The train has been a consistently reliable form of travel across many nations for centuries, and one that’s still used by travellers today. China is one of those nations that thinks so too, with a considerable rail system which is spread over the vast expanses of the country. If you were told to picture the image seen within a typical Chinese train, odds would have it that you’d be cast with scenes of smoke-filled carriages, stacks of bodies piled on top of each other, chickens running loose and deafening yells of intensely ranting Chinese. But what’s it really like?
In the interest of research, over the last few months, I’ve taken a series of trains across North-Eastern and Central China of various classes and distances to some of the most secluded regions of the country to find out for myself. Some of these trains will have been caught during the busiest time of year for travel in China, and unanimously thought of as the worst time to travel; Spring Festival.
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What Kind of Trains Are They?
Naturally a booming up and coming superpower such as China have multiple choices when it comes to train travel. Forget your trailers of safety-lacking carriages swaying heavily over the edges of the tracks. The selection of trains are as modern as you’ll find in any other developed nation.
The trains are essentially broken down into two categories; High-speed trains and not-so-fast trains. The trains are further categorized by different letters.
For the high-speed trains, they’re categorised as G, D and C trains, G being the fastest and travelling the longest distances with few stops, C being the opposite.
The slower ones become more of a mine-field. Starting with Z, T and K. The first of which travels directly, with more stops added as you go down the letters. You then have the less spectacularly labelled ordinary trains which will pull up at almost every stop. There will also be some special trains such as L, which runs during peak travel seasons, and Y known as the tourist train which runs for the same reason.
How Much Ground Do They Cover?
Just to illustrate the magnitude of the coverage of the rail, just the bullet trains connect over 500 Chinese cities across 33 provinces. It is in fact the largest high-speed rail worldwide, even boasting the longest high-speed route from Beijing to Hong-Kong.
The slower trains naturally cover much more ground. Specifically between the more rural areas of the country.
What Kind of Seats Can I Get?
Each type of train will have its own levels of luxury based on a price scale. The high-speed trains offer a nice basic 1st, 2nd and even Business class for the rich amongst you. Even the lowest 2nd class seats provide an ample amount of leg-room and a surprising amount of comfort.
The slower trains on the other hand provide a more complex selection. Not only do they offer seats but also beds. The beds are further divided into two options: soft and hard sleepers. The soft sleeper is naturally the more luxurious and therefore the most expensive option on these trains. This essentially consists of stacks of beds (two on either side) in a cabin. The hard sleeper as the name suggests lacks a certain level of comfort both with the beds themselves and the number of people you share a berth with (6 in total). You also sacrifice a certain amount of privacy as the berth is open to the walkway.
Keep heading down the price scale and you’re met with the seating option which consists of non-reclinable seats in incredibly close contact with your fellow passengers and next to no real level of comfort.
Both types of trains will even offer standing tickets, which are precisely as they sound. Those lucky passengers would simply have to find wherever there’s space available for the entirety of the journey. This will include individuals sitting directly in the middle of the walkway or crowded at the ends of the carriages. Confusingly these will be the same price as the seated tickets and undoubtedly the least comfortable option available.
What’s the Price?
Well, the good news is that it’s definitely a hell of a lot cheaper than the equivalent flight. Even the most expensive train ticket on the high-speed trains wouldn’t come near the equivalent flight. For trips around 2 hours long the prices for the cheapest tickets might not even stray over 20 RMB.
Naturally, the price will depend on the type of train and class you select. Let’s take a typical route as an example i.e. Beijing -> Shanghai
High-Speed Train (Duration: 4½ – 6 hours):
2nd Class – 553 CNY
1st Class – 933 CNY
Business Class – 1748 CNY
Slower Trains (Duration: 19 hours):
Hard Seat / Standing – 157 CNY
Hard Sleeper – 284 CNY
Soft Sleeper – 456 CNY
Typically, the cheapest high-speed tickets will be around 3 times more expensive than the equivalent on the other train. Bearing in mind, the price is due to the time needed being 3 times less. Another important point to consider is these prices remain constant up until departure, regardless of the number of tickets remaining.
Which Train Should I Pick?
The differences between the two are quite self-explanatory. The high-speed option gets you there quicker but for a higher price. Bear in mind only certain routes will offer high-speed trains, really only between the major cities. If you want to go off route, a bit more rural, then the slower ones are your only option anyway.
The main point to consider when deciding on which train is how much time do you have to spare. Yes, the high-speed trains are 3 times more expensive, however, in some cases, we’re talking about a ticket which will go from 20 yuan (about £2) to 60 (about £6), so not exactly breaking the bank. When you’re facing 21 hours on a slow train when it could take you 8 hours in comfort on the high-speed option, it becomes tempting. Despite this it’s not that much of an ordeal to sit on the low-class train for anything up to 8-10 hours, depending on how busy it is.
The other question would be; which class? On the high-speed option, 2nd class is more than good enough. Spending any more on a higher class would be frivolous and a waste of valuable travel money. The slower trains are another story, it again all depends on time. Are the train seats comfortable? No. With a near-vertical backrest, little cushioning and incredibly close quarters with the other passengers makes sure it isn’t. However, it’s not unbearable. If you’re the rugged type of traveller, it’s easily do-able. Admittedly it’s not going to be the best journey you’ve ever had, but when saving some cash equals more future travels, you can suck it up.
If the train peaks over about 12 hours of travel time, especially travelling through the night, I’d highly recommend getting a bed. Despite it costing about double the price of a standard seat, the level of comfort and privacy is multiplied by 10. Without a doubt, it’s the most comfortable way I’ve travelled during all my time on the road.
Train vs Flight
When considering any alternative form of travel the real question becomes; is it better than taking a flight? Obviously, this would depend on the type of train and even the class, but in general, which is best? For this, we’ll compare the different aspects of travel; comfort, amenities, time, accessibility and ease.
Well anytime you don’t have to come to the train station 2 hours in advance and wasting an hour on the other side picking up your luggage is an instant improvement. Even the bare minimum price for a seat is no less comfortable worse than an airline seat. To be honest, it’s as equally uncomfortable, but at least you have the benefit of getting out of your seat. I will always hold true to the fact that there is no other form of travel as uncomfortable as flying, and in that case, it’s an easy win for the trains.
It goes without saying that the standing tickets are a serious degree less comfortable. The people who have these tickets literally have to find space anywhere you can find it. I myself found myself hugging my knees next to the carriage door for several hours, but still better than a god damn flight.
It also goes without saying that getting a bed increases your comfort significantly. You have your own entire space where nobody can invade your space. Obviously not total luxury having to share the space with 3-5 other passengers each with their own level of snoring, loudness and general annoyance, but you get to lay down. Good luck trying to afford that luxury on a flight.
In pretty much every case (except cross country flights), if you were to take the high-speed train you would be at your destination in the same amount of time as a flight, without a doubt. Particularly when you take into consideration the bullshit you go through before actually stepping on the plane and the hassle of getting to the city centre once you’ve landed. The high-speed train will get you there in just as much time without half the hassle.
The slower trains on the other hand as the name suggests would take a considerable portion of a day to travel. Often time is an issue when it comes to travel, and sometimes a 12+ hour train is un-doable.
This has to be another win for the train. Practically worldwide the train will always cover more ground than flights. The railways will always pass through the most obscure locations, places lacking airports for miles around. This is advantageous for the adventurous amongst you.
However, if you’re keeping to the big cities and well-known hot-spots during your travels, then there will be flights heading in your well-travelled direction. The exclusivity of trains is limited to more obscure locations.
Transport is the must of travel, not the want. However, if there is an opportunity for enjoyment out of it, most of the time that’s the deciding factor. That why I personally love travelling by bus; the ability to sit for hours watching the world passing by, looking at the country you’re in through a whole new perspective.
Trains are very similar in that regard. Also having the added benefit of not being restricted to your seat.
How Do You Buy a Ticket?
So you’ve decided on the route, your preferred train and seat, now what? There are a couple of options available, but only a few applicable to foreigners. It is possible to purchase the tickets both directly at the train station as well as via a phone-call, but without a thorough knowledge of Chinese, you’re shit out of luck. Honestly, if you have the courage and you have the info for the train, there’s no reason why heading the booth with the necessary information such as the train code and a simple scribble of “Beijing -> Shanghai, 2nd” wouldn’t work.
For the less risky amongst you, there are better options. It is possible to arrange trains through travel agencies which likely will have less of a language barrier, but also likely to want a cut. My personal recommendation would be the absolute faultless website LY.com. Not only do they have a functional English version of their site, but it’s everything you’ll ever need to book the ticket. All the information, every route, every seat, all purchasable online. All you’ll have to do is turn up to a ticket booth at any Chinese station with the booking code and they’ll print off your ticket. This is how I booked every single one of my journey’s and it was faultless. They even have an option to refund your ticket up until the point of departure. If you ever want to book a train in China, this is the site to check out.
Whatever image you have of Chinese train-travel, it’s not as bad as you expect. The most expensive tickets are available re luxurious as any other modern world equivalent. Also despite the admittedly comfort lacking option of the slow train seats, it’s hardly tortuous. Particularly when you consider the significant savings, the added freedom and the consistent entertainment of an ever-changing backdrop of back-country China, personally I see it as a no brainer. After all, after surviving a 20+ hour train journey in a packed to capacity carriage during THE busiest time of the year, it was all worth being able to experience a journey on a Chinese train.
A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible. My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.