Riding the rails is truly one of the joys of traveling in China, a fast and affordable way of covering the country’s great distances. Understanding the efficiency of overnight travel, the train system offers many of the most common routes as nighttime runs, with your choice of dirt cheap hard seat, economic hard sleeper (which is not so hard) or comfortable soft sleeper. A long ride also gives you the opportunity to, in effect, live with a group of locals, a microcosm of Chinese customs and habits on display. Some photographs, showing life on Chinese trains.
A vendor on a train station platform. Train stations in China actually have very few platform vendors, and the selection is no greater than that available on the train, somewhat less fun than, say, their Indian counterparts. It may be that the authorities have cracked down on vendors to reduce clutter on the platform (and facilitate the most efficient flow of passengers), while increasing their own onboard profits.
Train K592 from Dunhuang to Xian. The “K” stands for “kwai,” or fast. Other letter designations include “T” for special (“tebie”) tourist routes, “Z” for exclusively soft-sleeper runs such as those from Beijing to Shanghai and “D” for the new high-speed/bullet trains.
Hard seat. Hard seat is the cheapest mode of long-distance travel in China, and you can buy a hard seat ticket even if the train is full, on a “no seat” basis. We’ve met tourists who take hard seat almost exclusively, but given that seats don’t recline and legroom can be quite limited (picture your knees in the crotch of the guy across from you), most opt against hard seat for all but the shortest rides.
Hard sleeper, the most common choice of backpackers and budget travelers in China, including us. The beds themselves are pretty cushy, with clean and comfortable bedding, and there are two jumpseats along the window providing additional seating during the day. On the other hand, the beds themselves are somewhat narrower than bunks on Indian trains, and there is no “conversion” to daytime seating–the bunks are fixed. The lower bunk is the most expensive, and for us the least preferred because the space is shared during the day. The top bunk is cheapest and most private, but offers the least room.
In the middle, a small table, a garbage can and a thermos for hot water.
Soft sleeper. I’ve never actually traveled on soft sleeper, but the biggest difference seems to be that the bunks (four to a set) are in an enclosed, lockable compartment. If traveling in a group of three or four, it’d be great fun; otherwise, it’s hard to justify the somewhat considerable expense (not much less than a discounted airplane ticket).
Dining car. The food is fairly mediocre and somewhat pricey–much worse standards than the average restaurant in China–but for me eating in a dining car is one of the greatest joys of train travel, perhaps one of the greatest joys of travel, period!
Less expensive box meals and snacks are sold on carts that travel throughout the train.
In addition to food, attendants try to sell the strangest things, from lighters and keychains to strange gold commemorative plates.
In each car (as in every Chinese hotel room) is boiling water, for tea and instant noodles.
How do the Chinese pass the time on the long train journeys?
Chinese pasttime #1: gambling. Well, these people probably aren’t gambling, but you certainly do see a lot of people playing cards.
Chinese people love to snack (like anyone, I guess), and especially on sunflower seeds. Thankfully manners have improved such that the husks are not just spat out on the floor.
Corn on the cob
Smoking is near the doors, the passengers areas being strictly no-smoking (although occasionally this rule requires some policing).