So, you’re thinking of travelling to China. You’ve always wanted to go but the prospect itself is quite daunting. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be. Yes, you might get a little confused at times, and it won’t always be easy, but with a little planning it’s very possible to travel across China independently. It’s also a lot of fun!
Now, if like most travellers you’re on a budget but want to squeeze in as much as you can then I have some bad news for you. China is just massive. The distances in China are huge, and unless you’re either feeling a little flush or like spending time in regional airports then travelling by train is the way to go. The train network in China is very good and presents a much cheaper option than taking a domestic flight. It’s also a great way to experience a little part of Chinese travelling culture as well.
The longer routes run overnight and they’re called Sleeper Trains. The trains have different sleeping arrangements: hard sleeper (equivalent to 2nd class) and soft sleeper (equivalent to 1st class). A ‘hard sleeper’ is not what you may think…. it actually offers practically the same bed as you would receive if you booked a soft sleeper.
This is the cheapest class of sleeper and therefore the choice of many backpackers. These cabins have 6 beds, 3 on each side, in each carriage. The carriages are open plan with ladders to climb to the top bunk along a dividing wall. Contrary to it name, hard sleepers are still quite comfortable and reasonably padded. All bedding is provided.
Soft sleeper: These cabins are a little more spacious and comfortable with 4 beds, 2 on each side, in each carriage. These are also converted to two sofas for daytime use. The cabins can also be closed and locked at securely locked at night. As with hard sleepers, all bedding is provided.
Deluxe Soft Sleeper:
These are only available on some of the main routes and can be very difficult to get hold of. The cabins sleep just 2 people and often have a private toilet and washroom. They can be very expensive however, and will not be the same experience as sharing a berth.
Getting on the right train
Finding the right train is relatively easy. Train departure and arrival information can be found on large signs at the train station. These are of course in Chinese, so not particularly helpful if you language skills are not up to scratch. Thankfully though, the information isn’t provided by destination, but by train identification number, the same in any language! Just check this against the number located on your ticket and you’re set. You’ll probably have difficultly reading anything else on your ticket since everything is in Chinese. Even if this fails, you won’t be short of people offering to help. One of the upsides of standing out in the crowd!
Most trains depart right on time and if you try to be at the platform gate one hour before departure, you’ll usually be allowed to enter the train. If you run into any difficulties there is a train steward in each train carriage. Your train ticket also indicates which carriage and bed number you have been allocated. The train stewardess will collect your card and give you a type of ‘credit card’ with your seat number on it in return. You’ll have to keep this card with you during your trip. A half hour before arrival at your destination, the stewardess will come back and collect the card and return your original train ticket to you. This is also a useful wake- up call to prepare you for your arrival!
Eating on board: Food options on the train are limited to say the least. A cart with a very small assortment of snacks will ride through the train, your main choice being a selection of instant noodles. If like me, you’re not a fan of these (I’m not sure who is) then follow the Chinese example and bring along your own water, food and drinks for the journey.
Other Practicalities: In each carriage there are toilets and a washroom with cold water. Freshen up if you will, however don’t expect to be able to wash in there! Your best bet is to just board the train in something comfortable that you can sleep in, rather than getting changed. Face wipes are great to have with you if you’re feeling a little stinky! It’s also handy to bring some toilet paper with you as often this is not supplied on the train. Most nights spent on trains are quiet and peaceful since the Chinese also try to get a good night’s sleep on board. You will then arrive at your destination bright and early in the morning, ready for the next adventure that awaits you!
Fingers crossed that this information will inch you closer to taking the plunge and choosing to plan your trip to China. It’s such an amazing, diverse country, and however you choose to do it you’re sure to have a pretty unbeatable experience. Now get booking!
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