Railroad travel in China can be challenging for a foreign tourist who doesn't speak the language. However, it can also enable the budget traveler to reach destinations such as Chengdu, in range of jaw-dropping treks at Emei Shan, and Guilin, a quick bus ride away from the steep karst peaks of Yangshuo.
Planning a Trip
China railroad schedules are available online: Z, C and D trains are the fastest, followed by T and K, followed by everything else. Seat61.com offers a rundown of differences. Avoid train travel around "Spring Festival" and the fall holiday: Routes are always overbooked.
Buying Tickets at the Station
Buying tickets from the station of departure several days in advance is the cheapest way to buy train tickets in China, when possible. Railroad travelers should bring the written names of desired destinations and routes: Not all China railroad station personnel speak English.
Other Ways to Buy Tickets
Online travel agencies such as chinatraintickets.net offer reserved tickets with large fees. Local travel agents charge smaller fees; when possible, local agencies constitute a better way to get train tickets in China.
Types of Sleeper Berths
"Soft sleepers" offer greater luxury than "hard sleepers," but the difference is not extreme.
Types of Seats
"Soft seats," on the other hand, are far less crowded and better maintained than "hard seats."
Taking the Trip
Snacks are sold at train stations and on trains, but bring a bag lunch. Railroad travelers with a "hard seat" should expect an immersive people-watching experience.