In a country as big as China long distance transportation isn’t an option, it’s a requirement. When flying becomes too expensive, riding China’s extensive rail network is the next best thing. Not only will you save money when traveling long distances by train instead of by plane, you’ll get to see the Chinese countryside many tourists never get a glimpse of.
With one of the largest and busiest rail networks anywhere in the world, there’s a train linking practically any two Chinese cities you could think of. Two of the most popular and iconic train journeys are the trips from Beijing north into Mongolia and Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway, and another from Beijing to Xi’an and onto Chengdu. The country’s ever growing network of high speed trains, also the largest in the world, means many trip times have been cut in half in recent years. You can now take the train from Beijing to Hong Kong in just 24 hours.
Purchasing train tickets can be tricky, especially if you’re not in a major city with a dedicated English-speaking ticket window at the train station. Your best bet is to book through your hotel or hostel a day or two before you plan to depart. You can choose from three fare types, seats, hard sleeper and soft sleeper. The main difference between hard and soft sleepers, aside from the ticket price, is the number of people in the cabin. Hard sleeper cabins have six bunks and are a little more cramped, whereas soft sleepers only have four.
As a foreign traveler on a Chinese train, you’re bound to be an object of curiosity. Expect fellow passengers to stop in and try to talk with you. If you’re lucky, you’ll be offered some food and drink from your new friends, particularly if you bring your own to share as well. Train food tends to be mediocre and overpriced, so bring along a couple bowls of instant noodles. All the trains provide hot water to make them with.
Whether your train journey is 2 hours or 24, always bring your own toilet paper, and remember to keep your ticket until the end of the journey.