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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
|Běijīng West-Xī'ān North||5½-6hr||2nd/1st ¥516/825|
|Běijīng West-Guìlín||10½hr||2nd/1st class ¥806/1250|
|Běijīng-Dàtóng||6½hr||Hard seat/sleeper ¥54/113|
|Běijīng South-Hángzhōu||5hr||2nd/1st class ¥540/909|
|Běijīng West-Kūnmíng||34hr||Hard seat/sleeper ¥317/575|
|Běijīng West-Lhasa||41hr||Hard/soft sleeper ¥813/1289|
|Běijīng South-Qīngdǎo||4½hr||2nd/1st class ¥314/474|
|Běijīng South-Shànghǎi Hóngqiáo||5½hr||2nd/1st class ¥553/933|
|Běijīng South-Tiānjīn||33min||2nd/1st class ¥54/65|
|Shànghǎi Hóngqiáo-Hángzhōu||1hr||2nd/1st class ¥77/117|
|Shànghǎi Hóngqiáo-Shēnzhèn North||10½-11½hr||Hard seat/sleeper ¥479/597|
|Shànghǎi-Lhasa||48hr||Hard seat/sleeper ¥403/896|
|Shànghǎi Hóngqiáo-Nánjīng South||1½hr||2nd/1st class ¥135/230|
|Shànghǎi Hóngqiáo-Wǔhàn||5-6hr||2nd/1st class ¥302/426|
|Shànghǎi Hóngqiáo-Xiàmén North||6½-8hr||2nd/1st class ¥331/416|
|Shànghǎi-Xī’ān North||11hr||2nd-class seat/soft sleeper ¥338/834|
|Píngyáo-Xī'ān North||3hr||2nd/1st class ¥150/188|
|Shēnzhèn North-Guiìlín North||3hr||2nd/1st class ¥212/265|
|Kūnmíng-Lìjiāng||7-10hr||Hard/soft sleeper ¥152/245|
|Kūnmíng-Chéngdū||17½hr||Hard seat/sleeper ¥139/270|
|Kūnmíng-Guìlín||19hr||Hard seat/sleeper ¥153/296|
|Ürümqi-Kashgar||17hr||Hard/soft sleeper ¥344/537|
|Wǔhàn-Guǎngzhōu South||4hr||2nd/1st class ¥464/739|
|Xī’ān North-Luòyáng Lóngmén||2hr||2nd/1st class ¥175/280|
|Běijīng West-Píngyáo||4hr||2nd/1st class ¥183/255|
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:
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.
|Z class (express)||zhídá||直达||160km/h|
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 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:
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:
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.
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:
Your ticket will display:
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.
wúzuò or zhànpiào