slide show

Monday, March 12, 2012

Our train travel in China

(the pics are from Liv's little point-n-shoot.  Poor grainy quality, but you'll get the gist of it.)

To be up front about it from the very beginning, I'm sure train travel isn't for everyone.  It takes a bit of the adventurist.  A bit of being ok with the unknown.
But for us, traveling by train was just a wonderful experience!
Easy enough.
And the perfect way for us to get from point A to point B.

So I'll tell y'all how we did it.  The good and the other.  And let those of you considering it decide for yourselves.  Honestly, I don't know much about the trains in China.  I didn't know anything about train travel in China a month ago.  But here are a few tidbits to pass on and maybe it will help someone.

Our agency dissuaded us from traveling by train.  They implied that it was less reliable than traveling by plane.  We researched all we could and couldn't find any evidence of this.  We decided this would be the best type of travel for our family.

We purchased our train tickets from Beijing to Nanchang when we were still in the US from an online vendor.  If Papa was still here, I'd tell you specifically which one.  If I remember correctly, different train's tickets go on sale, different amounts of time before departure.  This particular train's tickets went on sale 10 days prior to the trip.  So we went through the online ticket company to get them when they went on sale to ensure they wouldn't be sold out.  We had to send them copies of our passports, and I think Papa paid by credit card or PayPal.  The tickets, assigned cabin and assigned bunks, were waiting for us at our hotel when we arrived in Beijing.
For the second leg of the trip, Nanchang to Guangzhou, we waited till we were in China to buy the tickets, but went through the same online sales site we used the first time as it was pretty easy the first time.  Again the tickets were waiting for us at our hotel in Nanchang.  Tickets for us were approximately $70 a person, per trip.  (Compared to $200ish for a plane ticket per person and the savings of a hotel room(s) for one night.)
The waiting room for the "soft sleepers."  We were told it wasn't particularly busy this evening.  
There are several types of seats on the train to choose from.  We chose the "soft sleeper."  The soft sleeper is a small cabin that has 4 bunks. The cabin has a door that can be closed and locked, and a place for luggage.   (above the door we stowed 3 med-sized suitcases, and under the bunks we tucked away smaller carry-on sized suitcases/backpacks, another can go under the little table.   None of our suitcases are too big.  Maybe 5 suitcases in total with a few carry-on's.  Each bunk was wrapped in fresh linens/sheets, and has 2 pillows (kinda flat) and a duvet.  (The linens were kinda dingy, but I thought clean.)  We all dressed very comfortably (think yoga pants and long sleeved tee for yours truly) and slept in our clothing.  I am a very light sleeper and amazingly I found the bunks to be comfortable, at least more comfortable than a couple of the beds we slept on in China.  The train does sway and "rock" you to sleep all through the night.  Each bunk had it's own tv and headphones, much like a plane, a place to hang your coat, a little fold out shelf, and a tiny table is in between the lower two bunks.  The cabin is very very private, as you can close the door and lock it.   The window in the door and on the outside have shades that can be drawn.
Looking down from the top bunks.  It was a tight fit.  Slippers were in every cabin to use.  
Our train did not have a dining car.  There was a small cart that came through with an assortment of food to purchase, including several fresh fruits like grapes, strawberries, pineapple...

The soft sleeper accommodates 4 people and worked out very well for us since there were 4 of us traveling.  If there had only been 3 of us, there would have been a random person assigned to our cabin.
The little table between the two lower bunks.  Complete with a flower vase, pot for hot water, and  newspaper.  
I learned two other types of sleeper cabins.  Hard sleeper has 6 bunks, are cheaper, and no door to close.  Think youth hostel.  Then there is also an "executive/private" sleeper cabin too.  Supposedly these cabin have private bathrooms.  But we heard repeatedly that they really are only reserved for diplomats and not really available at all.

Speaking of potties, we used the bathroom in the waiting area before boarding the train.  Then on the train there is a squatty potty at the end of each car.  It's what you'd expect a squatty potty to be like, but it wasn't too bad.  I rolled up my pant legs a bit.  I never touched anything. Only saw it one time in the morning.  Was totally do-able for me.
Papa got out his computer to do a little work on the trip.  
At the end of each car there is also a small room with sinks for washing up, brushing teeth... and a spigot with hot water, so folks can enjoy a bowl of instant noodles for dinner, or hot tea if you bring some along, both of which we did.  We brought bowls of instant noodles from the store to bring on the trip.  On the second trip, Papa and Grandpapa brought a couple beers on board to enjoy before they went to bed.

The best thing we did to ensure our travel was a success was to hire a guide to pick us up at our hotel, luggage and all, and drive us to the train station.  For the first trip in Beijing this was a nice van.  The second trip Nanchang trip we just took 2 taxis.  Each time we left our hotel about 2 hours before departure.  Our guide spent the whole time with us, in the waiting room as we waited for our train, then walked us all the way to our cabin, making sure we went to the correct platforms, train, and cabin.  The trains are labeled on the sides with their destination, but having the guide with us was a safe guard that helped us feel confident that we were getting the the right place at the right time.  Our guide for the Beijing station was about $75 all in.  Our guide in Nanchang was from our agency.  When we arrived at our destination, we just took the taxis to our hotel once we arrived at our destination.  Taxi stands were easy to find just like airports.
Patch on his top bunk complete with a rail so he doesn't fall out.
Notice little fold out shelf and head phones for the little TVs.  
On both trips, our route was both the first and last stop for the train.  That also made it easy not to miss our stop.  We also heard that it can be difficult to get more than 2 or 3 tickets for stops that are not at the beginning and end of the line.

Like I said, this type of travel may not be for everyone.  The stations were crowded and we were told that they weren't really that busy at all.  The Beijing station was well marked in English including the intercoms, where as the Nanchang station was not English friendly.  On the second leg of the journey, we had 5 passengers and the sleeper only slept 4.  Again, our agency again wasn't encouraging us to travel by train.  And seeing as how there were 5 of us on the the second leg of our trip (my father joined us in China in Nanchang.) I took the 90 minute flight  from Nanchang to Guangzhou with the baby, while the rest of my family took the overnight train.  My 90 minute flight was extremely uncomfortable, and the entire travel time lasted 9 hours.  I would have given my right arm to be on that train.
A view toward the door of the cabin.  Coat hung on the hanger, little TV, and silver rectangle below to right of TV is a fold out step to get to top bunks.  The window in the door can be covered with a screen. 
Questions?  shoot.
I'll answer them here on the comments in case anyone else has the same question.


  1. Great stuff these last few days Nancy - couldn't be any happier for you guys - and keep breathing!!

    hugs - aus and co.

  2. Oh, memories. :) I took 2 soft sleepers while traveling trough China (Shanghai-Xian, Xian-Beijing). It was ok. :) Doable and cheep. I noticed it wasn´t very soft sleep at the end, because my bones hurted the next day. :)) And the toilet wasn´t the best think...But ok, I survived and I can´t really complain.

  3. I thought I would add a comment or two. China can be a real assault on the senses at times and as everyone may know people smoke everywhere. If I could have I would have packed a very small bottle of Fabreeze, this may or may not have helped but in the morning when the train starts to come to life again the smell from the smoke is very noticeable. I will also say that if I had to do it all over again I would take the train without hesitation. One of the best decisions we made was hiring a guide to help us navigate the train stations but I am sure we could have done it on our own but it was well worth the peace of mind. The ticketing company we used is the people are at china train tickets are very good a returning emails and I would use them again if I had the need. Another useful site was seat61 has some useful information and some pictures. One final though and this is true throughout China but especially at the train stations, when you are making your way off the train and through the station there will be a lot of people offering you a ride, these are illegal taxi operators and are not regulated, find the official taxi stand and hire a metered taxi, they are cheap and easy to find. By the way none of the taxi drivers we had spoke English so having your destination hotel address printed in Chinese before you start your trip will make life much easier. I saw one guy in Guangzhou ask a dozen cab drivers if they could understand the address that he wanted to go to because he only had it in English, he was still trying after we left the station in our cab. Sorry for the long comment I hope the information is helpful.

  4. Thank you, Papa! You remembered things I didn't.
    Yes, have addresses IN CHINESE beforehand.
    Yes, only go to the taxi stand.
    Yes, Fabreeze wouldn't have hurt at all!

  5. Nancy, my husband is leaving for China this Friday. He is flying to Beijing, taking the high speed train to Nanjing, and getting our Jude on March 19. Our best friend from New Zealand is meeting him in Nanjing and they are traveling together, so that I can stay home with my autism-spectrum older son.

    Early on they were thinking about taking the train to Guangzhou from Nanjing -- 12 hours, as opposed to a 2-hour flight. But you say you would have taken the train given another chance. Can you elaborate a little on why? They still have time to change. Thank you and God bless.

  6. Hi Nancy, I enjoyed reading about your train ride. I have not been to China but I have ridden the trains in Russia and had a lot of the same experiences. They were clean but not new and the train would rock me to sleep. My brother rode the trains a lot in China the 2 years he was there. He had long breaks between each teaching semester. The Chinese government paid them in the Chinese currency and they couldn't use that outside of China. They were paid a lot compared to most Chinese so they were able to travel in style and get some really beautiful gifts to take home to family and friends. He liked the train and always had a pleasant trip. The only thing he got tired of was being stared at:) I thought a couple of more things I would share. He said the Chinese usually have the same thing for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Their food was usually very simple, noodles, rice, vegetables and little bit of meat. He got very thin in China and longed for American food. Another thought on family structure. The mom is usually closer to the children. She cares and dotes on them heavily. The dad is a little more distant and is the one the disciplines the kids. He is honored in the home but the mom runs it. He takes care of all the practical needs of the family by repairing things and taking care of business outside the home. So most of the time the children feel more distant from their father. You may already know all these things about Chinese culture but I thought I would share them in hopes that they might bring insight to you about beautiful little Mazie. Have a blessed day and may the Lord encircle your family today.

  7. thanks for all the very informative info, nancy! we have been following along on your journey and praying through! i'm hoping that miss mazie is beginning to transition a little easier.. she has the most adorable smile :). a quick travel question: do the trains have windows that open and shut like they do here on amtrack (i would need an open one nearby so as to not have motion sickness on top of the smoke smell)? also, why did your 90 minute flight take 9 hours?

  8. Thank you.Hopefully this will help our decision. Bummer - it is 5 of us. One of them is our 3 year old son.
    How wide is the bed? Probably not wide enough for us to sleep together on one, right?

  9. Pentimento-
    re you question about why I would prefer train over plane travel-
    Mostly, the train was just physically more comfortable for my body. It had the ability to get up and walk around easily, lay down, stretch... My body was squished on the plane.
    Secondly, but not nearly as important as being comfortable, was it was far more affordable than a flight plus the money we didn't spend on a hotel room since it was an overnight train. And it was another opportunity to experience Chinese culture.
    Just my experience.

  10. theselsbyholmstead--
    total travel time for the flight took 9 hours, not the flight, jsut so I'm being clear. We left our hotel room at 2pm, checked out of the hotel, waited for our party, waited for our guide, traveled to airport, checked in luggage, security, flight was delayed about 90ish minutes, flight time, got luggage, everyone went potty (lots more time traveling with a larger group) van ride to hotel was another 45 min... Finally got into hotel room at 11pm. 9 hours. It was a long day.

  11. Eva-I'd ask around re getting your 3 year old in the bed with you. I definitely saw Chinese families w/young children in the sleepers. No your right probably not wide enough to sleep side-by-side unless you "spooned" all night, but probably could do heads on opposite sides of the bed. Ask around, especially at some tour guide sites and see what they say.

  12. theselsbyholmstead--
    No, I don't think the windows opened. The door did, which we did crack many times to get fresh air which did ventilate the room very well, BUT if someone was smoking we had to close it immediately as it kinda sucked the smoke into the cabin. That was a problem in the morning when Chinese folks were having their morning cigarettes.

  13. Hey Nancy!
    We'll be taking two trains while in China, though not overnight trains. Our rides will be 4 hours each.

    We have purchased our Beijing to Taiyuan tickets.

    Our agency did not discourage us from taking the train when we told them we were willing. They purchased the Taiyuan to Zhengzhou tickets, but we will be taking a plane to Guanzhou.

    I believe we talked about Mr. Lei. Did he help you in any way? Where did you find the guide to take you to the Beijing train station?

    We leave on Thursday......


  14. Robbie-
    No we didn't use Mr. Lei. I did contact him to use him, but his response didn't sound like he was interested in providing this type of service, so we felt more confortable using someone else.
    We did use someone we found through "Shirley." I can't remember who recommended Shirley originally. But Shirley passed us on to someone else, Lucy, and she was WONDERFUL! I have her name and email address written down somewhere. Papa took all that info home with him, so I can't get to it right now. But I will definitely pass on the contact info for Lucy and HIGHLY recommend her. She spoke some of the best English yet, and was a dream to work with.

  15. We are expats that live in China and travel by train all the time. I also would highly recommend traveling this way. But there are a few things to keep in mind:
    -the further in-land you go, the less English there will be (on signs, announcements, etc.)
    -I also would highly advise having someone meet you at the station OR have a taxi card (in Chinese) for your hotel and use it with an official metered taxi.
    -Train tickets go on sale 2 weeks before the travel date. At peak times (Chinese new year, Golden week in October) the lines will be long and it is almost impossible to get tickets.
    -While hard sleeper is cheaper, there is little privacy. When we have traveled this way, there is often a gathering at the entrance to our compartment of people just gawking at us. I think that it is worth the money to go soft sleep (btw, the beds are the same level of softness, there are just 6 beds in a compartment versus 4).

    @ Mei An, you are not required to buy a ticket for a 3 year old (the requirement is actually by height and not age). While the bunks are narrow, I have shared a bunk with one of my kids. We also often put two of our kids in the same bed with their heads at opposite ends.

    Hope this is helpful!

    A post about us riding the rails:

  16. This is great information. Thanks for sharing so much detail.

  17. Thanks for all of the great info!! We were considering taking the overnight train from beijing to nanchang also so it is great to hear your perspective. What did you do w/your luggage between checkout of the hotel and going to the train station that evening? Pay to leave it at the hotel?

  18. Enjoying following along with you and your family. We traveled by bullet train from Wuhan to Guangzhou last March. It was a 4 hour trip that we thoroughly enjoyed. It was a challenge to carry all our luggage (7 of us including our precious Lilly). So glad we did it as we saw some of the rural areas of China complete with terraced farms of rice and canola fields. Continued prayers for you as you travel home...
    Donna Nance

  19. Traveling by train is certainly the best way to get around and explore China. It's fast, comfortable and very cheap!

  20. It sure looks like a tight fit in the cabins, but hey, its all part of the experience. I would love to do a train trip in and around China.

  21. Not bad at all for a train ride in your China tours. You all look cosy in that cabin. Do share some photos of the places you visited in China.


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