Train travel is an integral part of the Chinese cultural fabric, having been the main method of transportation for the nation for many decades, dating back to the early days of the People’s Republic.
Today, China’s high speed railway network is the longest and most used in the entire world, boasting a total length of 30,000 km and a large fleet of clean, comfortable, and fast bullet trains that travel between speeds of 200-350 km/h.
However, prior to China’s rapid economical and technological rise at the turn of the Century, train travel was rather uncomfortable. In the 20th Century, Chinese railways were served by the green-colored Soviet-era trains which looked classy but were far from it. The trains were often extremely crowded, dirty, and slow, typically taking 1 or 2 days for journeys of 500-1,000 km. These trains did not disappear with the appearance of the high speed railway, however, as they continue to be used to serve the lower-income population and the underdeveloped rural regions of this vast country.
Now, as a foreigner in China, you are unlikely to take the slow green trains unless you are on a shoe string budget or if you are going to remote places that are not served by high speed rail (HSR). As I’ve stated in my other article, for the sake of standard travel, I highly recommend taking the HSR whenever you can as long as the travel time is under 5-6 hours. This is because traveling by HSR is very comfortable and usually takes you from more or less city center to city center, as supposed to flying on China’s horrible domestic airlines between airports that are 45 minutes outside the cities.
Okay, that’s enough background information. Now, without further ado, let’s dive into all the China train travel details.
There are several classes/types of trains that are in service in China. They are each represented by a single letter, which forms part of a particular train’s train number (e.g. G1733 is a train number, where “G” represents “gao/高” or “high speed”).
|Letter||Chinese Meaning||English Explanation|
|G||高／高铁 – gao / gao tie||High speed rail – the fastest bullet trains; also the most expensive|
|D||动／动车 – dong / dong che||Slightly slower bullet trains; tickets are a bit cheaper than G class trains|
|Z||直／直达 – zhi / zhi da||Direct green trains – they only stop at major stations and are hence the fastest among green trains|
|T||特／特快 – te / te kuai||“Special fast” trains – name is a total lie; they are the standard green trains that take about 20 hours to go from Shanghai to Guangzhou|
|K||快／快车 – kuai / kuai che||“Fast” trains – name is a total lie; they are the standard green trains that stop at almost every town and hence are very slow|
Fun trivia – prior to HSR becoming a common thing, there was also a class of “slow trains” among the green fleet, literally called 慢车 (man che). As the name suggests, they were a crawl, and stopped at every little village platform on its way. They often served shorter distances on intra-province lines, i.e. between two cities in the same province, and were mostly occupied by local villagers going to a nearby larger city.
You have two ways. The obvious way is to go to the train station ahead of time and buy your tickets at the ticketing window. The lazy man’s choice (also the smarter choice) is to buy your tickets on an app, and the best options you have are either directly through Alipay/WeChat or through the official Chinese train app “12306”.
Just a note that the travel bookings (train/air/bus) inside Alipay and WeChat are done through their third party partner apps, and sometimes may experience annoying UX due to promotional pop-ups and redirects. For this reason, I much prefer using the official 12306 train app — however it is only available in Chinese.
I’ll cover booking train tickets through Alipay first, since it’s more basic-laowai-friendly. I dislike the booking app inside WeChat so we’ll skip that one completely. Have yourself a look at the screenshots below and follow through the text below them:
When you open up Alipay, you will see an “Air & Rail” icon on the dashboard (or inside “More”), click on it and you’ll enter the train booking homepage.
There at the top, you have tabs for train tickets, plane tickets, bus tickets, and hotels, and since we are talking about trains here, we’ll stick with the first tab. You can choose your starting city (left) and destination city (right), in this example they are Shanghai and Guangzhou, respectively. Below that is the date – note that you can book tickets up to 30 days in advance, and most seats for major lines (e.g. between big cities) are often sold out 2 or 3 days before departure, so make sure you act a few days in advance! Otherwise you run the risk of being stuck with the remaining options, which are usually really shitty travel times (e.g. overnight without a bed). Below the date you have two boxes, the left one indicating if you are a student, and the right one indicating that you want HSR results only.
Once you click the big yellow search button, you arrive at screen 3), the search results page. You have a list of all available trains that depart on your selected date. In this example you can see the variety of train types we talked about earlier, with G99 taking you from SH to GZ in 7H23M, while the slow K527 requiring nearly 24 hours of travel time. The 3 and 4 categories below each selection indicates the types of ticket classes available – for HSR they are “2nd Class”, “1st Class”, and “Business Class”; for green trains they are “Hard Seat”, “Hard Sleeper”, “Soft Sleeper”, and “No Seat”. The prices on the right are shown as the “Starting at” prices, meaning the cheapest possible ticket class for each train. As you can see from those numbers along with some basic math, a 2nd Class seat on HSR is about 4x the price of a “Hard Seat” on a slow train. Don’t be a cheapskate though – the comfort difference is more like 20x!
Here, the above two screens show the ticket selection screens for a slow train option (K527) vs. a HSR option (G85). Note that for the slow train on the left, only the first option “Hard Seat” has tickets remaining – the rest are all sold out. If you are ever going to take an overnight slow train in China, please for the love of god buy yourself a hard or soft sleeper (bed) ticket. Do not be a hero and do a 23-hour self-inflicted detention on a hard seat… be warned! Also, do note the vast difference in pricing between the different classes for the HSR! This is why it’s important to book early so you can get the 2nd Class seat you want on the train times that you want, without spending a fortune.
For 12306, the process is basically the same, however in the 12306 app you can access your “Membership” information. Since 2017, the Chinese railway authority (12306.cn is their domain, hence the weird number name) pushed out a points system to reward train travel, similar to air miles. You can activate your 12306 account at a local train station’s service desk (yes, even as a foreigner), and participate in collecting points. You receive points for each trip you book under your own name, whether through 12306 directly or through a third party app such as Alipay, as long as you are logged in. Once you reach 10,000 points, you’ll be able to use your points for certain trips. However, the points expire exactly 1 year from your first points-collecting trip, and resets to zero after that so you’ll have to start over again.
As you can see in the above screenshots, a) is your standard dashboard/search page for 12306, b) is the membership tab’s homepage, and once you click on the top right icon, you are led to c) which is the points page.
I posted two other screenshots from the 12306 app here above, the left being the standard search results of a trip (in this example Shanghai to Beijing), similar to what you saw with Alipay’s booking app. On the right is the ticket selection page, where you can click the “+” sign to add passenger information (required), and you can also select seats below.
Once you’ve booked your tickets using the apps, you’ll receive confirmation SMS messages with your booking confirmation number, usually starting with “E”. You can also check for this confirmation number in your trips’ list inside your booking app. Prior to departure, you must bring your passport to the manual service ticketing window at the train station, along with this confirmation number, to pick up your physical tickets. As of 2019, foreigners are still not allowed to use the automated machines for ticket pickup.
Also a note – if you are buying a “Hard Sleeper” ticket for an overnight slow train, try to go for the lower bed or middle bed. The upper bed is very claustrophobic and leaves you with little room to move around or sit up, especially if you are a larger guy/girl. For “Soft Sleeper” tickets, also avoid the upper bed (there is no middle bed), and go for the lower bed.
Note that you should bring some food and drink of your own to your train journey. Train staff will sell crappy overpriced set meals and malnourished-looking fruits, etc. on the trains, but they are often neither good quality nor value. I always come to my train rides prepared with a 1.5L bottle of water and some snacks. Hell, you can even stock up on KFC at the station and bring your drumsticks onboard. Most large city train stations will have a selection of your standard fast food options (McDonalds, KFC, and the 2 or 3 Chinese joints), but smaller stations may not have any, so keep that in mind.
In all large train stations in China (e.g. any 1st or 2nd tier city), the Departures level is above the platforms, from where you’ll go through ticket scanners and descend via escalators onto the platforms. When you get off your train at destination, you’ll always go down to the level below the platforms to exit the station. Uniform process, easy.
All HSR trains come with charging ports for your electronics, but usually only one port per 2 or 3 seats (row). Slow trains usually do not have these amenities, so make sure your power banks are locked and loaded.
Sanitation and general hygiene of both trains and passengers alike are quite bad on the green slow trains, so it is recommended that you bring some hand sanitizer and certainly your own toilet tissue. But I’d recommend just not using the toilets at all, unless your bowels are close to bursting. The toilets on HSR trains are actually quite nice, and are cleaned at regular intervals. There’s even hand soap at the sinks!
Warning – do not travel by train during Chinese national holidays. Spring Festival and October National Day holidays are no-go zones! Unless you enjoy crowdsurfing. Actually, if you plan your train journey on the off days during these holidays, it might be reasonable. For example I took the train once on the 2nd day of Chinese New Year, basically after everybody had already traveled home, and it was not too bad. But still, tread with caution!
That about caps all I had in mind. Happy train traveling!
Need a VPN for China? Check out my guide on the VPN situation in China here.