The Chinese Train Travel Experience
Traveling by train in China is probably the closest you can get as a tourist to a deeper understanding of how the people in China live. This is because you are traveling with a lot of other Chinese people, and there is a lot of time in between city to city to experience, observe, and even talk to the people around you. Most people attest that when traveling around China, going by train is the best way to enjoy the lovely countryside and to do as the Chinese do.
Trains are also very convenient for long distance travel. They are cheaper than getting around by plane, and quicker and less crowded than traveling by bus. Every city in China can be reached by train thanks to China's well developed and expansive rail system.
How to ride the trains
There are four categories of train travel in China.
The cheapest are the Yingzuo or hard seats, which may not be good to sit on if yours is a long journey. Also, it is the most crowded way to travel.
The next category, which not all trains have, are the soft seats (Ruanzuo) which may mean extra cloth over a hard seat. But sometimes there is more space and comfort in this class. Some trains with soft seats will also serve tea.
Sleepers are the best way to go if you are a foreigner. Especially, if you are traveling overnight, a sleeper is well worth the extra expense. There are two types of sleepers. The Hard Sleepers (Yingwo, YW) have a hard mattress with a pillow and blanket, with triple bunks. For privacy the top bunk is best, but the middle bunk is good for privacy and more space. The bottom bunk will, by day, transform to a 'sofa' because the people in the upper bunks will use it as a place to sit.
The most luxurious way to travel is on the Soft Sleepers (Ruanwo), but not many trains have this. In this class there are only two to four bunks in a cabin, with a soft mattress, linen blanket, pillow, towel and slippers. There will be teacups and a thermos of hot water, too. In the other sections of the train the radio plays all day, but in the soft sleeper you can turn it off. Be sure to avoid some beds which may be near the toilet, to avoid extra noise and unpleasant smells.
In the train, you may experience some interesting things which you may find surprising. Here are some of them and what you can do:
Somebody sleeping in your seat
You book a hard seat, but someone is sleeping on 3 seats, one of which is yours. Not to worry, just wake them up, they won't mind. And you can do the same if you are tired and there are two free seats beside you. It is different if someone is sitting on your seat. Simply take the next free seat to avoid unnecessary confrontation. If all other seats are taken then showing your ticket to the misplaced passenger should do the trick.
Sleeper car tickets
In sleeper cars, the conductor may take your ticket. Don't worry—he'll give you a voucher for it and even tell you 30 minutes before your stop that you are nearing your destination, and give you back your ticket. This will save you from fretting about whether your stop is coming up soon or not.
Chinese are friendly and curious about foreigners, especially in parts of the country where few foreigners visit. They may ask you a lot of questions. Sometimes they just want to improve their English. This is a great opportunity for conversation with the Chinese and to get the feel of the people. So be friendly, too. But if you are tired, you may want to travel in a higher class or at least a higher bunk so that you can chat when you wish, and rest when you want to as well.
In the train, toilets are simply a hole in the ground with two side ledges to squat on. If one third of the world's population can do it, so can you. Bring your own toilet paper.
Most of the trains have no place to throw your garbage. You are expected to throw your trash on the floor or out the window, though tossing out the window is not environmentally kind. A cleaning lady will sweep the floor and throw it out the window, anyway.
Traveling around China by train is unique and exciting. If you are a serious traveler, you must make train travel a part of your China experience.
Lyndsey writes for briefcases, a website that offers luxury briefcases direct from the manufacturer. Lyndsey currently lives in Kolkata, India where she is studying the Bengali language.
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