By Train in China
Maglev train in Shanghai
Train travel is the major mode of long-distance transportation for the Chinese themselves. Their extensive, and rapidly expanding, network of routes covers the entire country. Roughly a quarter of the world's total rail traffic is in China.
China is in the process of building a network of high-speed trains, similar to French TGV or Japanese Shinkansen bullet trains. These trains are already in service on several routes. They are called CRH and train numbers have a "G", "C" or "D" prefix. If your route and budget allow, these are much the best way to get around. For more detail, see High-speed rail in China.
Chinese trains are split into different categories designated by letters and numbers indicated on the ticket. A guide to the hierarchy of Chinese trains from fastest to slowest are as follows:
G-series (高速 gāosù) – 300 km/h long-haul high-speed expresses - currently on Wuhan–Guangzhou, Zhengzhou–Xi'an, Beijing-Xi'an, Shanghai–Nanjing, Shanghai–Hangzhou, Beijing–Shanghai, Haerbin-Dalian, and Guangzhou–Shenzhen lines.
C-series (城际 chéngjì) – 300 km/h short-haul high-speed expresses - currently only on Beijing–Wuqing–Tianjin–Tanggu line.
D-series (动车 dòngchē) – 200 km/h high speed expresses.
Z-series (直达 zhídá) – 160 km/h non/less-stop services connecting major cities. Accommodation is mostly soft seat or soft sleeper, although they often have a couple of hard sleepers too.
T-series (特快 tèkuài) – 140 km/h intercity trains calling at major cities only. Similar to Z–trains although they usually stop at more stations.
K-series (快速 kuàisù) – 120 km/h fast trains, the most often seen series, calls at more stations than a T train and has more hard-sleepers and seats.
General fast trains (普快 pǔkuài) – 120 km/h trains, with no letter designation, four digits starts with 1–5. These trains are the cheapest, although slowest long-distance trains
General trains (普客 pǔkè) - 100 km/h short-distance trains with no letter designation, four digits starts with 5, 6, or 7. Slowest trains, stop almost everywhere.
Commuting trains (通勤 tōngqín) / Service trains (路用 lùyòng) - four digits starts with 8, or five digits starts with 57, very slow local trains, mostly used by rail staffs.
L-series (临时 línshí) – seasonal trains suitable to K- or four-digit-series.
Y-series (旅游 lǚyóu) – trains primarily serving tourist groups.
S-series (市郊 shìjiāo) - Currently the only on the Beijing Suburban Railway between Beijing North and Yanqing County via Badaling (Great Wall).
On the regular non-CRH trains there are five classes of travel:
T-train soft sleeper compartment
Soft sleepers (软卧 ruǎnwò) are the most comfortable mode of transportation and are still relatively cheap by Western standards. The soft sleeper compartments contain four bunks stacked two to a column (though some newer trains have two-bunk compartments), a latchable door for privacy, and are quite spacious. Try to get the lower bunk as climbing up to upper bunk is not that easy, also if you can sit on th bed and look out the window if you don't want to sleep.
note: Ticker holder of this class can go to the VIP waiting room at station.
Hard sleepers (硬卧 yìngwò), on the other hand, have 3 beds per column open to the corridor. The highest bunk is very high up and leaves little space for headroom. Taller travelers (6'3" and above) may find this to be the best bunk since when sleeping your feet will extend into the passageway and they will not be bumped. The top bunk is also useful for people with things to hide (e.g. cameras). When placed by your head they are harder for would-be thieves to reach. It should be noted that the "hard" sleeper is not "hard"; the beds have a mattress and are generally quite comfortable. All sleepers have pillows and a blanket.
Soft seats (软座 ruǎnzuò) are cloth-covered, generally reclining seats and are a special category that you will rarely find. These are only available on day trains between destinations of about 4-8 hours of travel time, as well as on all high speed trains (class D and above).
Hard seats (硬座 yìngzuò), which are actually padded, are not for everyone, especially overnight, as they are 5 seats wide, in a three and two arrangement. It is in this class, however, that most of the backpacker crowd travels. Despite the "no smoking" signs, there almost always remain smokers within the car. There is invariably a crowd of smokers at the ends of the cars and the smoke will drift endlessly into the cabin. On most trains, particularly in China's interior, the space between the cars is a designated smoking area although the signs for "designated smoking area" are only in Chinese so this fact may not be clear to many travelers. Overnight travel in the hard seats can safely be deemed uncomfortable for just about everyone and will cause a great deal of discomfort for nearly including many restless endless hours of no sleep.
Standing (无座 wúzuò) allow access to the hard seat car but give no seat reservation. Consider carrying a tripod chair in your backpack to make such journeys more comfortable.
The soft seat and soft sleeper cars, and some of hard seat and hard sleeper cars are air-conditioned.
The CRH trains have usually five classes - second class (3+2 seat layout), first class (2+2 layout) and three VIP classes (2+1 layout just behind the driver's cabin). There are three different VIP classes, named "商务座" (business class), "观光座" (sightseeing class) and "特等座" (deluxe class). Unlike on airliners, 商务座 (business class) is in fact better than "一等座" (first class) on CRH trains. 商务座 (business class) and 观光座 (sightseeing class) priced the same, while 特等座 is usually more expensive than "一等座" (first class), but cheaper than 商务座 and 观光座. The second class is equivalent to economy class on airplanes but offers much more comfortable seat and huge legroom. On the other hand, the premium classes cost only a little more and offers luxury rides.
Chinese train ticket with fields description
At the point where a given train starts, train tickets can usually be bought up to seven days in advance. After the point where a given train starts, a small number of tickets might be reserved for purchase in larger towns along the route of travel. Usually these are the "standing" class. If you want to get a seat assignment (zuowei) or a sleeper (wopu), then find the train conductor and he will tell you if there is availability. The biggest demand is for hard seats and hard sleepers, so it' is a good idea to ask a local friend to buy hard seat tickets as the sellers are not always willing to sell them to foreigners although this is rapidly changing. As of January 2012, nationals and foreigners alike must present ID in order to purchase a ticket (e.g., national ID card or passport). The purchaser's name is printed onto the ticket and each individual is required to be present, with ID, to pick-up their ticket.
There are local state railway ticket agencies in many locations remote from train stations, clearly marked "Booking Office for Train Tickets" in English and Chinese and a locomotive emblem, but easily overlooked as these are simple "hole in the wall" shops. They are equipped with computers networked with the central booking system. Tickets purchased at these types of locations can be bought up to 10 days in advance at face value prices which can be half of what commercial travel agencies charge. Staff usually does not speak English. An easy fix is finding someone who looks like a college student and he will be usually very willing to help.
Do not expect English-speaking staff at station cash desks either, even in big cities. And if the cashier finds some English-speaking colleague, don't expect that he can work with the reservation system. If you don't speak Mandarin, write the departure and destination station, date and time of departure, train number and required class on paper. You can write the station name in pinyin, as the cashier enters them in the same way to the reservation system. Beware that many cities have different stations for normal trains and high-speed trains. High-speed station names usually consist of city name and cardinal direction (for example Héngyángdōng "Hengyang East")
During busy seasons (Chinese New Year, for example) tickets sell out rapidly at train stations. It may be better to get tickets in advance through an agent. In major cities there are also agents who sell tickets in the normal time frame with a nominal markup. The convenience of avoiding a trip to the train station and waiting in the queue is well worth the small increase in cost. Travel agencies will accept money and bookings for tickets in advance but no one can guarantee your ticket until the station releases them onto the market, at which point your agency will go and buy the ticket they had previously "guaranteed" you. This is true anywhere in China.