Air

China’s air network is extensive and growing. The civil aviation fleet is expected to triple in size over the next two decades, up to 70 new airports were planned for construction in recent years alone and 100 more were to be expanded or upgraded. Air safety and quality have improved considerably, but the speed of change generates its own problems: a serious shortage of qualified personnel to fly planes means China needed a reported 18,000 new pilots by 2015. When deciding between flying and using high-speed rail, note that flight delays in China are the worst in the world (according to travel industry monitor FlightStats), while trains almost always leave on time.

Planes vary in style and comfort. You may get a hot meal, or just a small piece of cake and an airline souvenir. On-board announcements are delivered in Chinese and English.

Shuttle buses usually run from Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC; Zhōngguó Mínháng) offices in towns and cities throughout China to the airport, often running via other stops. For domestic flights, arrive at the airport one hour before departure.

Remember to keep your baggage receipt label on your ticket as you will need to show it when you collect your luggage.

Airlines in China

The CAAC is the civil aviation authority for numerous airlines. Some of the listed airlines also have subsidiary airlines. Not all Chinese airline websites have English-language capability.

Air China (www.airchina.com)

Chengdu Airlines

China Eastern Airlines (www.ce-air.com)

China Southern Airlines Serves a web of air routes, including Běijīng, Shànghǎi, Xī’ān and Tiānjīn.

Hainan Airlines

Shandong Airlines

Shanghai Airlines Owned by China Eastern Airlines.

Shenzhen Airlines

Sichuan Airlines

Spring Airlines Has connections between Shànghǎi and tourist destinations such as Qīngdǎo, Guìlín, Xiàmén and Sānyà.

Tianjin Airlines

Tibet Airlines Domestic connections all over China from Lhasa.

Tickets

Except during major festivals and holidays, tickets are easy to purchase, with an oversupply of airline seats. Purchase tickets from branches of the CAAC nationwide, airline offices, travel agents or the travel desk of your hotel; travel agents will usually offer a better discount than airline offices. Discounts are common, except when flying into large cities such as Shànghǎi and Běijīng on the weekend, when the full fare can be the norm. Fares are calculated according to one-way travel, with return tickets simply costing twice the single fare. If flying from Hong Kong or Macau to mainland China, note that these are classified as international flights; it is much cheaper to travel overland into Shēnzhèn, Zhūhǎi or Guǎngzhōu and fly from there.

You can use credit cards at most CAAC offices and travel agents. Departure tax is included in the ticket price.

Ctrip Excellent hotel booking, air and train ticketing website, with English helpline. Useful app available.

Elong Hotel and air ticket booking, with English helpline.

Travel Zen Air tickets and hotel bookings. Chinese-only website.

Bicycle

Bikes (自行车; zìxíngchē) are an excellent method for getting around China’s cities and tourist sights. They can also be invaluable for exploring the countryside and surrounding towns.

Hire

Hángzhōu has the world's largest bicycle-share network, with docking stations dotted around the town; however, its success (and foreigner-friendly ease of use) has only been fitfully replicated elsewhere in China. Generally, the best places to try are youth hostels, which rent out bicycles – as do many hotels, although the latter are more expensive.

Bikes can be hired by the day or by the hour; it is also possible to hire for more than one day. Rental rates vary depending on where you find yourself, but rates start at around ¥10 to ¥15 per day in cities such as Běijīng.

Touring

Cycling through China allows you to go when you want, to see what you want and at your own pace. It can also be an extremely cheap, as well as a highly authentic, way to see the land.

You will have virtually unlimited freedom of movement but, considering the size of China, you will need to combine your cycling days with trips by train, bus, boat, taxi or even planes, especially if you want to avoid particularly steep regions, or areas where the roads are poor or the climate is cold.

A basic packing list for cyclists includes a good bicycle-repair kit, sunscreen and other sun protection, waterproofs, fluorescent strips and camping equipment. Ensure you have adequate clothing, as many routes will be taking you to considerable altitude. Road maps in Chinese are essential for asking locals for directions.

BikeChina (www.bikechina.com) arranges tours and is a good source of information for cyclists coming to China.

Boat

Boat services within China are limited, especially with the growth of high-speed rail and expressways. They’re most common in coastal areas, where you are likely to use a boat to reach offshore islands such as Pǔtuóshān or Hǎinán, or the islands off Hong Kong. The Yāntái–Dàlián ferry will probably survive because it saves hundreds of kilometres of overland travel, although a super-long undersea tunnel is in on the drawing board.

The best-known river trip is the three-day boat ride along the Yangzi (Cháng Jiāng) from Chóngqìng to Yíchāng. The Lí River (Lí Jiāng) boat trip from Guìlín to Yángshuò is a popular tourist ride.

Hong Kong employs an out-and-out navy of vessels that connects with the territory’s myriad islands, and a number of boats run between the territory and other parts of China, including Macau, Zhūhǎi, Shékǒu (for Shēnzhèn) and Zhōngshān.

Boat tickets can be purchased from passenger ferry terminals or through travel agents.

Bus

Long-distance bus (长途公共汽车; chángtú gōnggòng qìchē) services are extensive and reach places you cannot reach by train; with the increasing number of intercity highways, journeys are getting quicker.

Buses & Stations

Routes between large cities sport larger, cleaner and more comfortable fleets of private buses, some equipped with toilets and hostesses handing out snacks and mineral water; shorter and more far-flung routes still rely on rattling minibuses into which as many fares as possible are crammed. Buses often wait until they fill up before leaving, or (exasperatingly) trawl the streets looking for fares.

Sleeper buses (卧铺客车; wòpù kèchē) ply popular long-haul routes, costing around double the price of a normal bus service. Bunks can be short, however, and there have been several fatal fires in recent years.

Bus journey times should be used as a rough guide only. You can estimate times for bus journeys on nonhighway routes by calculating the distance against a speed of 25km per hour.

All cities and most towns have one or more long-distance bus stations (长途汽车站; chángtú qìchēzhàn), generally located in relation to the direction the bus heads in. Most bus stations have a left-luggage counter. In many cities, the train station forecourt doubles as a bus station.

Tickets

Tickets are getting more expensive as fuel prices increase, but are cheaper and easier to get than train tickets; turn up at the bus station and buy your ticket on the spot. The earlier you buy, the closer to the front of the bus you will sit, although you may not be able to buy tickets prior to your day of travel. At the time of writing, ID was required for the purchase of bus tickets in restive Xīnjiāng.

Tickets can be hard to procure during national holiday periods.

Dangers & Annoyances

Breakdowns can be a hassle, and some rural roads and provincial routes (especially in the southwest, Tibet and the northwest) remain in bad condition. Precipitous drops, pot holes, dangerous road surfaces and reckless drivers mean accidents remain common. Long-distance journeys can also be cramped and noisy, with Hong Kong films and cacophonous karaoke looped on overhead TVs, and drivers continuously leaning on the horn – taking a music player is crucial for one’s sanity. Note the following when travelling by bus:

  • Seat belts are a rarity in many provinces.
  • Take plenty of warm clothes on buses to high-altitude destinations in winter. A breakdown in frozen conditions can prove lethal for those unprepared.
  • Take a lot of extra water on routes across areas such as the Taklamakan Desert.

Car & Motorcycle

Hiring a car in China has always been complicated or impossible for foreign visitors and in mainland China is currently limited to Běijīng and Shànghǎi, cities that both have frequently gridlocked roads. Throw in the dangers, complexity of Chinese roads for first-time users and the costs of driving in China and it makes more sense to use the subway/metro system and taxis, both of which are cheap and efficient in Běijīng and Shànghǎi. Hiring a car with a driver from your hotel is possible, but it’s generally far cheaper and more convenient to hire a taxi for the day instead.

Driving Licence

To drive in Hong Kong and Macau, you will need an International Driving Permit. Foreigners can drive motorcycles if they are residents in China and have an official Chinese motorcycle licence. International Driving Permits are generally not accepted in China.

Hire

Běijīng Capital Airport has a Vehicle Administration Office where you can have a temporary three-month driving licence issued (an international driver’s licence is insufficient). This will involve checking your driving licence and a simple medical exam (including an eyesight test).

You will need this licence before you can hire a car from Hertz, which has branches at Capital Airport. There are also branches in both central Běijīng and Shànghǎi. Hire cars from Hertz start from ¥230 per day (up to 150km per day; ¥20,000 deposit). Avis also has a growing network around China, with car rental starting from ¥200 per day (¥5000 deposit).

Road Rules

Cars in China drive on the right-hand side of the road. Even skilled drivers will be unprepared for China’s roads: in the cities, cars lunge from all angles and chaos abounds.

Local Transport

Long-distance transport in China is good, but local transport is less efficient, except for cities with metro systems. The choice of local transport is diverse but vehicles can be slow and overburdened, and the network confusing for visitors. Hiring a car is often impractical, while hiring a bike can be inadequate. Unless the town is small, walking is often too tiring.

On the plus side, local transport is cheap, taxis are usually ubiquitous and affordable, and clean and efficient metro systems continue to rapidly expand in large tourist towns.

Bus

With extensive networks, buses are an excellent way to get around town, but foreign travellers rarely use them. Ascending a bus, point to your destination on a map and the conductor (seated near the door) will sell you the right ticket. The conductor will usually tell you where to disembark, provided they remember. In conductor-less buses, you put money for your fare into a slot near the driver as you embark.

  • Fares are very cheap (usually ¥1 to ¥2) but buses may be packed.
  • In cities such as Běijīng, Shànghǎi and Hong Kong, a locally purchased transport card can be used on the buses.
  • Navigation is tricky for non-Chinese speakers as bus routes at bus stops are generally listed in Chinese, without pinyin.
  • In Běijīng and Shànghǎi and other large tourist towns, stops will be announced in English.
  • Always have change ready if there is no conductor on the bus.
  • Buses with snowflake motifs are air-conditioned.
  • Traffic can make things slow.
  • Disembark from the back door.

Subway, Metro & Light Rail

Going underground or using light rail is fast, efficient and cheap; most networks are either very new or relatively recent and can be found in a rapidly growing number of cities, including Běijīng, Chéngdū, Chóngqìng, Dàlián, Guǎngzhōu, Hángzhōu, Hong Kong, Kūnmíng, Shànghǎi, Shěnyáng, Shènzhèn, Sūzhōu, Tiānjīn, Wǔhàn and Xī’ān.

Taxi

Taxis (出租汽车; chūzū qìchē) are cheap and easy to find. Taxi rates per kilometre are clearly marked on a sticker on the rear side window of the taxi; flag-fall varies from city to city, and depends upon the size and quality of the vehicle. Most taxis have meters but they may only be switched on in larger towns and cities. If the meter is not used (on an excursion out of town, for example, or when hiring a taxi for the day or half-day), negotiate a price before you set off and write the fare down. If you want the meter used, ask for dǎbiǎo (打表). Also ask for a receipt (发票; fāpiào); if you leave something in the taxi, you can have the taxi located by its vehicle number printed on the receipt.

Some more tips:

  • Congregation points include train and long-distance bus stations, but usually you can just flag taxis down.
  • Taxi drivers rarely speak any English – have your destination written down in characters.
  • If you have communication problems, consider using your mobile to phone your hotel for staff to interpret.
  • You can hire taxis on a daily or half-day basis, often at reasonable rates (always bargain).
  • To use the same driver again, ask for his or her card (名片; míngpiàn).
  • In many provinces, taxis often cover long-distance bus routes. They generally charge around 30% to 50% more but are much faster. You'll need to wait for four passengers.

Other Local Transport

A variety of ramshackle transport options exist across China; always agree on a price in advance (and preferably have it written down).

  • Motor pedicabs are enclosed three-wheeled vehicles (often the same price as taxis).
  • Pedicabs are pedal-powered versions of motor pedicabs.
  • Motorbike riders also offer lifts in some towns for what should be half the price of a regular taxi. You must wear a helmet – the driver will provide one.

Train

Trains are the best way to travel long distance around China in reasonable speed and comfort. They are also adventurous, exciting, fun, practical and efficient, and ticket prices are reasonable to boot. Colossal investment over recent years has put high-speed rail at the heart of China’s rapid modernisation drive. You really don’t have to be a trainspotter to find China’s railways a riveting subculture; as a plus you'll get to meet the Chinese people at their most relaxed and sociable.

China's Train Network

One of the world’s most extensive rail networks, passenger railways penetrate every province in China and high-speed connections are suddenly everywhere. In line with China’s frantic economic development and the pressures of transporting 1.4 billion people across the world’s third-largest nation, expansion of China’s rail network over the past decade has been mind-boggling.

The network currently totals over 103,000km in length. In China, thousands of kilometres of track are laid every year and new express trains have been zipping across the land since 2007, shrinking once daunting distances. State-of-the-art train stations are ceaselessly appearing, many to serve high-speed links. You can climb aboard a train in Běijīng or Shànghǎi and alight in Tibet’s capital (although ticket scarcity for trains into Lhasa means it’s easier to fly in and take the train out); lines are poking further into Tibet, with a line to Shigatse. The time to get to Yánjí (near the South Korean border) from Chángchūn in northeast China has recently been slashed by hours. The highly anticipated Xī'ān–Chéngdū line will hopefully open by 2018 and will cut travel times from 13 hours to under three hours.

With the advent of high-speed D, G and C class express trains, getting between major cities is increasingly a breeze (albeit far more expensive than regular fast trains). High-speed rail has put the squeeze on numerous domestic air routes and the punctuality of trains sees far fewer delays than air travel. Useful high-speed links that have opened in recent years have connected Běijīng and Xī’ān, Lánzhōu and Ürümqi, and Tiānjīn and Bǎoding; there is even talk of extending links through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Turkey to Bulgaria. Down south, China is also planning a high-speed link from Kūnmíng in Yúnnán to Singapore, via Laos, Thailand and Malaysia.

Travelling the Trans-Siberian Railway

Rolling out of Europe and into Asia, through eight time zones and over 9289km of taiga, steppe and desert, the Trans-Siberian Railway and its connecting routes constitute one of the most famous and most romantic of the world’s great train journeys.

There are, in fact, three railways. The ‘true’ Trans-Siberian line runs from Moscow to Vladivostok. But the routes traditionally referred to as the Trans-Siberian Railway are the two branches that veer off the main line in eastern Siberia for Běijīng.

Since the first option excludes China, most readers of this guide will be choosing between the Trans-Mongolian and the Trans-Manchurian railway lines. The Trans-Mongolian route (Běijīng to Moscow; 7865km) is faster, but requires an additional visa and another border crossing – on the plus side, you also get to see some of the Mongolian countryside. The Trans-Manchurian route is longer (Běijīng to Moscow; 9025km).

Trans-Mongolian Railway

Trains offer deluxe two-berth compartments (with shared shower), 1st-class four-berth compartments and 2nd-class four-berth compartments. Tickets for 2nd class/1st class/deluxe cost from around ¥3496/5114/5064 to Moscow, ¥1222/1723/1883 to Ulaanbaatar and ¥2559/3734/4052 to Novosibirsk. Ticket prices are cheaper if you travel in a group. The K23 service departs on Sunday (2nd/1st class ¥1259/1849, 11.22am, 30 hours) and terminates at Ulaanbaatar on Monday.

  • From Běijīng Train K3 leaves Běijīng Train Station on its five-day journey to Moscow at 11.22am every Tuesday, passing through Dàtóng, Ulaanbaatar and Novosibirsk before arriving in Moscow the following Monday at 1.58pm.
  • From Moscow Train K4 leaves at 9.35pm on Tuesday, arriving in Běijīng Train Station the following Monday at 2.04pm. Departure and arrival times may fluctuate slightly.
Trans-Manchurian Railway

Trains have 1st-class two-berth compartments and 2nd-class four-berth compartments; prices are similar to those on the Trans-Mongolian Railway.

  • From Běijīng Train K19 departs Běijīng Train Station at 11pm on Saturday, arriving in Moscow (via Manzhōulǐ) the following Friday at 5.58pm.
  • From Moscow Train K20 leaves Moscow at 11.58pm on Saturday, arriving at Běijīng Train Station the following Friday at 5.32am. Departure and arrival times may fluctuate slightly.
Buying Tickets

Book well in advance (especially in summer); in Běijīng tickets can be conveniently purchased and booked in advance in central Běijīng from CITS, for a ¥50 mark-up. Tickets can also be booked with a mark-up through China DIY Travel.

Visas

Travellers will need Russian and Mongolian visas for the Trans-Mongolian Railway, as well as a Chinese visa. These can often be arranged along with your ticket by travel agents such as China International Travel Service (CITS; www.cits.net).

Train Routes

Běijīng West-Xī'ān North

Duration

5½-6hr

Fare (seat/sleeper)

2nd/1st ¥516/825

Běijīng West-Guìlín

Duration

10½hr

Fare (seat/sleeper)

2nd/1st class ¥806/1250

Běijīng-Dàtóng

Duration

6½hr

Fare (seat/sleeper)

Hard seat/sleeper ¥54/113

Běijīng South-Hángzhōu

Duration

5hr

Fare (seat/sleeper)

2nd/1st class ¥540/909

Běijīng West-Kūnmíng

Duration

34hr

Fare (seat/sleeper)

Hard seat/sleeper ¥317/575

Běijīng West-Lhasa

Duration

41hr

Fare (seat/sleeper)

Hard/soft sleeper ¥813/1289

Běijīng South-Qīngdǎo

Duration

4½hr

Fare (seat/sleeper)

2nd/1st class ¥314/474

Běijīng South-Shànghǎi Hóngqiáo

Duration

5½hr

Fare (seat/sleeper)

2nd/1st class ¥553/933

Běijīng South-Tiānjīn

Duration

33min

Fare (seat/sleeper)

2nd/1st class ¥54/65

Shànghǎi Hóngqiáo-Hángzhōu

Duration

1hr

Fare (seat/sleeper)

2nd/1st class ¥77/117

Shànghǎi Hóngqiáo-Shēnzhèn North

Duration

10½-11½hr

Fare (seat/sleeper)

Hard seat/sleeper ¥479/597

Shànghǎi-Lhasa

Duration

48hr

Fare (seat/sleeper)

Hard seat/sleeper ¥403/896

Shànghǎi Hóngqiáo-Nánjīng South

Duration

1½hr

Fare (seat/sleeper)

2nd/1st class ¥135/230

Shànghǎi Hóngqiáo-Wǔhàn

Duration

5-6hr

Fare (seat/sleeper)

2nd/1st class ¥302/426

Shànghǎi Hóngqiáo-Xiàmén North

Duration

6½-8hr

Fare (seat/sleeper)

2nd/1st class ¥331/416

Shànghǎi-Xī’ān North

Duration

11hr

Fare (seat/sleeper)

2nd-class seat/soft sleeper ¥338/834

Píngyáo-Xī'ān North

Duration

3hr

Fare (seat/sleeper)

2nd/1st class ¥150/188

Shēnzhèn North-Guiìlín North

Duration

3hr

Fare (seat/sleeper)

2nd/1st class ¥212/265

Kūnmíng-Lìjiāng

Duration

7-10hr

Fare (seat/sleeper)

Hard/soft sleeper ¥152/245

Kūnmíng-Chéngdū

Duration

17½hr

Fare (seat/sleeper)

Hard seat/sleeper ¥139/270

Kūnmíng-Guìlín

Duration

19hr

Fare (seat/sleeper)

Hard seat/sleeper ¥153/296

Ürümqi-Kashgar

Duration

17hr

Fare (seat/sleeper)

Hard/soft sleeper ¥344/537

Wǔhàn-Guǎngzhōu South

Duration

4hr

Fare (seat/sleeper)

2nd/1st class ¥464/739

Xī’ān North-Luòyáng Lóngmén

Duration

2hr

Fare (seat/sleeper)

2nd/1st class ¥175/280

Běijīng West-Píngyáo

Duration

4hr

Fare (seat/sleeper)

2nd/1st class ¥183/255

Train Travel

Trains are generally highly punctual in China and are usually a safe way to travel. Train stations are often conveniently close to the centre of town. Travelling on sleeper berths at night means you can frequently arrive at your destination first thing in the morning, saving a night’s hotel accommodation. Think ahead, get your tickets early and you can sleep your way around a lot of China.

On entering a large, old-style station (such as Běijīng West Train Station), you will have to find the correct waiting room number, displayed on an illuminated screen as you walk in. Modern stations (such as Shànghǎi Hóngqiáo Train Station) are more straightforward and intelligently designed, without waiting rooms; instead your platform number will appear on the screen.

Trolleys of food and drink are wheeled along carriages during the trip, but prices are high and the selection is limited. You can also load up on mineral water and snacks at stations, where hawkers sell items from platform stalls. Long-distance trains should have a canteen carriage (餐厅车厢; cāntīng chēxiāng); they are sometimes open through the night.

In each class of sleeper, linen is clean and changed for each journey; beds are generally bedbug-free.

If taking a sleeper train, you will generally be required to exchange your paper ticket for a plastic or metal card with your bunk number on it. The conductor then knows when you are due to disembark, and will awake you in time to return your ticket to you.

Some tips regarding train travel:

  • Don’t wait to board your train until the last minute, as queues outside the main train station entrance can be shocking.
  • You are required to pass your bags through a security scanner at the station entrance.
  • Keep passports handy when entering a station as checks will match the name on your ticket with the name on your passport.
  • Keep your ticket handy after disembarking the train as there can be checks when exiting the platform and ticket-fed turnstiles in newer stations.
  • On a nonsleeper, ask a member of staff or a fellow passenger to tell you when your station arrives.

Train Types

Chinese train numbers are usually (but not always) prefixed by a letter, designating the category of train.

The fastest, most luxurious and expensive intercity trains are the streamlined, high-speed C, D and G trains, which rapidly shuttle between major cities.

D class trains were the first high-speed trains to appear and breathlessly glide around China at high speed, offering substantial comfort and regular services. Their temperature-regulated 1st-class carriages have mobile and laptop chargers; seats are two abreast with ample legroom and TV sets. Second-class carriages have five seats in two rows. G class trains are faster than D class trains, but have limited luggage space.

Less fast express classes include the overnight Z class trains, while further down the pecking order are older and more basic T and K class trains.

Regular Trains

Z class (express)

Pinyin

zhídá

Chinese

直达

Top Speed

160km/h

T class

Pinyin

tèkuài

Chinese

特快

Top Speed

140km/h

K class

Pinyin

kuàisù

Chinese

快速

Top Speed

120km/h

High-Speed Trains

C class

Pinyin

chéngjì

Chinese

城际

Top Speed

350km/h

D class

Pinyin

dòngchē

Chinese

动车

Top Speed

250km/h

G class

Pinyin

gāotiě

Chinese

高铁

Top Speed

350km/h

Tickets

It is possible to upgrade (补票; bǔpiào) your ticket once aboard your train. If you have a standing ticket, for example, find the conductor and upgrade to a hard seat, soft seat or hard sleeper (if there are any available).

Soft Sleeper

Soft sleepers are a very comfortable way to travel and work perfectly as mobile hotels; tickets cost much more than hard-sleeper tickets and often sell out, however, so book early. Soft sleepers vary between trains and the best are on the more recent D and Z class trains. All Z class trains are soft-sleeper trains, with very comfortable, up-to-date berths. A few T class trains also offer two-berth compartments, with their own toilet.

Tickets for upper berths are slightly cheaper than for lower berths. Expect to share with total strangers. If you are asleep, an attendant will wake you to prepare you to disembark so you will have plenty of time to ready your things. Available on some lines, two-bed deluxe soft sleepers usually have a toilet and sink. VIP sleepers, essentially three-bed compartments which one person can book in its entirety, are available on the Kūnmíng–Lìjiāng route.

Soft sleeper carriages contain:

  • four air-conditioned bunks (upper and lower) in a closed compartment
  • bedding on each berth and a lockable door to the carriage corridor
  • meals, flat-screen TVs and power sockets on some routes
  • a small table and stowing space for your bags
  • a hot-water flask for drinking (plain or for tea) or instant noodles, filled by an attendant (one per compartment).

Hard Sleeper

Hard sleepers are available on slower and less modern T, K and N class trains, as well as trains without a letter prefix. As with soft sleepers, they serve very nicely as an overnight hotel.

There is a small price difference between the numbered berths, with the lowest bunk (下铺; xiàpù) the most expensive and the highest bunk (上铺; shàngpù) the cheapest. The middle bunk (中铺; zhōngpù) is a good choice, as all and sundry invade the lower berth to use it as a seat during the day, while the top one has little headroom and puts you near the speakers. As with soft sleepers, an attendant will wake you well in advance of your station.

Hard-sleeper tickets are the most difficult of all to buy; you almost always need to buy these a few days in advance. Expect:

  • doorless compartments with half a dozen bunks in three tiers
  • sheets, pillows and blankets on each berth
  • a no-smoking policy
  • lights and speakers out at around 10pm
  • a hot-water flask, filled by an attendant (one per compartment)
  • trolleys passing by selling food and drink
  • a rack above the windows for stowing your baggage, though anything heavy or larger than a carry-on suitcase will need to be stored in the aisle.

Seats

Soft-seat class is more comfortable but not nearly as common as hard-seat class. First-class (一等; yīděng) and 2nd-class (二等; èrděng) soft seats are available in D, C and G class high-speed trains. G class trains also offer business class and/or VIP seats, which include a hot meal and added comfort. High-speed trains are truly nonsmoking, unlike other trains, which allow smoking between carriages, inevitably carrying through into the carriages.

First-class comes with TVs, mobile phone and laptop charging points, and seats arranged two abreast.

Second-class soft seats are also very comfortable; staff are very courteous throughout. Overcrowding is not permitted and power points are available. On older trains, soft-seat carriages are often double-decker, and are not as plush as the faster and more modern high-speed express trains.

Hard-seat class is not available on the faster and plusher C, D and G class trains, and is only found on T and K class trains and trains without a number prefix; a handful of Z class trains have hard seats. Hard-seat class generally has padded seats, but it’s hard on your sanity: often unclean and noisy, and painful on the long haul.

Since hard seat is the only class most locals can afford, it’s packed to the gills.

You should get a ticket with an assigned seat number; if seats have sold out, ask for a standing ticket, which gets you on the train, where you may find a seat or can upgrade. Otherwise you will have to stand in the carriage or between carriages (with the smokers).

Hard-seat sections on China’s newer trains are air-conditioned and less crowded.

Buying Tickets

The Achilles heel of China’s overburdened rail system, buying tickets can be a pain.

Most tickets are one-way only, with prices calculated per kilometre and adjustments made depending on class of train, availability of air-con, type of sleeper and bunk positioning.

Some tips on buying train tickets:

  • Never aim to get a sleeper ticket on the day of travel – plan and purchase ahead.
  • Most tickets can be booked 18 days in advance of your departure date when booking in person at ticket offices and 20 days when booking online.
  • Buying tickets for hard-seat carriages at short notice is usually no hassle, but it may be a standing ticket rather than a numbered seat.
  • Tickets can be purchased only with cash or bank cards that are part of the Chinese UnionPay network.
  • You will need your passport when buying a ticket (the number is printed on your ticket) at all train ticket offices. Your name will also appear on tickets bought online.
  • All automated ticket machines (eg at Shànghǎi Train Station) require Chinese ID – your passport will not work, so you will need to queue at the ticket window.
  • As with air travel, buying tickets around the Chinese New Year and the 1 May and 1 October holiday periods can be very difficult.
  • Tickets on many routes (such as to Lhasa) can be very hard to get in July and August; consider flying to distant destinations.
  • Expect to queue for up to 30 minutes or more for a train ticket at the station; ticket offices outside of the station are often less busy.
  • Avoid black-market tickets: your passport number must be on the ticket for it to be valid.
  • Refunds for lost train tickets are arduous and involve purchasing a new ticket and getting a refund at the other end once it has been proved no one occupied your seat.
  • If you miss your D or G class train, you will be allowed to take the next available train on the same day only at no charge. For all other trains, your ticket is forfeited (unless your connecting train was late).
  • Booking tickets on apps lets you avoid missing out. A fee of ¥20 to ¥40 applies, and tickets still need to be picked up from a ticket collection window (often with a queue) at any train station.

Your ticket will display:

  • the train number
  • the name of your departure and destination stations in Chinese and pinyin
  • the time and date of travel
  • your carriage and seat (or berth) number
  • the ticket price
  • your passport number (second from bottom).

Ticket Offices & Buying Online

Ticket offices (售票厅; shòupiàotīng) at train stations are usually to one side of the main train station entrance. Automated ticket machines operate on some routes but never accept foreign passports as ID. At large stations there should be a window staffed by someone with basic English skills.

Alternatively, independent train ticket offices usually exist elsewhere in town, where tickets can be purchased for a ¥5 commission without the same kind of queues; we list these where possible. Larger post offices may also sell train tickets. Your hotel will also be able to rustle up a ticket for you for a commission, and so can a travel agent.

It’s cheaper to buy your ticket at the station, but tickets can be bought online at the following (China DIY Travel is the cheapest) and collected from any train before travel:

You can also find English-language train timetables on these websites.

For trains from Hong Kong to Shànghǎi, Guǎngzhōu or Běijīng, tickets can be ordered online at no mark-up from KCRC (www.mtr.com.hk); however, for Běijīng or Shànghǎi a faster alternative is the high-speed trains from Shēnzhèn to Shànghǎi (D train) and Běijīng (G train), which take around 10 hours compared to 20 to 24 hours for departures from Hong Kong.

To get a refund (退票; tuìpiào) on an unused ticket, look for the specifically marked windows at large train stations, where you can get from 80 to 95% of your ticket value back, depending on how many days prior to the departure date you cancel.

Train Tickets

soft sleeper

Pinyin

ruǎnwò

Chinese

软卧

hard sleeper

Pinyin

yìngwò

Chinese

硬卧

soft seat

Pinyin

ruǎnzuò

Chinese

软座

hard seat

Pinyin

yìngzuò

Chinese

硬座

standing ticket

Pinyin

wúzuò or zhànpiào

Chinese

无座\站票

Resources

The Man in Seat 61 (www.seat61.com/China.htm)

Travel China Guide (www.travelchinaguide.com)

China Tibet Train (www.chinatibettrain.com)