 ft.) above sea level and the highest point is at 5,072 m. (16,640 ft.).
The scenery along the Railway are spectacular and majestic. 45 stations along the route provide travelers picturesque scenery and impressive vistas.