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Surviving China’s Trains

Let me give you two pretty indisputable facts about China. One: there’s loads to see and do. And two: its bloody big. These facts combined mean that visiting China for an extended amount of time is inevitably going to involve travelling long distances to get from place to place, which in turn means you might well end up on sleeper trains at some point.

Fear not: sleeper trains in China are safe, cheap, easy and reliable, and using them is an experience in itself. You can find out more about them at Seat 61 – a website which frankly has become an utterly indispensable guide to train travel anywhere in the world! But from my experience, here are the top five questions you’ll want answers too:

The view down the open plan hard sleeper compartment.
The view down the open plan hard sleeper compartment.
A typical hard sleeper compartment in China.
A typical hard sleeper compartment in China.

1. Do I go for Soft Sleeper, Hard Sleeper, or Hard Seat?

It depends. Unless you’re on a really tight budget (and I mean a really, really tight budget!) hard seats should be avoided for longer and overnight journeys, especially if you’re hoping to catch some sleep. You’ll be sharing your carriage with people sleeping on the floors and in the aisles, and the seats themselves aren’t particularly comfortable. Yes, this way is very cheap. But its cheap for a reason – because it’s a bit rubbish!

As for the others. Hard sleepers feature open plan carriages, with bunks stacked three high along an aisle. Soft sleepers are 50% more expensive, but are also a little more comfortable, with lockable compartments each hosting four bunks.

Don’t be fooled by the ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ language here though: in my experience, both soft and hard bunks are exactly the same, neither is ‘harder’ than the other. You just get a bit less room in a hard sleeper, stacked as they are three bunks high as opposed to two. But that’s really the main difference between the two, and once you’re on your bunk and asleep, there’s really not much difference at all.

Personally I don’t think a soft sleeper is worth the extra cash. A hard sleeper is always my first choice. But take your pick!

2. Are these trains safe?

Yes, perfectly safe. The soft sleeper compartments are lockable, and include space for you to stow bags in your compartment. The hard sleepers have luggage racks where you’ll be able to keep an eye on your stuff. The hard seats are less safe, more crowded as they are – another reason to avoid them if you ask me, although again, don’t be stupid and you won’t have a problem.

But look, as ever when travelling, be sensible, use some common sense, and you’ll be fine. Personally I take two bags with me on trains or busses or whatever else: my backpack with my clothes in, and a smaller bag with my valuables in (passport, laptop, bank cards, etc), which I keep with me at all times and never let out of my sight. At the end of the day, if someone nicks my rucksack then all they’re really getting is a battered old pair of trainers and all my dirty washing. Its bloody heavy too – hardly worth the effort nicking it, for a pair of fake Bjorn Borgs I wore three days running!

3. When should I book tickets?

You can buy tickets up to 18 days in advance, and generally you should aim to book as soon as possible – these things sell out fast! The last thing you want to do is to have to change your plans because you can’t get any train tickets. This has happened to me a few times in the past – its not ideal really, is it? If you aim to book everything 10 days in advance you should be ok (although national holidays will sell out even quicker).

I know its not everyone’s style, planning a few weeks in advance, and I can understand that lots of people like to make up their journeys as they go along. But knowing broadly what you’re going to be doing in, say, the next 10 days will help you plan your trains, and means you’ll be able to get where you want to be when you want to be there.

4. How do I book tickets?

First thing I’d say: Don’t bother getting tickets at train stations. The queues are prohibitive, and there are plenty of other ways to get tickets. Definitely don’t rock up an hour before the train leaves and expect to get anything more than a hard seat – its not going to happen!

Pretty much any hostel or hotel will book train tickets for you, and have the tickets delivered to their receptions by courier for you to pick up at your leisure. There’s usually a small charge for this service, but it really is negligible. They’ll book over the phone, you pay there and then, and you’re left sake in the knowledge that your trains are all booked.

Alternatively, you can go to ticket booking offices which are situated in most city centres in China, and buy tickets there.

You can book online through the China Travel Guide website, although you’ll need to send them a scan of your passport and you need to pay by PayPal. They’ll either deliver the tickets to your hotel; give you a print out to take to a ticket booking office to collect your tickets; or else give you instructions on how to get your tickets from the train station (again, avoid this – queues). I’ve used the China Travel Guide service before and can vouch for this website as a safe and reliable, if cumbersome, way of  booking tickets.

In short: your first choice should be to ask the reception at your hotel or hostel to book the tickets you want. If that fails, find a booking office, or book online.

Giant noodle boxes. Picture shamelessly stolen from
Giant noodle boxes. Picture shamelessly stolen from

5. What do I do for food on a sleeper train?

Every sleeper train has a samovar onboard – essentially a water urn dispensing free boiling water. Most people take big boxes of noodles and make them onboard using the samovar (think of a giant Pot Noodle and you’re pretty much there).

Some services include trolley ladies who serve hot meals on trays for 20 Yuan a pop (about £2), consisting of rice, salad and meat of some sort. These are perfectly fine and tasty, even if you only eat the rice (I didn’t have a problem with the meat either, which I imagine was chicken).

Only thing is, there’s not really a way of telling which services will have these trolley ladies on. Some do, some don’t. So plan ahead, don’t rely on it, and take some noodle boxes.

As a footnote, when travelling I generally always keep a few bars of emergency Snickers in my bag, which will serve as a handy breakfast, lunch or dinner for those occasions when you’re stuck with nowhere to buy food from.