I love the train system in China.
High Speed Trains
The ultra modern high speed trains are a great way to get around this huge country. Because airports are so often pretty far from the center of cities the time savings getting to and from an airport combined with having to be there a couple of hours early can make the train comparable. Also the prices are much better.
Busy Beijing Nan Station is the terminus for the high speed trains to the south and east of Beijing (including those to Shanghai). It is a busy and bustling place that can be confusing, but there are announcements in English and the signs alternate between Chinese characters and English so a few minutes of study can get you oriented. My main faux pas is figuring out which ticket line to stand in. I give myself extra time and have always managed.
- It is very rare for the actual seller of tickets to have any English so have your destination written out in Chinese.
- You can also look up your desired train times on-line and have a train number as well. Ctrip’s website can help you with it. It is possible to buy tickets online and pick them up at the station, you have to present your passport, but I haven’t bought train tickets through Ctrip so I can’t vouch for how that works (maybe on my next trip). The trains do fill up so it is good to have a couple of options in mind.
- Figure out where you need to be and start watching the board over the gate so you know when boarding starts. It takes a few minutes to get to the platform and some cars are a bit of a hoof along the platform, so its best to be in the first surge of folks to have time to figure out where you need to go and get there without rushing, or trying to make your way with luggage through a moving train.
In addition to the high speed trains there is the old local trains, which are very inexpensive, less posh and take much longer. They are also not a smoke free environment. But they are how a lot of Chinese people travel so you get a genuine experience.
Local trains have seats.
The ones going longer distances have sleepers, hard and soft, I’ve never taken a soft sleeper but my son and I traveled from Weifang to Taishan on a hard sleeper. It was about 4 hours (a high speed train would be less than 2 hours).
The experience of getting up to and down from the second level with just a nub of a foot hold while the train was moving was not really my cup of tea, so I sat on a fold out seat in the aisle-way and looked out of the grimy window the second half of the trip (F.Y.I. they do not have western style toilets on the older trains). While I’m not unhappy that I had the experience I would generally choose not to repeat it…no way I could do the third level.