Train travel in China can be a surprisingly pleasant, comfortable and simple experience. In response to growing demands from the business community, the Chinese government has invested heavily in the upgrade of the train fleet in the past few years and the fleet now includes state of the art bullet trains. In a country with one of the most extensive rail networks on earth, travelling by train gives the traveller the chance to view the scenery, meet with inquisitive locals and avoid the stresses and strains of densely packed air travel at a fraction of the price.
The Chinese train network offers a well connected system, enabling travel to all major cities in the country. Travel classes range from a private, two-bed sleeper on some of the longer, more popular routes (including a private toilet) to simple, second class, soft seats for shorter journeys. Onboard facilities will vary, and although western-style toilets are available on most trains, eastern-style ‘squat’ toilets are still common. There will, of course, be a restaurant car in most trains and a smoking section.
Booking tickets for a Chinese train trip can be straightforward; from within China, the larger stations, such as Shanghai or Beijing, have special ticket booths for international travellers (be aware that Beijing and Shanghai have two train stations each). Be prepared for the famous Chinese art of not queuing, and be ready to push your way to a place at the ticket counter! If booking from abroad, it may be useful (although slightly more expensive) to use one of the many Chinese, train ticketing, tourist websites if you want to be sure of a place on a specific train.
There are numerous tour agencies within China that organise tailor-made train tours of China which, for those on a budget, may be appealing, as there are many night-time journeys, thus saving on the cost of an hotel. For example, in 2011, the evening departure from Beijing to Shanghai ranges from US$51 (hard sleeper) to US$140 (private deluxe cabin) ensuring that you can arrive refreshed at your destination in the morning.
All in all, taking the train within China to a wide range of destinations is a fabulous way to see this fascinating country. Be prepared for inquisitive locals, some intriguing smells and, of course, some remarkable food! It is a great and safe way to see the scenery that you would miss if travelling by plane and, as mentioned above, is a real cash-saver for those on a budget.
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