If you’re going to travel through China via the railways, I suggest that you take my friend Evan along with you. He speaks Chinese. Just in case you’re not lucky enough to know Evan, here are a few tips to make your train trekking a little easier.

Planning your trip:

Railway tickets are next to impossible to procure over the internet; most stations only sell three days in advance, and seats are almost always available. The easiest way to buy a train ticket to is do it right before you want to leave. If you are an over planner, this might drive you crazy. On the flip side, if you’re in Beijing and you want to go to Shanghai, like, now: You can. My advice for planning your trip: Be spontaneous.

At the train station:

Train stations are just like the rest of China: Crowded. In my quest for efficiency I got in the shortest line to buy my ticket. About twenty minutes into the wait the guy behind me informed me (through use of pantomimes and limited English) that the line was for military personnel. Then I moved to the second shortest line, not realizing that it was comprised mainly of old people until I was shooed away for not being a senior citizen. My advice for the train station: Get in the longest line. That’s probably the one for you.

At the ticket counter:

The following is a conversation I had with a Chinese man as I was trying to get to Xilinhot.

Me: “Xilinhot”

Him: “Xilinhot?”

Me: “Xilinhot!”

Him: “Xilinhot?”

It took about five minutes for us to nail down the fact that I wanted to go to Xilinhot. Remember that long line behind me? They probably don’t want to wait around all day because my Chinese pronunciation sucks. My advice for the ticket counter: Before heading to the train station, prepare translations in Chinese characters of where you want to go. Friends, hoteliers and guidebooks can help you with this.  

 In the train:

The seats look like airplane seats but recline back way further and have tons of legroom. The scenery whizzing by is a blur of homes, high rises, temples, and rice farms. What used to be a four hour journey was shorted to 45 minutes due to the 300 kilometer per hour speed that the train was surpassing. My advice for the train: Enjoy the ride. It won’t last long.  

 

At your destination:

Once you zip across China via train, you’ll need to take a much slower mode of transportation to your hotel or final destination. Most Chinese taxi drivers are upstanding men and women, but there are a few scammers. I’ve heard stories about taxi drivers who take circuitous routes around the city to drive up prices, don’t turn on the meters, or simply stop in the middle of nowhere and demand more money. These stories all have a similar beginning: The scammed tourist was approached by a pushy taxi driver immediately after disembarking the train. My advice for getting to your final destination: Ignore anyone offering you a good price for a ride. Find the train station-sanctioned taxi stand instead. 

 

How to read your train ticket: 

 

  • 2011, 08, 01, 11:00: This is the date and time of my trip. I left on August 1st, 2011 at 11:00am. If I’d left at 11:00pm that would be displayed as 23:00.
  • 02,09: I was in car two, seat number nine.
  • HangZhou: This was my departure city.
  • G7310: This is the train number. Look for that number in the train station, and go to the indicated gate.
  • Shanghai HongQiao: This was my destination.
  • ¥ 82: The price. About $10. Cheap, huh?

My final advice: Do it! Train travel in China is fast and cheap. And even without Evan, it’s easy. Happy riding!