Overnight trains are one great economical way to get around this massive country, as well as being a delightful cultural experience for foreigners.
There are a variety of options available for traveling on overnight trains, each with appropriate pricing, and varying degrees of physical comfort, space and personal privacy.
There are three types of sleeper cars – Hard Sleeper, Soft Sleeper, and Deluxe Soft Sleeper.
All three are air conditioned and carpeted, and passengers are provided with a clean pillow and quilt.
Hard Sleeper (Only for adventurers)
If you are keen to really get the feel for Chinese people and the local culture, then the Hard Sleeper car is an economical opportunity for a quality experience.
There is also some variation between the three levels of bunks in each compartment:
The lower bunks are the most expensive, and are spacious enough for you to sit up on the bunk. However, this bunk has least privacy from people in the corridor, and you may find fellow passengers in your compartment wanting to sit on your bunk as well.
The middle bunk costs a little less, is not difficult to climb into, and although you can’t sit up, there is room to prop yourself up on your elbow. When you don’t want to sleep, you can sit on a seat in the corridor, or with a friend on the lower bunk. It has more privacy from people in the corridor.
The upper bunk is the cheapest, and does require some agility to access it. It is much more private from the corridor, and comfortable enough to sleep in, but the height of the space is quite restrictive.
Soft Sleeper (Highly Recommended)
If you are traveling in a group of 3 or 4, then it can be fun to book a Soft Sleeper compartment together.
The soft sleeper costs about twice as much as the hard sleeper. The upper bunk is slightly cheaper, but they both have enough space to sit up in, and you will have more security and privacy.
If you are not travelling in a group of four, you will share a compartment with other passengers who may be not the same gender.
Deluxe Soft Sleeper (only available at some trains traveling between large cities)
If you are traveling as a couple, then a Deluxe Soft Sleeper can be an especially enjoyable experience.
There will be much less opportunity to interact with your fellow passengers, although you can go to the restaurant car or walk along the corridors. From within your compartment you will have an uninterrupted view of China as the train dashes through the countryside.
Sit ups – Hard and Soft Seats (Not Recommended)
This option is less comfortable with overcrowded and smelly carriages. People with unnumbered tickets, the very cheapest option, will be looking for any opportunity to take advantage of an empty seat, or else stand/sit/lie in the aisle or between the seats.
Soft Seats are a bit better, the carriage is more spacious, and nobody can enter without a soft seat ticket. Choose this only when it is a short journey less than 5 hours.
Depending on the type of carriage you have chosen to travel in, you need to be prepared for some interaction with local people. Adults and children will notice you and they will want to try to converse with their limited English. Some of their questions and comments may seem intrusive or inappropriate, but offense is not their intent so remain polite even if you choose not to answer.
The toilets in your carriage may be local “squat” style or western, but either way you will need to carry your own tissues or toilet paper. You will also need a towel, wash-cloth, hairbrush and toothbrush. There is usually a public sink area with a mirror. Wet wipes and hand sanitizer can also be useful.
Hot boiled water will be available in the carriage, and you can choose to copy the Chinese people with their tubs of instant noodles, or make yourself a cup of tea or coffee. You might also want to bring a bottle of drinking water and fruit or other snacks. Snack carts with limited and fairly expensive offerings will come down the train.
Although the bedding is disinfected, you may choose to bring your own pillow case. The air-conditioning on the trains tends to be cold, so have something long-sleeved to wear.
Make sure you have something to occupy your time such as reading material and/or your devices such as iPad for entertainment.
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