A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, according to the Chinese proverb, but covering the vast distances necessary for travel in China may require transport other than a pied. Train travel in China is a cheap and if you're heading to a rural location, will afford great scenic views en route. Long distances are best covered in a sleeper carriage, where there are two comfort level options: hard sleeper and soft sleeper. But what can you expect from a journey in a sleeper train?
Photo: Logan Wenger
Atmosphere on the train
Old people making a cross-country trip to visit their children, groups of students, and migrant workers converge in hard-sleeper carriages. This is where you will find people struggling donkey-like under canvas bags of their worldly possessions, spitting globs of phlegm into the bins and shelling peanuts over the floor; children run amok; and you'll hear the full-volume dialogue of whichever movie the neighboring students are watching on a communal smartphone as they cram themselves into a single bunk. In the early afternoon, fortunately, the train is generally quiet because tradition renders this the sacred hours of napping; come meal times there will be an onslaught of noise as people disembark their bunks to huddle about the bedside table slurping instant noodles to a commotion of fifty different phone conversations and the incessant pings of QQ messenger.
Services in the carriage
Night time brings a level of wartime blackout to the carriages and you'll half-wake to see shadowy figures climbing about or leaving the train in the early hours. Sleep is a commodity to be enjoyed in quantity rather than quality. Between the sensation of the superficially clean duvet, arctic air conditioning (tropical heating in winter) and the wafts of cigarette smoke between carriages, the air takes on a strange waxy texture. The first shower you take after leaving the train will feel like salvation.
Climbing over an array of mis-matched legs, you will reach the eerily isolated no mans land between carriages. Here you can find the bathroom facilities and a hot water faucet for preparing instant noodles or re-filling your flask of tea.
Hard sleeper carriages and waiting rooms have no power-points for charging electronic devices; attendants will, therefore, endeavor to sell you power packs during the journey which are reported to charge an iphone five times before being drained; you can buy these considerably cheaper from taobao in advance. You could also buy a portable wifi device and while away the hours posting regular updates of your adventure for bewildered friends back home who will no doubt be enthralled by your budget 'real China' escapades.
If you're spending more than 24 hours on a train, no doubt personal hygiene will be an important consideration. The end of the carriage normally has two open plan basins with mirrors so you can clean your teeth and wash anything you don't mind exposing to public scrutiny. An alternative is the festival-favorite packet of wet-wipes. On the train you can purchase a washcloth and beaker if you forget your own, which at least shows a desire for passengers to wash, even if it is an idea yet to gain much traction. A can of batiste dry shampoo will keep your hair clean for a day or two. Bring your own tissues and hand sanitizer for the bathroom and time your visits for right after it has been cleaned.
If you find the food available on an airplane a test of your culinary endurance then you may be pleasantly surprised by the varieties on offer on long distance train rides. Although it varies by line and season you should be able to purchase hot ready-meals which are in compartmentalised trays or standard fast food options of fried rice or noodles from the trolley, which tours the length of the train each meal time. There may also be a fruit trolley with shrink-wrapped pre-washed fruit, and almost certainly a drink and snack trolley selling everything from pringles to chicken feet. The prices are of course much higher than you would pay in a normal shop (7 RMB for a bottled drink, 5 RMB for peanuts). They also sell beer and baijiu which might provide a more relaxed experience and aid sleep.
Buying a ticket
Buying train tickets in China can be a complete headache. Pay a processing fee and have a travel agent deliver the tickets to your address if you have several people on foreign passports and are short of time; this is also the best option for peak times and lines as they will be able to secure hard-to-get tickets (at an inflated price) through agents who buy in bulk as soon as the tickets go on sale twenty days in advance. If an agent books tickets for you to collect, remember you still need to wait in line at the station with your passport, sometimes for an hour or more. Ticket kiosks, scattered about most cities, are a more convenient method of buying tickets as they can print them out there and then; they generally are only open during office hours.
Young children are allowed to share a bed with an accompanying adult and therefore do not need a full-priced ticket.
When you buy a ticket you can give a preference for top, middle, or bottom bunk which each have a slightly different price. Bottom bunks are a trade off between acquiring use of the bedside table and having six strangers use your bed as a sofa, even on some occasions when you are sleeping on it. The middle bunk still gives you a good view out the window and is positioned at the optimum distance from the lights and air conditioning making it the most comfortable sleeping option. The top bunk has no headroom and affords a prime view of the luggage racks opposite.
When you board the train the conductor will swap your ticket for a plastic card. I have no idea why they do this, but they keep the ticket in a folder and swap it back again before you leave the train. During the journey they sometimes come and check the card.
Soft-sleeper tickets have the bonus feature of a special waiting room in the station, which is cleaner and quieter than the rubbish-strewn metal-benched halls of the numerically identified waiting areas. The waiting room also has power points for charging electronic devices, separate WC, smoking room, and a newsagent trolly. The lounge also has televisions. The soft-sleeper waiting room has an additional VIP section for 20 RMB per person for those who couldn't possibly sit on a chair devoid of a lace doily.
When it is time to board your train you can avoid the mad scramble of bodies made impatient by the lack of natural light shoving their way through the gates like it leads to a better world, and exit the waiting room through a different door where they will lead you to the platform: ideal, then, for the pregnant women, young families, and retired holidaymakers to be found amongst the passengers here. There is, however, still no escaping free-range children clambering over the armchairs.
Soft sleeper carriages are divided into compartments of four bunks allowing each passenger greater headroom and luggage space. The compartments each have sliding door access to shut out the noise of passers-by, a single power socket under the bedside table and isolated light and sound switches for each compartment. Although there are comparatively few immediately significant differences between the two classes of sleeper-carriage, those differences immediately give an impression of more personal space and are less of an assault on the senses.
As the train progresses on its journey the waste bins allocated per compartment also keep the place cleaner than hard-sleeper, whilst the complimentary kettle reduces trips to the hot water faucet.
The simple act of adding a door to each compartment seems to dramatically affect the experience of traveling on the train. Firstly, even when left open, it acts as an invisible barrier so people from other compartments will not seat themselves on your bed to eat, nor will curious toddlers wander in and stare at you. The second benefit of doors was that the aisle outside the compartments remained devoid of people almost the entire day along the carriage and could almost be called peaceful.
Once again the fruit trolley was patrolling the aisle, along with the hot food option of fried eggs and noodle soup.
Western style toilets complete with loo roll are available at the end of each carriage and a lockable compartment with three washbasins which promotes the habit of washing en route.
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Keywords: train travel in China soft sleeper hard vs. soft sleeper
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