Traveling by train in China allows you for covering long distances and meeting the locals, but buying train tickets in China can be a hassle, specially if you don’t speak Chinese.
It doesn’t have to. Here is a short guide to buying train tickets and choosing you seat or sleeper bunk.
Where to buy train tickets
You will need to show one passport per train ticket bought. This a recent measure to counter people buying dozens of tickets ahead of holidays and re-selling them at a higher price on the black-market.
- The old school way
You can buy train tickets directly at the train stations (火车站), through travel agents or ticket offices (火车售票处). Many hotels can also help you buy a train ticket against a service charge.
- Online purchase
You can also book your ticket online. If you buy at least 8 days in advance, you can have your train ticket delivered to your hotel. If you buy a ticket for a departure within the following 8 days, you will receive an e-ticket number and you will have to get the train ticket from the counter directly at the train station of departure.
You can buy your ticket 60 days in advance.
Choose your train, know your speed
All trains numbers start with a letter. This letter indicates the type of train and speed.
High speed trains
Eastern and coastal China has an extensive high-speed train network.
There are two types of high-speed trains : D and G.
- D stands for dongche 动车 and are high-speed trains that run up 250 km/h.
- G stands for gaotie 高铁 and are high-speed trains run with a maximum speed of 300 km/h
Standard trains still run throughout most of the country. There five main codes for standard trains : T, K, Z, N and train code with numbers only.
- T stands for tekuai 特快 : they are express trains that stop only in major cities between the stations of departure and arrival.
- K stands for kuaiche 快车: they are fast trains traveling between 120 – 140 km/h that stop in major cities and towns.
- Z are overnight express trains that have few or no stops between the stations of departure and arrival. They are too be found in a few selected train routes only.
- N are express train that run within one province only. They are not different from the K trains that are inter-provincial.
- Only numbers : train with only a 4 digit number travel at a maximum speed of 100km/h and stop at every single station along the way.
Not a classless ride : from hard seat to soft sleeper
High-speed trains have two to three classes : second class 二等级, first class 头等级 and business class 商务级 (on G train and on selected routes only).
Standard trains have four classes : hard-seat, soft-seat, hard-sleeper and soft-sleeper.
- Hard-seat or yingzuo 硬座 : the Chinese trains’ cheapest class is going to be your gateway to meeting the locals and seating for hours on communist-hard uncomfortable wooden benches in an overcrowded compartment with farmers smoking and falling asleep on your shoulder. Unless you are on a very tight budget or travel for a couple of hours only, I recommend you upgrade (or watch your stuff). I know some people who love it.
- Soft-seat or ruanzuo 软座 : an elegant and slightly more comfortable upgrade from hard seat. The soft seat is your gateway to meeting the ‘upgradable’ locals. Soft-seat is Ok for daytime travel. Again, do watch your stuff. If you have to spend the night in the train, I do recommend you upgrade.
- Hard-sleepers or yingwo 硬卧 : these are unenclosed compartment of six bunk beds. There is, of course, a lower, middle and upper sleeper/bunk bed on each compartment. There are differences in price and you can ask which level you prefer when you buy your ticket. During daytime, everyone will squat your lower bunk 下卧 . I recommend you take either the middle one zhongwo 中卧, the most comfortable and expensive, while the upper bunk or shangwo 上卧 is not suitable to tall people, but at least, you’ll be quiet.
- Soft-sleepers or ruanwo 软卧 are closed compartments of four bunk beds. They are the most expensive. They are worth the bucks if you travel in group of four and are all in the same compartments. I had a particularly bad experience once in soft-sleeper when traveling alone : my three temporary travel buddies were heavy smokers and loud card players.
Anatomy of a Train Ticket
This is what a train ticket look like. This is a pretty old one, and they have started adding the pinyin under the cities of departure and arrival so that foreigners can read them.
Preparing your trip
- Food and drink on the train : what you should know
There is a restaurant car on most train. They serve food (usually rice with meat, vegetables and a soup served in a box called hefan 盒饭) that daredevil may want to try. For others I recommend to buy food and drink in advance. There is a samovar in each car that provide hot water for tea.
- Get there early
All train passengers’ luggage are scanned at the entrance of every train station. After that, you will have to find your way to the waiting hall from which you will board your train.
Comments & questions
I have just covered the basics of how to buy and choose and ticket train in China. If you have any questions about Chinese trains, timetables you can contact me or leave comment.
Also, if you have interesting train-related train stories, share them by leaving a comment.