I have to confess that I like going by train in China. I think it is a bit funny because I really hate taking the train in Sweden. Swedish trains or at least those I am on doesn’t seem to be on time. Ever, witht the exception of Arlanda Express that goes between central Stockholm and Arlanda airport. Actually that is the train I am hoping will be late. A three minute delay gives you a new ticket!
Anyway since I left Moscow I have spent a lot of time on trains on the transmongolian and in China. I have tried the bullet trains that have been going between 249-299 km/h. Imagine that swedes! I have went in second class between Beijing and Xian and between Shenzhen and Guilin. The second class is obvioulsy the one that the chinese choose and first class is more for foreigners. I am taking second class because I don’t think the cost difference is worth it when you are budget traveling. There are also standing places if you are desperate because they cost the same amount as the second class tickets.
The night trains are good if you want to save money on hostels or hotels by spending one night on the train. You can choose between a hard or soft sleeper if you want to have a bed. The hard sleepers don’t have walls on all sides while the soft sleeper is a cabin with 4 beds. There is no such thing as female only cabins so be prepared to spend your night with three men in worst case. I did it on my trip to Shenzhen. I shared the place with an old man and two younger men. I never felt unsafe though. Because there is not lot of room but everything you need for the night in a bag that is easy accessible so you don’t need to go through the whole bag to find your stuff.
A good suggestion is to also bring food with you on the train. I read somewhere that the food on the train is pretty expensive and not so good. What I saw it looked like airplanefood. Most of the chines have with the a cup of noodles or other things to eat during the trip. You can get hot water for free in all the trains.
So how do you buy the train tickets? For foreigners there are a couple options.
- Use an internet bookingservice as DIY-travel. On their webpage you can find the available trains between your intended destinations and the price. To the price you also have to add a booking fee of 10 USD and a paypal fee of 4,4%. I have used them for booking my tickets to from Beijing to Xian, Xian to Shanghai, Shanghai to Shenzhen and Shenzhen to Guilin.
- There are some others bookingsites as well but check the final price because some of them have prices in USD that are containing an add on plus a booking fee. I looked at some of them and found DIY travel cheapest but do your own research!
- Go to the trainstation and buy your own ticket. I did that with my ticket from Guilin to Nanning. It felt ridiculous to use a service with a 10 USD fee to buy a ticket for 124 yuan. Basically the fees would equal the ticket price. I used the dictionary in my Lonely Planet guidebook and wrote on a note that I wanted to buy a windowseat in second class on train x to Nanning on date x as well as the departure time. I believe I got it right. I went to the ticketsales area and picked a booth. Obviously the one that sold tickets for the same day but got pointed to another. Write down what you wish to buy so you can only hand over a note and have some backup options because their english is probably bad if existant.
On the day of departure be on the train station early because the lines to the ticket check can be long and thereafter there are lines to the security check. Look for the train number when you arrive to the station and go to the waitingarea for the train. The trainnumber and the number of the waiting area is probably the only things that you will understand on the display.
Good luck and enjoy the ride!