How to Survive an Overnight Train Trip in China

How to Survive an Overnight Train Trip in China
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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Keywords: train travel China tips on taking Chinese train overnight train China visiting China long distance Chinese travelling


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It is a great experience to use train in travelling around China. If time is not a constraint for you, then , allow ourselves having a nice trip with bullet trains,fast trains and regular trains.

My first time experienced traveling with train was unforgettable . No seats available. But quite better because I used the fast train that took me 3 hours only. On the other hand, going back home was a nightmare, I was standing at the smoking zone area of the train for the whole 8 hour- journey because it was during National Holiday , a peak season for travelers. Though, I was not used to it, I just kept myself enjoying the trip.

Let us book our trip ahead of time. We can secure train tickets 12 days before the schedule date at travel agencies, hotel desks and train stations. Determine our departure and arrival time particularly if we are using the regular train to avoid lose to our destination.

Nov 25, 2012 06:04 Report Abuse



While some of the information are good, here are some important information I think the OP have missed (I'm no means a train traveling expert in China, in fact the last train trip I have taken was back in 2007):

There are many different type of train routes in China, most of it designated by the lettering on your ticket.
The best of the best are "D-tickets". They are the bullet trains. These are usually only available between major cities. They are usually set up like an airplane where you have your own designated seat instead of sharing a bench. They are all air conditioned and on time.
Sadly, the cheap trains are the more common. The "Z-tickets" are for direct connection trains. Usually they are on time all the time because they do not make any stops between the starting city and the final destination. "T-tickets", the so called "super fast train" or "K-tickets", the so called "fast train". In my experience these are the ones that are crowded and slow. However spending a night talking to strangers and sleeping on the bench is somewhat of a lost experience for me. (obviously for those of you who are shy or not fluent in chinese YMMV)
The local trains do not have a lettering and they should be avoided at all cost (i.e. they stop at EVERY dinky train stop and are frequently late).

Mar 20, 2012 10:07 Report Abuse



I feel like the Andrea has ridden the train one time before and wrote an article about her one trip. I have taken the train several times and the only time I had a bad experience was when I bought my ticket at the last minute in the train station during National Holiday. My friend had to be back the next day for work, so we had to go with a standing room only seat, which sucked very much. Get a ticket ahead of time if you plan to travel during peak time, any national holidays. I took the train from Chengdu to Lhasa, that was a long one.. but I made friends. I always make friends on the train, friends who have gone out of their way to help me out of any jams. Bring food and snacks, a book, or something to watch movies. I like the hard sleepers, but do be mindfull of your money and possessions. Also, I always have arrived on time, don't know what she is talking about with the average of 5 hours late deal.

Mar 19, 2012 07:32 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



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



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



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

Mar 16, 2012 03:39 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



Bozo, thanks for your honesty!

Mar 17, 2012 02:36 Report Abuse



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