trying to fathom Chinese train travel

May 11th, 2017, 02:06 PM
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Join Date: May 2017
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trying to fathom Chinese train travel

I would really appreciate help with planning an early July trip with my teenager, and my questions are over whether I can book trains once I have arrived and if I can hire a local 'minder' to make sure I don't mess up when getting on the right train! I don't want to be rushed from pillar to post on a tour, but nor am I feeling especially adventurous. I would like to be in control of how long I stay in each city and would like to travel Beijing - Xian - Guilin - Hong Kong (or the other way round!), to give my teenager an initial taste of China. I would prefer trains over planes as I understand they are more reliable, but have no experience of travelling around China. I am unsure whether it is safe to wait till I am in the country to book trains, and would prefer to pay a bit extra if this means peace of mind (e.g. to get a soft sleeper or a first class seat). I am especially nervous about catching trains outside Beijing (queues, knowing where to go, danger of missing the train) and wonder if you know if I can pay a local person to get us safely on the train in each city?! Sorry that I am not as intrepid a traveller as many posting on this forum!!
UKmthr is offline  
May 11th, 2017, 03:24 PM
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To book ahead or not depends on time of the year and route. If your itinerary is fixed and are unlikely to change your plans then book ahead. Unlike flights prices that can be all over the place, train ticket prices never change whether you book one month ahead or 2 days ahead.
I don't think that you need to pay a local person to help you around train station. It is not that complicated and there is tons of help online. There are also many videos on YouTube. After you watch a few, you'll feel like an expert even though you have not been there. For example, look at this one: If you click on their name you can go to their channel and see their other videos. They cover most train station.
A good resource for train travel (in China or elsewhere) is the Man in seat 61:
CanadaChinaTraveller is offline  
May 11th, 2017, 03:27 PM
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Can't edit my post but wanted to conclude by adding that train travel in China (especially the newer stations) just like riding the subway, is rather idiot-proof. Most signs are in English as well as Chinese.
CanadaChinaTraveller is offline  
May 11th, 2017, 11:47 PM
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CanadaChinaTraveller, that's incredibly helpful and reassuring. I had no idea that YouTube videos like that existed and it does look idiot proof! This gives me a lot more confidence to get there and buy locally and to travel independently.
UKmthr is offline  
May 12th, 2017, 05:39 AM
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Like you UKmthr I am considering venturing onto China trains and am considering a similar itinerary. The you tube video link that CanadaChinaTravel posted is really great. Thanks from me as well.

A question I have is about luggage on Chinese trains and I wondered if you or any other fodorite could answer it. We will probably have two full sized suitcases with us and I am wondering if that size of luggage can go with you into the seating area of the train [or in sight of your seats] If not where can it be stored and is it safe ? [We would not have valuables in our luggage but it would obviously be a real hassle if stolen !]
loncall is online now  
May 12th, 2017, 06:12 AM
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You can store mid-size suitcases on the rack above you. Bigger ones go behind the last row of seat on in the luggage closet at the end of the car. If you take a sleeper train you'll be fine with a soft sleeper but it will be a problem in hard sleepers.
I find myself using Youtube even more than Google these days. There are a videos about absolutely everything. Just bought a lawnmower for my daughter and found several videos reviewing the model that I was looking at.
CanadaChinaTraveller is offline  
May 13th, 2017, 02:40 PM
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In the olden days, oh say 5 yrs ago, Chinese train stations were positioned in the center of the town/city and everything was easy to negotiate. Now with the hi-speed trains many stations serving those trains are located miles from the city center. So the cost of the taxi, unless you can figure the bus, will add plenty to the overall travel costs.

The old slow trains still operate and actually serve most the people but are slower, cheaper and often highly overcrowded. Regarding luggage, gotta learn to travel light. No one cares if shirt is pressed.
jobin is online now  
May 13th, 2017, 02:55 PM
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Actually most new stations are connected to the subway. In other places they have some shuttle buses. In any case, taxis are cheap in China.
CanadaChinaTraveller is offline  
May 15th, 2017, 03:13 PM
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> whether I can book trains once I have arrived

Yes, you can. The easiest way is to use a railway ticket agency. These are strewn all over towns and identified with the Chinese railway symbol (see here):

and/or with the characters 火车票. These people have terminals on the railway system, and there's a regulatory maximum as to what they charge. This was ¥5 per ticket for years, although I have heard in passing that's it's gone up, but haven't heard a firm figure.

If you're in Beijing, for instance, these agencies can sell you tickets for any train starting from or passing through the Beijing Railway Bureau's area. They have access to the entire complement of seats for those that start in that area, and a more more limited number for those that pass through.

They can also sell you tickets for trains returning to Beijing but with very limited allocations, and trains starting from (but not passing through) any other major city and going to any other, but again with only limited allocations.

Booking everything ahead of course entirely removes the flexibility that's one of the main benefits of independent travel. You can try to book a few trains ahead from Beijing, but you should still consider just booking as you go. There are so many trains and choices of route, and always planes to fall back on (as well as long-distance buses) that there's very little danger indeed of getting stuck anywhere.

You can also choose to use agencies that don't have terminals, as well as your hotel reception, but all they do is charge you a much higher fee to walk round the corner and do for you what you could do for yourself. These days ¥30 upwards per ticket. It's up to you whether economy (and perhaps the interest of trying to do it yourself, which you can) or the convenience is most important.

When going to an agency (or railway station) you'll need:

The characters for your destination
The type of seat you want (you'll need to read up on that--on standard trains there are different prices for upper and lower berths in soft sleeper, and different for each of the three levels in hard sleeper; on all-seat high-speed trains there are two classes, etc.)
The preferred date of travel

On standard trains spending at least one night on the train is common. Remember to allow time for travel on your itinerary.

One method of independent travel is simply to go and buy the ticket for your next leg at the station when you arrive. Note that tickets offices almost always have an entirely separate entrance from the rest of the station. You need to go out of the exit from the platform, round to the front, and look for the three characters given above.

> I can hire a local 'minder' to make sure I don't mess up when getting on the right train!

There is no need for this whatsoever. There's plenty of English signage in stations, and all you need to do is show your ticket to people in uniform to be pointed in the right direction. If you buy soft sleeper tickets you have a separate waiting room, typically with sections marked off for different trains with the train number, and they come and usher you to the platforms when ready.

Everywhere you mention is entirely used to seeing foreigners in large numbers and to setting them right. There's nothing intrepid about buying railway tickets or travelling on trains in China, and when you've done it once you'll wonder what the fuss was about.
temppeternh is offline  
May 15th, 2017, 03:14 PM
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One other point: you'll need plenty of cash. Whether you ask your hotel to get it or whether you go to a station or whether you use an agency you'll be paying for the tickets in cash.
temppeternh is offline  
May 15th, 2017, 09:18 PM
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My then-teenage son and I were in China in 2010 for the Shanghai Expo, zipping around on a plane from Beijing to Xian and from Xian to Shanghai, a bus to Suzhou and a train from Suzhou to Shanghai. It was very easy and not too overwhelming and we (my son) had only very basic Chinese at that point (e.g. enough to tell the crazy honking taxi driver to stop to let us out). I booked the plane tickets online. Ctrip is a great site for booking also. Our hotel in Suzhou kindly bought and picked up our train tickets to Shanghai, so your hotel might help also. The men sitting in our reserved seats on the train to Shanghai even got up after we presented ourselves and our tickets. Don't be scared! It will be fine. Use Ctrip and Fodor's forums. And I agree with the need for cash. I haven't checked prices but I think planes are the way to go over China's vast distances unless you really feel compelled to take the long train rides.
wandermama is offline  
May 16th, 2017, 05:01 AM
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It would be much more fun and interesting to take the night train from Beijing to Xi'an rather than fly. I have done it twice, with no Mandarin at all, and before things got tidied up for the Olympics. (But go soft sleeper.) As Peter just pointed out, hotels will be happy to buy train tickets for you, as they charge a fee for the service.
thursdaysd is offline  
May 24th, 2017, 02:57 AM
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> It would be much more fun and interesting to take the night train from Beijing to Xi'an rather than fly.

Main benefit is saving a night's accommodation, but there are now high-speed daytime services that get you there much more quickly and you can see the countryside en route.
temppeternh is offline  
May 24th, 2017, 04:20 AM
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Well, maybe,. I have found with some high speed trains you go to fast to really aee much.
thursdaysd is offline  
May 24th, 2017, 07:28 AM
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Another vote for the night train. It was a great way to interact with the Chinese people. Bathrooms won't. E as nice though as high speed trains. It saves a night in a hotel and doesn't waste time to and from airport.

On another note - you may want to consider stopping in pingyao and datong on the way from Beijing to xian. Both are very interesting towns and well worth visiting.

Do consider trying to make do with 22 inch suitcases which will be more manageable when moving from one place to another. You can combine with a small backpack to hold extra stuff.
dgunbug is offline  
May 26th, 2017, 10:30 PM
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There is only one daily high speed train between Xi'an to Guilin. It is had better to book this in advance.
Tangyan is offline  
Jun 11th, 2017, 02:47 PM
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Thank you all so much for this! I am hoping to China next year maybe. I started to research it in too much of a rush, knowing that I really didn't want to do a package tour with planes. In the end, I 'bottled out' (very English expression!) as events at home distracted me and I was also uncertain of how much to book my hotels in advance. I wasn't helped by the UK Chinese tourist office, which is in a really out of the way place in London (Warwick Rd - not commercial at all) and which has totally unpredictable opening hours (not the 9-5 hours promised on Google) and is all but impossible to reach by phone. They wanted me to write in with any queries - and I just felt I was running out of time. So this year, we have opted for Vietnam instead. But thank you so much! I will do the China trip soon - and with better planning than I gave myself time for!
UKmthr is offline  
Jun 12th, 2017, 08:39 AM
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> I wasn't helped by the UK Chinese tourist office, which is in a really out of the way place in London (Warwick Rd - not commercial at all) and which has totally unpredictable opening hours (not the 9-5 hours promised on Google) and is all but impossible to reach by phone.

But truly authentic in offering you the flavour of Chinese officialdom. It's absolutely pointless talking to these people anyway.

As for booking hotels in advance, if you're talking about Chinese-run hotels, for the most part it's not a good idea anyway, although you might want to arrange one or two nights on arrival in order to have a soft landing.

See extensive discussion elsewhere on these pages.
temppeternh is offline  
Jun 24th, 2017, 06:05 PM
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It's even easier to book Chinese train tickets on C.Trip (download their great app or use the website

I live in China and use the trains all the time. Booking on c.trip is easier as I shamefully don't speak much Chinese and struggle at the ticket office. The trains here are comfortable, inexpensive and a great way to see the country. The high-speed trains are ultra modern, but it's also good to use the slower trains for overnight journeys saving on hotel bills. A 4 berth cabin is comfortable and cheap, and there is no better feeling of waking up in a new place!

You can read more at my blog

Best regards and have wonderful trip,
SteveRohan1981 is offline  
Jun 25th, 2017, 06:06 AM
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All ticket agents are similarly easy. If you live in China, why not buy your tickets direct? I guess that the main purpose of your post is to plug your blog since, if you bother to read the thread, you'll note that the OP decided not to travel to China.
CanadaChinaTraveller is offline  
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