Train travel is generally a great way to get around China. Gone are the days of wooden seats at ninety-degree angles with loudspeakers blaring propaganda. Trains nowadays have four classes, refreshment carts, and decent (if not fabulous) bathrooms.
Train travel can be less expensive than air travel, generally very comfortable, and, compared to air travel, train travel is much more likely to depart and arrive on time. And with air travel becoming more and more congested, train travel is becoming a much better option even for longer travel.
Buying a Train Ticket Online
2012 was the first year that Chinese customers could buy domestic train tickets online. At first, this was a problem for anyone who can't read Chinese. But these days there are multiple ways for non-Chinese to buy train tickets. Even Chinese online search engines offer train tickets for purchase with overseas credit cards. So train travel is now very easy to manage for non-Chinese within and outside of China.
Purchasing a Ticket in Person
Another option for buying a ticket - if you are already in China - is to go physically to a railway ticket office to purchase your tickets. There is now a "real-name" policy for booking tickets. This means the purchaser must show identity papers for each ticket they are purchasing. (This policy was put into place to prevent scalpers from buying up tickets during peak travel seasons.)
- To buy your ticket, check the route and decide what train you want. China Train Guide is a great site for looking at train schedules.
- Take along your passport for identification. If you are purchasing tickets for others in your party, you'll need a copy of a passport for each ticket you're buying. Photocopies of passports are acceptable.
- Go ten days before you want to leave. Generally, tickets are released ten days before the date of travel.
Other Options for Buying Tickets
If you're not physically in China and neither is anyone you know, find yourself a good travel agent in China to book things for you. A Chinese agent will be cheaper than your agent back home and probably a little more flexible. Of course, there will likely be a nominal fee on top of the ticket price, but this is worth the peace-of-mind as well as the time saved.
Your agent can courier you the tickets to wherever you are but the thing to do is just to have them hold on to the tickets until you arrive in China and then have them sent to wherever you're staying.
Another way to go about booking tickets without your physical presence is to ask your hotel concierge to do it. Even if you're at a small inn without a concierge, they will likely be able to help you out. Again, especially for that small inn with no official concierge, you can probably talk them into going for you for a small fee. You'll have to email or fax them a copy of your passport.
The Joy of Train Travel
Now sit back with a good book or just watch the stretch of humanity go by your window. One of the luxuries of train travel is that it allows you to see just what lays in between the cities of millions that dot the country.