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Traveling by Train in China
Posted by: ForumEditor ForumEditor's Posts on behalf of Robert Vance.
For more Robert Vance go to The China Teaching Web.
Post time: 15-Oct-2008  9:21

Robert Vance has done some excellent work especially preparing English teachers in adapting to life and travel in China. He's written a number of informative articles with practical tips. I have chosen to post his guide to train travel below, but here are some more good stories to check out:

1. Traveling by Airplane in China

2. Traveling by Bus in China

3.  10 Things Not to Do in Your Travels in China

4. Weaning Myself off  China Travel Guidebooks

5. 10 Tips to Make Your Travels in China Safer

6. Tips for Hunting for Hotel Rooms in China

7. Coping with Culture Shock in China

8. My Journey to Mount Everest

9. Buying a GPS - a Wise Investment

10. Traveling Alone is a Great Experience

11. Riding Motorcycles in China

12. Petty Theft is NOT a Pretty Thing


My first train ride in China was very pleasant indeed; maybe a little too pleasant in fact. I had spent my first few days in China visiting the major attractions in Beijing and getting a feel for the land and the people. A lady from Singapore had befriended me on the Great Wall tour and in addition to helping me understand my what tour guide was saying and teaching me how to use chopsticks, she also assisted me in buying a train ticket from Beijing’s Central Railway Station to Shanghai. She must have thought I was wealthy because she booked me a deluxe Soft Sleeper berth. I was utterly unfamiliar with the Chinese train system so when I shelled out 400 RMB for the ticket, I had no idea that I was buying the ‘best seat in the house.’ I assumed that staying in the enclosed air conditioned room with free tea and a soft white bed was how most Chinese people traveled. Twelve hours later, when I stepped off the train in Shanghai, I was well rested and had a very good first impression of the train system in China.

Four days later,  as I made my way into Central China, I found myself sitting on a hard upright seat sandwiched in between two other pepole in a crowded, noisy, train. I had attempted to secure a soft sleeper but either because of language problems or because there were no soft sleepers available, I was sold a very cheap ticket. I was supposed to have been on the train for 15 hours but because of weather delays, it was 20 hours before I reached my destination. After my initial ride from Beijing to Shanghai, this trip was quite a rude awakening. Throughout the night, I desperately tried to find a good ’sleeping’ position but it was impossible. I envied the man on my left who at least had a window to lean against. I could just not fall asleep in an upright position. Even if I had managed to find a halfway comfortable position, the noise in my train car would have probably kept me awake. All around me, people were having loud discussions, playing cards, singing, and eating. I was able to ‘doze off’ but I was always awakened by a loud voice or a crink in my neck.

Although this trip was exhausting, I did manage to make friends with a girl and her sister who were sitting across from me. Using a few words of English and a few words of Chinese, we were able to communicate for about 2 minutes before we had exhausted our vocabularies. However, we did exchange addresses before we parted ways, and later we became penpals. I also learned how to fill my bowl of noodles with scalding hot water and carefully carry it back to my seat. I would look back later on this first train ride with fondness but when I arrived at my destination I felt like I had been awake for days. I was ready to drop down on the pavement outside of the train station and sleep for months.

Of course, this would not be my last train ride. Since then, I have literally spent days on trains in China and have experienced the four classes of seats: Hard Seat (yìngzuò, 硬坐), Soft Seat (ruǎnzuò, 软坐), Hard sleeper (yìngwò, 硬卧), and Soft Sleeper (ruǎnwò, 软卧). On short trips, I have found that a hard seat is adequate. However, on a long trip, paying a few extra RMB for a Soft Seat can make a large difference in terms of your comfort level. Unfortunately, not every train offers Soft Seats and they can be hard to get on short notice. I think that for long trips, it is always worth the extra money to pay for a sleeper.

The Hard Sleepers usually consist of six small bunks in an open compartment. There is a few RMB difference between the lowest, middle and highest bunks. If you buy the lowest bunk, expect that other people in your compartment will use your bunk as a seat until bedtime. If you purchase a ticket for the middle or lower bunks, you will have it all to yourself but you won’t be able to sit up straight and getting up and down can be a hassle. All the bunks are equipped with sheets and pillows but beware that they are not always cleaned after every use; if you are catching a train at a station other than its point of origination, you may very well be sleeping in a bed that was recently occupied. If you are sensitive about these types of situations, you may want to carry your own small pillow and blanket.

Soft Sleepers are a luxury for most Chinese people. You receive much better service from the staff and you can expect to receive extra ‘perks’ such as slippers, towels, softer mattresses, free tea, and the added security of a locked compartment. Your compartment will also have air conditioning (in China, this word means both warm air and cool air) which will make your journey much more bearable if you happen to be traveling in the North during the winter or the South during the summer. These Soft Sleepers are definitely the way to travel if you are concerned about your privacy, but you will a high premium for these berths. 

If your journey is longer than 8 hours, I would recommend that you always try to obtain a hard sleeper berth first. Hard sleepers are actually quite comfortable and allow you to still experience Chinese culture. I have made many friends in hard sleeper compartments and I find that the time passes by much quicker than being isolated in a Soft Sleeper.

No matter where you stay on the train, safety should always be your most important concern. During your trip there will be dozens of people entering and exiting the train. Petty theft occurs on trains in China quite frequently. Here are some tips to help you have a safe trip:

–Keep your most valuable possesions(passport, wallet, jewelry) with you at all times. When you are sleeping you should have these items in your pocket or under your pillow.

–If you put bags under the bed or on the shelf above the ‘gangway’, be sure that there is nothing in those bags that you ‘couldn’t live without.’ Thieves have been known to slash bags in the middle of the night.

–It useful and fun to talk to strangers on the train but always be aware and alert of what is going on around you. Don’t ever completely trust someone. It is also probably not a good idea to accept food from strangers on the train unless it is in a sealed package.

 –When you go to use the bathroom, make sure you are not leaving anything valuable unattended. Take a bag with you if necessary.

–Always check your compartment before you exit a train. It is very easy for items to fall in between the bed and the wall or even off the bed. Always double c. heck to make sure that you have your passport and wallet before you leave the train.

Whether I’m relaxing in the comfort of a Soft Sleeper, or slightly suffering on a Hard Seat, I love traveling by train in China. It is my chance to immerse myself in the culture and see the beauty of China zoom by. An airplane maybe much faster, but riding on a train in China is a unique experience and always full of adventure.


Editor's note: We're inviting bloggers who write about travel and life in China to republish select posts on If you blog your China experience and would like to share with our readers, let us know by email.

[Last edited by ForumEditor on 15-Oct-2008  9:53]


Post by: dannyrogue  Time: 15-Oct-2008  11:20
This is pretty informative and definitely has some solid info. Personally, for any trips 5 hours or less, a hard seat is totally fine, more than that, go soft. Overnight riders should definitely go for the sleeper because you'll be able to make more use of your time at your arrival destination due to solid rest.

Two quick things that weren't in the post (1) MAKE SURE TO HOLD ONTO YOUR TRAIN TICKETS UNTIL YOU EXIT THE ARRIVAL GATE. Most stations check tickets to search for stowaways. (2) HARD SLEEPER = LIGHTS OUT. If you like to stay up an read or chat with a travel companion at night or are a bit of an insomniac you may want to purchase a soft sleeper. Hard Sleeper cars have a mandatory lights out (usually around 10pm) while soft sleeper compartments have individual light controls.