By Train

Take the frequencies and timings given in this book as general guidelines, but expect any changes to be for the better.

Though in backwater areas, slow trains can be primitive, intercity trains are universally air-conditioned and mostly kept very clean. Nor is the system in general backward, with a computerized signaling system and a good safety record. There are 200-kmph (125mph) trains between Shenzhen and Guangzhou, 300kmph (188mph) trains and tilting trains using British technology under trial; the world's highest line is under construction to Lhasa; and the world's first commercial maglev (magnetic levitation) line runs from Shanghai to the Pudong airport.

SEAT CLASSES Given China's size, most intercity services are overnight (or sometimes over 2 nights), so sleeper accommodation is the most common. The best choice is soft sleeper (ruan wo), consisting of four beds in a lockable compartment, the two upper berths slightly cheaper than the lower ones. Berths have individual reading lights and there's a volume control for the P.A. system. Hard sleeper (ying wo) has couchettes, separated into groups of six by partitions, but open to the corridor. Berths are provided in columns of three and are cheaper as they get further from the floor. Lights go off at about 10pm and on again at 6am. Thermoses of boiled water are in each compartment and group of berths, refilled either by the attendants or by yourself from a boiler at the end of each car. Compartments often have cups, but it's best to take your own. Bed linens are provided in both classes. More modern trains have a mixture of Western and Chinese squat toilets. Washing facilities are limited, and except on the highest quality trains, there's cold water only (and this may sometimes run out). On the very best trains there's hot water, free toothbrush and toothpaste hotelstyle, and even electric hand dryers and shaver sockets. But this is rare. A tiny handful of trains have deluxe soft sleeper (gaoji ruan wo), with two berths in a compartment (Kowloon-Shanghai and Kowloon-Beijing, for instance), and in the case of some trains on the Beijing-to-Shanghai run, these compartments have private bathrooms.

Almost all trains also have a hard seat class (ying zuo), which on many major routes is now far from hard, although sometimes still bench-like and not the way to spend the night. Soft seat (ruan zuo) appears on daytime expresses only, is less crowded, and is now often in two-deck form, giving excellent views. REFRESHMENTS Attendants push trolleys with soft drinks, beer, mineral water, instant-noodle packages, and occasional instant coffee through all classes at regular intervals. Separate trolleys bring through kuhi can (fast food) in cardboard boxes. This is usually dreadful, and costs ¥15 ($1.90). Licensed carts on platforms often sell freshly cooked local dishes which are slightly better, and they also offer fresh fruit in season. All overnight trains have dining cars, but the food is usually overpriced and very poor in quality. It's best to bring a supply of what pleases you, bought in convenience stores, supermarkets, and bakeries.

TYPES OF TRAIN Where possible, choose a train with a T prefix. These tekuai (especially fast) trains are the expresses, and come with the highest levels of accommodation and service. Staff may be uniformed and coiffed like flight attendants, willing and helpful. K trains (kuaisu—"quick speed") are more common, and nearly as good. Occasionally Y trains (lüyóu, services for tourists) and L trains (lín-shí, temporary additional services, particularly at Spring Festival), can be found. The remaining services with no letter prefixes vary widely in quality across the country, from accommodation as good as that on K trains but at slower speeds, to doddering rolling stock on winding, out-of-the-way lines and with cockroaches and mice for company (no extra charge). TIMETABLE A national railway timetable can be found on sale at stations in larger cities, updated twice a year, and some regional bureaus produce their own, or smaller summaries of the most important trains. All are in Chinese only, and most are so poorly organized that they are initially incomprehensible even to most Chinese. Rail enthusiast Duncan Peattie produces an annual English translation of the October edition of the national timetable. Originally aimed at rail fans, it doesn't include every single train or every station of interest to the ordinary visitor, but it covers all major services and reorders them into an easy-to-follow format. At $15 for the PDF format (more a for comb-bound version), it costs 15 times the Chinese version, but it will be more than 15 times as helpful to many travelers, especially those sketching out a route for yourselves before leaving home. Write [email protected] com for more information.

Timetables for a particular station are posted in its ticket office, and can be read by comparing the characters for a destination given in this book with what's on the wall. TICKETS Rail ticket prices are fixed by a complicated formula involving a tiny sum per kilometer, and supplements for air-conditioning, speed, and higher classes of berth (soft sleepers are typically 50% more expensive than hard sleepers). Prices, samples of which are given throughout this book, are not open to negotiation. Round-trip tickets are available only between a handful of destinations.

Ticket offices always have a separate entrance from the main railway station entrance. In a few larger cities, there are separate offices for VIPs and foreign guests, or just for booking sleepers. Payment is only in cash. In most cases bookings can be made only 4 days in advance, including the day of travel. But increasingly in larger cities, this is expanding to as many as 12 days, and the same or longer for advance telephone bookings (in Mandarin only, like almost every other telephone service in China).

Most seats on an individual train are sold at its point of departure, with only limited allocations kept for intermediate stops depending on their size and importance. Your best choice of train is always one that is setting off from where you are. If you can only obtain a hard sleeper ticket but want soft sleeper, you can attempt to upgrade on the train. There is a desk for this purpose in the middle of the train, usually around car nos. 10 to 12.

The simplest way to book tickets is via a travel agent. The few with terminals accessing the railway system charge ¥5 (65i) commission. Most others charge around ¥20 ($2.50), which should include delivery to your hotel. Agents within hotels often try to charge more. It's best to give agents a choice of trains and berth. You pay up front, but the exact ticket price, printed clearly on the ticket, will depend on the train and berth obtained.

With the exception of public holidays, tickets are now rarely difficult to obtain. Ticket prices are hiked on some routes during Spring Festival.

Advance booking from overseas is possible through CITS and some other agents at large markups, and so are not advised. Contact your local China National Tourist Office to find agents (see "Visitor Information," earlier in this chapter) if you must. In Hong Kong, China Travel Service sells tickets for the expresses from Kowloon to Guangzhou, Beijing, and Shanghai with no commission, and tickets for a selection of trains between other Chinese cities for a reasonable markup. Never use online agents, either Hong Kong- or mainland-based, as they charge up to 70% more than they should.

You'll need your ticket to get to the platform, which will only open a few minutes before or after the train's arrival (if you buy a soft sleeper ticket, you can use the VIP gut bin waiting room and board first). On the train, the attendant will swap your ticket for a token with your berth number. Shortly before arrival, she will return to re-exchange it (you never miss your stop in China). Keep the ticket ready, as it will be checked again as you leave the station.

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