China's enormous rail network is one of the world's busiest. Though crowded, trains are usually safe, efficient, and run strictly to schedule. The high-speed rail system makes getting around the country very easy. In 2012, the Beijing–Guangzhou line opened, cutting travel time between the two cities from 30 hours to about 9 hours. At 1,428 miles, the line is the longest in the world.
There are certain intricacies to buying tickets, which usually have to be purchased in your departure city. You can buy most tickets up to 18 days in advance; 3 to 4 days ahead is usually enough time, except during the three national holidays—Chinese New Year (two days in mid-January–February), Labor Day (May 1), and National Day (October 1).
The cheapest place to purchase tickets is the train station, where they only accept cash and English is rarely spoken. In larger cities like Shanghai or Beijing, there is a special ticket window for foreigners with a staff that speaks some English. There are also train booking offices scattered around most cities. Fighting the crowds in train stations can be a headache—most travel agents or hotels will book your tickets for a small surcharge. Consider it money well spent! Travel China Guide has an online booking service that caters to foreigners. The company will deliver the tickets to your hotel or arrange for you to pick them up at the train station. Avoid the scruffy-looking individuals who try to sell you tickets outside the stations—these tickets are inevitably fake and could land you in trouble with the authorities.
The train system offers a glimpse of old-fashioned socialist euphemisms. There are four classes, but instead of first class and second class, in China you talk about hard and soft. Hard seats (yingzuo) are often rigid benches guaranteed to numb the buttocks within seconds; soft seats (ruanzuo), common on short day trips, are more like the seats in long-distance American trains. For overnight journeys, the cheapest option is the hard sleeper (yingwo), open bays of six bunks, in two tiers of three. They're cramped, but not uncomfortable; though you share the toilet with everyone in the wagon. Bedding is provided but you might want to take your own. Soft sleepers (ruanwo) are more comfortable: the closed compartments have four beds with bedding. Trains between Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Xi'an also have a deluxe class, with only two berths per compartment and private bathrooms. The nonstop Z-series trains are even more luxurious. Train types are identifiable by the letter preceding the route number: Z is for nonstop, T is for a normal express, and C, G, and D are high-speed trains.
Overpriced dining cars serve meals that are often inedible, so do as the locals do and use the massive thermoses of boiled water in each compartment for your own noodles or instant soup. Trains are always packed, but you are guaranteed your designated seat, though not always the overhead luggage rack. When you board a train, the staff will take away your ticket and give you a plastic card with your seat or bed number. When you disembark you give the plastic card to the attendant and receive your ticket back. Note that theft on trains is increasing; on overnight trains, sleep with your valuables or keep them on the inside of the bunk.
You can find out just about everything about Chinese train travel at Seat 61's comprehensive website. China Highlights has a searchable online timetable for major train routes.
China Highlights. www.chinahighlights.com.
Seat 61. www.seat61.com/china.htm.
Travel China Guide. www.travelchinaguide.com/china-trains.