Sunday, July 31, 2011

Five Tips for Train Travel in China

When we made our trip to China last March, we made Shanghai our base. That is, we get in the country through Shanghai and get out through Shanghai. While this city may be a wonderful city in itself, I felt like I had to do my duty and see the "basics" first. Hence, my resolve to do a roundtrip run to the country's capital Beijing in the cheapest, fastest and most efficient way possible.

China Railway

Fortunately, China has one of the most developed railway systems in the world. Hey, they even have Maglevs there! Something quite novel to a Filipino like me who lives in an archipelago. Fortunately too, the folks at have an outstanding and comprehensive guide to train travel in China. Which is why I do not need to elaborate on all the little details here. What I would like to share here are the things I discovered and believe to be useful, if not essential, to any budget traveler using the Chinese railway system. Let's begin.

1. You can buy your tickets at the station or at authorized ticket dealers.

Or more specifically, there is really no need to buy tickets from outside China. It is absolutely not that difficult to get tickets while you are there. Unless of course (1) you are visiting during a Chinese holiday, (2) you have to stick to a particular schedule, or (3) you need to be in a particular train class/seat/bed. In which case, book all you want! The downside to that though is the cost.

Tickets booked online cost more than if you buy them on the way. Take for example, booking a high-speed soft-sleeper from Beijing to Shanghai using an authorized online ticket dealer would cost you around USD 120. That very same ticket we got for only USD 100. While 20 bucks wouldn't seem that much to the rest of the world, to us peso-earners traveling on a budget, it is.

China Railway Tickets

On the road, you can book at the train station itself or at authorized ticketing offices. We never tried booking at the train station because we did not really want to deal with all that chaos. We did try to book at an authorized ticketing office close to our hostel in Shanghai. There was a hurdle, however. No English-speaking counter. We had to charade our way into getting the schedule and the seats we wanted.

My absolute recommendation though is to book through your hotel's ticketing agent. Good thing our hostel had one. The best part is, they will most likely know how to speak English! They charge a little for the service. I mean, they do deliver the tickets right to your hands. In our case, it was a meager 4 bucks. Now that's acceptable.

2. Know not only your boarding gate but also your boarding time.

With all the Chinese government’s efforts to make their country more foreigner-friendly by having more signs in English, one would think people like us would get it all right when we get there. Not so. In the massive transport hub that is that is the Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station, we found our boarding gates easily thanks to the signs. What we failed to take note was the boarding time and how systematic and efficient the trains are.

Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station

When our boarding gates opened an hour before our train’s departure, we thought we could already hop inside our world-class trains. Hey, all the people around us sitting close to the same gate were already rousing from their terminal seats. So we followed suit. We shouldn’t have.

We held up a throng of people at the boarding gates because the tickets slots won’t accept our tickets. The people behind us turned all pushy and grumpy and probably started rolling their eyes at us clueless foreigners. It was then we realized the train boarding at the time was for Nanjing, not Beijing. I think I just laughed it off and stopped at the amazement that our ticket, that little piece of paper, somehow knew not to get in yet because it wasn’t time yet. Well, it knew more than us obviously.

3. Use the subway/metro to connect to the railway station.

Beijing Metro
Photo by Hat600 / CC BY-SA

In big cities like Shanghai or Beijing, there is really no reason to take an expensive cab ride to and from the railway stations. If you are not leaving or arriving at an unholy hour of the night, I would definitely recommend taking the Shanghai metro or the Beijing subway to catch your inter-city train. Three reasons. First, they are cheap and efficient. In Beijing, each subway ride costs 2 RMBs. No matter how many stations you pass through, or how many line transfers you do, it’s still 2 RMBs. It’s the same in Shanghai. Only fares range from 2 to 5 RMBs. Still cheap.

Second reason, in China, they make it a point to connect the city transport, metro included, to their airports, bus terminals and, well, train stations. But what about our big bags and luggage? Won’t that take too much time with metro authorities inspecting our stuff and all? This brings me to reason number three. All metro/subway stations, in Beijing or Shanghai at least, have luggage x-ray machines. You zip in, you zip out. So, really, speaking in behalf of all budget travelers, that deserves applause.

4. Do yourself a favor and bring earplugs.

Or anything to stick in the ears and block noise. I think this goes without saying for any budget traveler living inside cramped hostels or sleeping in buses or trains full of people. As trains really are a mid-point between bus and air travel in China, many Chinese people opt to travel by rail.

Photo by Light Current / CC BY-SA

Thus, you will really meet all sorts of noise-makers during the trip. There’s the old business-y dude who just will not get off his cell phone. I have read stories, too, about noisy kids, especially inside hard sleeper trains, which are open and whose beds are not separated into walled cabins and such.

Then, of course, there’s the guy who snores louder than a 10-piece orchestra. We had the good fortune of traveling with one. How lucky are we! His snore did some sort of rapid crescendo staring off soft then building up loud and hard in a matter of seconds. Impressive, really. Especially how he did not seem to be woken by his own loud grunts. We all were.

5. Explore and enjoy.

Finally, and despite everything, explore the train and enjoy the ride. We did not confine ourselves to our cabin or bed, though I found them quite comfortable with all that cradle-like rocking from the rails below. We spent some time sitting on the seats on the corridors watching the Chinese countryside go by. Then, there was the restaurant car where we got some tea and beers. Bottom line, we entertained ourselves. It is a 12-hour ride, after all.

Again, rail travel is something quite novel to me. And I was getting the best experience with respect to it in China. It has been said many times that rail travel in China is an experience in itself. I can testify to that. It is an experience in its own right.

Have you had your own China railway experience? What other tips would you recommend?

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