Travel China Overland: Surviving those train journeys

Travel China Overland: Surviving those train journeys

Part One of our Guide to Train Travel in China took you through the basics of booking train tickets, understanding your ticket type and getting to know the system for those overnight journeys. We thought that in Part Two it may be useful to go into a bit more detail about the train journeys themselves and how to survive those never-ending miles!

Hard Sleeper Vs Soft Sleeper

The first question that travellers usually ask themselves is “should I book a hard or a soft sleeper ticket?” and this was definitely high on our own list of “need to knows”. Luckily – we have a really straightforward answer for you… hard sleepers all the way!

We would definitely recommend you take Hard Sleepers – you’re on an adventure after all, so leave your Western mindset at home and muck in with the locals!

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Admittedly the beds are pretty thin and you are sleeping practically on top of random strangers but it’s so much more entertaining than soft sleeper carriages and so much fun. As far as we could see, the main differences between hard and soft sleepers are as follows:

• There are four beds in soft sleeper carriages rather than six
• The soft sleeper cabins have doors on them
• The beds are bigger and wider in the soft sleeper carriages
• The walkways are much narrower in the soft sleeper carriages with less seats and no tables, so you have no choice but to stay in your cabins
• The soft sleeper carriages are heated more and are therefore a lot stuffier than the hard sleeper carriages
• The stuffiness often means that they are a bit smelly – think passengers’ lunch left out in the heat.
• Soft sleepers are more expensive than hard sleepers
• You are more likely to bump into Westerners, which defeats the point of going to the Far East!

In contrast to this:

• The hard sleeper cabins do not have doors on them
• You will be clambering over and sleeping a lot closer to a random stranger than you may like
• You will meet all sorts of weird and wonderful locals in the hard sleepers
• The toilets and sinks are in the same condition as those in the soft sleeper carriages
• There are tables and chairs in the walkways so that you can get out of your cabin and enjoy the view
• The hard sleepers are considerably cheaper than soft sleepers
• Surviving a 19 hour journey on a hard sleeper in China really is an adventure you won’t forget in a hurry!

So, what shall we do for the next 15 hours?

Despite some incredibly long journeys, our railway adventures in Mainland China didn’t even come close to the 46 hour train we took from Lhasa, Tibet to Beijing. However, this encounter did prove extremely useful to us when it came to coping mechanisms…

Play I Spy
Ok, so this isn’t exactly a groundbreaking idea but a game of I Spy will keep you amused for a couple of hours.

Explore the train
Trains in China are pretty long, so take a stroll or two and see what you can find. Look out for lots of noisy Chinese school kids and sleeping guards.

Write a blog
Whether you keep a diary, notepad or laptop with you while you travel, use your downtime to reflect on your journey so far and make some notes about your experiences so that you can look back at them in years to come.

Take a pack of cards
Light and small, we would recommend to any train traveller to bring a pack of cards along. Even though we couldn’t remember how to play any of the card games we played at home, they kept us busy for a while. Plus we entertained the locals who wondered what on earth we were doing slamming our hands down onto the table and yelling “Snap”!

Tick off the hours
We actually did this on the train from Tibet – marked 46 lines on a sheet of paper and ticked them off hour by hour! Surprising how quickly time flies when you do this!

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Home comforts

By far the best feature of the trains in China are the hot water dispensers – despite the fact that they are a bit too close to the bathrooms for my liking, they really do make mealtimes easy! Thanks to these you can help yourself to a bowl of noodles or cup of herbal tea whenever you want.

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If it’s a long journey we would suggest that you grab some noodle boxes, dried fruit, chocolate, bottles of water, fizzy pop and any other snack you can think of and just sit back and relax until you get hungry. Don’t be tempted to buy food from the restaurant carriage or food carts on the train – if you smelt the kitchen cabin – you’d understand why! Pretty revolting.

While there are toilets, sinks and mirrors on the train, there are no showers. So if you want to keep your hygiene standards high, make sure you pack some baby wipes too. These were a godsend for us on overnight trains.

To enhance your comfort levels while you sleep you may also want to pack a travel pillow. The covers are all clean but a little bit thin, so to ward of the chill during the night, keep a jumper with you as you snuggle up to your fellow passengers!

So that’s it folks – our guide to surviving the long train journeys in China. Hopefully you haven’t been put off hard sleepers and have an idea of how to cope on a sleeper train when it comes to getting some kip, feeding yourself and keeping yourself entertained!

Next time, we’ll delve a little deeper into navigating the towns and cities of China and let you know how we went about visiting those tourist hotspots without forking out for expensive tours!…


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  1. December 15, 14:57 #1 Aisleen Author

    Hi Emily, am so glad u found our post helpful! The sleeper carriages tend to hav little cubby holes for ur bags if u are on the top bunk and if u are on the bottom bunk u can fit bags underneath the bed…the middle bunks are the only ones where u could hav trouble but we tended to share the space under the bed- most people are pretty friendly and they all recognise the storage problems!! With the seated carriages it depends on the trains but u will usually find luggage space in the same places u would on our trains..above heads and under seats!

    Security wise however, u will have to watch your belongings as the trains we were on didnt exactly have any secure storage! You cant really lock your stuff up unfortunately!

  2. December 14, 22:06 #2 Emily

    I was just looking up info about Chinese trains in preparation for my trip next year and stumbled upon this…what a great post! Definitely going to take these pointers on board. I have one question though… Where do bags go on the trains and how safe are they?? Cheers.

  3. April 21, 11:12 #3 Richard

    Hi Ellen, No problem! We hope that it comes in useful when you move – how exciting! Good Luck.

  4. April 20, 23:40 #4 The Time-Crunched Traveler (Ellen)

    Thanks so much for sharing this! This is is really good information to know as we are likely moving to China later this year! Take care!