Saturday, November 24, 2018

Taking the train in China

While we were in China this summer (2018), we took the high-speed bullet train a bunch of times, including both long-distance and short distances. It was pretty hard to find clear information online in English how to purchase tickets, pick up the tickets, and actually navigate the train system, but we figured it out pretty well!

We were traveling as a family of 3 - one adult and two kids, aged 8 and 11. We communicated anything complicated via Google Translate apps, and my 11-yr-old daughter's basic Mandarin learned at school.

Our train trips included:

  • Business-class from Shenhen North to Guilin North - 3 hours - but we got off at Yangshuo with no issues. (Yangshuo is one station before Guilin North, and was closer to our intended desination of Xingping.)
    • I followed some advice I'd found online to not rush buying our tickets because "there are always lots of tickets available!" That wasn't correct... Only business-class tickets were available by the time I purchased a few days before we were ready to head to Yangshuo. They were a little over 100$USD each, which was still less than a domestic flight. Over $300 for our three tickets.
    • For some reason, even though it was the same train ride, CTrip showed no tickets at all available to Yangshuo, but tickets available to Guilin - the next stop after Yangshuo. I was nervous there would be some issue with getting off early, but there wasn't.
  • 2nd-class from Yangshuo to Guiyang East - 3 hours - less than $100 total!

Business class vs 2nd class.
2nd is still much roomier than a flight! The snacks in business class left much to be desired.

  • 2nd-class roundtrip from Guiyang to Nanjiang Canyon and back - less than 1 hour - $32 TOTAL! Round trip, for 3 people! Over half of that was booking fee, so I could have cut the cost down if I bought directly at the railway station counter.
    • This trip was a great decision, despite my making mistakes left and right. I'll post more about this crazy side-trip here.
    • For the trip to Nanjiang, I did it right... Guiyang North (the older station but much closer to the city) to Nanjiang Station. 
    • For the trip back to Guiyang, I messed up and bought the ticket departing from Kaiyang station, which is the next station past Nanjiang away from Guiyang... Luckily, the lovely and infinitely-patient folks at the tiny Nanjiang station let us in no problem, so we just caught the train a station late.

  • 2nd-class Guiyang North back to Shenzhen North - 6 hours! Just under $200 for all three of us, incl $15 booking fee.

Here are a few things I figured out...

We bought all our tickets on English. They have a purchase fee, but tickets were still ultra reasonable.

I only ever bought adult tickets, because I was worried about the various restrictions of the child-fare tickets. Again, the prices were so low that I figured I was paying a bit extra for the convenience.

They didn't always put us together. For the trainride to Nanjiang, my daughter was seated not just several rows away from us, but several cars away. But there are people walking and standing all over the train, so no one blinked at us hanging out in her car as we approached our arrival station.

After buying the tickets on CTrip, I had to go to the train station - any train station - to pick them up. Bring your passport! Without a Chinese ID card, you can't use the automatic ticket machines and have to go to a counter. I found it easiest to pick up several tickets at once. There are plenty of good basic guides online for picking up tickets. Be sure to look for the right ticket counter!

We always arrived WAY too early for the trains... Many websites recommend arriving 2 hours early. For one of our travel legs, 2 hours early got us to the train station a full hour before it even opened. 30 minutes was plenty early enough, but it's true that you need to account for traffic on the way to the station. (On the other hand, 2 hours wasn't early enough for the Shenzhen - Hong Kong Airport ferry! I'll write about that here. Totally awesome and super convenient, but holy logistical nightmare.)

Every railway employee we ever interacted with at any of the train stations was wonderful and patient. We did a lot of passing my phone back and forth to write messages that the app could translate, and they were all duly impressed with my daughter's efforts with her Mandarin.

WAY too early to the train station.

Another view of Business Class vs 2nd Class.
Seriously, the Business Class seats are just unnecessary. 😂

We love China Railway!

I don't even remember all the questions I had before our trip... Please comment with questions so I can improve any support I can give! Traveling around China is incredibly easy once you actually get started, but planning is challenging.

If you're looking for more thoughts about traveling through China, you can find more about our trip here.

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