Travelling in China by train has proven to be very challenging. The main challenge is trying to buy tickets but the travel itself has at times been taxing as well.
Map of China
Our first difficult experience was travelling from Guilin to Nanning. We arrived about 15 minutes before the train was to depart (we had to take a bus from Yangshuo, eat lunch and then walk to the train station). The waiting room was completely packed with people standing (and a few sitting) but they wouldn’t let anyone go on the platform since the train had not arrived yet.
A “hard seat” (second class) wagon on our way to Nanning – the people standing have no seats.
The train ended up being late by maybe 20 minutes and people were even waiting outside the big waiting room. When the train finally came, people pushed and shoved their way out of the waiting room onto the platform but then we all had to drag our bags up two flights of stairs, cross to another platform and go down two flights again. Then there were huge lines in front of each car and they would only let people in on one side of each car so even though our seats were close to the front end, we had to go up from the back and then spent five to ten minutes trying to shove past people without seats to get to our seats, in which people were already sitting. I told them that those were our seats and they got up but the train was very crowded and there were many people standing without seats.
The group of youth trying to all take a picture of our kids.
We made friends with two young girls who were travelling as part of a travelling trip. (As an aside, there were over 20 young people from about 12 years old to maybe 16 travelling with one 21 year old tour guide to different cities for a week or so – something that would never be possible in Canada.) Near the end of our 6 hour trip, the young people finally got the courage to ask to take pictures of our kids; then they all stood around with their cell phones trying to get them to look, which of course they didn’t. Finally, after about 15 minutes of this, I told the kids to look up once so everyone could take their picture and then put their phones away and that more or less worked.
“Soft seat” (first class) wagon with empty seats on the way to Beihai.
After that experience, especially for my mother’s sake, we decided to try to buy soft (first class) seats for the rest of our trip. The first was to Beihai. I always thought the benefit of soft seats was a little more sitting room but actually it is that standing only people are not allowed in soft seat areas. So when we travelled to Beihai, there were even empty seats and we travelled very comfortably.
low bunk ceiling making sitting for tall people uncomfortable
However, some trains don’t have soft seats. The least comfortable was the train from Kunming to Dali, where you had to sit on the bottom of a hard sleeper waggon. Each bottom bunk was to seat four people. When we arrived, there were already four adults and two children there and we had bought five tickets (even one for Milad) so we would be comfortable for the long 6 hour trip. It turned out one person was supposed to be in another room and he moved and one of the children moved too (they were a multi-generational family spread over three rooms). Then we sat okay except for Peiman. He was too tall and couldn’t sit up straight in the seat due to the other bunk on top. He tried to lie down on the top bunk but he was told by the conductor that he couldn’t because he only bought a hard seat. Then he went for a walk but couldn’t see anything because the windows in the aisle are at sitting height, not standing height. The kids also couldn’t go on the top bunk as it was not “safe”. There seemed to be one conductor who was going around just telling people to get down from the top bunk. Yet we were told it is even worse travelling by bus in Western China as the roads are very bad and if it rains, you may even get stuck due to a mud slide.
As for buying tickets, that has been even more challenging. Our first problem arose when we tried to buy a ticket from Nanning to Kunming in Beihai. They simply had no sleeper tickets at all for a whole week in advance. The reason is that when you try to buy tickets in a city other than the city of departure, they don’t release many tickets for sale. I had originally planned to buy our tickets when we were in Nanning, before going to Beihai but when we were leaving, we weren’t sure how long we wanted to stay in each place as we had decided we wanted to spend less time in Nanning and not go to Detian Falls so we thought we would either spend more time in Beihai or Kunming but we wanted to see Beihai first before deciding so I completely forgot about buying the tickets. Because of the change in itinerary, we also did not plan to spend any more time in Nanning before going to Kunming so there was little chance to buy a sleeper ticket once we arrived in the afternoon. So the last night in Beihai when we had no tickets to Kunming, my mother asked us to try to buy plane tickets. Being on a budget, paying three times the price (or more) for plane tickets was not appealing. However, I felt bad for having planned so well but then being stuck in Nanning. I went online and there were tickets on sale for the day we would arrive in Nanning and at a reasonable price but one website showed “low availability” and the other actually said “two seats left”. Then there were no seats. A little later in the evening, it had “low availability” again so I decided to call and try to get tickets. I called and was told there were only 4 seats left and we were 5. Peiman quickly said he would take the train (seat only on an overnight train) and we could fly and meet him later so I tried to get the tickets but because the company could only order adult and child tickets separately, and there was a big discussion of how I would pay for them (since it was less than 24 hours, I couldn’t use a foreign credit card but only cash but the lady wasn’t sure where in Beihai or Nanning I could pick them up), by the time I bought the adult ones there were no more for the kids. The lady actually thought I could still use the adult ones and when I said they would have to be cancelled, she wasn’t sure if I had to pay a penalty for it! In the end her colleague said she could cancel it for free and after about an hour on the phone, I had nothing to show for it.
After that we went to bed but just before and several times in the morning, I checked the website again to see if there would again be tickets available (having lived in China, I knew that “no tickets” doesn’t actually mean “no tickets”, just no tickets “for now”) but nothing. Since our train wasn’t until ten to twelve, I decided to finish writing my Northern Guangxi blog entry. Finally done and ready to check out, I decided to check one last time the website and low and behold suddenly there were tickets available on the same flight and not even “low availability”. Quickly I called and this time got a competent operator who booked all five tickets in less than ten minutes – success!!! My mother was truly happy when I told her that we had plane tickets and we could enjoy our time going to Nanning. When we got to Nanning, I still wanted to see if there were any sleepers and also buy our next ticket to Dali. Well, good thing we got our plane tickets as there were no more sleepers that evening and the next day only the terribly timed train leaving at 4pm and arriving at 5am had hard sleepers. The plane tickets were also a blessing because as we headed to the airport in a shuttle Roya started complaining of stomach pain and by the time we were flying (after arriving at the airport four hours early to pick up our tickets and then the flight being delayed for one hour), she had a fever. She spent the next day mostly in bed, though unfortunately we also had to change hotels as the one we had before didn’t have room for an extra night (since we were not travelling overnight).
In our comfy soft sleeper (four beds, all ours, with a compartment door) on the way to Chengdu
Having had such an experience, we were intent on buying our train tickets as early as possible. Unfortunately, the train buying system was not in our favour. First I went to buy sleeper tickets from Lijiang back to Kunming but was told you can only buy those 6 days in advance (possibly because we were buying them in Kunming not Lijiang?) Then the next day it was the 2nd so I thought I could buy the overnight tickets from Kunming to Chengdu for the 12th (10 days early) only to be told that I could buy them the next day for 10 days early so not sure when it is counted from. In Nanjing you can buy them from 3pm 10 days before but here they said the next day in the morning I could buy them. We were leaving just after 10am to Dali so 45 min before I lined up for the tickets. Well, all seemed to be going well until I said I wanted to buy 4 tickets – three adult and one child. The lady first tried to convince me that the child could sleep with us but I said we have two kids and needed a bed for them to share. Finally she told me that according to the “rules” I could only buy 3 tickets and if I wanted more I had to go to special window number 2. Well, I first said that if my husband came, could he buy another ticket. She said yes so I called him to come over (he was waiting outside with everyone) but then I realized if we don’t buy the tickets together, we may not have our beds together and she confirmed this when I told her and told me again to go to window 2. Well, I told her how I had already come twice to buy tickets and couldn’t and how now I had a train to catch and couldn’t line up again so she got her supervisor who overrode something on her computer and she was able to sell me the tickets. I felt triumphant but very stressed.
When arriving in Dali, I immediately went to buy tickets to Lijiang. However, even though it wasfor several days later, I was told there were only standing tickets. This was likely because a) most people take the train from Kunming to Lijiang directly and get first dibs at tickets (longer distance tickets are always more available than short distance ones) and b) tour companies or scalpers buy out large sums of tickets. Since the trip was only about 2 hours, I bought the standing tickets and we went to our hotel (which was quite a distance away in the old town). However, as I said in the blog entry about Yunnan, we later decided against going to Lijiang, one because of the cold weather (and we were told it would be even colder in Lijiang because of the higher altitude) and another because the kids were getting very tired of travelling and were also having much fun with their new little friends in town. So once we decided we had to go back and refund our tickets. As I lined up, a scalper offered to buy my tickets off me for 100 yuan (without even knowing how much I had paid). I told her I paid over 100 (I forget how much) and wouldn’t sell to her (also I don’t like scalpers). Well once it was finally my turn I was told that there was a refund penalty and I only got back 98 yuan haha. After that, I also tried to buy tickets back to Kunming but these were sold out as well so we ended up buying bus tickets. Buses are not a very popular mode of travel in China, no doubt because of the inconvenience of not having an easily accessible toilet, being able to walk around, etc. So there was no problem buying bus tickets and we got ones in the very front with a great view.
Overnight train to Xian: my mother laughing as she tries to eat very watery congee (rice porridge) with chopsticks – not sure how exactly one is supposed to do that. In addition her train breakfast included plain steamed bun, hard boiled egg and some pickled vegetables – I opted for some fruit I had brought with me.
It was also in Dali that Peiman and I decided that he and the kids would go back to Nanjing instead of continuing on to the rest of the trip so he could get back in his workshop and they could have a break from travelling. Then came the ordeal of trying to find flights back for them. I first looked at flights from Kunming (which would also mean returning Peiman’s and Roya’s sleeper tickets) but they were too expensive. The flights from Chengdu, our next stop, were cheaper but still a bit much. The cheapest were from Chongqing (the largest city in China with the greater city having roughly the same population as Canada!), a two hour train ride away from Chengdu. I bought these and then hoped and prayed that I could get them train tickets to Chongqing.
We shared our soft sleeper with this mother and daughter (and grandma). Unfortunately, the little girl got a fever and diarrhea soon after boarding and was sick all night – I was very impressed with how the young mother handled such a challenging situation. By morning, she was feeling better :)
We had already asked a friend we were visiting in Chengdu to buy my mom and I sleeper tickets to Xian, our next stop, which he had done without any problems. However, I didn’t want to bother him again so, now back in Kunming, I went to a train ticket place to buy them myself. Unfortunately, I was told that high speed train tickets could only be purchased at the railway station. So I took a taxi there and lined up at the “special window” – the famed window 2 where I was told to go the last time I was buying tickets in Kunming. Of course, by the time it was my turn, they were sold out. My next move was to ask our friend to buy them but he was not able to buy the either. This shows another problem with ticket selling in China – sometimes, tickets will not be available, not because there aren’t any but because they have not been “released” yet and if you ask later, you will be able to buy them. So as soon as we arrived in Chengdu (back to the sweltering heat!), we lined up at the computers where you can buy self-serve tickets. Unfortunately, when it was finally our turn, we discovered we could not use the machines because high speed train tickets now requires the use of id (to prevent scalpers from buying them up) but the machine could only read Chinese id cards, not foreign passports. So I went to line up directly at the “special” window which I now knew the existence of from my problems in Kunming. And lo and behold, I was able to buy the tickets no problem!!!
I then tried to buy tickets for my mom and I from Xian to Beijing, the last leg of our trip. The lady, however, misunderstood me and sold me tickets from Chengdu to Beijing, which I luckily noticed as I was leaving and was able to return without a penalty. The tickets I wanted were of course not available. So I called on my last resource, a friend of a friend from Nanjing who lives in Xian, to ask him to get us two sleeper tickets to Beijing. Well, this friend told me that these tickets could only be bought four days in advance. This was very confusing as it had always been ten so I got very nervous. After a few days I learned that the government had actually changed the amount of days from ten to four at just that time (now it is different again). When we got to Xian, this friend told us that we were very lucky because he was only able to get these tickets through a Chinese friend of his who works for the railway and was able to get them with a special additional fee. He said that had he tried the regular way, we would not have been able to get any as the train trip between these two cities was very booked up all the time. In fact, we got on a special train that goes directly with no stops. Finally, in Beijing, as I was there for an extended time, not only for sightseeing with my mom but for an important international conference afterwards, I had no problem getting a ticket back to Nanjing.
And so ends my account of buying train tickets in China. May I just say that I was able to accomplish this travelling feat ONLY because I can now more or less converse in Chinese AND I have some friends who really helped me out. I honestly don’t know how a person who doesn’t speak Chinese and doesn’t understand at least a little that there are many strange rules when buying train tix in China nor has any friends here, could ever possibly travel by train in China!
P.S. As of this fall, it is apparently possible to buy high speed train tickets online though there is only a Chinese version of the site. Slowly it will probably be possible to buy other types of train tickets as well. And maybe one day the site will also be available in English. But then people will miss out on a lot of crazy adventures!!!