Rather than trying to endure heavy traffic or pay for airfare, many of China's visitors and residents alike opt to travel by train. Not only is the railway system safe and reliable, but with cheap prices, it will take you almost anywhere you need to go. If you're a beginner, however, being able to grasp how this method of transportation works can be tricky and confusing. Here's what you need to know.
As a large country, China has a massive train network that stretches across the country. And in particular, they actually have the biggest high speed rail network in the world. One of the most important things to understand about China's railway system is the difference between high-speed trains and regular trains.
When traveling from city to city, the high-speed train system can be more convenient and a lot faster than taking a regular train. These high-speed trains are referred to as "bullet" or "fast" trains--and for good reason too: their top speed can be anywhere from 186-217 mph. Not only does this make it a quick commute to travel place to place, but it's a lot more convenient and just as secure as flying (with a more affordable price tag).
As far as comfort goes, these bullet trains excel in this area as well. You can choose between booking a soft-sleeper compartment (this 4-berth compartment contains two sofas/beds, a table, and an individual TV) or a hard-sleeper compartment (with bedding and open-plan bunks in a bay of six). For passengers with a taste for luxury, the deluxe soft-sleeper option includes a private toilet and only 2-berths. (Just keep in mind--not all bullet trains offer the deluxe option, and these compartments often get booked by government officials.) Generally, though, no matter what kind of accommodations you choose, you can expect to be comfortable with bedding and laptop/phone outlets.
There are three types of seats that can be purchased on a Chinese train: a business class seat, a first class or a second class seat. The biggest difference between these three is space--the business class is the most expensive of the three, but it also has the most room to stretch out. Still, you can expect any seat you purchase to come with a small foldable table and at least one outlet to use (some bullet and fast trains also have Wi-Fi.)
Other than the bullet trains, there are three main types of trains to take: Z, T or K trains. Z trains are also known as express sleeper trains and are known to be very comfortable. T and K trains, on the other hand, are not quite as high-quality as a bullet or Z train, but you can still expect them to be equipped with air-conditioning and fairly modern (but don't count on there being electrical sockets.)
As far as facilities go, most Chinese trains contain dining cars, and all of them will have restrooms. (Some K or T trains don't have dining cars, but they do have staff members who walk through the aisle with a dining cart.) The one thing to watch for is the type of toilet--particularly for non-Chinese travelers. While many bathrooms do have western toilets, others still contain the traditional Chinese squatting toilet--which is just a hole in the floor.
Train tickets can be purchased four ways: through an online agency, at a ticket outlet or railway station in China, on the official China Railway Corporation website or by calling the official hotline. When buying your ticket, make sure you have some form of identification--for international travelers, this includes a passport.
For English speakers who know little or no Chinese, the best way to purchase your ticket is through an online agency (such as cTrip or China Travel Guide) as the China Railway Corporation website is available only in Chinese, and the only accepted form of payment is a Chinese bank card. There are also some new apps on the market that provide services to foreigners and can assist in purchasing train tickets.
If you're purchasing a ticket in person at a railway station or ticket outlet, keep in mind that the pre-sale period is 28 days before your departure (compared to thirty days if you buy online.) If you don't know Chinese, make sure that you look up what train you need to take and its schedule on an online agency before going--the boards are only in Chinese. When doing this, it's a good idea to write down the train you're taking and the schedule to present to a staff member when you arrive (and don't count on them all to speak English). It's also a good idea to have a second and third choice of a train if your first choice is sold out--this can definitely happen around the holiday season or with popular routes.
Though it may be tempting to use a ticket vending machine at the railway station rather than wait in the long line, keep in mind that these machines only recognize Chinese issued ID cards. Finally, don't forget to bring 5 CNY with you--this is the typical service fee when buying a train ticket.
As mentioned before, the China Railway Corporation website only uses Chinese if you're looking to use this method. Along with language skills, you'll also need a Chinese banking card and the website will require a phone number that is based somewhere in China. Be careful with the booking system--when buying the ticket, your name must exactly match on both your ID and in the booking system. This can be tedious but if you aren't cautious, it could result in a failed purchase.
The last way to buy a ticket is by calling the hotline (95105105). The important thing here is to keep a pen and paper handy to write down all your information and to be able to communicate in Chinese.
Outside the building, you can expect to see an information board with the train schedules and the time for when you can enter the building. Once you are allowed entry, there will be conductors and self-service machines checking tickets. Metal detectors and a moving conveyer belt will also generally be located here as part of the security process. If you need to purchase a ticket, vending machines and ticket outlets are usually right outside, and as long as you can speak Chinese, the staff can help you with any questions you might have. Left luggage and baggage check-in counters aren't far away either, but make sure to bring 5-10 CNY for service fees if you plan to use them.
Inside the station, you'll find an LED information board lit up that will explain what waiting room you should go to. After punching in your ticket or having it checked by another conductor, you can head into the designated waiting room until it's time to depart. If you need to, you can rent a luggage locker to store your stuff. There are also restaurants, bathrooms, and shops located at most stations (though it depends on the size) where you can occupy yourself until it's time to go. To get onto your train, you'll use platforms and stairways, which are numbered and easy to follow.
As mentioned before, it's likely that you'll encounter a language barrier when purchasing your ticket and speaking with staff at the railway station. However, many stations do have at least one window that offers services to English speakers. Still, maneuvering the train station can be difficult, and if you aren't traveling with someone who speaks Chinese, there is one good way to conquer the language barrier: learn useful Chinese phrases.
Some of the online agencies that allow you to purchase tickets also contain pages with useful Chinese phrases for when you're traveling by train. These include questions like: "Excuse me. Where is the train station?" and, "Which ticket window offers English services?" Memorizing some of these phrases is definitely a good idea in case you end up at a station where nobody seems to speak English.
Another option is to use your SmartPhone with some helpful language apps to communicate / translate for you. A final option is to look for a manager, bigger train stations in major cities may have a few management level people who know a small bit of English and can assist you.
As far as luggage goes, try to pack light. If you're seated on a T or K train, you can expect luggage storage space to be limited, but soft and hard sleepers usually have more room. Regardless of storage though, traveling in China with a lot of luggage--especially as a foreigner with limited knowledge of the area--can be risky. It can definitely make you an easy target for muggers.
Make sure you always arrive early to the station--two hours is recommended--especially in larger railway stations. Oftentimes, ticket counters, waiting rooms and other facilities can be located at a distance, and it can take more time than you think to find where you need to be.
Lastly, buy your tickets as early as possible. During the Spring Festival Rush or National Day, train tickets have been known to sell out in a matter of minutes. Even if it isn't a peak season, it's still smart to plan ahead. This way, if something changes, you'll still have time to change trains or dates without too much of a hassle.
For many of China's residents and visitors, the train system is perfect for traveling city-to-city. As long as you're prepared, use common sense and understand the basics of the railway system, using the train can be a pleasant experience--and save you a few bucks from having to buy a plane ticket.