You will not find this post useful if you have booked a trip to China and all the transportation will be taken care of for you. But if you want to travel interdependently our experience may spare you some time and nerves.
Travelling around China can be a very frustrating experience. So to avoid such situation you just need to get prepared.
Do your homework. Print out phrases and words in Mandarin and English so that you can show these cards/print out to people. Believe me, you will not meet a lot of people speaking good English.
Train tickets can be bought in special train ticket agencies or railway stations. I recommend to buy them in these agencies as it is easier and faster. You will pay a small fee but it is worth it. The easier way to find them is to ask in big hotels. Before you go to an agency you need to find trains online if it is possible. Write down the names in Mandarin. Yes, you will need to learn how to write those symbols ;-) Add time of departure and arrival. And the price. and you are ready to go.
If you cannot use internet or nobody can help you with Chinese website, you can buy tickets at a railway stations. It will be easier in big cities like Beijing or Shanghai where you will definitely have an counter for foreigners where somebody will speak English. In smaller places you will have to communicate with print outs and written notes. To get information about connections, time and price, you can use ticket machines if available. There is English interface, but to buy a ticket you will need a Chinese ID. When you buy a ticket you have to show your passport.
Once you have a ticket go to the station in advance. You will have to go through security check which can be quite slow due to the amount of people or their bags.
Once you are in station you can spend some time shopping or just sitting in a waiting hall. You will be let to a platform only 15 minutes before departure time.
Stations can be small and packed or big and empty. There is a huge network of speed lines built and the stations look like airports.
These stations are mostly clean and well organized. Small bottles of water are distributed for free.
I had a strange feeling in this stations that China is waiting to double its population withing next 5 years. An they have built the infrastructure just to be ready.
The amount of people can be enormous. When we were taking the first train from Beijing I was a bit shocked by the size of the central station, amount of people and queuing.
In Kaifeng we got stuck with hundreds o people for about an hour in a tightly packed station.
Everywhere around were people and between them unbelievable amount of bags. Firstly it was impossible to enter the station as the queue was too long, and everyone had a lot of bad. So the security check was taking forever. We decided to find another way in, and managed to entered with some Chinese people through a door which we were not supposed to use. But many things in China will be about breaking the rules.
Finally we managed to get to the entrance gates where railway employees were checking tickets. On the picture above heads you can see red lines – they are the train displays, and that is where the gates to the platforms are. People are let thought only if their trains were about to leave. Many people were pushing from behind. If someone was rejected because his train was leaving later, he continued standing in the gate. This created additional blocks. People were quite nervous. Mara was uneasy as a lot of men were staring at her like they had never seen a white woman.
When I asked a railway employee about our train showing the tickets, he was just saying “Meyo”, which means “No, does not exist, don’t have”. We grew more nervous as our train was supposed to leave 30mins ago. And we would not want to stay in this station any longer. Suddenly a young man squatting next to our back packs started vomiting. This added a “nice” touch to the overall atmosphere of the situation.
Luckily there were other people waiting for the same train and I showed our tickets to some of them. One young man was taking the same train and spoke a bit of English. Finally after some time we were let through to board the train. We will never forget those two hours in Kaifeng train station.
Most probably you will be using speed seat trains which are quite comfortable and can reach speed higher than 300Km/h as well as night sleepers.
2,5-3hour trip will cost approximately 13-15EUR. They are worth if you need to go somewhere fast during the day. I would not use them in the evening, unless you go really far and will arrive in the morning.
For example, train ticket from Nanjing to Shanghai(around 2,5h) will cost 140Yuan, and Shanghai to Hangzhou(1h) – 49Yuan.
A terrible alternative to this is a hard seat train. It is extremely cheap, slow as it stops on every corner and packed. Once we decided to take it for 3 hours as there were no other tickets and we did not want to get stuck till next day.
When we entered it was full of standing people. We did not know yet that standing tickets are sold in abundance. Our seats were at the other side of the car. Mara was waiting for people to move. She thought they were looking for their seats. When I realized nobody is moving anywhere, i stepped in from of Mara and turned on my “tank mode”. Definitely living in Kiev helped a lot as we don’t have such crowds in Prague and can be nice and polite. In that situation it was not time to be polite. I started moving forward pushing people aside apologizing in Russian(don’t know why) on the way. When we reached our seats there were taken by 5 people ;-) but we still managed to get into them. You can see below the amount of people standing. 5 person normally could squeeze into 3 seats.
Later i was watching people moving along the aisle with admiration. One definitely needs special skills to move through especially with big bags.
Long distance sleepers are effective when you need to move from point A to point B without wasting time during the day. They are also cheaper and quite comfortable. We actually managed to get proper sleep.
You can chose between soft sleeper and hard sleeper. The difference is in price and that in soft sleeper has a wall with a door separating compartments from an aisle. Possibly it is not as noisy as in a hard sleeper but we decided that this is a small difference and not worth extra money. Considering of course that the bunks are very similar and not much softer.
We paid 148Yuan to go from Beijing to Pingyao (8-9h), and 153Yuan from Kaifeng to Nanjing (9h).
You don’t have much space on the upper bunk, but it separates you from everything what is happening on lower levels ;-)
According to old Ukrainian traditions we bought some food and liqueur into the train. I was very happy to have food with us when I saw what kind of food is sold on the train
Many people eat instant noodles. Every car and every station has hot water tap. By hot i mean 100*C. SO people use it for instant noodles which are sold everywhere and eaten in amounts probably close to the amount of population. Hot water is also used for tea.
After we made ourselves comfortable, we ate and started the liquor tasting. It was fun for 15 mins when suddenly lights went off. I could not understand what happened as it was only 10pm. I looked around and the other passengers were sleeping or ready to sleep. Well next time we took an overnight train we were ready. In the morning we were woken up by lights and music going on around 7am, maybe even earlier.
Each ticket has a Chinese symbol of up 上, down - 下 or middle , next to the number of its seat. You can use these symbols while buying tickets, and then you will know which bunk is yours in a car.
At the entrance you will be welcome by a conductor who will exchange your ticket for a card. Make sure you get your ticket back as it may be required at some station. You give the card back to the conductor, and get your ticket.
So the China Travel Survival Guide easy steps to make your travel less stressful:
1. Do your homework – print phrases and symbols.
2. Get names of stations, departure and arrival time, and type of seat you want to buy & its price. If tickets for a particular train are sold. You will be automatically offered a more expensive seat in another train. So good to know later trains.
3. Come early to a station, not to miss a train due to security check.
4. Buy food and water.
5. Avoid hard seat trains.
I can guarantee that our travelling around China would have been so much easier if we knew all of this before.
Good luck and happy travels!