Train Travel In China

Since I have had numerous inquiries about our decision 
to travel by train in China, I decided to post Dr. Jane Liedtke's 
excellent description on traveling by train:
Travel by Train in China
By Dr. Jane Liedtke, OCDF China Tours

Train Travel in China - It is fun and exciting, a real adventure for sure. And, it is something every adoptive family should do at least once. Why? Because it is the primary way that Chinese people move and migrate from place to place in China. A huge part of China's transportation network is made up of train travel. It is a beautiful countryside to see by train!

Hard and Soft Class - there are five types of tickets/comfort levels one can buy for a train in China.
Hard seat  - hard/flat seats with no padding and only overhead rack for small luggage - no place for large luggage.
Hard sleeper  - 6 bunks with little to no bedding to an open-ended compartment, 8 compartments within one train car and no luggage storage except on bunk nor ability to lock compartments.
Soft seat - sets of two and four seats with small tray at window, seats are upholstered but usually do not recline and only overhead rack for small luggage - no place for large luggage.
Soft sleeper - set of 4 upholstered bunks with bedding provided - two lower and two upper in one compartment that locks and has a small table as well as luggage storage under the lower bunks and above the door for small luggage. There are 8 compartments per car (total 32 persons). Some express trains have flat screen tvs above each bed.
Standing ticket - it is actually possible to buy a ticket to stand on the train (or sit on the pull-down seats within the aisle. So, if you arrive at your seat and someone else is in it, it is likely that have one of these tickets. Just ask them politely to move.
Toilets - each car has a toilet that locks at the end of the car. Some soft sleeper class cars will have a western toilet. Otherwise assume all toilets will be pit-style. Bring your own toilet tissue and hand-wipes. Important to note: Toilets will be locked and not usable when trains are at the stations!
Air Conditioning & Heating - Hard-class seats and sleepers are typically not air conditioned and sometimes they are heated. Soft-class seats and sleepers are usually air conditioned and heated.
Smoking - Hard-class seats/sleepers are typically smoking (though some trains only allow smoking at the link between cars or the lounge). Soft-class seats/sleepers are typically non-smoking and people who smoke go to the opening between cars to smoke. 
Luggage - Chinese people travel with small hand-luggage or wheely bags but not with large luggage like westerners. Therefore, the train is ill-equipped to handle your large luggage and there aren’t people there (porters) or luggage carts (except in Hong Kong) to use so you can do it yourself. Thus, it is wise to only take a minimum amount of luggage (like a backpack and/or wheely bag) onto the train with you. First, there will be no space for more and second, getting on and off the train is difficult with any more than a small bag or two. This is especially true when traveling with children! It is possible to check-in luggage prior to getting on the train. Travel companies are adept at picking up your luggage from the hotel using a luggage transfer service and having it checked in for you in advance of going to the train station. This is ideal. Otherwise, go to the station early so you can check-in your luggage. Be sure to check in advance that your train has a check-in luggage car on it. Otherwise, your luggage could arrive on the next train from that city to your destination. Checking in advance makes it possible for your luggage to go ahead of you if necessary so it is there when you get there.
Locking Luggage - luggage cannot be checked in in China unless ALL compartments that contain items are lockable and are indeed locked. The luggage services will not accept your luggage otherwise as the train will not accept unlocked luggage. Never place valuables or things you need during your train ride in check-in luggage!
Food and Beverages - Every train has a dining car with food services and beverages. Some special trains have bar cars. All trains will offer pots of boiled water or a place to get cups of boiled water in your train car. Bottled water, juice drinks and beer is sold from carts going through the train as well as on platforms at train stations (especially when a train as hard-seat/sleeper compartments). Try to avoid eating main meals on the train (take food with you or eat ahead of time). Food safety on the train can be an issue.
Safety on Trains - when traveling on any class of train in China, one should always watch their belongings and valuables. At night when sleeping in soft-sleeper compartments that lock, it is wise to lock them. Place valuables under your head/pillow or on your body to avoid the risk of theft. Do not leave the compartment unattended. If you are a single adult traveling with children, take valuables with you (on your body in a passport holder or money belt) when taking children to the toilet. Try to go as a family prior to getting on the train and take caution when leaving the compartment during the night. The trains that are all soft-sleepers will be safer than trains that have all four classes of travelers on them.
Security Check - some stations require your carry-on luggage to be run through a security screening X-ray like at the airport. Be prepared to put luggage through the machines and quickly get your items from the other side (do not lose eye contact with your things throughout this process and if you can have one person putting things on while another takes them off the belt, all the better). Carry your film by hand with you.
Origin - where the train starts from (this may not always be the city at which you desire to get on the train - ie. you may be getting on at the second or third stop along the route). Point of origin is important because the most seats on the train will be sold from this point and sometimes entire classes of travel can be sold-out prior to the train getting to your station. This is especially true with soft sleeper compartments as the train company does not hold the compartment for those who wish to join later in the route if they can sell the compartment for the entire route from the point of origin.
Destination - this is where you wish to go to on the train. This may or may not be the last stop for the train so best to find out from the conductor when you board the train. Ask the conductor to let you know when to get off the train. Some stops along the way will not have long station times and you will need to quickly exit the train before it goes on to the next station.
Terminus - this is the last stop for the train. If your train terminates at the station which is your destination, then you can have a reasonable amount of time to exit the train.
Express/Direct Trains - on some routes in China there are express or non-stop trains (direct). These trains usually take less time than the Local Trains that stop at each small station along the way. Stops can vary in length of time for the Local Trains and can add as much as 2-3 hours to the length of the trip.
Crowded Stations - in China the trains are a common means of travel and thus the stations are exceptionally crowded places. Migrant workers and transient people are common and in some places people are forced to live at the station or sleep there over-night for lack of housing or money for a hotel.  Sometimes in the early morning the station will smell of urine because workers have yet to arrive to clean-up from those who slept there overnight and were locked out from using the restrooms. Crowded stations can be scary for travelers - adults and children both have problems with this. Add the situation of too much luggage, pushing and shoving crowds, lack of queing and you have a real mess. Throw in a few beggars tugging at your children and panic can quickly set in for the entire family. OCDF suggests that even experienced travelers will find China's train stations a challenge and should consider asking for help when transferring to/from a station that you are not familiar with. Also remember, what you can handle and do as an adult will not be the same for your child(ren).
Waiting Rooms - there will be hard-seat/sleeper and soft-seat/sleeper waiting rooms at most stations. If you have purchased tickets in soft-class it is wise to use the special waiting room for this class of traveler as it will not be as crowded and may even have better restroom facilities than the general station waiting areas. This will put your family in a waiting room with Chinese middle class families and business travelers more similar to yourselves in terms of needs/desires. There will usually be a small snack bar for buying packages of cookies and crackers as well as cups of noodles (Ramen-style noodles).
Getting On and Off the Train - from the waiting rooms one usually has to walk through a hallway and down a long set a stairs to the train platform. Sometimes down as well as up a flight of stairs. Those requiring a wheelchair or use of an elevator should make those arrangements in advance. The train ticket will indicate the Train Number, Car Number, Seat Number, and whether the seat/bed is an upper (shang) or lower (xia) (Note: some double-decker trains will also  use these terms to). Be sure you are on the correct train. Ask the platform attendant to be sure. Then quickly find your car and get aboard the train. The conductor will take your ticket as the train departs and then give it back to you before you arrive at the station. You will need the ticket to exit the station - don't lose it! Most large city trains will have platforms that are at the same height as the train entry level. At other stops along the way, even good size cities like Xian and Suzhou, the platform will be at a different height than the train thus causing you to climb up 3-4 metal steps to enter the train. Place your luggage onto the train and then climb up onto the train holding the railings. When you exit the train, leave the luggage on the train and climb down the steps first while holding the railing. Then transfer the luggage from the train to the platform. Sometimes, but not always, there will be a conductor there to help you. Do not count on it however! If you require assistance getting on/off the train, be sure to arrange in advance for helpers to be there. Travel agencies can arrange for platform passes so that people can assist with the boarding/un-boarding of the train.  Some trains are very long and the platform is also very long. Expect to walk a lot while at the train station to get to/from the train and to exit the station.

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