So I know with our last post we had technically left China and were on our way to Mongolia, but we couldn’t leave the Middle Kingdom without a post on their train system. For the two months we were in China we spent almost two weeks on a train…I know, China is big! That’s what you get for going overland, without taking any flights. Taking so many trains in China meant we got very used to sleepy as they bumped along, putting up with the lights and music going on as we approached a station in the middle of the night and ‘intimate’ with the squat toilets onboard. 36 hours on the train in one go was our record, which we ended up doing several times. Here’s a little guide for taking trains and sometimes how to survive them!
1. How do I buy a ticket?
Don’t worry, its pretty easy to buy train tickets in China, even if you speak limited mandarin and can’t understand Chinese characters. A lot of people we met had used english language websites to get their tickets and ended up paying a huge commission (think $10 US per ticket), but buying your tickets in China is pretty straight forward. Advanced tickets can be bought at all train stations for no extra cost, or alternatively at advanced booking offices (which can be found all over big city’s) or post offices. The latter two charge a small fee (less than $1US), but are usually much less busy that stations and can often speak some english, making it our favourite way to get tickets.
Before going to buy your tickets, remember to look up the train you want to take, write down its number, the time, destination and date, remembering the Chinese put the year first, then month, and the day last. You also need to take your passport as they will put your passport number and some version of your name on each ticket.
2. Be prepared getting to the train station…
Trains in China aren’t like anywhere else we have been, things are organised chaos! You have to have your ticket and passport checked before by an official in a booth before entering the station building, then have your bags put through a metal detector and have your person searched (so get there early). Its more like airport security than train travel at home! We had a pen knife confiscated which they didn’t like the look of so hide things deep in your bag. There has been several knife attacks at Chinese train stations in recent months which goes some way to explaining the paranoia in the air. Once inside there are big display boards with the train numbers and times and then the waiting area you need to head to and hang out. You’ll know when its time to board your train as the que which will have formed will start pushing and jostling to get through the barriers…join in! You will also have your tickets checked as you enter your carriage, before you find your bunk.
3. What class should I choose?
There are four classes on Chinese trains:soft sleeper, hard sleeper, seating or standing. For overnight journeys, obviously one of the first two are preferable! Soft sleepers are cabins with closing doors and four bunks and often a western toilet at one end of the cabin. They are more comfortable, beds a little bigger and with less noise, but for double the price we didn’t think they were worth the extra money. The hard sleepers do not have private cabins with closing doors but are open down one side with six bunks in each section, the carriage often made up of around ten or more sections. You pay extra for the bottom bunk but this often becomes the communal seat during the day, so you wont have as much privacy. The top bunk is a little claustrophobic but good if you are tall as you wont have anyone brushing your feet as they walk past through the night!
4. The toilets are grim
Mainly squat and without toilet roll, these are never going to be the best on long journeys…but hey its a story to tell people later!
5. Tickets on the train
The attendants on the trains will come around and switch your paper ticket with a plastic card for the entirety of the trip. They will then wake you up and give back your paper ticket before its your stop…handy!
6. Food on the train
There are dining cars on all long distance trains serving Chinese staples, like pork and peppers or tomato and egg. They are usually OK quality though a little expensive compared to off the train. The problem is they don’t usually have english or even pictures menus…you could use our tactic of pointing at other people’s food and saying ‘jigga’ or just risk it and pick one of the menu! The also have carts going up and down selling fruit, snacks and drinks, which will come through the carriage. Most people take food with them for the journey, the most popular being the noodle pots as there is always hot water dispensers in each carriage. We also managed to make friends through offering our food around to our fellow travellers and you usually get a little something back in return!
7. Take ear plugs and an eye mask
When you’re sharing with that many people there’s often noise and sometimes commotion as people are getting on and off the train at their station in the middle of the night. So ear plugs are a must! They also sometimes turn on annoying ‘lift music’ as you come into large stations regardless of the time of day. However, there are light switch type buttons to turn it off every few sections, so take our advise and make sure its off before you go to sleep!
Over night train travel isn’t always the most comfortable but it’s definitely how the locals travel in China, so is a great way to see locals in action! Often snoring loudly…
R & E