China Train Travel: China boasts one of the best rail networks in the world and it’s easy to reach anywhere in the country by train (plus many routes to neighbouring countries and beyond).
China Railways’ fleet of high speed bullet trains travel at 250km/h and make an excellent way of getting from city to city. The older and slower regular trains are a great way of travelling long distances and you can save on accommodation and wake up at your destination.
Types of train in China
There are two types of train in China; High Speed train and regular (slow) trains.
CRH High Speed Train
With a top speed of 350 km/h and 30,000 km of track, China’s high speed rail accounts for almost 70% of the world’s high speed rail networks.
The trains are super modern and very comfortable. Facilities on board include a dining car, free hot water for drinks and noodles, western-style toilets and 3 classes of seats:
- 2nd Class Seat – 5 seats in a row (2 on one side of the isle and 3 on the other)
- 1st Class Seat – 4 seats in a row (2 on each side of the isle)
- *Business Class Seat – 3 seats in a row (1 on one side of the isle, and 2 on the other)
*Not all high speed trains have a business class.
Slow and steady wins the race with China’s regular rail network. What can be more enjoyable than watching the world go by at a comfortable pace while eating snacks or drinking a beer before retiring to a comfortable bed and waking up refreshed at your destination? The regular trains have the added bonus of working kitchens in the restaurant car (unlike the high speed trains which just re-heat pre-prepared meals).
Regular trains usually have 4 ticket types:
- Standing – no seat (not recommended for anything other than very short trips)
- Hard Seat – 5 seats in a row (2 on one side of the isle and 3 on the other)
- Hard Sleeper – open plan carriage with 6 beds per section
- Soft Sleeper – 4 berth closed compartment
How to buy China train tickets
Tickets go on sale 30 days in advance.
Where can I buy tickets?
You can buy tickets at any station and the large number of China Railways ticket offices located across China’s cities and towns.
If you buy your tickets online, you will be emailed confirmation with your ticket pickup number. Take this to any station or ticket office and you can collect the tickets for a ¥5 fee (free if at the station of departure).
I find it’s always a good idea to pick up all tickets well in advance to save having to queue at the train station ticket offices, which can get busy and risk missing your train.
Tickets can sell out very quickly so it’s always best to book as early as possible. That said, nearer the date of departure additional tickets may become available as people cancel.
Arriving at the station
Most large towns and cities have 4 main stations, so always check which one your train departs from (it will be printed on the ticket in Pinyin – see below).
North – Bei (北), East – Dong (东), South – Nan (南), West – Xi (西)
If you need to transfer from one station to another to complete your journey, use the metro or take a taxi. As the stations are usually all close to the downtown area, a taxi shouldn’t cost much). Metered taxis will be waiting in an assigned area of the station, signposted in English.
Train stations in China tend to be very large and include a lot of security checks, very similar to airports.
Signs around the station include English translations so it’s relatively easy to navigate.
The ticket office is in a separate building, usually adjoined to the station. Follow signs for the ticket office if you need to pick up or buy a ticket before entering the main station.
Once you have your ticket, first you must show this along with your passport (foreigners) or ID card (Chinese citizens) before entering the station.
Entering the Station
After showing your ticket, you then proceed to the baggage scanning area. See list of prohibited items below. Put your bags on the conveyor belt and proceed through the metal detector where security staff will scan you and pat you down.
Although these security precautions can sometimes cause gridlock and large queues, they usually move pretty quickly.
Once you are inside the station concourse, check the boards for your train. The information will be in Chinese, but you can find your train number, the time and the correct waiting room.
Each train has its own waiting room so be sure to go to the correct one as indicated on the display boards featured throughout the station.
The waiting rooms will have seats, toilets and usually a shop selling drinks and snacks (more expensive than buying beforehand) and some waiting rooms have charging stations for electronic devices.
Knives (including small penknives)*
*If you travel with a Swiss Army knife or similar small pen-knife, as a traveller you will usually be allowed to keep this (except in Xinjiang region, read here about how I lost my prized Swiss Army knife). The security staff may take your name and passport details and wrap the knife for you in tape. On other occasions they will just wave you through.
China shares land borders with 14 countries and has rail links to Almaty (Kazakhstan), Ulan Bataar (Mongolia), Pyongyang (North Korea) and Moscow (Russia), plus long distance bus links and ferries to many more (if you want to get to Korea or Japan from China without flying, you can read how to do that on my China to Korea post).
You can only buy international tickets at the relevant departure stations or using websites like RealRussia.
See Seat61‘s excellent website for more information on domestic and international train travel.
Want to know how to travel to China along the Silk Road? Check out my article on How to Travel from London to Beijing.
Know your China Train ticket!
Above left is the regular ticket if purchased at the station of departure, and above right is the ticket you will receive if you pick up from a ticketing office.
Information circled tells you all you need to know including train number, departure station, destination station, date, time, carriage, seat and cost. On high speed tickets the waiting room number is displayed in the top right corner.
I have travelled on China’s railway network hundreds of times, and never had a problem, however as with public transport anywhere in the world, there is a risk of theft or lost luggage. Get a free quote below from our travel insurance partners at World Nomads.
So, now you know everything there is to know about train travel in China, you just need to decide where to go. Below is a selection of interesting destinations:
Beijing to Xian is a popular route. Find out the timetable and prices here!
Need a VPN for China? Discover the best Virtual Private Network for travelling in China.