Go Travel China | China high-speed train survival guide

Shanghai Hongqiao High Speed Train station

Shanghai Hongqiao High Speed Train station

I have already written a post about how to buy train ticket and how to choose your train. This article was tailored to the regular trains. In this post, I focus on high-speed train and train stations.
You will find the most extensive bullet train network in coastal China and in the eastern part of the country. For all train trips west of the Beijing – Xi’an – Wuhan – Changsha – Guangzhou axis, your only option will be the regular train.
It is now possible to travel between Guangzhou and Beijing via Wuhan or via the coastal cities : Tianjin, Nanjing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Ningbo, Fuzhou, Xiamen and Shenzhen.

The most common ways to buy your high-speed train ticket

  • At the hotel
    In large cities, many hotels are able to book train tickets for you. Service charge applies. Make sure to ask how much that service charge is before buying the ticket. If you are a business traveler, the hotel must give you a receipt for the service charge.
  • Buy it in town
    There are independent ticket offices that sell train tickets in most cities. You will be able to recognize them by a sign that reads : ” 火车售票处 ” (huoche shoupiao chu).
  • Buy it at the train station
    If you are not in hurry, buy your ticket directly at the train station. Follow the signs “售票厅“ (shoupiao ting). Train station ticket counters can be quite busy, so be psychologically ready to queue. Also, you may not be able to get a ticket for the train you wanted. Holiday periods are the worst time to travel and the most difficult periods during which to get train tickets.
    If you buy your ticket at the train station, beware : there are three types of counter, regular ones that sell train tickets, counter to change your train ticket (marked by the sign ‘改票‘) and counter where you can get cancel your ticket and get a refund (退票). Don’t queue in the wrong line!
  • Buy it online
    You can now buy your high-speed train ticket online. Once you have paid for your desired ticket, a code number will be given to you Once at the train station, find the “取票” (qupiao) machines. You will have to give you passport info and the code number.
In all cases,  you must show your passport. There is no ticket sale without a valid proof of identity. One ticket per person is the rule. So, if you are in charge of buying tickets for several people, make sure you have everyone’s passport / ID card.
Fuzhou High Speed Train station

Fuzhou High Speed Train station

Not a classless ride

  • The great proletarian revolution of Mao has failed.
    You can choose between 2nd class (二等座 er deng zuo ), 1st class (一等座 yi deng zuo) and business class (商务座 shangwu zuo).
  • In second class, you  have two rows of seats: one row of two seats and one row of three seats.
  • In first class, there are two rows of two comfortable seats with armrest and on some line, a personal mini-ipad (or something that looks like it) loaded with Chinese movies and games (not available on every line though). There are no earphones available, so you may use your own, or join the cacophony of dozens of passengers watching different movies and playing games with the volume pushed to the maximum. First class passengers are usually entitled to a free bottle of water and a goodie bag filled with Chinese crackers and candies.
  • Business class is not available on every line, but it beats the first class by far in term of comfort (it looks like these pods you see on some airlines business class) and quietness.
Business class

Business class

Anatomy of a high-speed train ticket

Unlike the regular trains, high-speed train tickets are blue. It is possible that you get a high-speed train ticket that is red. In this case, you can’t have it scanned by the regular ticket machines while boarding. Show your ticket to a gate attendant and they will let you pass.
Train numbers starting with the letter “G” run at an average speed of 300 km/h while the ones starting with the letter “D” run at an average speed of 200 to 250 km/h and stop to more train stations on the way.

Getting to the high-speed train station 

  • High-speed railway stations are airport terminal-looking buildings which are located far from the city centers, in the suburbs.
  • Depending on where you are, it can take at least one hour by bus or taxi to get to the high-speed rail station.
  • Allow yourself enough time and leave early. It’s never a bad idea to ask how much the taxi ride costs from your hotel to the high-speed train station.

At the train station

Luggage screening and ear digging - example of multitasking at Shanghai Hongqiao bullet train station

Luggage screening and ear digging – example of multitasking at Shanghai Hongqiao bullet train station

  • There is a brief security check : bags are X-rayed and a bored employee will grab you pockets to check for … who knows what. They like to poke your wallet in your pocket and ask “what?” (it means they want to know what it is in your pocket) and if they ask you to “get out”, they are asking you to take the wallet out of your pocket.
  • In the big cities, there are at least a dozen of security check-points, but only two or three are open, creating big queues.
  • In the same spirit, there are several huge glass doors to get inside the departure hall, and only one is open.

Waiting hall

  • You find the waiting hall assigned to your train on your ticket. Waiting halls are divided into a ‘A sector / A区’ and a ‘B sector / B 区”. Check your train ticket.
  • Boarding starts 15 minutes before the scheduled departure.  Slip your ticket in the ticket checking machines when your train is boarding.
  • Queues form pretty early in front of the boarding gates. If you travel in 2nd class have a few backpacks or suitcases with you, be aware that overhead storage space can fill up pretty quickly.
  • If you want to grab a lunch at the train station, know that in most high-speed train stations I have visited and even in Shanghai Hongqiao, the only options available are fast-foods : two US ones and a Chinese one.
  • Men’s toilets are usually synonyms of ‘smoking lounge’, even though there are huge signs in Chinese telling people not to smoke.
Train ticket checking machines at the gate in Shanghai Hongqiao.

Train ticket checking machines at the gate in Shanghai Hongqiao.

Arrival at destination

  • Do not loose your ticket. You will have to show it upon exiting the train station.
  • Although China’s new high-speed train station are contemporary airport terminal looking structures, there is only one way out. It seems enough, but when a 1000-people crowd disembark on the platform of Guangzhou South Station, one exit seems it’s not enough …
  • Also, note that on most trains, the 1st class and the Business class are at the exact opposite end of the exit, so you will get some exercise for free through the crowd.


There are 3 comments

  1. Danièle Heinen

    I took the high speed train from Beijing to Changsha April 2. I had booked my ticket through China Highlights and it was at the hotel waiting for me as expected (9 USD service charge applied on a 167 USD ticket) as I was arriving in Beijing the night before from Europe and had chosen to stay close to the train station. The trains leave from Beijing West Station. It was only a hurdle to get the envelope containing the ticket as no employee at the Oak Hotel spoke any English. They had received the envelope but had no idea what it contained. I showed up at the station with plenty of time to spare for a 10 am train and went through the entrance the luggage check and to the waiting room in all of 10 minutes. The train numbers, times, waiting room numbers are clearly indicated so that is no problem.The waiting room was full but a lot more disciplined that I have seen in other circumstances. Since you have an assigned seat and have to go through a turnstile, there can’t be any panic and mad rush. On time, clean, a cleaning lady going thru the central corridor every 30 minutes or so; food cart (not a wise choice and the equivalent of 10 USD so better bring your own but was too early to get organized before hand). Five stops, train running at 305 k/h On time in Changsha, the train sation being in Ye Lu in the western part of the city and there is a metro line not far, I think the first one . So all in all a much better experience than expected. I was not even in Biz class but regular one.

  2. lindalindsch

    great post! i took the train to travel in China before but never the high-speed one! definitely will do so as soon as possible! now I’m ready thanks to you 😉

    1. Gaetan

      Thank you Linda. High-speed train has changed the way I traveled in China. It’s easy, convenient and very fast (except going to and from the train stations). Once you are in Changsha, you will be on the Beijing – Wuhan – Guangzhou line (it takes only 2h45 from Changsha to Guangzhou) and there is even a line to Guilin. Come back to tell what you think once you’ve experienced the bullet train.

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