Chinese Language Blog

Riding That (Chinese) Train Posted by on Jan 19, 2011 in Uncategorized

With the Spring Festival (春节 – chūn jié) fast approaching, hundreds of millions of folks in China will be buying train tickets to head home for the holidays. This is the biggest mass migration of people in the entire world, and it happens like clockwork every year. While I wouldn’t recommend attempting to travel by train (火车 – huǒ chē) in China over the next few weeks, this is usually your best bet for getting around the country. That being said, here is some useful vocabulary and information for purchasing your tickets and planning your trip.

In any Chinese city, you will find train ticket offices (火车售票处 – huǒ chē shòu piào chù) on just about every street corner. Most tickets will go on sale 10 days beforehand at 9 a.m., although some are only available 5 days in advance. While this policy is a bit annoying, it is necessary to combat scalpers (黄牛 – huáng niú – lit. yellow cow). In my experience, it is best to go into your local ticket office about two weeks ahead of time to make sure exactly when they do go on sale. If you are traveling around peak times, plan to get to the office very early, or be prepared to hear “没有” from the attendant upon asking for your desired tickets.

There are hundreds of trains in China, and you can get just about anywhere on the “fire vehicle” (direct translation of 火车). Here is a very useful website that lists the timetables and prices of the many Chinese trains. Looking at the Beijing-Shanghai schedule, you can see that there are slow trains (慢车 – màn chē) and fast trains (快车 – kuài chē). Unless your idea of fun is 20+ hours on a crowded train, I’d recommend you opt for the faster variety.

Another thing you need to take into consideration is exactly which type of ticket you want. For short rides, such as the 6-hour Beijing-Qingdao route, only seats are available. For longer trips, such as the 10-hour Beijing-Hohhot route, you have four options:

Hard seat (硬座 – yìng zuò) – While the hard seat is your cheapest option, I would recommend you avoid them at all cost. It is not just a clever name – the seats are quite hard and not the least bit comfortable. Also, during peak travel times, the hard seat cars will be full of less fortunate standing room only passengers, making it nearly impossible to move around. The hard seat cars on the train are usually noisy, and the front and back side are almost constantly full of smokers. That being said, it is quite the experience, and a ride on a hard seat will toughen up any traveler.

Soft seat (软座 – ruǎn zuò) – Leaps and bounds better than its hard counterpart, the soft seat is not a bad way to travel at all if you are on a budget and have only a 10-hour or so journey. These trains are kept a bit cleaner, the seats recline, and there are only two seats to a row, as opposed to three on the hard seat cars.

Hard sleeper (硬卧 – yìng wò) – In my humble opinion, the hard sleeper is the best bang for your buck on a Chinese train. With six bunks in each cabin, you have room to stretch out and relax, and a little storage space for your belongings. In terms of price, these tickets are not much more than a soft seat, but are quite a bit less than a soft sleeper. I’ve been on a hard sleeper for the epic 24-hour Beijing-Hong Kong ride, and it was just fine.

Soft sleeper (软卧 – ruǎn wò) – By far the most luxurious option on a Chinese train, this is of course also the most expensive. With nice comfortable beds only four to a cabin, you have peace and quiet, or at least as much of those things that you can possibly find on a Chinese train ride. Another thing worth mentioning is that soft sleeper cars will actually have real toilets, while other cars will be equipped with the famous squatters. If you have some extra money, and highly value your personal space, you might as well go ahead and book a soft sleeper.

Now that you’ve got the scoop on riding the train in China, get out there, book your tickets, and do some traveling! Here is one final picture to help you make sense of your ticket once you’ve bought it.

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About the Author: sasha

Sasha is an English teacher, writer, photographer, and videographer from the great state of Michigan. Upon graduating from Michigan State University, he moved to China and spent 5+ years living, working, studying, and traveling there. He also studied Indonesian Language & Culture in Bali for a year. He and his wife run the travel blog Grateful Gypsies, and they're currently trying the digital nomad lifestyle across Latin America.


  1. Patrick:

    Great article. I have one question: Why are “scalpers” called ‘yellow cow’? (黄牛) I’m guessing there’s some interesting etymology behind that wording.

  2. James:

    “yellow cow” is a Shanghainese slang used to business agency and it’s then extending to people who makes money by reselling train tickets in a higher price and etc.
    Things are changing in China. Now people can purchase train tickets through the official Chinese website and the soil for “yellow cow” has almost gone.
    BTW, foreign travelers can always use the famous website to plan their train travel, check real time ticket availability and etc.

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