Taking the Train in China

I took three trains on my China trip, and it was definitely a very interesting experience. If you are planning to visit multiple cities in China and can’t afford relatively expensive domestic flights, taking the train might just be for you! While the rides can be long, one of the smartest choices I made was to take sleeper trains. This saved me a ton of money on accommodation, because a train served as my bed for the night. I also didn’t have to waste very many daylight hours. The list of benefits goes on: I got to interact with some cool locals, and train stations are quite central! Finally, prices were awesome compared to flights. For reference, this was what I paid for each of my tickets:

1. Shanghai to Beijing (had to cancel), 15 hours: $62.00

2. Beijing to Datong, 6 hours: $14.00

3. Datong to Xian, 16.5 hours: $45.00

4. Xian to Shanghai, 14.5 hours: $63.00

My biggest problem with trains in China was the lack of outlets. I knew this going in, and so should you: there is nowhere to charge ANY devices on most trains. My e-reader and phone died on every journey, and I was left with my Lonely Planet China guide for hours and hours of boredom – I think I read that thing four times. If you’re on a long train ride and get bored easily, you’ve been warned!

I did a ton of research on the train system in China, so hopefully I can impart some of what I learned – here are my tips for taking the train in China.


This was one of the hardest parts for me. From what I’ve found out, you have a few options for booking trains in China:

  • Booking direct online. This would be the best option, but you have to have a Chinese credit card and the website is in Mandarin, making this impossible for most.
  • Booking at the train station. If you were in China for a long time, this would work well: my time was tight, though. Lots of sites warned  that popular routes sold out well in advance, and I’m a compulsive planner so I wanted everything set in stone early!
  • Booking online through an agent. Unless you speak Mandarin or are on an open-ended trip, this is what I would recommend.

I used Travel China Guide, which worked great for me. The Man in Seat 61 also has a few other agencies listed, and I don’t think you can go wrong. You can tell the agency what classes/routes you want as far in advance as you want, and they’ll book them for you the moment they become available. I was extremely happy with Travel China Guide: they emailed me before making any changes, and I was notified as soon as my  tickets were booked. They give you very detailed instructions for actually taking the train, which is very helpful. Travel China Guide charges you a ‘service fee’, which was 30RMB ($6) for my shortest ride and 50RMB  ($10) for the other three. While normally I’d balk at paying anyone to book a ticket for me, in this case it’s really quite necessary: and the great service made up for it. They even refunded me half of the cost of my Shanghai to Beijing ticket when a flight fiasco prevented me from using it.

At the Train Station

What do I do once I get to the train station?

Travel China Guide (and all other agencies) will give you a sheet that you can bring to the train station to pick up your tickets. It has English and Mandarin on it, and the Mandarin tells the train station attendants exactly what you want. I printed these out at home and promptly lost them in the Chicago airport, but I was able to screenshot the page on my phone and show the staff that way. It worked perfectly, and I never had any problems picking up my tickets. My one issue was figuring out what desk to go to: I waited in a few lines where they just rolled their eyes at me and pointed me in a different direction. You can show your ticket to anyone walking around and they should be able to tell you where to go. You’ll then be given a paper ticket that has just enough pinyin (Chinese words written in letters that we can ‘read’) for you to understand what it’s for.

How early should I get there?

Arrive early, just like you would for a flight! It’s even more important because you’ll likely get lost and have to ask for help a few times. The biggest thing I learned about China? Take the time you think it’ll take to do something and double it. It’s pretty clear once you get inside where to wait for your train, but if not you can show any staff member your ticket and they’ll direct you.

On the Train

What kind of ticket should you book?

Based on what ticket you booked, your train experience will be completely different. There are four kinds of tickets, going from least expensive to most expensive: hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper, soft sleeper. I booked a hard seat from Datong to Beijing because it was so short, which I fully regret. Luckily my train was quite empty, so I curled up on my seat and got maybe 2 hours of sleep. However, the only other people in my car were middle-aged men fascinated by the Western girl travelling alone, so I kept waking up to men staring at me. While I certainly never felt unsafe, it was a bit weird! The train ride was fine, but for 9 dollars more I could have gotten a bed. I simply wanted to experience what a hard seat was like, but I’m not glad I did!

The rest of my train trips were on hard sleepers, which was a much more pleasant experience! These cars consist of dozens of compartments, each with 6 beds. Your ticket will specify whether you have the top, middle or bottom bunk, but only in Mandarin so I always just asked someone! By asking, I mean that I pointed at my ticket and then pointed at the beds with a questioning look on my face: worked like a charm. The pillows and blankets are changed after every train trip, which means that if you don’t get on the train at the very beginning of its trip you might be sleeping in someone else’s used bed. Luckily, this didn’t happen to me! My biggest problem with hard sleepers was the lack of privacy, but you can get that if you’re willing to pay astronomically for a soft sleeper.

I slept shockingly well on both of my hard sleeper train rides. I had a bottom bunk both times, which I didn’t really like: I would probably go for a top bunk just for privacy’s sake. I avoided using the revolting squat toilets that were the only facilities on board, so I was just huddled in my bed most of the time anyway. A top bunk, or even middle, would be much more private.

Can I get food on the train?

As I read before my trip, food carts come by every half hour or so, but I never got anything. The servers didn’t speak any English and I couldn’t tell what anything was or how to eat it, so I panicked and stayed hungry. I would recommend bringing food on board if you are picky or have any dietary restrictions!

How do you know when to get off?

At the stop before you have to get off, an attendant will come by and take your paper ticket, exchanging it for a plastic card-size thing that’s only in Mandarin. This means you will be getting off at the next stop! Most of the attendants spoke just enough English for me to ask what time we’d be at my stop. I was really pleased with this, since knowing when to get off was one of my biggest concerns! Rest assured they’ll let you know.

(Note: Excuse the low quality pictures – I didn’t feel comfortable getting out my camera to take pictures of my trains)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *