Train traveling in China



By Hans Schaefer, Dec 2003, Oct 2011, Dec 2014.

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For long distance traveling, trains are probably the most convenient way. China has recently got many high-speed trains, and they are especially convenient. There are flights, yes, but they are expensive. Bus transport is available in most places, but it is often slow and crowded.


Online searching for train schedules in English

 

Trains have four classes:

  1. Hard seat (Yingzuo, YZ): This is the cheapest way to travel. Cars are open, like in European commuter trains. Seats are arranged in 3 + 2 configuration, with seat groups facing each other. 110 seats per car. Comfort is like in a commuter train: The seats are not good to sit in for many hours. But this class is dirt cheap, and most Chinese people are in these cars. It is often crowded.
  2. Soft seat (Ruanzuo, RZ): This class is not often available. In most cases, if there is any, there is one car of this class. Sometimes it is unmarked and only the conductor can show you. Comfort is varying. It may be an ordinary hard seat car, where they have put some extra cloth over the seats and charge a small surcharge on your hard seat ticket. In other trains the seat configuration may be 2+2, giving you more space and comfort. Service also varies a lot. In some cases hey serve free tea, sometimes not. Anyway, the biggest benefit of this class is it being less crowded than hard seat.
  3. Hard sleeper (Yingwo, YW): This is a sleeping car, for both day and overnight travel. Three beds above each other, with varying price depending on the position of the bed. 66 beds per car. The "compartments" are open to the gangway. The mattress is a bit hard, and there is a pillow and a blanket. The beds are long and broad enough for tall people. This class has more than double the price of the hard seat. For long distance travel, especially overnight, it is definitely worth its money.
  4. Soft sleeper (Ruanwo, RW): Some trains do not have this at all, most long distance trains have only one such car. This class is expensive, typically about 150 RMB for 500 km. For the Chinese, it is luxury travel. Your have eight compartments with four beds each in a car. This makes 32 beds per car. Two beds above each other. A soft mattress, a linen clad blanket and pillow, a towel, slippers. Sometimes even soap and a tooth brush. In the compartment you find teacups, sometimes even tea leaves, and a thermos bottle with hot water. In most cases one privilege is that you can switch off the music and advertising they are paying in the train all day. Soft sleeper you share with the rich Chinese, many of them speak some English. For your comfort you may want to avoid beds number 1 to 4 and 29 to 32, which are above the bogie or near the toilet door, making for extra noise. Some trains have even compartments with only two beds and private bethroom, for the double price per ticket.

High speed trains (indicated in the timetab le by numbers starting with G ("gato tie") typically have a different system: Seating first and second class only.

A typical long distance train is made up of 16 or so cars. Half the train is hard seat, then comes the dining car, then the soft sleeper, and the remaining half is hard sleeper.

The new high speed trains have "first class" and "second class", about corresponding to hard and soft seat.

How to find the right train and its departure time

It all turns into the question: Can you read the timetable? If not, get someone to help you. You need to know at least a few Chinese characters, the city names you go from and to, to find anything at all. You should also know Chinese geography and be able to interpret the sketch maps in the timetable. The timetable is not ordered by line, but by train route. Thus, sometimes all the trains on one line may be spread over many pages. The timetable is not true, either. Some trains may be canceled, some may run every second day, and there are definitely extra trains, the local ones, stopping at every station. (But some of these run quite long distances!). If you do not read at least a little Chinese, get help.

Online searching for train schedules in English - here you also book tickets through the internet.

A dangerous time is to travel around 21 October and 20 April, as these are the typical date for timetable changes. Other bad times, where trains are very crowded, are the weeks around Chinese New Year, May 1st and October 1st.

The fight to get a ticket

Your first task is to get a ticket. In small stations this is not a big problem. Queues are short, and there are only one or two counters. Often someone will be helpful.

The trouble is with large stations. There is a huge crowd, and there may be 20 counters. The trouble is that some of these counters may not sell tickets in your direction. The easiest is to ask the people crowding around, and see where they push you. Push they do. There may be a huge crowd. European queue discipline is something unknown to Chinese. The strongest first! You definitely have an advantage as a European, being one head longer than the Chinese, and probably a bit broader. Everyone is pushing along. Even if you are first in the line, just in front of the counter, people will come from left and right and try to buy tickets before you get yours. Getting in front of a foreigner is like winning an extra hard fight, winning an extra good prize, so some people make a sport of it. Push them away and get your ticket.

Oh yes, where is the counter? Probably not in the station itself. It may be another entrance, it may be outside the station, and it may be in a neighbor house round the corner. Ask for it: "Mai piao zai nar?"

Then how to get the right ticket? Be prepared. Mark up the train in your timetable, show the timetable to the clerk. Ask for the class (Yingzuo, Yingwo), Today is "Jintian", tomorrow is "mingtian" day after tomorrow is "houtian". You may also say the date, in that case you should know to count in Chinese. The trouble starts when you get the answer "Mei you". This is probably the first Chinese phrase you have learnt, it means everything like "No", "I do not want", "I cannot", and here it means "Sorry, not available". If so, have a prepared alternative train and ask for it, or a different class. Sometimes hard sleeper is not available, but either soft sleeper or hard seat is.

Then comes the money: Railway tickets are cheap. Travelling hard seat over 50 km will cost often less than 10 RMB. Buying railway tickets is a good way to get small change. You need small change for buying food, or paying taxis. If you don't have small change, the seller may pretend not to be able to change. But at the ticket counter they ALWAYS have change. Thus you pay with 50 or 100 RMB notes.

Most tickets nowadays are computer printed, but some small stations may still have Edmonson type tickets. Sometimes, especially for short distances, the ticket may show a different station than the one you want to go to. In that case they do not have a ticket with your station, but the price is the same. Try to check your ticket, if it is for the right train and class and date, before you leave. Other people will try to buy tickets to your right and left, just do not leave the place - yet. If it looks all right, then it is nice.

For long distance and high spered trains you may need to show your passport, and the ticket will be coupled to your passport number. They do this inn order to fight the black market for tickets.

What about changing trains?

At large stations you may be able to get tickets for the next train, at smaller stations you do not get. In the worst case you buy it at the changing station or from the conductor of the next train.

New in 2011

In 2011, there were a few new ways to get tickets, and some restrictions (obeserved around Shanghai, probably the same applies to all high speed train stations):
- You need a passport (or, if someone is helping you, that person needs to show your passport) to get a ticket. This is in order to fight the black barmet.
- You may obtain tickets in ticket machines, but only with a Chinese ID
- The tickets are machine readable: You enter the platform through automatic gates operated by inserting the ticket.
- At the desitnation station, your ticket automatically opends the exit gate.
- In high-speed trains, there does not seem to be ticket checking inside the train.

The waiting hall

Now you have your ticket and want to proceed. Next station is the waiting hall. Make sure you are there at least 15 minutes before the train is scheduled to leave. The hurdle is baggage security control. Your baggage is screened, just like in an airport, but less thoroughly so. The screening machines never destroyed my films, so they seem safe in that way. However, if you are in a hurry, the policeman may just wave you through. You may keep your digital equipment outside the scanning machine.

The waiting hall is, what the word says, a large hall for waiting. Look for a sign near the exit showing your train number. Often, chairs are in long rows, and then there is one row for every train. It may be difficult to get out of a row after first entering, when the crowd is pushing around.

Most waiting halls are full of shops. Thus, if you need anything for your travel, you find it here. Phone cards for your mobile or public phones, soda, beer, biscuits, cakes, fruit, toilet paper, matches, soap, a bag, cup, thermos bottle, you find all of it here. However, most of the food you will also find on the train and the price is not much different.

Some stations have a left luggage office: "Xingli jicun chuju" You may leave your bags here for some 2 to 10 RMB. Make sure you ask if they are open when you want to return. Prices are low in small stations and higher in large cities.

If you have a soft sleeper ticket, there may be a special waiting hall for you, with comfortable chairs and few people. Some stations also have special waiting halls, equipped with a TV, or free tea, or warmed up. These you can use for a small fee like 1-3 RMB.

Shortly before arrival, or even after arrival of your train, they open the gate, and then people are storming the train! No queue culture. Everyone is shoving, pushing; Often I have found some friendly railway person or policeman will let you through a different gate and pass the crowd. You show your ticket at the gate. If you are late and have no ticket, they will often just let you through.

At the platform

To find the platform, follow the crowd or the signs. You will see many people running. In hard seat, many trains have no place tickets, i.e. free seating. The one who comes first gets the best place. But even if you have a seat assigned, you may find someone on your seat. Anyway, take it easy. If the train is not overcrowded, or you have a sleeper or soft seat ticket, there is no need to hurry.

If there are two trains at your platform, look at the destination plates. They are in the middle of every car below the windows, and in most cases show the start and end station not only in Chinese, but also in Pinyin. The cars are numbered. Conductors will guard every door and look at your ticket. Figure out which car you have.

If you want to upgrade your ticket, you may try to do so in the first hard seat car besides the dining car. This is where the chief conductor has his or her place. He or she sells any left over sleeping places. If there is a crowd here, you may again need to fight to get through. The strongest gets the best ticket.

If you have no ticket, either because you had no time to buy, or because it was sold out, and they have let you through until the platform, you should search for this car and enter here. Most other conductors will not let you in. (However, I once traveled a whole day without a ticket for the correct train. All conductors but one would not let me in. I had a sleeper ticket - for the day after, but this day was completely sold out. Obviously the train was full. I sat in the dining car, had one beer or soda after the other, took all meals there, and got all the way from Lanzhou to Jiayuguan. - The trick may work when trains are fully booked). If you find a place in the soft seat car, the conductor will sell you the upgrade at your place.

Departure: Be aware in small stations: If everyone is on board, they may start the train before the scheduled departure time. So when the train arrives, get on board immediately!

In the train

You made it. You are in the train, and the train is right, what then? In hard seat, all seats are occupied? No, they are not. Someone will be sleeping on his or her seats plus two more. Awake that person and sit there. No problem. On the other hand, if you are tired, and there is some space, you lay down. They may wake you up or not.

If you have a place number and someone is there, yoou might rather take the next free seat.

In sleeping cars the conductor will collect your ticket and give you a voucher. Next morning half an hour before your journey ends, he or she will wake you up and hand back your ticket. Sometimes they want to see and register you passport in overnight trains. It seems to be just a formality. They register everyone then.

Your baggage? Criminality in China is low, but it exists. Best is not to show your most expensive equipment. Have it down in your backpack. Store your baggage overhead, it is less easy to steal it there.

Now a few more words about comfort

There are different types of cars. The oldest ones are green, so called type 22. They are least comfortable. You can open the windows, in winter they may not fully close, the cars are fired by a coal stove in winter, no air conditioning. This sounds awful, but most times it is not bad.

The newer cars have series 25, and are often white-blue or white-red outside. Hard seat has individual seats in many such cars, type 22 has benches. The trouble with air-condition is that you cannot open the windows. At least in most cases.

Then there is smoking. In principle, smoking is prohibited in stations as well as in trains. However, this is a relatively new rule, introduced some time between 1995 and 1998. Still, some people will smoke. Some conductors are strict, some are liberal. In the higher classes, they are more liberal. Well, if you do not like smoke and your neighbor wants to smoke, you point to the sign forbidding smoking. Sign language will do the rest. Then he will go out to the doors and smoke there.

Yes, hot water. Chinese trains have hot water in every car. As much as you want to. You need hot water for your instant noodles, for your tea or Nescafe. In the end of the car, there is a boiler, either coal fired or electric.Or else the conductor may bring you a thermos bottle with hot water.

Cinema on the train

It's a new service since 2001: On some long distance trains, you may hire a laptop like portable TV set with DVD player. The conductor comes round with them. They have all kinds of films, lots of American ones, too. "River Kwai Bridge" is one of the titles. Non-chinese films are played with original sound and Chinese subtitles. Thus, you hire the box and a film or two, watch it at your place and return the stuff to the conductor at the end of your journey.

Your fellow passengers

Most Chinese people are friendly, much more friendly than Westerners. Most of them are also interested in you, especially if you go to places where few foreigners go. What does this mean?

"What's your name?" - Oh, nice, someone speaks English! You think. Next question: "Where are you from?" - "How old are you?" - "How much money do you earn?" It is a pity: In most cases someone of your fellows wants to try his or her English language knowledge. The same questions over and over again. But if you ask them, they may not understand. Keep smiling! Or use the discussion to learn some Chinese! Get the game going: Point on things, say their name in English and ask "Hanyu zenme yang?" It is fun, and it is effective. Soon you will have a whole crowd around you, everyone asking, answering, discussing your answers, laughing. If you want to improve your Chinese, this is the thing!

In the far away regions, you have to be aware about that you are in a zoo. You are the monkey, the Chinese are the people. Especially children have never seen a foreigner. They may want to touch you, especially if you have a beard. But also elsewhere, they will be interested, 99% of them in a friendly way. Even if they know no English and you no Chinese, sign language and smiles can do a lot! They offer you their food, let them try yours! Show them pictures from home. (Soon the whole car will be around you). If you love people, go by train in China.

The trouble is if you are tired. In that case, travel in sleeper or soft seat cars! In hard seat, you are part of the crowd, and in most cases people will not leave you alone.

Even in the higher class cars your fellow passengers will be interested in you. You can make a lot of contacts. If you run a business, you meet partners in the soft sleeper. But people will even invite you to visit them privately.

The main rule: Be friendly. If tired, travel in a higher class or close your eyes and try to sleep.

Food

You need something to eat or drink? No problem. There is a trolley service, going round and round. They sell basic food. It is designed for Chinese taste, but it is edible. There are drinks like bottled water, beer, and soda. There is food like biscuits, cakes, sausages, and instant soups. They may have fruit, at least tangerines. Sometimes they even come round with warm food. It is all very cheap.

The real treat, however, is the dining car. Every dining car is different. The cooks buy raw materials somewhere at the starting station or on the way, and then they prepare meals. Order Chinese dishes. Look what other people are having and point to that. In the worst case you may pay 30 RMB for a meal and a beer. If you have to pay more, you will probably not be able to eat all you order. You pay first. It is incredible what they can prepare in their small kitchen!

However, if you want breakfast, they may want to show you that they can make European like breakfast. Don't even think of that! Order a Chinese breakfast, lots of fried eggs, rice porridge or so.

High speed trains have trolley services.

A trip to the toilet

Nature calls. Your car has a toilet. Be prepared for the worst! (And be positively surprised sometimes!) The toilet is a hole in the floor with a footstep on each side. You try to balance, standing there, aiming at the hole, holding your trousers with one hand (maybe), holding somewhere highest possible up with the other hand, or you balance without holding anything. Well, good luck! It also stinks, and often there may be no water to flush. Some of your predecessors may have had problems aiming right. It MAY be a good idea to have boots. - Oh, yes: You also need your own toilet paper.

Then you proceed to the washing facility. It is either on the other side of the aisle or in a neighbor room. You need your own towel and soap. Sometimes there is even warm water. In night trains, be prepared to wait some time in the early morning, as everyone is getting up and washing. Clean your hands after visiting the toilet (you do that anyway aren't you?)

And: In sleeping cars, try to avoid the beds near the toilet. The smell may not be good, and there is the noise from the toilet door all night. (Avoid places 29 to 32 in soft sleeper and high numbers in hard sleeper). In sleeper cars, especially soft sleepers, there may be soap and towels.

Trash

You have some trash? Most trains have no trash bins. Absolutely none! Throw the stuff on the floor (in soft sleeper, put it on the tray on your table). The conductor will come now and then and sweep the floor. In summer people also open the window and throw the trash out. The conductors do that all the time, after sweeping your floor. Yes, this is horrible, but this is the way it works. - In some very few trains, mostly in southern China, but also on Jitong line, they are training people to use trash bins instead. Be a good example then! (Railway enthusiasts along the line: Keep away from passenger trains! Otherwise trash may hit you!)
 

Safety

The railway is the safest transportation means in China, like in most countries, but probably more so in China. Leaving the station, the conductor will lock the car exit doors (Chinese door blocking). Some conductors may even walk trough the car and inspect how you have stored your luggage overhead. They make sure it cannot fall down.

And for the case that someone is drunk and starting trouble for their fellow passengers, there is the train policeman. Yes, every train has a policeman on board! In some trains they will want to see your passport. Sometimes because they are curious, sometimes because you pass restricted areas and they have to look out for you, so you do not leave the train here. Some policemen are very concerned for your personal safety. If you are sitting in hard seat and a soft seat car is available, they will often ask you to follow them to that car. They consider it safer or more convenient for you.

I have never experienced trouble with the train police, but several times I have seen them handling drunk or ticketless travelers.

Special wishes we have as railway interested people

Yes, you are a railway buff. So how to see more? Chinese railway employees are friendly and proud of their railway. And interested in yours.

To take photos at the station you need a platform ticket (or you have to go a long detour until you find some way to enter the station from along the line, like thousands of other people do). The platform ticket is 1 or 2 RMB. The trouble is: They only open the gate when a train is due. And when you want to leave the platform again, the gate may be closed.

If you want to cross the rails, you may do that, a bit dependent on traffic level. On large stations personnel may be picky about it, on small stations nobody could care less.

If you want to get out of your train at stations in between and enter again, try to enter at the door you went our. Your conductor may actually be waiting for just you and not know you entered the train somewhere else.

If you want contact with the railway personnel, have pictures of your home railway, your home and family. If you are working with the railway yourself, even a museum railway, have pictures of yourself in work situations. That opens every door!

Yes, and if you want to open a closed window? In most cases you need a conductor key. It is triangular in China (like in Russia). A very handy thing to have.

There seem to be no restrictions when it comes to photography.

Getting off the train

In the sleeper the conductor will wake you up early enough. Otherwise you have to remember the time yourself. Not every door will be opened. The conductor only opens one door of the car. Again, there may be the fight for the doors. Take it easy, you are in no hurry! The exit door is first opened when the train has stopped.

You leave the platform, go to the station exit, and - take a depp breath! This is the last place you have peace! First comes the crowd at the exit, which is again a typical Chinese queue. You show your ticket (but they don't mind if you don't show it, as a foreigner, and then you enter a new crowd: The sellers and the taxi drivers. They want to sell you everything: Maps, newspapers, hotel rooms. The worst are the taxi drivers. If you do not want a taxi, it may be difficult to pass them. This you will learn, however, after being there a short time. Taking a taxi is another story.

Remember: Going by train is the safest and most compfortable means of transportation in China!