China has one of the most extensive and busiest railway networks globally with well over 1,000 stations. Practically all the towns and cities are connected by rail. Trains in China have a reputation for promptness, safety, comfort, and cost-effectiveness for passengers.
It is a good experience traveling in and around China with the trains. This is a guide that will help you navigate as you embark on train travel in the most populous nation on the planet.
Train Times and Popular Routes
The main rail hubs are Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Guangzhou. From these places, trains are off to places like Xian, Badaling (for those interested in touring the Great Wall of China), Kunming, Tianjin, Shenzhen, Nanning, Guilin, Macau, Lhasa (Tibet), Urumqi, Hanoi-Saigon (Vietnam), Macau and many other places.
Checking Train Times and Fares
For most beginners, one of the most important things they are interested in is checking their train times and fares. There are online train timetables (China Highlights and China DIY Travel) that show all the fares in local Chinese currency and the United States dollar. You can also enter any train station and check on the boards.
For those who will be getting their fare details online, please note that many of these platforms are not linked to the Chinese Railway network directly so they just download from time to time. You should ensure that you are getting the latest details. Of course, you can also check directly from the official Chinese Railways websites.
Buying the Tickets
When Do the Reservations Open?
The reservations usually are open 30 days before the departure for online books and 28 days before the departure for sale at the stations, as far as most of the long-distance trains are concerned. This implies that you cannot purchase tickets before the opening of reservations.
Several Category D sleeper trains open only 20 days ahead and some Category C trains do their opening only 10 days ahead of time.
Can Tickets Sell Out?
Yes, this happens a lot, and it is not a surprise that many of the trains on long-distance routes get completely booked days ahead. Hence, you need to make your booking well ahead of time. Many passengers prefer to go for pre-arranged tickets on online platforms.
Even though the high-speed trains’ tickets are costly, you may be lucky to get the tickets the same day of your travel or the day before but you need to check to confirm. Apart from that, it is normal for tickets for the long-distance trains to sell out days ahead of the departure. It is best that you do your bookings a minimum of 3 to 4 days ahead of time or even more when you are approaching peak periods during the holidays. There are also train ticketing agencies that you can make use of to sort this for you.
Buying Your Tickets Online
In 2011, Chinese Railways established an online booking system but was rendered in Chinese, however of late, there has been news of developing an English version.
The system accepts only Chinese bank cards so you cannot make use of your international cards. This is why some prefer to do their booking via train ticket agencies even if that means that they need to pay some commission or fees.
Using Self-Service Ticket Machines or Buying Tickets at the Station
A good number of the stations have their self-service ticket machines. They are now designed to recognize even foreign passports, but there is no English rendering. That means it may not be easy for everyone to use but you can easily print your slip for refunds or itinerary.
Even if you do not speak Chinese, you will not find it challenging to purchase tickets for yourself at the train station. Your bag is going to be checked by an X-ray machine before you can enter the ticket office.
It would help if you went with your passport as you will need it before you can purchase any ticket for long-distance trains. You are also going to need your passport before you can be able to board any train. Other documents that can be used include a temporary residence permit issued to foreigners, a diplomatic certificate, an exit-entry permit, or a Chinese citizen’s identification card.
You can check the trains’ availability on the massive and beautiful LED displays and boards at the station. You can see the number of available seats in each class of every train before departure for the day or the week.
Understanding Displays at Metro Stations
The train availability boards and displays are present at all the principal station ticket offices and they are easy to read even if they are in Chinese. The boards show the dates and the number of seats left in each of the trains’ classes. The times of departure are also made available.
Locating and Boarding Your Train
Traveling by train in China means you are going to be checked by security many times. So plan for this ahead of time; it is good to arrive at the station 40 minutes before your departure. There are often queues at the stations of passengers waiting for identification and ticket checking. You will have to scan your passports before you can gain access to the platform. Some other stations are equipped with Chinese ID card scanners.
Understanding Chinese Trains
Chinese trains are generally very safe and comfortable. They come in four classes but not all the trains feature the four classes. These are the soft sleeper, hard sleeper, soft seat/hard seat, and the deluxe soft sleeper classes.
High-Speed Train Seat Classes
The following classes are for those using the famed high-speed trains: 1st and 2nd class, business class, and the premium, superior, or premier class. All the trains have toilets, meal corners, but smoking is generally not allowed.
Luggage Matters on Chinese Trains
You can take your bags with you when going on Chinese trains; you can put them neatly on the racks in the sleeper compartment. The limit for luggage is pegged at 20 kilograms for the adults, 10 kilograms for the children, and the maximum dimension for any item is 160 centimeters and less on the high-speed trains.
You cannot take your bicycles as carry-on luggage, but you can take them to the luggage office at your start station, pick them up at the destination’s station, or make use of the railway to collect and deliver service.