China Overland…why train travel is the only way to go!

China Overland…why train travel is the only way to go!

Eighteen months ago Richard and I spent an amazing five weeks travelling China by train on what is possibly the best railway system in the world. Not because it’s all brand new, shiny and built by railway engineering geniuses but simply because it WORKS. If you’re from the UK or any other country plagued by the frustratingly useless railway service provided by privately run train operators, you’ll understand just how important this is.

Travelling by train in China really is a breeze – it’s cheap, efficient, straightforward and to top it all off, an adventure in its own right. But before we had experienced this for ourselves, the thought of buying tickets or planning a trip in a country where neither of us could speak or read the language brought both of us out in a cold sweat. In China, we were way out of our comfort zones and arriving in Beijing for our first bout of truly independent travelling was extremely daunting!

Our Chinese adventure went a little bit like this…

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We travelled from Beijing to Xian, taking in the Great Wall and the Terracotta Army as we went; then onto Zhengzhou where we made our way to the small town of DengFeng to visit the Shaolin Temple. After that, we headed towards the East coast to Shanghai where we drank wine at Cloud 9, the highest bar in the world! It was then onto Hong Kong where we sampled the famous Hong Kong Hot Pot and finally to Nanning via Guangzhou before entering Vietnam for the next leg of our journey. We travelled over 4000kms in a combination of overnight sleeper trains, seated trains and buses and guess what? We didn’t get lost once!

Booking tickets, finding stations and planning your route is much more straightforward than many travel agents and booking services would have you think, so to enable you to travel independently around China and avoid paying extortionate agency fees, we’ve put together a little Guide to Train Travel in China…

Buying railway tickets in China

One of the first things you will wonder when you start to plan your journey is where on earth to buy tickets from. The chances are that, like us, you can’t speak a word of Chinese or can just about remember the phrases nihao (hello), xièxiè and zaijian (goodbye) under pressure! We found that by far the best starting point was the good old internet.

We found some extremely useful websites which not only gave us an idea of which onward routes were available from which city but also of the length of journey and approximate ticket price. The best ones we came across were…

Having done our research we could then take our knowledge to the railway station or ticket office and explain what we wanted, knowing whether or not the price was being ‘slightly inflated’.

Knowing the length of each journey also means that you can plot the next stage of your journey more efficiently and make sure that you book any accommodation you may need for the right day. It can get especially confusing when taking overnight trains so pay attention to the arrival time and date to make sure you don’t leave yourself without a roof over your head once you arrive. We messed up when getting to Hong Kong from Shanghai – we obviously hadn’t read our tickets properly and turned up a day late for our hotel booking at Chungking Mansions! (luckily they could still accommodate us but we did have to pay for the extra day that we didn’t use – oops!). That was the first and last time we ever cocked up however!

English Speaking Counters

As for actually purchasing the tickets – you’ll be pleased to know that many of the main railway stations (including Shanghai, Hong Kong, Xian and Beijing) have an English speaking ticket counter. Here is a pic of the one in Shanghai…

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While we were there the counter was number 10 but this often changes so you’ll just have to keep your eyes peeled. You may find that there is a bit of a queue for the English counters but it’s worth the wait for the reassurance of buying the correct ticket!

New rules introduced in June 2011 mean that you need to bring your passport when booking tickets for all high-speed C, D and G category trains. You’ll also need your passport to board the train.

ICBC Banks

The biggest tip we can give people who are looking to buy train tickets while in Xian, is to go to the nearest ICBC (Industrial and Commercial Bank of China). All ICBC banks in Xian have ticket booking facilities so if you know which onward route you want to take, you may want to think about booking as many tickets as you can from here. We used the ICBC bank on Nan da Jie, at the corner of Fen Xiang road (not far past the Louis Vutton shop on the left hand side if you are approaching from the South Gate). The booking window is on the side of the building with the words ‘Railway Tickets’ written above it in English!

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China Railways counter, Hong Kong

Hung Hom station in Hong Kong is the place to go if you want to book train tickets while in this part of the country. Visit the China Railways desk where there are a couple of staff members there who speak very good English. You may have to wait around for one of them but we found them to be extremely helpful. Just tell them exactly where and when you want to travel and they will show you all of the times and prices – they will even write down your route in Chinese for you in case you get lost along the way and need to ask for help!

C, D, G, T, Z, K..?

If you’re new to train travel in China, these six letters will mean absolutely nothing to you so let me explain! These refer to the categories of trains available and indicate which ones are slow, old and rickety or fast, new and snazzy!

We experienced a range of different category trains throughout our travels and can honestly say that even the worst ones (some haven’t even earned a category, just a number) are on about the same level of comfort and cleanliness as many of our UK trains.

The older trains will take longer to reach your destination than the newer ones, so this is one thing you may want to consider when booking, but apart from that I wouldn’t worry too much about the category itself.

In a nutshell:

The C, D & G trains are the snazziest. We took a D category Bullet Train from Zhengzhou to Shanghai which was a seven hour journey in the seated carriage. Ultra modern and fast, you can’t go wrong with any of these categories.

Z trains are “direct” trains with no stops and have a top speed of around 160km/h. This is the type of train we took from Beijing to Xian. Unfortunately we couldn’t get a sleeper carriage for the eleven hour journey so had to sit in the seated carriage all night! Can’t really fault it though – whilst uncomfortable if you’re trying to sleep the journey was smooth, fast, clean and quiet!

T trains are slightly older than the Z trains but still pretty modern. They are also slightly slower than Z trains and you will find that there are more stops along the way, making your journey longer. We took T trains between Shanghai and Hong Kong (a sleeper carriage for a nineteen hour trip) and also between Hong Kong and Guangzhou (which was only a 2 hour journey).

Our journey between Xian and Zhengzhou was taken on a train with no category at all – just four digits. These are the slowest trains and the hard sleeper carriages really do resemble prison trains but again, we didn’t have much to moan about. They are a bit rough around the edges and the bunks are not particularly comfy but if you need to get from A to B overnight and on the cheap, these trains will do the trick!

Understanding your ticket type

As you can imagine, trying to read a ticket which is mostly in Chinese is pretty difficult at first. Just the Start and End points are noted in English, along with the number of the train, date and times. The type of berth is displayed as a Chinese symbol so to help you figure out which bunk is yours, here’s a quick overview of what means what:

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We were going to take a photo of one of our tickets so that we could point out all of the info you need to know, but the man in Seat 61 has already done this, so we thought we may as well use his excellent graphic instead…

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Making sense of the system

So you’ve figured out your route, you’ve managed to buy your ticket and you know what time you are going to arrive at your destination, the only thing left is the journey itself.
If you’re booked onto a sleeper train and don’t know the system you are guaranteed to get confused the first time you hop onboard! English is NOT widely spoken on the trains so to give you a bit of a heads up, here’s what will happen…

Once you have found your carriage/ berth and settled in, you will get a visit from the train conductor who will probably just hold out their hand and look at you expectantly. They are after your ticket. When you hand it over you will be given a metal card in return and the conductor will tuck your ticket away in a big black folder. You will need to hold onto this blank card for the duration of your journey until around 15 minutes before your arrival time when the conductor will return and swap it for your ticket once again!

Don’t ask us WHY they do this – I’m sure it makes sense to them but at least now you know what to expect and you won’t end up accusing the conductor of trying to steal your ticket!

We hope that part one of our Guide to Train Travel in China has been helpful – in part two we’ll talk more about surviving those long train journeys and answer the age old question of whether you really should ‘splash’ out on soft sleeper carriages…


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  1. January 13, 21:43 #1 Aisleen Author

    Hi Lisa,

    We got our visas for Vietnam from the Vietnamese Embassy in Hong Kong – they do a half hour express service there so it’s really simple, you just need to fill in an application form and take your passport and one photo then wait for half an hour until they process it! – sorry, I can’t remember what the fee was for this but we paid a bit extra for express as we were leaving the next day! As for how long we stayed in each place….well let me try work this out! We were in China overall for about five weeks; as far as I remember this comprised of approximately…. a week in Tibet; five days in Beijing; three days in Xian; two days in Dengfung; five days in Shanghai; a week in Hong Kong and another couple of days ‘lost in transit’

    Hope that helps! 🙂

  2. January 13, 11:48 #2 LISA

    I’d be interested to know how long you spent in each place? It looks like you visited most of the cities we are looking to visit later this year but I’m unsure how long we’ll need in each place to make the most of it. Equally we are looking to hop across to Japan for a few weeks in the middle of our trip so need to know timings in order to apply for our dual-entry visa.
    Also, where did you sort your vietnam visa?
    Lisa 🙂

  3. May 08, 14:11 #3 Aisleen Author

    Hello Berenice, Thank you so much for your message and we’re so pleased that our post has given you some useful info! There is so much you can do in China – you must visit the Great Wall – it’s amazing (we went to the Jinshanling section as much more of the original wall is still in tact there), and of course try to sample some ‘real’ Peking Duck while in Beijing too! There is great shopping for your daughter in Wangfujing Street – around 8 minutes walk from Tiananmen Square. Shanghai and Hong Kong are also fantastic places to shop. If you have a bit of a browse around our website (just search for ‘China’ in the search box) you’ll be able to see some of the things we got up to when we travelled between Beijing and Hong Kong, so hopefully that may give you a bit of inspiration!

  4. May 08, 13:31 #4 Berenice Fillmore

    what wonderful insight you have just given me as we are planning a trip the end of the year. my daughter is going on school trip to vietnam and finish off on the 23rd Dec 2012, we thought of meeting her there but she is now insisting we travel to china instead. we travelling from south africa and want to meet her in beijing (maybe) and do your train trip and go home from their? we have 3 weeks – obviously lots of shopping required as my daughter is 17 years old.