In my previous post I gave an overview of China’s impressive railway network. All of this is nice to know, but how do you actually get where you want to go? In this post, I’ll give you some tips on how to get to the most popular and some not so well known places in China. Of course, you could just join a tour group and be escorted around the country by guides who know where they’re going and what they’re talking about, but where’s the fun in that?
There are some useful tools on the internet to help you plan your Chinese rail journey, the best two (in my opinion) are:
This blog post gives you a rough idea of how long certain journeys take and approximately how much they will cost. The conversions from local currency to A$ are based on the exchange rates at the time the blog was published (A$1.00 = ¥6.45 = HK$8.05) and are subject to change.
Details of specific journeys I have taken will be published in future blog posts.
Beijing to Shanghai
The two largest cities in China are linked by high speed (CRH) G Trains. These trains run very frequently, and the 1300 km journey is completed in under 5 hours. A hard seat costs ¥555 (around A$90) and a soft seat will set you back ¥934 (around A$150). These high speed trains use Beijing South and Shanghai Hongqiao stations (both accessible by subway from the city centres)
There are also a handful of overnight sleeper trains between these cities. These are conventional trains and take between 15 and 20 hours. A hard sleeper costs ¥326 (around A$50) and a soft sleeper ¥500 (around A$80). These trains use Beijing and Shanghai stations.
Beijing & Shanghai to Hong Kong
There are trains which run directly between Hong Kong and Beijing/Shanghai. the trains run on alternate days and take about 23 hours from Beijing and 19 hours from Shanghai. The MTR website lists which service operates on which day.
There are no fares listed on the China Railways website, but MTR has the fares listed here (in HK$). The fare to Beijing is HK$601 (A$75) for a hard sleeper and HK$934 (A$116) for a soft sleeper. Shanghai is HK$530 (A$66) for a hard sleeper and HK$825 (A$103) for a soft sleeper. Fares purchased in China would be similar to the Hong Kong price.
When traveling between China and Hong Kong, you must be at the station at least 2 hours prior to the departure time on your ticket to go through customs. At the Chinese stations, do not enter the main station building, but enter the (hard to find) “Customs & Immigration” entrance. In Beijing, Hong Kong trains use Beijing West station.
Guangzhou to Hong Kong
There are 2 ways to travel between Guangzhou and Hong Kong; MTR’s Kowloon Through Train (KTT) or CRH D Train, then MTR East Line.
MTR’s Kowloon Through Train (KTT) operates 12 direct services in each direction between Guangzhou East and Hung Hom station in central Hong Kong. The train uses modern double deck rolling stock and is comfortable, clean and fast, taking less than 2 hours to complete the journey. There are 2 classes (First – all trains) & Premium – 3 trains per day); a one way first class ticket costs HK$190 (about A$25) and a premium class ticket is HK$230 (about A$30). The train crosses the international border, so passengers must pass through immigration and customs at both ends of the journey.
High speed (CRH) D Trains operate frequently between Guangzhou East and Shenzhen, taking 1 hour 20 minutes and costing ¥42 (A$7) for a hard seat or ¥51 (A$8) for a soft seat. At Shenzhen, you can walk across the China/Hong Kong border at the Luohu checkpoint (passing through customs and immigration on the way). On the Hong Kong side of the border is the Lo Wu MTR station, where you can take a 45 minute journey on the MTR East Rail Line to Hung Hom, costing HK$35 (about A$5).
The Terracotta Warriors (Xi’an)
The Terracotta Warriors site is one of the most visited tourist attractions in the world. It is located near the ancient capital of China; the city of Xi’an. Xi’an is also an interesting city in its own right, with the original city wall still completely intact.
Xi’an is near the centre of China and is a major railway hub. Trains from all over China run to or through Xi’an. Approximate times and fares for some of the more popular routes are:
- Beijing – Xi’an: 15 hours, hard sleeper ¥255 (A$40), soft sleeper ¥400 (A$65)
- Shanghai – Xi’an: 20 hours, hard sleeper ¥332 (A$55), soft sleeper ¥511 (A$80)
- Guangzhou – Xi’an: 27 hours, hard sleeper ¥400 (A$65), soft sleeper ¥629 (A$98)
To get to the Terracotta Warriors site from Xi’an (around 90 minutes), you can either take an organised tour (plenty available in Xi’an), or take a public bus from the forecourt of Xi’an station. Take the green 915 bus, it will take 90 minutes and cost ¥30 each way (about A$4.70).
Lhasa is the capital city of Tibet, claimed as a province of China (I won’t go into the politics here). It’s an amazing place to visit, but due to the political sensitivities of the region, it is difficult to visit. As well as a Chinese Visa, you will also need a Tibet travel permit. At the time that I traveled there, permits were only available through licensed travel agencies (who will also arrange rail tickets).
Trains run from Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou to Lhasa (all via Xi’an and Lanzhou) taking 49, 44 and 55 hours respectively. I’ll go into the specifics of the journey in my next blog post, but the journey is AMAZING. It is a unique journey, with pressurised carriages climbing to a height of 5000 metres above sea level. Much of the line beyond Golmud is built in the permafrost of the Qinghai – Tibet plateau, bassing between snow capped peaks and pristine glaciers. If you ever get the opportunity, you must travel on this rail line.
Urumqi is in the far north west of China, close to the border of Kazakhstan. It is a fascinating city, where the Uighur minority call home. The city is predominantly Muslim, with beautiful Mosques and Middle Eastern style architecture throughout the city. Although the city is beautiful it can be a dangerous place, with the Uighur minority occasionally rioting against the ruling Han population. My first impression of Urumqi (at 8 in the morning after a 48 hour train journey) was a policeman standing at attention on a pedestal outside the railway station, holding an AK47.
Being so far from everywhere, it takes a long time to get to Urumqi by train. I’ll cover the details of the journey in a future post, some times and fares are:
- Beijing to Urumqi: 34 hours, ¥568 (about A$90) for a hard sleeper and ¥874 (about A$136) for a soft sleeper
- Shanghai to Urumqi: 45 hours, ¥698 (about A$108) for a hard sleeper and ¥1079 (about A$167) for a soft sleeper
- Guangzhou to Urumqi: 55 hours, ¥746 (about A$115) for a hard sleeper and ¥1151 (about A$178) for a soft sleeper
Chances are you’ve never heard of Dunhuang, neither had I before I visited. Dunhuang is to China, what Alice Springs is to Australia; in the middle of the desert, surrounded by natural and man made wonders. Close to the town is a site containing exquisite Buddhist cave paintings (MoGao Grotto) and a 2600 year old ruin of the Great Wall. Activities in the town range from scenic flights in ultralight aircraft to camel rides through massive sand dunes to the Temple of the Crescent Spring. The town is located in the southern tip of the Gobi desert and is visited by frequent dust storms. Oh and if you’re game, try the local delicacy; donkey meat.
There are 2 ways to get to Dunhuang by train: You can catch a train on the Urumqi main line and leave the train at the town of Liuyuan (all trains stop there to take on fuel and water), and take a bus or taxi the last 130km (as I did) or take one of the 4 daily local trains directly to Dunhuang station.
If you take the train to Liuyuan, buses are available during the day to Dunhuang. The fare is around ¥40 (about A$7), but the buses leave infrequently. If the bus timetable doesn’t suit, you can take a taxi. There are plenty of taxis out the front of the station, and they will be only too happy to take you through the desert and help you find other travelers to share the taxi with you (just make sure it’s an official taxi). Make sure you negotiate the fare before you get in; a fair fare is about ¥300 (about A$46) for sole occupancy of the taxi (or a portion of that if you share one). Chinese people tend to inflate prices for foreigners, so if you can get it down to ¥400 (about A$60), that’s a reasonable effort!
There are also 4 slow trains directly to Dunhuang each day, including 2 from Xi’an and 1 from Lanzhou.
As well as Hong Kong (mentioned earlier), China is connected by rail to North Korea, Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Vietnam. The timetables are available here, but ticket prices are unknown. Please double check the information provided prior to planning your journey, as I’m not sure how current the timetables are.
A summary of international trains is below:
- Beijing – Pyongyang (North Korea):
- Departs both Beijing and Pyongyang Mon, Wed, Thu & Sat
- Distance 1377km
- Travel time approx 25 hours
- Harbin – Vladivostok/Khabarovsk (Russia)
- Departs Harbin Thu & Sun
- Departs Vladivostok/Khabarovsk Mon & Thu
- Distance Vladivostok 822km/Khabarovsk 1364km
- Travel time approx 28 hours
- Beijing – Moscow
- Departs Beijing Saturdays
- Departs Moscow Fridays
- Distance 9025km
- Travel time approx 139 hours (5 days, 19 hours)
- Beijing – Ulan Bator (Mongolia)
- Departs Beijing Tuesdays
- Departs Ulan Bator Thursdays
- Distance 1364km
- Travel time approx 30 hours
- Hohhot (China) – Ulan Bator (Mongolia)
- Departs both Hohhot & Ulan Bator Mon & Fri
- Distance 1210km
- Travel time approx 36 hours
- Urumqi – Almaty (Kazahkstan)
- Departs both Urumqi & Almaty Mon & Sat
- Distance 1374km
- Travel time approx 30 hours
- Beijing – Hanoi (Vietnam)
- Departs Beijing Thu & Sun
- Departs Hanoi Tue & Fri
- Distance 2996km
- Travel time approx 38 hours
- Nanning – Hanoi (Vietnam)
- Departs daily
- Distance 396km
- Travel time approx 8 hours