Mar 14, 2012 By Andrea Scarlatelli ,

If you've never taken an overnight train ride in China, you may be tempted to envision a grand affair, full of dining carts, cocktails, and sharply dressed train attendants – an Orient Express, if you will. The truth is a bit more, well, Chinese. Just imagine camping. Now imagine camping in a narrow room crammed full of four to six other people, with a dozen or so more sitting right outside your doorway. I say doorway because there's not actually a door separating you from the hallway if you choose a hard-sleeper ticket. Now let me say right off that I truly enjoyed my train experience – it was an adventure I'll never forget. I just wish I had been a bit more prepared, both mentally and physically, for my 15 1/2 hour train ride from Shanghai to Xi'an. And so I pass onto you the things I wish I had known, in the hope that it makes your overnight train trip that much smoother.

How to Survive an Overnight Train Trip in China

1) Bring food (lots of it)
Despite the (surprising) announcement of a dining car, my eager dash to "train car #9" yielded disappointing results – when the train attendants saw me roaming around and I asked them where this mysterious car was, they laughed and said there was no car #9. Humph. Luckily, I was told by someone much more experienced than I that I should bring snacks. Crackers, nuts, and veggies are all good portable meals – just stay away from the (soon-to-get-melty) cheese.

2) Keep your valuables to a minimum
I had luckily figured this out beforehand, so what little valuables I had (aka my wallet and passport), I kept in my purse which I then hugged like a teddy bear all night. With no doors and, obviously, no locks, you're pretty much open to whoever feels like sauntering into your bedroom. And while I was able to sleep fairly well despite this, you can be sure I never took my hands off the important stuff.

3) Bring alcohol (but not too much)
Let's face it – alcohol (almost always) makes things more fun. The same goes with an overnight train ride. It's important though, not to get too much – there's nothing worse than getting woken up at 2:00am by a rowdy foreigner wandering the halls with a glass of wine in hand, yelling for her friend who she apparently lost within the fifty foot span of the train car. So while I heavily encourage you to bring some liquid sustenance, aim for slightly buzzed, not sloshed.

4) Be flexible (a.k.a. don't expect to arrive at your destination on time)
After our 9:00am arrival time came and went, I started getting a bit antsy. Three hours later, we finally pulled up to the station and I almost burst out of my seat. I mean, I don't expect everything to work like clockwork (I've ridden a plane once or twice in my lifetime, after all), but three hours late? Really? It was only later that I learned (from the train ticket office) that trains are regularly up to five hours late. Guess I should consider myself lucky…

5) Bring mouthwash (because you're not going to want to brush...)
Actually, you're just going to want to avoid the bathrooms at all costs. While I don't blink at squat toilets anymore, the fact of a squat toilet, used by an entire train car, while in motion, doesn't result in a pleasant teeth-brushing environment. Better to just swish in your car and be done with it. Though many trains have separate rooms for washing, some don't. Best to do like the Boy Scouts do and be prepared.

Keep these five tips in mind, and your trip is pretty much guaranteed to go smoother than mine did! Feel free to post other overnight train tips – your fellow travellers will appreciate it! 

Related Links
How to Buy a Train Ticket in Shanghai
Making Travelling Part of the Adventure: Sleeper Buses in China
Adventure, Real People Train Travel in China

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33 Comments Add your comment



Well, this trip was actually pretty smooth compared to mine (yes more than once) traintrips.

First of all, don't trust non-speaking chineses to help you out if you don't know the right pronunciation. They didn't get where I was heading so instead I was told to drop-off "here with me". After spending a couple of hours in some sort of trainstation I went to nearest hotel to get me a cab to take me to a busstation. Where I suprisingly had to take another bustrip of 6 hours after this smooth traintrip of 16 hours. Not fun, at all but yet an adventure,...

My second traintrip weren't such a failure even if it took 36 hours cuz my company absolutely didn't accept flighttickets. Luckily the dining car was close but not even close to decent and my "travelbros" were well-educated and spoke slightly english so I had someone to communicate with. I also went out to speak to others who seemed to speak a little english since my chinese were restricted.
This traintrip did not end here, I also got huge problems with my well-known stomach. Wasn't fun. Well anyway what was in there had to get out and not quickly enough. Luckily the sweet train attendants helped me out borrowing their toilet (which suprisingly had toilet paper!!). Though I brought toiletpaper myself.

Know exactly where you going. (Pronuncication)
Know what time to expect.
Look out for strange people and try find people to talk to.
Bring whatever necessary to make your trip even a little enjoyable (books?).
Bring toiletpaper, I don't know what they put in their meals.

Mar 14, 2012 10:10 Report Abuse


Da Wei

Jesper, I just hope you're not teaching 'English' in China!

Mar 14, 2012 12:49 Report Abuse



I are.

Mar 14, 2012 16:04 Report Abuse



I mean I is.

Mar 14, 2012 16:05 Report Abuse



I am!!

Mar 14, 2012 18:23 Report Abuse




Mar 15, 2012 01:58 Report Abuse



Why are you giving me thumbs down? Do you, uneducated idiots think "I is" is correct? I really hope you aren't teaching English!!

Mar 15, 2012 04:15 Report Abuse



Some of us am.

Mar 15, 2012 06:13 Report Abuse



I is laughing right now!

Mar 15, 2012 06:39 Report Abuse



Jesper, teacherrose, rain and bozo, your names say it all you bunch of morons!! Ha ha Ha!! you are all so funny. I suppose you think you deserve more money???

Mar 16, 2012 00:32 Report Abuse



...And if you can't take a simple joke you're a loser. Go back to bouncing balls in a kindergarten you "foreign expert"

Mar 16, 2012 02:30 Report Abuse



Sorry Bozo you aren't a clown after all!!! Just a joke Mr!

Mar 16, 2012 03:39 Report Abuse


Jing Bu Dong

@ Bozo

you or rather your people, are experts at ripping people off, making fake goods, recycling cooking oil, saving money by not turning on the aircon during the summer.

all those present a more embarrassing case than a backpacker earning dosh in a kindergarden in shanghai, foreign expert or not.


Mar 16, 2012 20:11 Report Abuse



@Jing Bu Dong, for your information, I'm a foreigner who at one stage also worked in a kindergarten. I just resent being called a moron for no reason.

Mar 17, 2012 01:18 Report Abuse



Well Bozo (and your mates) ,if you did teach kindergarten (as you say), you should know full well not to teach something different e.g I am, not, I is, you are also on a multi cultural forum. How do we know if you are a native english teacher or speaker? I only tried to point out a mistake. Remember you sling mud, I will sling it back, which is something I didn't want to do!

Mar 17, 2012 01:41 Report Abuse



Alex, it was a genuine joke. I didn't think anyone would take it seriously.No hard feelings.

Mar 17, 2012 02:22 Report Abuse



Bozo, thanks for your honesty!

Mar 17, 2012 02:36 Report Abuse



I am should be the correct answer to the question.

Mar 20, 2012 18:37 Report Abuse



I am laughing now ,it should be the standard English. Not I is. You always use AM after I

Mar 20, 2012 18:42 Report Abuse



I is the ninth letter of the alphabet !!!!!

Mar 22, 2012 06:25 Report Abuse



For me the train ride or travelling around China is not that big issue. Though I am Asain where using spcieces and Chilly is not restricted. Though, I suggest while travelling better to avoid sort of food which consists Chilli, Vinegar and Soysauce (CVS). The train I took from Guiyang to Chengdu had western toilets but still saw that some people like to climb up. I was travelling with Chinese colleague who has brought Chinese food as it was my first train travel. Oh Boy! I paniked for whole not for my stomach not to go bad. Now, just few days before travelling, I get cautious avoiding CVS. I hope this is not a problem with all foreigners.

Mar 14, 2012 16:47 Report Abuse



I have travelled by long distance train probably about thirty times all around China and I have never arrived at my destination late. Train travel in China is not too bad, however I always go for a soft sleeper. Alcohol and hot food CAN be purchased on board, so I don't really know what the writer is talking about. The only down side to the sleeper trains is the toilets. Especially in the morning, they will be piled up with un-flushed shit!

Mar 14, 2012 18:06 Report Abuse



You guys actually use squat toilets?? That's so gross! what the hell are you doing that you have to live like that here????

Mar 14, 2012 21:59 Report Abuse



One may post no more than 10 comments per day.

Mar 15, 2012 01:34 Report Abuse



The same questions? SQUAT TOILET? SHUT UP.

Mar 15, 2012 01:35 Report Abuse