When you’re traveling, tired, and need to get from point A to point B, you may not look at the big picture, but you should. It can make a world of difference. Plus, who wants to arrive at a new destination feeling tired and grumpy? I know I don’t!
China is a massive country, making almost any trip a long distance trip. While some spend the money to fly, many travel by train to get around China. It’s more comfortable than taking a bus, and cheaper than flying. It’s also a microscopic view of Chinese culture – which you may or may not want!
1. Buying a Ticket
You can purchase train tickets at any of the train stations in China, but when you do that you’re playing a game of roulette. The ticket agent may not speak English, and you may not get the train class you want. Consider buying train tickets through the hostel/hotel where you’re staying. The staff can negotiate the price, book the class you want, and pick-up the tickets for you.
2. Choose the RIGHT Train Class
Chinese trains have four classes. Hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper, soft sleeper.
Hard Seat • usually 5 seats per row. This is the basic fare, and seats are generally not assigned. Find a seat (if you can), sit down, and don’t move. If this fare is oversold, you will lose your seat!
Soft Seat • usually 4 seats per row, and the seat are fairly soft. Your body (and sanity) will thank-you for spending the extra cash on this type of seat.
Hard Sleeper • this cabin type sleeps six people, three per side. The beds are comfy, and a jug of hot water is placed in every room for morning tea.
Soft Sleeper • this cabin sleeps four people, two per side. The beds are more cushy, and the cabin is more private.
3. Bring Food & Water
Although you can buy noodles on the train, and some snacks at the station, it is a good idea to buy some food at a shop, before going to the train station. A fried rice dish, some meat on a stick, chips, nuts, fruit. You’ll be amazed by how hungry you can get while on a train! The whole ‘you want what you cannot have’ scenario. Trains can also get quite dry, bring water to stay hydrated during your trip.
4. Hanging in the Waiting Room
Waiting rooms at Chinese train stations are massive, holding passengers for 4-6 trains in each room; which makes finding a seat a bit of a challenge. Signs are not in English, and neither are announcements (you ARE in China after all). Look for your train number, attempt to find a seat where you can see it, and when boarding time approaches, get in line. This is China, there is no order to the way you go through the gate to the train platform, and line civility is absent at times. Keep track of your things, carry them, and keep pace with everyone else.
5. A Travel Pillow and Throw
Once again, you’re in China. Although the train provides pillows and sheets in some classes, it is a good idea to bring your own travel pillow, and either a throw or sleep sac. Depending on the time of year, the cabin can get fairly cold (or insanely hot)!
6. Bring Ear Plugs
Chinese trains are a hub of activity, and if you’re in a cabin with 5 other people, you will want to have ear plugs! Snoring cabin mates, and kids crying will be the least of your worries. The morning ‘throat clearing’ ritual is worse than fingernails on a chalk board. Seriously. Bring them, and wear them!
7. Wear Layers
Think layers. Wear comfortable pants, a t-shirt, and a fleece. Keep the cute, sexy, short outfits in your backpack. Chinese trains generally do not have female-only or male-only cabins. Sleeping with your shoes on is bad manners. Bring clean socks to wear in bed. During the day use a pair of flip-flops or slippers to walk around the train.
8. Keeping Fresh
Chinese trains are not always the cleanest. The bathrooms can be… interesting. Bring toilet paper with you, wear flip flops (easily hosed off), and hand sanitizer. Squatting in a moving train is not always an easy (or clean) activity. Some trains will have a shower room, so bring travel shampoo, soap, and a washcloth. If there is no shower room, consider using your soap and cloth to give yourself a sponge bath.
9. Staying Entertained
You can only spend so many hours staring out the window, or laying in bed and pretending you’re sleeping. Bring a novel, pull out your guidebook and research activities, write in your journal, write postcards. Leave your laptop, or iPad in your daypack unless you have a cabin to yourself (out of sight, out of mind).
10. Dealing with Locals
Unless you’re Chinese, you will be noticed. Go with it. For the most part the locals are just curious. Some will stare, some with try to give you snacks, some will sit down and try to talk to you, and some will tell everyone in the train car that you are there. It can be highly entertaining.