Trains are one of the easiest and most common ways to get around in China and we’ve been on them a lot throughout this trip. But like everything else, it operates just a little bit differently so I thought I would describe it.
The whole thing turned out pretty long so I’m splitting it up into two parts. The first part is pre-train info, while the second part is related to being on the train.
Buying a Ticket:
This is the easy part. China seems to have a pretty decent computerized system nationwide and most hostels will go to a booking office for you to get tickets. We booked our own tickets once, and had a Chinese person write down what we wanted because no one at the train station spoke English, nor was there a schedule in English. The tickets list the time, train number, car number and seat number clearly enough even for us stupid laowei.
Tickets go on sale 10 days before departure date but are usually available right up to the last minute. Book early on holidays and weekends just in case. You can find the train schedule online at travelchinaguide.com, but be warned the prices on that site are outdated.
Train stations here are totally chaotic yet surprisingly organized. You don’t find out what platform you go to, rather it is more like an airport in which you find your gate number. When they say gate number, they mean gate. The stations have a big metal gate located between you and the track. When your train arrives they open up the gate and everyone runs through like crazy. It can be pretty stressful actually. (Especially when my jacket zipper caught a thread from a guys coat and they locked together. He didn’t notice and was pulling, I was frantically trying to get our jackets apart and luckily some guy in between us stepped in and helped. I am sure that if he made it through the gate with us attached he would have just dragged me along.)
The part before the gate opening can be pretty stressful too. It all depends on how big the station is, and how many people are traveling. We were at one train station in Dali which was surprisingly calm. The gate was waist height and when the train arrived everyone filed out calmly.
We were also at a train station in Chengdu that was total chaos. There were hundreds of people waiting for the train, all jostling and pushing and laying their heavy huge bags on the ground. Despite the cold weather the whole place smelled pretty rank and if someone panicked, the whole scene could have easily turned into a mob. It had that restless vibe. The platform gate was also 14-16 feet high giving the whole place a sort of caged quality that was unpleasant.
Bring your own. Yes, there are little ladies that roam up and down the train with food items but it is really best just to bring your own food and drink. For drink, all you need is some tea leaves and your metal or glass travel mug as every train has multiple hot water stations. You can also use the hot water for the most popular train food: ramen noodles! (Of course, they don’t call it ramen noodles here that’s a Japanese word but it’s the same thing.) Ramen noodles are not just for the college crowd or the poor in China, but a pretty legitimate meal even off the train.
Other popular snacks are small oranges, peanuts and sunflower seeds (it’s okay to throw the shells on the ground here, even on a train) dried tofu and if you are really brave those prepackaged chicken feet. Personally, I always made sure to have some rolls or bread and a Snickers bar with me as well.
Next time: The different types of seats on a Chinese train!
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