In the first part of train travel I talked about things you should know before getting on the train. In this part I’ll talk about the different sections and what it is like actually being on the train.
Classes of Seats:
There are 4 classes of seats on a Chinese train.
Hard Seats: These are not wooden benches without any padding, despite the name. Instead they are slightly padded, vinyl coated with tall straight backs. The seats are arranged with opposites facing each other and a little table in the middle, similar to European style trains.
We sat in hard seat only once on a 12-hour train ride. The biggest problem I had was the size. Their 3-seater is what us American would consider a 2-and-a-half-seater. We like our personal space in America, and don’t like touching other people with our hips, legs and sides, but they don’t mind that so much here so the seats are crammed feeling.
This is also the section that usually has no limit on the number of people and it can get crowded and dirty. I’ve been told that the bathrooms on the hard seat sections can get disgusting. We had a very diligent conductor in our section who not only get the bathroom tip-top but continually swept the aisle and cleaned the sink area. Our train was also only half full.
Hard seat is the cheapest price you can pay on a train. Example fare from Chengdu to Kunming (a 20 hour train ride): 123 rmb.
Soft Seats: These are airplane style seats that are padded in soft cloth with a headrest. Overcrowding is not allowed in this section. We never sat in this section, but from what we saw it looked okay. This section most resembles American commuter trains. The bathrooms are supposed to be slightly cleaner as well, but still grody.
These tickets are a bit more expensive of course. Example fare from Chengdu to Kunming: 204 rmb.
Hard Sleeper:A lot of travelers take this and seem to like it, but to me it looked pretty uncomfortable. It is entirely open (no curtains or compartments or anything) and it has beds along one side. There is a lower, middle and upper bunk and if you want to sleep on the top you have to be a certified mountain climber to get up there it is so high. There isn’t a ladder or anything, just a random assortment of footholds and bars. At the very least you need good upper body strength to heave yourself up.
Since this place is totally open there is no privacy and so quiet either. The bathrooms are suppose to be a little cleaner but there are really a lot of people per car so I can imagine they tend to get a little rank as well. The beds are just vinyl covered platforms and you get sheets and a pillow.
You have to pay a different price for each bunk, with the bottom bunk being most ideal and therefore most expensive. (Although many people will sit on the bottom bunk during the day which I think is a little annoying.) Sample fare from Chengdu to Kunming: Bottom bunk: 223 rmb, Middle Bunk: 231 rmb, Upper Bunk: 240 rmb.
Soft Sleeper: This is the best section and the one that we did all our overnight train trips on. (Call me a snob!) There are individual 4-person compartments with a solid door that closes (and therefore keeps it quieterâ€¦that is if the people inside are quiet!). Each section has 4 beds, an upper and lower bunk against each wall, and a table in the middle. The bunks are covered in a padded, patterned cloth and then they have a blanket on the bottom, covered by a padded blanket and you get a comforter and 2 pillows as well. There is ample space for your luggage and they usually have some decorations like a lace style tablecloth or a fake flower in vase. There is also a garbage can that gets cleaned out by a conductor every now and then, and a carpet.
There is also a ‘nicer’ bathroom, but it seems to me that squat toilets on a moving train is never a good idea and even our nicer bathroom was still pretty gross and smelly. Take a deep breath before you go in and take care of business as fast as you can, that’s my advice. (And use the bar they provide for stability when squatting. Yeah, it’s kind of gross but the alternative is slipping and using your hand on the ground to catch yourself.)
Of course, the high quality comes with a high price tag. Again, the bottom bunk is more expensive. Example fare from Chengdu to Kunming: Top bunk: 357 rmb. Bottom bunk: 373 rmb.
Overall the difference between the cheapest seats and the most expensive is 250 rmb ($37) a price I am very willing to pay when I am on a train for 20 plus long hours.
I should mention that finding quiet time on a train is near impossible. Every section has a loudspeaker blaring (which cuts off at 10 pm but picks up at 8 am) and the compartments have little tv’s. Your neighbors (or cell mates as Ryan called them) cannot be counted on for being quiet either. I use my “night time” voice after the lights are off and people’s eyes are closed, and would never turn the volume of the television up when someone is sleeping right next to it. The same cannot be said for others.
Trains are technically non-smoking in all the sections. You are however allowed to smoke by the doors where the cars meet and somehow the wind blows all the smoke down the corridor and you end up smelling like you’ve spent all night in some seedy bar.
It sounds like I didn’t like traveling by train, but that isn’t true. We passed through a lot of amazing landscape and saw some rural scenery that we wouldn’t have seen by any other type of vehicle. I even managed to get some good sleep thanks to the smooth clackity-clack of the wheels (and Tylenol PM).
Nowadays traveling by plane can actually be cheaper than train, but I would still recommend that every traveler takes at least one long train ride. Even when the speakers are blaring and there is garbage all over the floor, trains are romantic. You can’t help but relax to train wheels and zone out as the scenery whirls by you. You also get to notice the change in the landscape, the people and the buildings as you go from area to area.
It can be long. It can be tiring. And yet at the same time it can be very, very worth it.
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