Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Standing, Hard Seaters, and Sleepers in China’s Railway Trains – Guide and Travel Report

China is a LARGE country, a fact everybody knows. I was expecting that it would be hard to go around as I only expected planes and buses will be the only means of transportation – I was wrong. China’s extensive connection of railway trains presents a very efficient way on traveling the country.

china train
Pingyao Railway Train Station

Before arriving, I have read on Tripadvisor that it is advisable to buy tickets in advance. I would have loved to buy all my tickets online but the charge plus shipping fee was very pricey and puts me way over my budget. I decided to risk it and just buy the tickets when I arrive in China. Beijing Capital Airport has an office where you could buy railway train tickets but other travelers prefer to do it online via a travel agency.  To check out updated train schedules and fares , do check out at Travel China Guide.

There are three types of ways you can travel by train: by sleeper (soft sleeper  ruǎnwò  软卧 and hard sleeper yìngwò  硬卧), by seats (soft seat ruǎnzuò  软坐 and hard seat yìngzuò  硬坐) and standing (zhànpiào 站票). The ticket fare will also depend on which type of train or category of ticket you get.

Even with minimal command of the language, I was able to buy most of the tickets and had no problems at all! The trick is to have your destination and other details written in Chinese. Plan ahead and if possible, buy your tickets in advance. Quick note though that they do not give out discounts to foreigners who study abroad.

Though I have to admit, my strategy on when to purchase them was the worse. Because I had no strict itinerary and was on a flexible schedule, I decided not to book any train tickets not until two days before my planned departure.

Standing Train on an 8-hour trip from Datong to Pingyao
I’ve had the opportunity to buy a hard-seater on my first China train trip from Datong to Pingyao in Beijing Airport but figured I’d be able to find some travel agency when I arrive in Datong that has an available hard sleeper for the same date because I figured I don't want to sit for 8 hours. Turns out, my hostel didn’t know any agency so my only option was to buy directly at the train station. I checked online if there was still an available hard seater ticket for the date that I wanted and guess what? *Drum roll*…. SOLD OUT! I tried to look if there were any seats for grabs for the next day morning, and there was still nothing! I wanted to move in to Pingyao as soon as possible and did not want to take the bus that will take two transfers of Datong – Taiyuan then Taiyuan – Pingyao, so I bit the bullet and bought a standing ticket. Yes, landies and gents, a laowai (foreigner) just bought a standing ticket on an 8-hour trip.

china train ticket
Railway Train Ticket for Standing train

Fast forward to the day of the trip, the journey on getting inside the train was a rollercoaster. After the gates to the platform have opened, people started running and pushing and I was left there looking clueless. After getting a grip of myself, I started to dash because I saw that the long trip from the gate going to the platform would only take me to train number 16 and my train number was 4. By this time, the crowd was already thinning out and I felt like I’ll not be able to catch my train.

Luckily, I made it just in time. But what I saw inside the train was beyond my expectations. It was super crowded inside, I was carrying two bags and was trying to find a good spot where I could stand for the trip but heck, I’d be blessed if I could even move out from the door aka “smoking room”! After a couple of minutes of pushing and struggling, I was able to find a good place by the end of train #4, until I realized I was still near the area where the guys smoked because it was the smoking area for the folks at train #3! I couldn’t stand at the middle of the train as people would shout at me telling I was blocking the way. Great.

my bags, the red backpack only has my laptop and camera. ugh

After hearing all the good stories of bloggers who did not have a hard time on a standing train, I was sort of expecting the family nearby me would let me sit. The space was enough for 3 people and one kid was sitting on her mother’s lap, and another kid was sitting in the middle, so clearly there was space, but nope, she did not offer me any seat. What she did was put their bag on that space and spread the curtains, letting the rays of the sun spread all over me. Yes, of course I do not have the right to complain since they bought those hard-seater tickets. I was felling envious at the old guy beside me who brought a foldable chair, how I wished I could have bought something like that for myself.

china train travel
the position I was stuck at. near the "smoking room"

After an hour and a half, I was feeling really tired, fed up and wanted to strangle the guys next to me who were smoking in my face. BTW, I am South East Asian and not a Westerner. No offense meant but I just noticed that locals give super VIP treatment for Westerners. I felt very lonely that time, lots of things were coming into my mind, and then all of a sudden, it came to my mind that solo traveling in this country might have been a bad idea.

My break came when lots of people got out of a station and there were some seats that did not have any designated person for them, I grabbed the chance and sat. One station passed by and we stopped somewhere wherein tons of people got in, the train got full again, though nobody claimed my seat. I noticed an old woman who was standing and was also holding a blue ticket (standing ticket), I offered her my seat and she refused at first but took my offer eventually.

Ten minutes passed by, a guy offered me his seat and I insisted that I was okay with standing (but I was crying deep inside). After persisting too hard, I finally gave in and took his seat. I felt so happy I wanted to hug him, but of course I didn’t. I was able to sit by 9 AM and had the chance to keep my place until Taiyuan, around noon. Subsequently, a girl claimed that she paid for the seat where I was on and had to stand again. I was standing from Taiyuan to Pingyao that took more than two hours, which was not bad, I already got used to it.

I am proud to say I have successfully been on a standing train and survived the eight hours of this very excruciating and stressful experience. This was certainly one of those moments that screams "WELCOME TO CHINA!" I have never felt so happy and so relieved to get out of a train station, I almost felt like a reached a mountain peak! If you ask me if I’d take the standing train again? NO-EFFING-WAY. I learned my lesson the hard way and I’m telling you to also learn from it.

Overnight Hard-Seater Train on an 8-hour trip from Pingyao to Xi’an
I still did not have the luck on getting my hands on those hard-sleeper tickets so I choose the next option which was the hard-seats. I was quite surprised to know that standing and hard seater tickets are priced the same. After having been able to go through that draining train ride, I think it was very unfair.

china train station
Waiting chairs at Pingyao Station

Compared to my first railway trip, the soon as I came to Pingyao station, I was greeted with extremely friendly train staff! They were very chatty and wanted to know why I was in their city, where I came from, etc etc. Even with my limited grasp of Mandarin, I felt the kindness of the staff who were wishing me well on my trip knowing that I was a solo female traveler in China. It really meant a lot and I felt like things are starting to look good for me.

Tickets are checked before you proceed to the platform

As I got aboard the train, locals were staring at me and giving me friendly smiles. I was actually planning to sleep as soon as I get to my seat, but as soon as I did, a woman started a very animated conversation which I was not able to understand. She prompted her 13-year old son to "translate" for her, meaning break down her sentences into easier Mandarin. LOL I was better in understanding the characters so I told him to write what he wanted to say in a piece of paper. This went on and on after 30 tiring minutes or so, until the mother found a college graduate who speaks English. He served as our translator and was also quite a cool guy himself. I found out that the mother and son were also going to Xi’an and have volunteered to wake me up before our train arrives.

the very nice kid! he even gave me his number and kept on sharing his snacks with me! :D

Come midnight, we all got sleepy after a lengthy chat and decided to doze off. Trying to sleep on a hard-seater was a big problem. Good thing I specifically asked to be seated beside the window so that I can lean on the table or in the window. I was able to snooze off quickly as I was too tired from roaming around Pingyao.

china train ticket
Railway Train Ticket for Hard Seater train

I was awoken by this old lady by around 3 AM asking to exchange seats because her grandchildren were seated next to me. We Filipinos have this saying, Magbiro ka na sa lasing, huwag lang sa bagong gising. (Better to make a joke with a drunk, but not to someone who have just woken up). I was really irritated because I was transferred to the seat near the aisle, meaning nothing to lean on to, making it harder for me to sleep. Good thing I was still able to take a nap for an hour after that. As our train arrived Xi’an, I met with the family again (I asked for their names but forgot it!), said my goodbyes and wished them well. It was the first time I experienced such warm kindness and welcoming. This train ride would have been perfect if not for the sleeping difficulties.

Overnight Hard-Sleeper Train on a 13-hour trip from Xi’an to Beijing
Xi’An Station is one of China’s busiest railway stations so I was not really expecting to be able to snag a hard sleeper ticket especially since it shows up in Travel China Guide that there were no available tickets for this class. I got mine through my hostel who has partnered up with a local travel agency. Could it be that these agencies hoard hard sleeper tickets and sell them to travelers for the additional fee? Hmmm.

train ticket
Railway Train Ticket for Hard Sleeper train

no seats, lots of people resort to just seating with newspapers or bags for covers

The train station was pretty big but then there were still not enough seats for everybody. I ended up waiting on the floor until 30 minutes before my train departs. The thing about this station is that they switch the platforms. A minute before my train arrives, the staff locked the gate for some reason so I panicked. I found out that the train will be boarding passengers at the next gate. Good thing I was asking people, whew!

china train

Super crowded!

The hard sleeper carriage is actually MUCH cleaner than the hard seaters! The bathroom is traditional but properly maintained! There were also no people smoking! Such a relief. The bunk is also not “hard” at all. The good thing about hard sleepers is that after finding your assigned bunk, you can sleep peacefully, no frills at all. The family on the below bunk were talking but I didn’t mind. No hassles really!

china sleeper train
Sleeper train, finally! It was a bit small though and just enough for my height
sleeper train
it's very basic, but it's not very hard. There's a pillow and blanket provided
In case you want to read, you can open the lights for your bunk

12 hours passed by, we have reached Beijing South Station. I felt fully rested compared to my first two railway trips! I have heard from others that there is really not much difference with the hard and soft sleeper but the latter is way more expensive! Definitely the best way to travel around China!

solo china train
There are also hard seats at this carriage

•    Always do keep an eye on your belongings especially at your valuables. When I sleep, I keep my bag with the passport, gadgets, cash and cards close to me. The bags that I keep on the shelves would only contain clothes. Double check your stuff before leaving too.
•    Copy a schedule of what time the train arrives at your destination. THE TRAINS ARE VERY PUNCTUAL! If it says it will leave 8 AM sharp, it will! What I did was I also took note of all the stations that the train would pass so that I could keep track in case I get the feeling that I would be lost (fortunately, never happened to me :))
•    Keep your ticket at all times. The staff would check it especially during crowded or peak hours and at hard seater carriages.
•    For overnight trips that would last for more than six hours, I strongly suggest that you get a sleeper.
•    I noticed that when buying tickets, the hard sleeper gets to be sold out first! Followed by hard seater, then soft sleeper. Worst comes to worst, you might be stand without any seat at all :(
•    My only problem with the trains in China is that most of tickets that I want would be sold out (either hoarded by agencies or scalpers?) so traveling flexibly might be a bit of a hassle since you really have to plan ahead and have a firm date on when you leave a city to go to another one.
•    Not all routes have the fast trains so if you’re up for it, be prepared for a long ride, just look at the map, the location difference of some cities could be very far from each other. Stack up on food, water and bring your iPod (it will help drown out all the noise, I swear!)
•    I never had problems with buying tickets but just be prepared of having your destination written down, train number, time, and other details written in Chinese

View going to Beijing

My trips would have been a more stressful (and expensive?) experience if not for these trains! Though my first two rides can be quite traumatic for some, I am really happy that I did it! Really glad that China has set up an amazing system that helps its people to travel to far cities and beyond.

Day 1: Datong
City Tour

Day 2: Datong
Yungang Grottoes

Hanging Monastery

Day 3: Pingyao
City Tour

Day 4: Pingyao
City Tour and Attractions

Day 5: Pingyao

Day 6: Xi'An
City Tour

Day 7: Xi'An
Yangling Mausoleum

Day 8: Xi'An
Terracotta Army

Day 9: Beijing
Qianmen Street/798 Art District

Day 10: Beijing

Forbidden City

Day 11: Beijing
Summer Palace

Day 12: Beijing
Great Wall

Railway Train Experience
Standing, Hard Seats, Sleepers

12 Day Trip
Itinerary & Budget

More of China here


  1. Your China series is GOLD! I am doing a two-week trip in China with a friend in October. We're entering Shangai and Exiting Beijing. Bookmarking this series. Nice!

    1. Did another trip to China and might have to update some details here, found out some trains come late, especially the slow ones and those that start from the farthest provinces. Feel free to ask me if you have any questions on planning, I was in Shanghai also last October 2013 and you can do it for a day or two. Loved Hangzhou and Suzhou, reachable for 30 minutes from Shanghai via high speed train :)

  2. Hi Mariane,

    It's Paul from Paul's Travel Pics. You've got a great blog going!

    Looks like you loved touring Northern China as much as we did. Your trip was even crazier than ours since you had to round-trip back to Beijing ... at least you were able to secure a hard sleeper for those 13 long hours!

    I really feel for you when you mentioned the bit of racism you observed. But then that's part of the life experience to be gained through traveling right?

    Your stories are well written and very entertaining. Look forward to reading about your adventures in Shanghai.


    1. That's great to hear coming from you! I've became a fan of your travels!

      Yep, those hard sleeper tickets were good at hiding from my sight. The racism was something that bothered me during solo traveling but then again, it's something that I can't change and it's also help me develop an open mind while learning their culture.

      Thanks Paul! I'll come back to your blog for sure, even though I am already green with envy right now with all those places you have seen and food you have tasted :D

  3. hi Mariane, we're booked in Shanghai with these dates/times 17 Oct 2014 at 2020 H Manila to Shanghai and depart from Shanghai to Manila on 21 Oct 2014 at 0030 H...Is it feasible to do a daytrip in Beijing with this?

    Thanks, Anna :D

    1. Anna, it's doable though I think 1 day in Beijing is too short, that's just me though. you can book either a bullet train or the faster train rides to Beijing from Shanghai , here's a list of sched i found


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...