China is the largest country in the world by population (around 1.3 billion people), and the second largest by land area. To transport these masses of people and the products they construct and consume over such great distances, China also has the third largest railway network by route kilometers (91,000) just behind Russia and the USA. China has 6% of the world’s railway track, but handles 25% of the world’s railway traffic.
In terms of passenger rail transport, China is an amazing place. Trains criss cross the country, serving almost every city and town. Trains run from Beijing to 6 other countries (North Korea, Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan Vietnam & Hong Kong), as well as far flung Chinese cities such as Kashgar, Urumqi & Lhasa. The journey from Guangzhou to Lhasa is a massive 4980 km, taking 55 hours.
Long distance trains are inexpensive, fast and frequent (and usually reliable). Conventional Chinese passenger trains are up to 20 carriages long, whilst high speed (CRH) trains are 8 or 16 cars long. China does not offer international visitors discounted rail passes (as most other countries do). This is mainly because the trains are almost always full anyway, and the trains are so cheap by Western standards, that it’s just not necessary.
There is an excellent Chinese rail map at http://www.johomaps.com/as/china/chinarail.html, and another at http://www.chinahighlights.com/image/map/china-railway-map-big.jpg. If you’re looking for timetables, there is an very good journey planner at China Travelguide.
With a huge variety of locomotives and rolling stock, China is a rail photographer’s paradise, at least it would be if the rules on photography were more clear. I have taken photographs of trains at stations, and been smiled at by passing railway police. I have been standing on a public street taking photos of trains and been moved on by soldiers. I have stood at a busy level crossing, and been given train information by the crossing attendant. I have been yelled at by police for taking photographs from a footbridge. The rules are not clear (if there are any) and don’t seem to make sense.
China is not a free country, and if you do something that law enforcers don’t like, there is the a real chance of being locked up. Having said that, I’ve never had any real problems with photography, just a few baffling rebukes. Here are some simple tips if you want to stay out of trouble:
- Don’t draw attention to yourself
- Don’t use a tripod or flash
- Be aware of your surroundings and who is watching you
- Never go into areas where the general public would not normally go
- Be ready to move on at a moment’s notice
- If someone official looking approaches you, give them a friendly smile and act as if you know you’re allowed to be there
- If you are told off, smile, feign ignorance, apologise and move on
- Never argue with a police officer or soldier
- NEVER EVER photograph a police officer or soldier
Types of Train
Chinese trains are identified using a train number, which also indicates what sort of train it is. C, D & G are all high speed CRH (China Rail Highspeed) trains, S are Beijing S2 line streamlined outer suburban trains, whilst K, L, T, Y, Z and numbered trains are conventional locomotive hauled trains. In general, the less numbers after the initial charachter, the further the train travels.
- C: Beijing South – Tianjin intercity high speed service (CRH). Maximum speed of 350 km/h.
- D: 1st generation high speed train (CRH). Maximum speed of 250 km/h
- G: 2nd generation high speed train (CRH). Maximum speed of 350 km/h
- K: “Fast” train, Maximum speed of 120 km/h and stopping at more stations than T or Z trains.
- L: Seasonal train, running only as required during peak times (such as lunar new year).
- S: Beijing North – Yanqing intercity train (Beijing S2 line). A streamlined diesel train which runs at up to 160 km/h.
- T: Express train, maximum speed 140 km/h, making limited stops.
- Y: Tourist train, this classification is currently not in use.
- Z: Overnight express train, maximum speed 170 km/h. These trains make very limited stops and usually only have sleeping cars (no seats)
- Numbered train (eg 1085): These trains are the slowest trains which make the most stops with a maximum speed of 100 km/h. Some of these trains are not air conditioned.
Classes of travel
There are many different types of rolling stock in use on Chinese Railways, but generally they share the same types of facility. There is usually a boiling water dispenser at one end of the carriage, and toilets at the other.
Once all seats are full, standing tickets are sold for sitting cars (not sleeping cars). Many people bring small folding stools to sit in aisles, others choose washrooms, toilets and vestibules. During busy periods, many long distance trains are crush loaded and resemble a peak hour commuter train. Standing tickets are not generally sold for high speed (CRH) trains.
Hard seats are generally exactly what they sound like; a seat with minimal padding. On most trains, the seats are arranged 2+3 and facing each other across a small table. The seats are basic and facilities even more so. Standing room tickets are sold when hard seats run out. Avoid where possible on conventional trains; not suitable for overnight travel!
Hard seats on high speed trains (CRH) are more comfortable and quite adequate.
Generally 2+2 airline style seating, with more comfort than hard seats. Not available on many conventional trains.
Soft seats on high speed trains (CRH) are slightly wider than hard seats, but do not offer any real increase in comfort level.
3 tiered bunks, open to the corridor. Basically just a shelf with a foam mattress, they are surprisingly comfortable. A pillow and quilt are provided, but privacy is not.
Hard sleepers vary slightly in price, depending on the position; the bottom bunk is most expensive, whilst the top bunk is cheapest. My preferred bunk is the top, as it affords the most privacy (although you can’t fully sit up without hitting your head on the carriage ceiling). Hard sleepers are not suitable for larger people.
2 sets of 2 tiered bunks in a private room. Unless you are traveling in a group of 4, you will probably share your “private” room with strangers (not always a bad thing).
Soft sleeper bunks are wider and offer more headroom than hard sleeper, and as with hard sleepers the bottom bunk is more expensive than the top.
It is rare to find a train with deluxe sleepers, and almost impossible to be able to book one. Deluxe sleepers are private cabins with 2 bunks and an en-suite toilet (except those on high speed trains). Anyway, why are you going to China if you don’t want to be crammed in with the masses?
Buying a Chinese train ticket
There are several ways to buy a Chinese train ticket:
- Travel as part of an organised tour
- Through at ticket agent
- From the ticket office at a railway station
- From an authorised retail outlet
Travel as part of an organised tour
Many Chinese tour companies offer package tours throughout China. This is a more organised, less independent way to travel. The tour company will buy the ticket on your behalf as part of a package. This is the only way to get a permit to travel to Tibet.
Buying through a ticket agent
There are many agencies who will purchase a ticket for you, and deliver it to your hotel. These companies often charge a large premium on top of the ticket price, but the convenience can be worth it. Below is a list of some of the online agencies; I have not used these and do not endorse them:
- http://www.train-ticket.net/main.htm (Beijing-Shanghai, Beijing-Hong Kong & Shanghai-Hong Kong only)
- http://www.mtr.com.hk/ (Hong Kong – Guangzhou, Hong Kong – Shanghai & Hong Kong – Beijing trains only)
Buying from a railway station ticket office
The safest place to buy your ticket is from a railway station ticket office (no chance of fraudulent ticket sales), but it can also be the most difficult. Major railway stations are always crowded, and you will need to allow at least an hour to buy your tickets (up to 3 during busy times such as lunar new year). Tickets go on sale at midnight, 18 days in advance of the departure.
Ticket offices for high speed (CRH) trains often have English speaking booking clerks and there is an foreigners’ ticket office at Beijing West, but many other agents do not. It is advisable to write down the train number that you want to travel on (it’s best to have a few options). Most booking clerks will understand “seat”, “hard sleeper” and “soft sleeper” (by default, they will usually sell you a hard sleeper for overnight trips). If you are told “Mey-yo”, it means that that ticket is not available.
Some ticket offices have credit card facilities, but many do not, so it is advisable to pay in cash. You will also need to present your passport, as you passport number is recorded on your ticket to minimise theft and fraud.
Ticket offices can sell tickets for trains departing from other locations, but only have a limited allocation. For example, it is possible to buy a ticket from Xi’an to Beijing from a ticket office in Shanghai, but once their allocation is sold, they are unable to sell any more tickets (even though there may be plenty of room left on the train). If you went to a ticket office in Xi’an to buy the same ticket, they would be able to keep selling tickets until the train was full (and beyond).
Buying a ticket from an authorised retail outlet
Tickets can be purchased from retail outlets in some commercial areas; these outlets prominently display the Chinese Railways logo. Buying a ticket from these retail outlets is just like buying a ticket from a ticket office in another city; they are allocated a certain number of tickets for each train, and are unable to sell any more once their allocation runs out. Retail outlets require you to present your passport and will charge a ¥5 (about A$0.85) booking fee for each ticket.
Boarding a Chinese train
Once you have your ticket, boarding the train is no simple task, as Chinese Railways have a security procedure similar to domestic airlines. I recommend arriving at the station no later than one hour prior to the departure time on your ticket (90 minutes during busy times and 2 hours for international departures). Before you get to the station, read and understand your ticket.
Firstly, you will probably need to queue outside the station. Only passengers with tickets are permitted inside the station, so you will need to show your ticket and passport to the railway police or soldier at the entry. You will the go through security screening, and all luggage will need to be put through a giant x-ray machine. You will walk through a metal detector (at some smaller stations, they will wave a wand over you).
For high speed (CRH) trains, you may get a blue ticket (instead of the normal pink). When entering into the station, you may have to put this ticket into the electronic barriers to gain entry to the waiting areas.
Once you have passed through the entry and security screen, you must find your waiting room. At most stations, there are departure boards showing which waiting room you should wait in for each train. Check your ticket and work out which waiting room to go to. Once you get to the waiting room, you do exactly that – wait. If you’re lucky enough to get a seat, hold on to it, because the waiting rooms fill right up; imagine 20 carriages worth of passengers waiting in 1 room. Added to this, there may be other trains’ passengers waiting in the same room. If you have a soft or deluxe sleeper, look for the VIP waiting area.
Once your train is announced, it’s time to line up. The announcements are in English at larger stations, but you’ll notice a massive surge to the gate. If in doubt, show your ticket to a railway employee. When your train is boarding, show your ticket to the gate attendant and follow the masses to the platform. You can only board the carriage that you’re booked to travel in, so you’ll need to find your carriage; on most trains, this is marked by a small sign at each carriage doorway. Show your ticket and passport to the conductor guarding the entry to the carriage and board the train.
Once on board, you’ll need to find your seat or berth. Don’t be surprised if there’s already someone sitting there, just show them your ticket and they should move. If they don’t, just stare at them until they do (most Chinese hate being stared at). The conductor will come along and check your ticket again once the train is moving. If you’re in a sleeper, they will take your ticket and give you a plastic card. This is in case you’re leaving the train overnight, so they will know where to look for you to wake you up.
On the train
Sleeping car etiquette
If you’re traveling in a sleeping car, there isn’t a lot of privacy on Chinese trains (especially in hard sleepers). You can make the journey a little more comfortable by following the unwritten rules:
- The space below the bottom bunk is for the luggage of the person occupying the bottom bunk. Everyone else uses the luggage racks.
- The bottom bunk is for sitting on only by the person occupying it, unless you’re invited by that person to share it.
- People who occupy the bottom bunk should not sit on the corridor seats, they should be left for those less fortunate.
- When traveling with another group in a soft sleeper, the door should remain closed.
- No noise after lights out
Lights are turned off promptly at 22:00, no matter where the train is. I was once on a train approaching Xi’an; a major stop, where about half of the train was exiting. We were due in at 21:30, but were running late. At 21:59, we were passing through the suburbs of Xi’an and everyone was packing their bags. At 22:00, the lights went out.
I don’t know what time the lights are turned back on, because I sleep so soundly on Chinese trains, that I’ve never been awake when the lights come on!
Eating on the train
Most long distance trains (conventional and high speed) have a dining car, offering sit down meals. The meals are often of poor quality and overpriced. As an alternative, they also often have a trolley service selling instant noodles, snacks, drinks, toys and magazines.
On overnight trains at meal times, a trolley will usually come through the train selling hot meal boxes. These meals generally consist of rice, veggies, meat and sometimes an egg. They are usually quite tasty (much better than the food in the dining car), and are reasonably priced (around ¥30 or A$5). If you see the trolley, don’t think twice; there’s often not much left after it has made its way through 20 cars of hungry Chinese passengers.
Many people bring their own food to the train (the most popular being instant noodles). As each car has its own boiling water supply, heating noodles etc is quite easy. No other food preparation facilities are available, but the Chinese are very resourceful and meal time can be quite busy. Just don’t try and take a knife on board the train (or into the station for that matter).
Smoking on the train
Smoking is not allowed inside the carriages, but seems to be tolerated in vestibule areas (around external doors and between carriages), and in some restaurant cars.
Smoking is not allowed at all on high speed (CRH) trains, or trains running between Xining and Lhasa.
Toilets on the train
Toilets on conventional trains can be somewhat of a shock to visitors; usually just a squat type toilet (sometimes just a hole in the floor), that is only cleaned once per journey. Toilets on high speed trains are often western style and much cleaner.
Showers are not provided on Chinese trains, except in some deluxe sleepers.
The end of your journey
As you approach your destination, if you are in a sleeping berth your ticket will be returned and your bedding taken away. If your destination is not the final stop of the train, be ready to leave the train as soon as it stops, as many stops are quite brief.
As you leave the station, you will need to show your ticket one last time, then the adventure is over as you exit the station and out onto the street. There’s a good chance you’ll be hooked by the adventure and be lining up to try it again.
My next post will go into the specifics of some key Chinese rail routes.