Growing up in the UK, I had very little comprehension of just how big China is until I wanted to get out and see it. I assumed when I moved to Wuhan to teach English that I would be fairly close to Beijing or Shanghai but owing to China’s size, I was in fact around a days worth of travel from either. Shout out to the United Kingdom for leading me to believe that everything is no more than a couple of hours away.
If you too have realised how gargantuan China is, then you are probably asking yourself how best to get around. For the most authentic experience, it has to be a sleeper train. Not only do sleepers cover large distances quicker than most other modes of transport but there are ticket classes to suit every budget. Soft sleeper is the most luxurious option and features 4 beds in a private dorm. Next in come the hard sleepers which consist of 6 bunk beds in what is essentially an open corridor. Then there is a soft seat, followed by a hard seat (the difference between these is fairly self-explanatory), with a standing ticket coming in as the cheapest. From what I’ve heard, the standing option is uncomfortable at best, and this is before you consider the mental willpower and leg strength needed to make it through the night. Beware, these tickets are only for the bravest of travellers!
Sleeper trains may be the best way to travel but if you are expecting a clean and refreshing experience, you might be disappointed… Welcome to the reality of China’s overnight trains.
1. You will feel like an animal in a zoo
On the surface, this seems a tad melodramatic but I promise you it is true. If you are not from Asia and you board a Chinese train, you will quickly become a source of entertainment for the locals. Prepare yourself for whispering, candid photos and having hello shouted at you by groups of giggling teens. At first, this interest can be endearing but when it becomes impossible to read a page of ‘Cujo’ without being distracted, the novelty quickly wears off.
Luckily, I have only had the experience of sleeping in the top bunk on a sleeper train once. I am not a tall person and yet it was impossible for me to sit up fully. The degree of this inconvenience depends largely on the duration and time of your journey. For example, if your train leaves at 9 pm and arrives at 6 am, you can just spend the journey sleeping as you would in a normal bed. If however, your train departs at 4 pm and doesn’t arrive until late the next morning, it is feasible that you may want move about a bit. You can forget about this if you’re on the top bunk. Don’t feel too smug if you get the bottom bed though, whilst you can store your luggage underneath and have more headroom, it is not uncommon for uninvited guests to hang out next to you. Mi casa es tu casa and all that.
3. The toilets will be smoky, no matter when you go
There have been attempts to restrict smoking in China’s public places but these rules are not heavily enforced and are frequently flouted by hardcore smokers. Just because there are signs on the trains saying no smoking, it doesn’t mean that they will be followed. Whilst smoking is (unofficially) allowed near the train doors, the majority of people will choose to smoke in the toilets. Prepare to squat over a big ashtray and leave the bathroom stinking like a bonfire.
Also read: How to use squat toilets.
4. You will find a tag along
Travelling with the locals is one of the best ways to experience a bit of authentic Chinese culture. I have had some great conversations on public transport in China and would recommend the experience to any traveller. Sadly though, for every two nice, normal people, there is always a weirdo thrown into the mix. During my first sleeper train journey en route from Wuhan to Beijing, I ended up sharing a compartment with a friendly Chinese guy around my age.
After an hour of chatting, he was taking selfies with me and we added each other on WeChat; a Chinese social app similar to Whatsapp. It was only after I departed the train I saw he had posted a picture of us which generated quite a conversation. When I asked my friend to translate the comments, he informed me the picture had been captioned as ‘My new girlfriend and I’ and that the majority of the comments were from his Dad asking when he would meet me. Awkward.
5. Nose pollution
Chicken feet, horse tendon and duck neck – is there anything the Chinese won’t eat?! Nothing goes to waste here but this does result in some rather questionable (and stinky) snacks. I’m not saying that the Chinese have bad taste in food, but they definitely have a less sensitive nose (and tastebuds) than me. Long train journeys in China are likely to be uncomfortable as it is but add in the person next to you cracking out the fish jerky and the experience is about to become unpleasant on a whole other level.
A Final Thought…
The most important thing to remember when it comes to Chinese sleeper trains is that it could always be worse. Of course, it would be nice to have a bit more privacy and it would be better if it were a little less smelly but there is definitely no better way to travel around the country on a budget. If you’re unfortunate enough to end up with a top bunk and you feel yourself getting depressed about your cramped quarters, just think yourself lucky – at least you’ve not got a standing ticket!
Have you experienced China’s sleeper trains?
In all of the occasions I’ve been on a sleeper train, I was always so focused on getting through the journey that I forgot to take any pictures. Big thanks to my blogger friend Adam for the use of his sleeper train photos for this article. To find out more about Adam’s travels, check out his blog Mr Adam’s Travels.