Everything you need to know about taking trains in China
Trains are hands down the best way to see everything in China! They can even be a fun learning experience all by themselves.
We just returned from spending a month in China. We hadn’t been there in over 10 years, and we noticed some huge changes (mostly improvements) to the country! One of the biggest improvements we noticed was in public transportation!
Last time we visited, we took a sleeper train from Guangzhou to Yangshuo. At that time, both the train station and the train were filthy and in terrible disrepair. The restroom on the train consisted of a hole cut in the floorboards, so you left your excrement on the tracks beneath the train. Note to self: Never, ever walk along train tracks in China!
And there was no running water. It was pretty primitive.
Even worse, we (my family) were more popular than a boy band at an all-girls school. All of the Chinese people lined up to file past our bunks and stare at us and point and laugh. I think they were laughing about all the little blonde kids, because China has so few children and you rarely see them in public, but I’m not really sure. For all I know, they could have been laughing at me!
This time around, we took several sleeper trains and they were downright cushy! We were very pleasantly surprised!
If you’re planning a trip to China and wondering how to get around, I’m telling you that between cities, trains are the way to go. Airports are harder to navigate, and rules aren’t standardized from one airport to the next. It’s very frustrating. And don’t even think about trying to drive!
The roads are horrible, and traffic is even worse. Luckily, China’s rail system is fantastic!
Trains in China
China’s rail system is one of the most extensive in the world.Railway stations are usually in a busy area of the city and are usually connected to the metro system. Larger cities like Beijing and Shanghai may have as many as 4 railway stations. Double check your tickets to make sure you know which station you leave from, as each station will serve different destinations, and you don’t want to miss your train! and provides so many options that it makes navigating China pretty darn easy.
The Chinese rail system is fast, easy, punctual, comfortable and clean. I only wish we had a rail system like China’s in the United States!
The Chinese rail system combines ultra-modern, high-speed, C, D & G-class trains that travel at 200+ mph and only connect major cities with a variety of non-bullet trains that service smaller towns and stop more frequently. Each of the trains offers different classes of seats or sleeping berths, and we’ll talk about them below.
Sleeper trains are pretty much our favorite invention ever, and you’ll see why when I explain them below.
Different Types of Trains in China
Each and every train we took had clean, western-style (not squatty) restroom facilities, water and soap for washing hands. They also provided clean, boiling water in each carriage, which many passengers use to cook noodles, which you can purchase at the train station waiting rooms.
Snacks are also available for sale on the train, but they were very Chinese and not things my kiddos would eat. My children did love the Chineses cups of noodles. They found them superior to the cups of noodles available at home.
High-Speed Trains (aka bullet trains)
Usually white and grey, and ultra-modern looking, it would be difficult to confuse the high-speed trains with regular ones. They’re too cool! Shanghai even has a maglev train that reaches speeds of 400+ mph.
High-speed trains are identified by the letters G, D, or C followed by several digits. You’ll find that the best and fastest of these classes are the G trains followed by numbers 1-12. For example, the G12 train is a whole hour faster than the G136 train.
Most of the lower numbered trains run on the hour, and go straight to the final location rather than making stops along the way. We took one of the higher-numbered trains from Qinhuangdao to Beijing and both cities were intermediary stops, which proved difficult.
We had exactly 1 minute to embark and luggage space was already all used, so we had to hold our backpacks on our laps. When I picked up our tickets and saw that our departure time was 1 minute behind our boarding time, I thought it must be an error.
Nope! It was accurate. All the Chinese people knew exactly what to do — they just pushed through the turnstiles, ran down to the platform and shoved their way aboard. Crazytown! To make matters worse, we had all been placed in separate carriages! Each of my kids had to navigate that chaos on his/her own.
And to make matters even worse, the bullet train we were on was two trains linked together. They link nose to tail, where the train narrows like a bullet, preventing passage between the carriages through the aisles. So I had zero contact with my youngest two daughters for the duration of the trip.
We also had 1 minute to disembark in Beijing, so I had to count on my two little girls (ages 5 and 8) to get off at the right stop on their own. I knew I wouldn’t have time to leave my carriage (disembarking always involves pushing and shoving), run alongside the train to each of their carriages, and grab them and their stuff and get them off.
It was harrowing for me, but luckily they both had kind Chinese seatmates who helped them to know when to get off. (I’m so glad I’ve taught my children to discern with strangers rather than to fear them!) I do wonder what they thought, though, because no Chinese adult would put a child on a train by himself. You rarely even see children in their society.
Anyway, my point is — don’t book those trains if you can help it! The lower-numbered trains allot sufficient time for reasonable and calm boarding of trains. Oh, and book your tickets far enough ahead that you don’t have to settle for whichever tickets are left, resulting in family members scattered along the train in different carriages!
We took G trains between Shanghai and Beijing, Beijing and Pingyao, Pingyao and Datong, and Beijing > Beidaihe > Qinhuangdao > Beijing. All of them were fantastic, except the last, just because I booked the tickets last minute and we ended up on the higher-numbered train, all in different carriages. The trains themselves were not in any way lacking.
The high-speed trains include all of the seat classes I’ve listed below. The overnight high speed trains also include sleeper carriages, which I’ll also outline below. The sleeper carriages on D trains are usually the newest and nicest.
These come in different colors, though the sleepers we took (all Z-class) were green.
Regular trains are designated by the letters Z, T, K, L, Y, or S followed by numbers. Just like with the bullet trains, lower numbers (1-12) are preferable. These trains are not nearly as speedy, and they have fewer amenities, but they run day and night, and they offer more stops and service smaller towns.
I’d read that the facilities on these trains tend to be lower quality, and that restrooms would be squatty rather than western, but we didn’t find that to be the case. We took Z trains between Beijing and Xi’An, between Xi’An and Shanghai, and between Datong and Beijing, and found them all to be more than suitable.
In each case, we took the trains overnight, thus saving the expense of hotel rooms. As a budget traveler, those Z trains are pretty much my favorite way to travel! Just be sure to book soft sleepers so you can close the door to your compartment.
The carriages we traveled in had clean, western restrooms, washrooms, clean bedding, and the train stewards even enforced the no-smoking rules for the most part, which is pretty much unheard of in China.
Seat Classes on Trains in China
Second class carriages contain 5 seats across, first class carriages contain 4 seats across and business class carriages contain 3 seats across. We always purchased second class seats and even my 6’9″ husband was perfectly comfortable.
Second class seats are roomier than United Airline economy plus seats! The photo at left shows the ample leg room. My son, pictured, is about 6’3″.
All of the seats can turn 180 degrees so that passengers can sit towards the trains’ moving direction. The seatback can also be adjusted and the arms between two seats can be folded up. There is a foldable tray table attached to the backrest as well as power outlets (and they actually worked!) attached to the lower rear of each seat near the aisle.
Business and VIP class carriages also offer other perks, similar to an airplane. They usually offer in-seat entertainment plus snacks and beverages.
Seats on the regular trains in China are divided into soft seat and hard seat, along with hard sleeper, soft sleeper and deluxe soft sleeper. Hard seats are the cheapest class and have no assigned seating. The railway system frequently oversells the hard seats so there are people standing in the aisles. And I’ve heard (but not seen) that this is how farmers transport products like chickens, pigs or even buckets of snakes to market.
For that reason alone, I can’t recommend the hard seats! Can you imagine?
Soft seats are assigned, but aren’t particularly roomy or comfortable on the older trains.
Hard sleepers are organized into compartments of six berths, 3 on each side of a narrow window with a table below. The upper berths are not tall enough for an adult to sit upright, but the two lowest berths are. Each berth will be filled, so if you aren’t traveling with five companions, you will be assigned to strangers.
There is no door or wall on hard sleeper compartments — your feet will face the aisle by which other passengers access restrooms and hot water. There are also usually fold-down seats along that aisle, which will have been sold to Chinese people. Hard sleepers do include a pillow and blanket, which come sealed in plastic, so I assume they are sanitized in between each use.
Soft sleepers are organized into compartments of four berths, two on each side of a narrow window with a table below. Each compartment also had multiple power outlets, though it’s pretty much guaranteed that not all of them will work. Each compartment is completely walled off, with a locking door for privacy and quiet.
Soft sleepers include bedding and disposable slippers. There is room to store luggage under both lower berths, along with a private luggage compartment above the exterior aisle.
Soft sleeper compartments are air-conditioned and contain televisions that we couldn’t figure out. We assumed they just didn’t work, since we were on Z trains, and things in China don’t seem to be built with longevity in mind. But there’s a chance that they did work and we were the problem. Who knows?
Deluxe soft sleepers contain two berths, bunk-bed style, with an upholstered chair and a private, western-style bathroom opposite the berths. They are also completely enclosed with a locking door.
Our personal favorites in China were the sleeper trains. They are far more comfortable and convenient than flying, and in most cases they’re quicker, too. Our rule of thumb is that for journeys under 4 hours we took the high-speed trains, and for journeys over 4 hours or overnight we took Z-class sleeper trains. We fly only when it will reduce our travel time by more than 6 hours and is more convenient.
Each carriage is numbered. In the upper right hand corner your ticket will state your carriage number, followed by your another number (the row your seat is in) followed by a letter (your seat). So if your ticket says 10 23 A, you’ll be in carriage 10, row 23, seat A.
The carriage numbers are painted on the platform, too, so you can easily find your carriage. And in the case that you need to board in 1 minute (if you’re boarding from an intermediary stop) you’ll be able to wait at the exact spot your carriage door will pull up to.
Once you’ve taken one train journey, you’ll be a pro, because the entire rail system is well-organized and pretty standard from one station to the next.
Okay, not all of it is well-organized. One portion of the system is totally weird. On sleeper trains, you’ll have to trade the train attendant your paper ticket for a plastic card, like a credit card, which you will have to hang onto. In the morning, the train attendant will make his rounds again, trading back your plastic card for your ticket.
You’ll need to keep hanging onto your ticket, because you’ll need it to exit the turnstile at your destination. Don’t ask me why, I think it’s bizarre. Most places in the world, tickets are required for admission, not for admission AND exit.
What are they going to do, keep you? Do they have a special repository for all of the children who have lost their tickets? Or the toddlers who ate theirs? Seriously!
You also need your tickets to exit the train station and the metro station and even the zoo and other tourist attractions.
My 8-year-old actually left her ticket at her seat when she was so stressed about having only 1 minute to disembark her train all by herself and find me. When she realized she had left her ticket behind, she was hysterical. I told her to just keep a straight face and I pushed her through the turnstile with me. None of the turnstile guards said anything, but I was prepared to put up a huge stink if they had. What a crazy system!
How to book train tickets in China
I can’t be emphatic enough — book your tickets just as far in advance as possible. And never travel during Chinese holidays unless you’re a glutton for punishment. You are visiting a country with 1.5 BILLION people who all travel during the same few weeks!
You will need your passport to book tickets, as they are booked under your passport number. You’ll also use your passport to collect your tickets at the train station upon departure.
You can book your tickets for trains in China several different ways:
- Purchase your tickets online with a travel agency like trip.com (just click on the train tickets heading and enter your information). We booked ours through trip.com for a small service fee, then picked them up at the train station. For another service fee, they will deliver the tickets to your hotel concierge. On trip.com you are limited to booking 60 days in advance. I just set myself an alarm on my phone and booked them the very first day they opened. You are able to reserve your tickets 60 days early, but it takes a few days for trip.com to actually purchase them. You’ll get your confirmation once the tickets are actually purchased. Trip.com only allows you to purchase 5 tickets at a time. I needed 10 tickets for my family, so
- Purchase your tickets through a Chinese ticket office or Chinese travel agency. For some reason, though, they can only get tickets 30 days ahead. These guys charge a slightly smaller service fee, but they are more difficult to communicate with, and you don’t always get what you ask for. You get what the person buying your tickets thinks will be your preference. China is kind of funny that way.
- Purchase your tickets at the train station. Obviously, this only works if you are in China and are pretty sure you can wait until the last minute to book your tickets. I wouldn’t take the chance.
- You can purchase your tickets through China Railway’s official website, but only with a Chinese bank card. Only Chinese citizens and expats with residence cards can acquire Chinese bank cards. They allow ticket purchases 30 days in advance.
- Children under 1.2 meters travel free when accompanied by an adult and if they share the seat or bunk with the adult.
- Children up to 1.5 meters can ride the train for half of the full fare on a high speed train and 3/4 of the full fare for a sleeper train. And yes, they do actually check. I measured my son before purchasing his tickets a couple of months prior to our using them. He was about 1.4 meters tall. The train attendant measured him and he had apparently grown (and was wearing shoes) so they charged my credit card for the rest of his ticket right there.
Bottom bunks cost a little more than top bunks, and if you want to have a specific bunk you can request it when reserving your tickets, but it won’t be guaranteed.
I booked through trip.com, and the option for child tickets was listed right there. They went ahead and charged my credit card for the full fare and then refunded part of it once the child tickets had been purchased.
How do I pick up my train tickets?
You may pick up your train tickets at the ticket counters of any railway station in China. You’ll need to have the passports of every passenger (except children whose tickets are purchased under a parents passport number) traveling with you in order to pick up all the tickets.
All of the train stations we went through had huge ticket signs in English as well as Chinese hanging above the ticket window. Those ticket windows were usually outside the main train station, but near the entrance. They were always pretty easy to find, and we never even needed to talk to the ticket agent. We just handed over our passports and the ticket agent would print out our tickets and hand everything back.
Of course, you’ll probably still want to download a translator app. Be sure to download it all the way, so you don’t need internet to use it, because internet is pretty unreliable in China.
Every train station in China is different, but the process is the same, so it’s pretty easy to figure out once you’ve ridden one train. Here is the process:
- Step 1: Pick up your ticket. Ticket windows are usually outside the main entrance to the station and usually labeled clearly. I explained the process for picking up your tickets above.
- Step 2: Enter the station. You’ll have to show your ID and ticket in order to enter the train station. And agent will check them to make sure they match. This will usually be a line near the entrance.
- Step 3: Go through security. Your next step is to go through security. They’ll send your luggage through a scanner and you’ll walk through a metal detector and then get patted down. My boys purchased swords that slowed us down in one security line, but it’s usually very quick.
- Step 4: Find your gate. You should see a huge, digital board that will display your train number followed by the gate number. Your train number will be a letter followed by several digits, printed on the top of your ticket. If you get lost, just find an employee and hand them your ticket. They’ll point you in the right direction. Once you find the right waiting room, it will have several gates. Make sure you know which one is yours and keep an eye on the time. I’ve found them to be very punctual about boarding times and departure times.
- Step 5: Board your train and find your seat or berth. We wondered on our first train ride, if our berths were actually reserved. The Chinese tend to push and shove quite a bit, and they ran once through the turnstiles. So we wondered if seats were first-come-first-served. No, our berths (printed right on your ticket) were reserved. I don’t know why the Chinese people ran for the train, but you don’t need to unless you accidentally book a train with a 1-minute boarding time. Train stations are generally kind of crazy, but don’t let it get to you. They can actually be a very relaxing and refreshing way to travel! Don’t forget to watch out the windows!
- If you don’t like to drink hot water (blech!), take your own drinking water aboard.
- If it’s cold outside, take disposable mugs and hot cocoa packets with you.
- For a cheap (around $1USD per huge cup of noodles), easy meal, purchase noodles at the counter in the waiting room of the train station before you embark. Each carriage has a boiling water dispenser for public use. ONLY use the water dispenser when the light is green, though. Unboiled water can make you sick.
- This bears repeating, in case you missed it above. Keep your train tickets, as the Chinese have perfected the twin arts of redundancy and inefficiency. You will be required to show your tickets in order to exit at your destination.
- Don’t accept the offers of any of the taxi drivers who accost you outside of train stations. That’s where you’ll get scammed. Instead, keep walking and find the lineup of taxi drivers, and hop in the first taxi in line. Make sure your driver turns on the fare box. Many taxi drivers don’t want to, because they see that you’re a foreigner and know that they can charge you more than a local and pocket the difference, even though that’s illegal. If they refuse to start the fare box, use your translator app to tell them you know that it’s illegal, and they will start the fare box.
- Trains (and metros) require a lot of walking and up and down stairs, so backpacks will make traveling much easier than rolling suitcases. China doesn’t seem to worry about accommodating wheelchairs or strollers, either.
- This is an all-the-time tip, not just a train tip: take tissue packets and hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes with you everywhere you go, at all times. I bought literally hundreds of small tissue packs (our dollar store had them 6 packs for $1) and small bottles of hand sanitizer (dollar store had them 3/$1) and small, resealable packages of antibacterial wipes. Every morning I’d tuck a package of tissues, a bottle of hand sanitizer and a package of wipes in each of my children’s pockets. And I’d also carry several in my backpack. They were lifesavers!
- You can rent luggage lockers at all of the train stations. Just ask about them at the information desk. We found that most of the information desk employees spoke enough English to help us.
- Most ticket windows had pretty long lines, and then you have to wait in another line for security, so be sure to arrive at the railway station at least an hour before departure.
- Watch out the windows — you’ll learn so much about China from just keeping your eyes open!
While the rail system is fabulous, roads are still a mess. It seems like China is just growing too quickly for all of the infrastructure to keep up. I wouldn’t rent a car for my worst enemy. Most metros (except Xi’An) are efficient and modern, though.
Tuk tuk’s, like those pictured at left, are convenient in the city because they’re small and can dart around and through traffic jams, but they only go around 20 mph, so they’re best for short distances.
The Didi app (like Uber and Lyft) works well for those who have a Chinese bankcard (or the Alli app) to pay. It didn’t work well for me because I could get it to accept any of my US-based credit cards. Taxis work well in urban areas, where you can flag one down, and if you have a small enough party to fit in them. But for less urban areas, it works best to hire a private driver.
You’ll be just fine taking the trains in China!
Despite having visited China previously, I worried a little about being able to navigate China via trains. Maybe it’s because we had previously visited China that I was a little worried, ha, ha!
I needn’t have worried. China trains use the same arabic numeral system as the rest of the world, so you can just match the numbers on your ticket to the numbered platforms and gates. It will probably feel confusing and a little stressful your first time, and then you’ll feel proficient.
My whole goal in writing this guide to taking trains in China is to help you feel confident in your own ability to navigate China. Trust me, it’s easy, cheap and most of all — fun!
I hope you have a ball!
Still have questions? Feel free to ask them in the comments below. Have you traveled by trains in China? I’d love to hear about your experiences — please share in the comments below!