China has an extensive network of railroads which make travelling easy and cheap. It is the preferred mode of transport by students, migrant workers and backpackers. It can be your worse nightmare or a very relaxing and pleasant experience. Trains usually depart and arrive on time unless there’s an accident or repair works going on.
There are different types of train which differ by speed traversing throughout China. They are the “D”, “Z”, “T”, “K” and the normal number train. “D” and “Z” trains are faster trains and can be purchased 10 days in advance. You can also purchase roundtrip tickets for these trains but the advance purchase restriction still apply. The “T”, “K” and number only trains are slower with frequent stops and can be purchased 4 days in advance normally one way only. It is also common for train stations to sell tickets to individuals who don’t mind to stand throughout the journey. These normally happen during weekends or special holidays.
Trains have four different classes, hard seat (硬座), soft seat (软座), hard sleeper (硬卧) and soft-sleeper (软卧). Hard seats are typically 3 people in a seat with hard padding and people seating face to face. There isn’t much leg room and no air conditioning. These seats are usually purchased by migrant workers as they’re the cheapest.
Soft seat is a class higher than hard seats. It has more leg room and cleaner environment. Hard sleeper has 6 bunks in one open cabin. Tickets in the upper bunk are the cheapest while the bottom bunk are the most expensive. Bottom bunks are normally seated upon by people who can’t find seats or who purchased standing room only tickets. This can be an annoyance especially to foreigners who value their space. Soft sleeper is the best class in the train. It has 4 bunks in a closed cabin and sometimes comes with TV.
Each carriage has common toilet facilities and one carriage serves as dining hall. Food served in the train or train stops are not the best and most Chinese bring instant noodles and biscuits to tide themselves till they reach their destination. Hot water is available for drinking purposes.
There is another class which is available in Trans-Mongolian trips which is the deluxe soft-sleeper. This one has two bunks in a room with a private bathroom.
Purchasing tickets can be a pain or a breeze. Weeks leading up to the annual spring festival is a mad scramble for tickets home. You can purchase tickets at the train station, hotels or the numerous ticket stations in the city. If you purchase train tickets from hotels, travel agencies or other ticket stations, you will usually incur a surcharge of RMB 10 or more.
For ticket refunds, only the train station process this and they have a special window for it. They usually deduct 20% of the ticket cost as service charge. Tickets should not be used nor tampered and still valid for travel.
For train schedules and ticket prices in Chinese, you can visit http://www.huochepiao.com. I’ll keep you informed if I can find any English websites for train schedules in China. If you have any questions, feel free to write a comment and I’ll try to help you if I can.
Should you miss your train, go to the booking office window at the train station and have it change to the next train out to your destination. Keep your ticket at all times when you board and get off the train as there are ticket check when you enter the gate, inside the train and when you exit the station.
Happy Train Travel!