This is a major part of experiencing China and I would insist on anyone to have a try using the railway network!

Train stations are centrally located in major cities, but in minor cities they can be some distance from the actual city. Recently, a wave of stylish, airport-style high-speed stations tend to be even further out of town.

Seat v Sleeper v High Speed

But going back to normal train stations, buses bounce along dirt tracks to far-flung, dusty stations that are a hive of activity at all hours. In nearly all stations you’ll find ticket touts, which of course you should not buy from. Most stations have electronic information boards and some larger stations have a foreigner’s desk (which oddly enough is often made up of non-English speaking Chinese). The main ticket hall queues can be long, very long at festival times and any precious ‘sleeper’ tickets can get snapped up very quickly indeed! Once you finally get to the window and are able to ask for the basics (date, time, destination, sleeper or seat, cost), you may be surrounded by others watching with nosey interest. Watch your zips and pockets, though most are only curious. Increasingly, police officers will keep order and you should try to stay in line.

Your small, pink ticket uses Western numbers and characters, including train number and station names. The departures area is often through a different part of the station, bags through a scanner, and to the correct gate according to your train number. Warning: gates for all trains close around five minutes prior to the train’s departure. At this point you may be faced with an impatient attendant in a polished uniform using, quite unnecessarily, a loudspeaker, whose job it is the hurry the madding hoards along. You must board the train at the carriage your ticket is for, so for example if your sleeper (bed) is carriage 15, then you must get to carriage 15 before you get on (which could be some walk down the platform).

Later, once you’ve found your spot for the night, the carriage attendant (each carriage has an attendant) might swap your paper ticket for a coloured peg which you hand back prior to disembarking. In each carriage you’ll find hot water (free), toilets and a sink. Take a flask, grab instant noodles from the station and have a good rest.

Peak travel periods and life aboard

Life on the train can be great and many friends can be made with those around you. However, a real experience (albeit deadening on longer journeys) can be had if you get a seat-only ticket. You may smoke (in between carriages) eat and chat together if you’re open and friendly enough. Travelling by seat class is surely what you make of it and the Chinese will have every respect that you have roughed it on the seats with them! Sharing snacks with others around you is a nice thing to do. You may even be invited to play cards or Chinese chess, if you can!

At busy times of the year you may have to stand for many hours as all seat tickets have been sold. The carriages will be swamped with people sleeping on the floor, in toilet units, on sinks, on top of one another and so on. Shortly after departure, a small desk in one of the seating carriages may open and sell a few upgrades to sleepers (this can turn into a real scrum). The advice is: book your tickets as early as possible – sleeper tickets are strongly recommended! Be warned that usually, non-terminus stations have relatively few tickets available.

Recently, new rules mean you have to show your passport (or a copy) when buying your ticket at the station (preferably in advance). Then make sure to take your passport with you (you will have to show it on entering the train station). Keep your bank cards, passport and so on on you (non-valuables can go into the rucksack).

Mostly, your experience of a busy Chinese train will be a great and fascinating one! (See festivals about avoiding trains during the busiest times of the year).