Taking the train in China is a variable experience as many different train classes exist. We thought the only way to understand would be to try as many as we could! Who knows, the ‘hard seat’ might not be all bad… we initially thought.
We travelled by non-high-speed K-trains on hard sleeper and hard seat, then by D and G high-speed trains in second class.
What’s fascinating (to train people) about the high-speed rail is that it is a completely different and seemingly separate network. New railway stations usually outside of the city centres have been built specifically for the fast CRH (China Railway High-speed). This means you really have to be careful and double check which station your train is going to/from. One traveller we met arrived at the wrong train station and had to quickly get a taxi to the correct one…
It’s actually not as complicated as we feared to buy tickets. Initially dreading going to the train station I checked online and there are many websites offering services to book online and send a reservation which you take to the station with your passport and then they print out the tickets for you. Minimal conversation needed. However, all the websites I found added on a $5 fee per ticket. I decided this was an unacceptable additional cost and wanted to at least try once to book them at the station myself.
Turns out it’s simple – we headed there with a piece of paper written on which we wrote the departure and destination stations (in Chinese and English), the times, the date and the train number and the well rehearsed phrase “we buy tickets please?” Sometimes they’re not sure which name is our family name but other than that, it worked easily every time.
However, one thing to note is the occasional 5 yuan (about 50p) per ticket fee when booking at a train station owned by one company but the train you’re getting goes from different stations. This confused us for a while but the woman spoke enough english for us to understand eventually. It was simply because we were buying tickets in advance on a different line.
How to get on a train (it’s not so simple)
The set-up is very much like catching a plane. You cannot simply turn up to the station 10 minutes before the train is due to leave, we learnt to give ourselves at least an hour.
On entering the station you must go through a security check – baggage and x-ray. Sometimes your ticket and passport is checked at this point too. There are usually separate rooms or buildings for buying tickets, in which you are also scanned. Once inside the bigger stations you must check your train on the boards and find which waiting room to go to. Knowing the train number helps as the boards aren’t usually in English. The smaller stations will just have one big waiting room for all the trains. Once inside your waiting room you wait until they announce boarding for your train and be surprised when a queue starts to form waiting for the announcement – this goes out the window of course once boarding begins. Tickets are checked by human or put through the machine before you can finally reach a platform. On the platform at the bigger stations the train will already be in and you can just jump on. On the smaller ones, the carriage numbers are marked on the platform edge and queues begin and work well.
I have to admit this whole process was almost as frustrating as using a public toilet in China – I missed easy to use trains. In South Korea you can just walk on the train off the street without any checks – our tickets haven’t even been checked on the trains either, very trusting.
Train K930: Harbin – Dalian
Class: Hard sleeper
Cost: 124 RMB each (£13.88)
This class is an open sleeping carriage, similar to Russian 3rd class platzkart, but with no beds in the aisle, so three beds stacked on tp of each other which gives little space to sit up straight for the person on the top – me.
Hard sleeper is a misnomer, it’s absolutely fine to sleep on and not hard at all – there is a thin mattress. Lights are turned off sometime after 21:30 but everyone still chats and lights shine out from people’s phones. It’s also common for people not to turn off the sounds on their video or use headphones.
The journey would have been fine and not so bad if it weren’t for the man sleeping below me and to the right of Mischa. When he was asleep he was a louder snorer than one of my friends (I couldn’t believe it) and when he wasn’t sleeping he was talking at higher than normal volume to anyone who would listen. Bad luck on our part.
We had read online, and my Chinese friends had warned me, that China is safe but theft is common. This meant for me the night was a little restless – every time I woke up I felt I had to check my rucksack was still there. Of course it was – the train was busy and the other passengers seemingly attentive and interested in us that I’m sure that if anyone had tried to take our bags they would have been stopped by these curious passengers.
Train D35: Dalian North – Qinhuangdao
Class: 2nd class seat
Cost: 173 RMB each (£19.37)
A treat after the hard sleeper! Still just as loud – it seems like it’s a cultural thing and comforting for some Chinese to be surrounded by noise. Still the journey was easy and we had two seats to ourselves. The trains are wide enough for each aisle to consist of five seats (2 then 3) in second class – in first class it’s our normal 2 then 2.
Train K960: Qinhuangdao – Pingyao
Class: Hard Seat
Cost: 138.5 RMB each (£15.51)
So Mischa has previously discussed this unforgettable journey in a previous post. Unforgettable in a bad way. I mean, it would have been fine to travel this way in the day, but now we know not to do so by night ever again. It was so cheap though… and our only direct option. Mischa at least got the chance to lie down on three seats at one stage – I was resigned to sitting up and leaning against the window for 16 hours.
Train D2006: Pingyao County High-speed – Beijing West
Class: 2nd class seat
Cost: 183 RMB each (£20.49)
Back to Beijing – but from a different station to which we had arrived in. Luckily we had given ourselves plenty of time to reach the station as this was our first experience of waiting more than five minutes for a bus. Taxis kept stopping at the bus stop and some locals would club together to go to the train station – we were determined to get the bus. Twenty nervous minutes later (and numerous busses passing us we didn’t want) ours finally appeared and we made it to the out-of-town CRH station. It even had its own brand new wide road to reach it.
We never had to get a taxi for this entire month in China in the end – quite pleased with ourselves!
Train G163: Beijing South – Tai’an
Class: 2nd class seat
Cost: 214 RMB each (£23.96)
A quick train from Beijing South station. It took us nearly half the time just to reach the Beijing station on two metros from our hostel. The landscape had changed – more mountain-like rocky hills but very green nonetheless. We were pleased to spot this large gold statue sandwhiched between hills.
Train G254: Tai’an – Qingdao
Class: 2nd class seat
Cost: 194 RMB each (£21.72)
We reached the station with about 30 minutes before boarding so what better way to pass the time than to find the weirdest snacks in the world to try – thinks Mischa… After seeing some friends also on a year’s adventuring attempting to eat a scorpion on a stick, a bag of flavoured butterfly larvae was bought. I admit I did not try, and Mischa himself only managed half the bag.