Imagine speeding by green terraced rice fields, nose pressed against cool glass, marveling at the craggy cliffs of dark mountains looming overhead. Or watching a pair of water buffalo splashing through a waterlogged rice paddy, and zipping by colorfully mismatched residences on the outskirts of bustling cities—all flying by at 300 km/h. Each year, China’s railways offer this experience to 1.5 billion passengers, along 100,000-some kilometers of train track. It’s the most popular form of distance travel in the most populated country in the world, and the network grows every day.
For Chinese, the train is a time-honored form of transportation, convenient as can be. For visitors, it’s a chance to travel the truly Chinese way, to see more breathtaking countryside sights, and maybe even to make friends with a cabin-mate or two.
However, the system can be hard to understand and even harder to navigate. So here’s a breakdown of everything you need know about traveling by train in China.
1. Categories of Trains – by speed and function
Chinese trains are categorized by speed or function, denoted by a capital letter: G, D, Z, C, T, K, L, etc. These actually refer to the first letter of the Chinese categorical name – for example, the current fastest high-speed bullet train is type G, which stands for Gāo Tiě (高铁 where 高 literally means “high”). A train number might be something like G143, a bullet train leaving Beijing South Station at 2:17pm tomorrow and arriving at Shanghai Hongqiao Station 5 hours and 22 minutes later. Crisscrossing the vast breadth of the country, China’s trains run 24 hours a day. Many offer sleeper cabins as well as seats – often in several different classes for a variety of price and comfort options.
2. Reserving Tickets in Advance – only 10-20 days ahead of departure
Clients often ask why we can’t confirm train numbers and times months or even weeks before the trip. The truth is, there is no way to reserve spots ahead of time, unlike air travel. Rather, tickets typically become available 10-20 days ahead of time, depending on the train. Demand is so high that tickets frequently sell out in a day or two.
3. Booking the Ticket – purchase in-person or by third-party agent
Finally, booking the train is the trickiest part of the process: only one ticket may be purchased per ID, and foreigners must either buy in-person or through a third-party agent (Chinese citizens have the option of ordering online or by telephone).
For WildChina travelers, we recommend booking trains of type G (which reach speeds of ~300 km/h), D (high-speed bullet trains which reach ~250 km/h), and Z (overnight express). Our policy is to buy tickets as soon as they go on sale and deliver them to our clients’ hands before they reach the train station.
Best and not-so-best times to travel by train:
Train travel is a great way to get down with the local Chinese—while still traveling in relative comfort.
However, there are certain times in which WildChina does not recommend traveling by train:
- Chinese National Week (the first week of October)
- The Spring Festival (which can hit anytime in January & February according to the lunar calendar)
- Other public holidays
During these peak vacation periods, tickets are nearly impossible to obtain and crowds are unpleasant. Trains are also difficult to book for cross-country travel, due to limited quantities. On these lengthy trips (Beijing to Lhasa, Tibet, currently takes up to 48 hours!), passengers experience the same space, food, and sanitation problems that beset all super-long-distance travel.
In most other cases, taking the train is a great way to travel around China—reliable and fast, authentic and enlightening. If you’re willing to brave the intricacies of the system, and amuse yourself with the overloaded carts of dried foods that parade down the aisles, it is worth it.
Sit back, relax, and enjoy the spectacular view.
Interested in learning more about travel in China? Do you have specific questions about train travel? Get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org!