Trainspotting: China

(This post was originally published on on September 25, 2011.)

Photo by Nellu

Our experience with the Chinese train system on the five overnight trains we took throughout the country can be summed up by the following phrases: totally fine, avoid the bathrooms, OMG! you’ve got to be kidding me, whatever—we made it, and just lovely.

Warning: This is the longest of my blog posts so far, but I needed a few extra paragraphs to provide a sufficient level of detail to really bring the experience alive for the reader.

So we begin at curiosity and enthusiasm…

After we booked our round-the-world airplane tickets, it became clear if we wanted to see more than one city in each country, we would need to find alternative modes of transportation. But good news! We’d heard that China has a pretty advanced high-speed rail network; Wes Anderson’s “The Darjeeling Limited,” a movie about a train adventure, is one of my favorites; I reasoned if we slept on overnight trains, we would save on housing for the night; trains have to be better than buses for long distance travel. Taking trains was actually going to be just a part of the fun of traveling. Yay trains!

Before I get into the ins and outs of our experiences, I should quickly describe the various classes of tickets on China’s overnight trains.

Hard Seat: This is the kind of seat that you’d expect to find on a commuter railroad in the States.

Hard Sleeper: This is your standard fare of sleeper class in China. A ticket for this class gets you a bunk in an open compartment of six bunks. There are lower, middle and upper bunks with the later having the least amount of headroom and priced accordingly. The hard sleepers aren’t quite as hard as you’d expect but not exactly soft either. They provide you with a nice pillow and a blanket that appears to be covered by a freshly washed duvet.

Soft Sleeper: A slightly softer (but not remarkably so) bunk in a compartment of four with a door that closes.

Deluxe Soft Sleeper: A bunk in a roomier compartment. I believe this one only has two berths and a door that closes.

Oh, and I almost forgot there are standing room only tickets, which means what its says. This class of tickets has additional implications for the hard seat ticket holders as well. But we’ll get to that later.

Check out for more information on trains in China and elsewhere. It is an amazing resource for travelers.

Back to the story…

Overnight Train #1: Hong Kong to Beijing – Hard Sleeper Upper Bunks

We knew we’d need to secure our first overnight train from Hong Kong to Beijing soon after we arrived. I’d read that train reservations in China sell out quickly. After failing to find an online booking option (the guidebook-which-shall-not-be-named told us we could book online for this trip), we headed over to Hong Kong’s Hung Hom station not far from where we were staying. We went to the main ticket counter and asked for the overnight train. (There seem to be all kinds of rules on how soon you can buy a ticket for each route. I was never able to fully understand this system. But if you happen to be at a large train station and you know your travel dates, I would just see if you can book the train as soon as possible.)

The route from Hong Kong to Beijing only ran every other day, so even booking four days in advance, we were only able to secure the upper bunks in the hard sleeper class. Totally fine. We had decided to go for the hard sleepers after reading some comparisons on the price/value of the hard sleeper versus soft sleeper. Hard sleepers are about half the cost of soft sleepers. I was slightly worried for the next couple of days that Nellu wouldn’t fit on the top bunk and there would be no place for our luggage but we’d just have to figure those details out when we got on the train.

We arrived at the train station super early with plenty of time to work out all the potential issues and get through customs.

Good news: Nellu fit! Not only did he fit but when we climbed up into our bunks we found a storage compartment big enough for all our luggage at our feet, closed off to the rest of the train. Wonderful! As we got settled, the rest of our bunk mates arrived. It appeared to be a grandmother, a mom and two girls about eight and ten-years old. They seemed to get a huge kick out of us (more Nellu than I). They said hello and giggled at us for most of the trip.

The train took just under 24 hours to get to Beijing. We slept for a good portion of the trip. We stocked up on bowls of instant noodles and tea as all the trains have built-in hot water spouts in every car. We also brought along dried fruit and nuts so we had plenty to eat. We were feeling pretty good when we arrived.

We couldn’t wait to share the experience with our nephews, who we hoped to impress with two points: 1) we slept in the top bunks of bunk beds which 2) just happened to be on an overnight train. Yes it’s true, the little girls weren’t quite as cute when they woke us up giggling at 7am, but all in all our first experience on the overnight train was a success. It was totally fine.

Overnight Train #2: Beijing to Xi’an – Hard Sleeper Upper Bunks

We didn’t get off on the best foot with our train that left Beijing for Xi’an about a week later. In fact, we almost missed it. We had allowed about an hour to take the bus from our hostel to the train station and another hour of buffer time to arrive at the station and find our platform. We had considered calling a cab but the ladies at the hostel told us it would be hard to get one at the time we needed it – around 4pm. Turned out it was an even worse idea to take the bus because traffic was horrendous and we inched our way there. At one point when I was in full freak-out mode, Nellu even suggested we walk the last 2.8 km in a desperate attempt to calm me down.

When the bus finally arrived about an hour and forty minutes later, we discovered the train station was offset from the road a frightening distance away. We had to run down the road, up the steps, through vendors and crowds of people, get through security, find our train, find our platform, and find our seats. We were going full “Home Alone” (the scene where the family is running like maniacs through the airport) with our huge duffel bags on our backs through the train station. But we made it with just under seven minutes to spare.

Our accommodations were much like the hard sleeper upper bunks we had in the first train except this train looked like it had not been cleaned…ever. This is also the train where we figured out that the squat toilet in the bathroom was actually just a hole through the bottom of the car. Your “deposit” went straight onto the train tracks, hence why they ask you not to use the bathroom while the train is in the station. The water from the sink of this train also drained directly on to the floor. Our motto here was avoid the bathrooms as much as possible.

Overnight Train #3: Xi’an to Chongqing – Hard Seats

“OMG! You’ve got to be kidding me” is an understatement for this leg of the trip. We had tried several times to book our tickets for this stretch in advance with the help of the ladies at the Chinese Box Hostel in Beijing. But when we were able to secure tickets, only hard seats were available.

This was an overnight train but the trip itself was only supposed to be 14 hours or so. Nellu and I figured we had spent longer amounts of time sitting up on buses so the hard seats would be just fine. Besides, trains had a nice way of rocking you to sleep.

We could not have been more wrong with our assessment.

After our near-miss situation with the last train, I insisted we get to the station at least an hour early even though it was only about 1.5 km away from our hostel in the sleepy city of Xi’an. When we arrived, we were hustled into a large waiting area that was already packed. The crowd continued to form around us. Even though there was some semblance of a line, pushing and shoving ensued. We tried to distract ourselves by watching news reports of Vice President Biden’s visit to China on the monitors above. We couldn’t hear any sound but Nellu is quite entertaining and impressively en pointe with his faux voiceovers.

When the gates were opened, the pushing and shoving got worse and didn’t stop all the way through the doors, up the stairs, around the corner, and down onto the platform.

By the time Nellu and I found our car, we were fully frazzled. The overhead luggage racks were sloppily and inconsiderately loaded so there appeared to be very little space. We had to rearrange several suitcases to stow our heavy duffels. At one point, Nellu had maneuvered a space for my bag and when he turned around to pick it up, the woman below him snuck her small purse into the clearing. He was enraged and let the woman know, although she appeared unfazed.

We took our seats in a row three seats deep and tried to get settled. There was a small older man in the row with us and we were facing a family of five – a grandmother, a mother and three kids. It became clear right off the bat that personal space would not be honored when the mother of the family stretched her stocking foot across our small isle to use the space between me and the man as a foot rest. But after the first blow up over the bags, we tried to take it in stride.

One of the reasons the overhead space was so packed was that there were many people in our car that appeared to have booked standing room only. A group of 20 or so teenagers had chosen our area as the place they would crash. We doubted they would be on the train for much of the trip.

Riders with standing room only crowded in the aisles. It got even more packed. Photo by Nellu

Wrong again. As the train got on its way, someone came around selling plastic stools for those with standing room only to sit on. It became clear everyone was in it for the long haul. To make matters worse, every 20 minutes a train employee would come through with a cart, screaming out what he was selling, and make everyone sitting in the isles get up or move closer in and on top of the people sitting in the hard seats. As the standing room only crowd moved in on us, even more people got on the train.

I really think that we could have managed with this situation had everyone just laid low and slept for most of the trip. But of course that was never going to happen. We were amazed at those who were able to sleep as they often used strangers as a pillows. They never dimmed the lights. There was loud talking, vendors screaming and music blaring. I know that at some point during this year-long trip, I will come to peace with the idea that there will always be that person who loves their music so much they want to share it, no matter how crappy their speakers are, with everyone around. This was not that moment. I tried to be polite when I asked the offender to turn the music down.

I was less than polite when I asked him to stop smoking at some ungodly hour of the night in the grossly overcrowded train car (and spritzed his cigarette with Purell and actually took his hand and stamped it out on the floor when he refused to put it out). In our car, not only were people comfortable sleeping all over each other, they were sleeping on all the filth and garbage they and others had thrown on the ground. This included everything from nut shells to cigarette butts to goopy noodle sauce packets. You couldn’t get up to use the bathroom without stepping on at least 30 people (and we were pretty close to the door). In this environment, people smoked right at their seat or sitting on the floor although there were no less than four no smoking signs with pictures in our car. We had reached our breaking point.

Nellu and I didn’t sleep at all for the first 10 hours of the trip. The family across from us was out cold except for the grandmother. It was amazing to watch her patiently accommodate the other members of her family, helping the kids stretch out, etc. At one point, she even let one of the standing room only teenagers use her seat as a pillow. I think she’s going straight to heaven.

The family across from us. Photo by Nellu

Then sometime in the wee hours of the morning, we got a mild reprieve. Three-quarters of the people in our car got off the train! I can’t even remember the name of the stop where everyone got out or what time it was when they did. But they were gone!

Unfortunately, the water torture didn’t stop. As the sun started to come up and we could see the shapes of a more peaceful-looking Chinese countryside, Nellu and I started to drift off to sleep. Enter Mr. Doucheman (not his real name). Mr. Doucheman was probably in his mid to late 30s. He looked reasonably well-off but showed no consideration for anyone. He really wanted to start a conversation with us even though it was painfully clear that Nellu and I couldn’t understand him. He then attempted to spread out over the empty seats in our row and even into the seat that I occupied. (Don’t worry, I drew him an invisible line letting him know what was my side and what was his side just like I was in third grade.) He kicked out the small old man that had been sleeping on Nellu earlier and got in a fight with a lady who took the seat he took from the old man. He shaved at his seat, clipped his finger nails, and did a few morning exercises. We just rolled our eyes. What could you do? Only four more hours to go and this nightmare would be over. We started to drift off to sleep again but woke up when he started smoking. Both Nellu and I jumped up and let him know that he could not smoke here. (Again, there were no less than four no-smoking signs with pictures in the car). If you want to smoke all you have to do is get off your ass, walk 10 feet, and smoke in the area between cars. There were no people sleeping on the floor at this point.

We did make it to Chongqing and to our lovely hostel. But we spent a good part of our time there trying to book train tickets so we’d never have to go through that ordeal again.

Overnight Train #4: Wuchang to Shanghai – Hard Sleeper Upper Bunks

From Chongqing, we took a boat down the Yangtze River to Yichang so we were able to avoid the train drama for a few days. But once we reached Yichang, there was no ideal transportation solution to take us to Shanghai. (At one point, I was so traumatized by the memory of overnight train #3 that I wanted to use our airline points to fly us out of there.) There was one overnight train, but we feared we’d miss that train if our boat was delayed. So we booked what seemed to be the best solution at the time. A boat to Yichang, a cab to the center of town, a bus from Yichang to the Wuchang section of Wuhan, and an overnight train from Wuchang to Shanghai.

Of course, multiple forms of transportation leave a lot to be desired. In this case, we could only get a bus to the bus station on the far side of town and not to the bus station conveniently located next to the train station. After failing to hail a cab, we ended up walking about 2 km or so in the hot stinking rain.

But whatever, we made it. We made it to the station and on to the train. We had the upper bunks in the hard sleeper class on this trip too, except this car had open concept layout where the compartment walls were missing. We had no privacy or luggage nook.

But whatever, we made it. And they sold beer on this train. It was warm beer but beer none-the-less.

Nellu eats noodles on the train.

Incidentally, there were also several high-speed trains that went from Wuhan/Wuchang to Shanghai but unfortunately, the timing did not work for us. We didn’t end up taking one high-speed train in all of China.

Overnight Train #5: Shanghai to Hong Kong – Soft Sleeper Upper Bunks

There was plenty of drama in the lead i up to buying these ticket. On the day we arrived in Shanghai, we ran around like crazy people trying to make sure we could get back to Hong Kong on time. You couldn’t purchase tickets at the Shanghai South Railway Station we had come in on, and a travel service I had tried to book tickets through online told us the hard sleeper class was sold out for the day we wanted. Like the train from Hong Kong to Beijing, this train departs every other day. With some help from our Shanghai host Jessica, we ran over to the other train station to book our tickets.

It took us a little time to find the advance ticket sales booth. But we were able to find one where the woman spoke English. When it was our turn at the counter, we found they only had soft sleepers left. Soft sleepers cost twice as much as hard sleepers at over $100 each. But any other transportation alternative would have been much more expensive and more complicated. And besides we deserved it! Fine, whatever, let’s book it. We only had enough cash on us for hard sleepers so we begged the saleswoman to hold the tickets and we raced to an ATM with no clear indication whether she actually would or not. But after waiting in line again, we got the tickets.

This ride itself was just lovely. While there isn’t much difference between the hard sleeper and soft sleeper bed, each compartment only has four bunks rather than six. The other two people in our four bunk compartment: a dad and his very quiet teenage daughter. We got two pillows each and a door that closed. I slept for most of the trip and even got out my laptop to get some work done. It was just lovely.

We relax on our delightful soft sleepers.

My fascination with overnight trains has firmly worn off, although it looks like we will have much more train travel in the future. There are clearly advantages to going by train but it still wears on you after a while.

As I mentioned before, we got a lot of help online at The site comes complete with rough itineraries and pictures so you can get an idea of what you’re in for.

~ Molly