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What are China trains like
Chinese trains have 4 classes: "soft sleeper", "hard sleeper","soft seat" and "hard seat".
Soft Sleeper -Most western travellers travel soft sleeper, a comfortable, civilised & affordable way to travel. Soft sleepers are spacious 4-berth compartments with two upper & two lower berths by night, converting to two sofas for daytime use. All necessary bedding is provided. There's a table with tablecloth, and usually a vacuum flask of hot water for making tea (or drinking chocolate or cuppas soups if you've brought some). The compartment door locks securely, and a smartly-dressed attendant looks after each car. The best trains even feature individual TV screens and power sockets for laptops & mobiles. Most long-distance trains have only one soft sleeper car.
Hard Sleeper -If you're on a tight budget, there's no reason why you shouldn't go hard sleeper, as many western backpackers do. Hard sleeper consists of open-plan carriages with a broad aisle on one side of the car, bays of 6 bunks (upper, middle & lower) on the other side. In spite of the name, hard sleeper bunks are reasonably well padded, and bedding is supplied. Newer trains even have power sockets for laptops & mobiles.
Soft Seat - it is only available on some short-distance trains between major cities, but it is a better way. Usually it is much easier to reserve a seat. The seats are comfortable, and the trip can be pleasant and interesting with much less crowd.
Hard Seat - this is the most common and cheapest way to travel. There are 110 seats in each car. The greatest numbers of Chinese travelers use this class due to its low cost. Sometimes more tickets than seats are sold. This class is not comfortable and recommended to international tourists.
Deluxe soft sleeper - In addition to the four normal classes, a handful of trains also have deluxe soft sleepers, include Beijing-Hong Kong, Beijing-Shanghai & Beijing-Xian. These are 2-berth compartments with private toilet. There are only limited numbers of these 2-berth compartments are available, often booked by government officials, so by all means ask for one but don't bang your head against a brick wall trying to get one, be prepared to travel in normal 4-berth soft class if necessary. Sharing a 4-berth really isn't a problem, it's the norm in China, and you might even meet some real Chinese people this way.
Booking a train ticket is not so easy and convenient in China, especially during the festivals and holidays, though it has been well improved in the past decades. All the tickets are printed in Chinese with only the digits readable for foreigners like the train number and departure time. Please buy the tickets at ticketing offices of train station or through travel agents.
Tips of taking train in China
China's first railway, the Songhu Line, was built in 1874 in Shanghai, symbolizing the beginning of modern transportation in China. By the end of 2003, total length of China's railway has reached 73,000 kilometers ranking the first place in Asia (the third in the world).
Some people said that train travel in China is kind of adventure. It is probably right in some extent, while Chinese trains have seen great improvements in terms of comfort and sanitation after adopting the new-model passenger cars in late 1990's. We believe more and more international tourists will like to choose train travel in China, as it is a real grass-roots experience for foreigners to roam around the vast country.
1. If buying tickets from local scalpers near the train station, you may get fake ones.
2. When you go to board a train without an escort (guide), they should be cautious not to leave your train ticket to a stranger's hand (he/she may offer to show you the way), even those in uniform unless they are in working position. He may change another fake one secretly to you and get refund from your ticket.
3. Usually in China the crime rate is comparatively higher at train station area than other parts of the city. So keep an eye on your belongings and travel companions. There may be some pickpockets around you.
4. At present, China's Railway can only allow to issue the train tickets (hard and soft sleepers) 5-10 days before departure (some train tickets are available 20 days before). And usually you can't buy the tickets at another city like airtickets.
5. In Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Guilin and Wuhan, there are 2 train stations in these cities, please kindly find out in which train station you are supposed to board your train in advance. Otherwise, you may miss your train.
Bathroom (toilet): The big issue while traveling by train in China is the bathroom on board. At the each end of cars, there is one toilet (one is western seat-style in soft sleeper car). As your train trip progresses, the toilet may get very dirty and smelly, in some cases you have to hold your nose to step in, get everything done ASAP and leave. Usually the toilets at soft sleeper class look better. Please don't forget to bring your own toilet paper since it is not available at bathroom.
Staff: The staff working on trains has very little knowledge of English except international trains. If possible, please prepare a phrase book for the emergency. In fact, more and more Chinese people, especially younger generations can speak English. Many of them will love to talk with their foreign travel companions on the way.
Meals: There is a dining car next to soft sleeper car in most trains, while most food is Chinese style. Usually the non-stop trains like Beijing/Shanghai and Beijing/Xian plus those international trains serve some simple Western food. Most of domestic trains don't have an English menu. Passengers (like many Chinese do!) can also challenge their stomach to buy the boxed meals carried by a food trolley during mealtime - USD2-3 /meal.
Luggage: Clients are suggested to take their luggage with them while traveling by train. You can leave the suitcases in your compartment. Baggage space is limited, so it is better to take smaller and handy luggage rather than large suitcases. Many train stations have lots of stairs up and down before you get into the train. The cases with wheels will be helpful to your way out.