long train home

Train ride from Hubei province to Fenyang, Hunan province, May 2008

This sleeping gentleman was on a 20+ hour train ride from north to south China (I forgot where, exactly) and had paid for a hard seat ticket. We sat across him for 7 hours, where he drank beer, gathered up his courage to shyly ask us laowai (foreigners) some questions, burp, toss his beer out the window, play on his cell phone, then lay his head down for a nap. In the plastic bag on the table is some food he had brought along. To save money on pricey train snacks and to ensure you get food and beverages you like, pretty much everyone brings their own food (and might I add, everyone I’ve chatted with has always generously urged some on me).

China’s railway network is staggeringly vast – as with everything regarding China’s infrastructure – and is the most common mode of long-distance transport in the country. Let me pull out one of the ‘whoa’ numbers China is so famous for: according to the Ministry of Railways, 1.86 billion railway trips were taken in 2011 alone.


Pricing is broken down like this, in ascending order: standing, hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper, soft sleeper. Keep in mind this is for normal trains, and there are a couple cushier options in the very, very, few super fancy ones.

Standing is the last resort ticket, and yes, it means you stand in the aisle of hard-seat carriages.

Hard seat is where we were sitting, on a long hard bench with high back facing an identical bench, with a small table that extends halfway from the window (a feature in every class of carriage) in the middle.  Sometimes, people come on clutching a ticket without no assigned seat, which lets the railway sell more tickets than seating available. And, every once in a while, standing ticket holders manage to squeeze on a bench, depending on size and generosity of said benchmates. Yes it’s cramped, noisy and quite intimate, but the concept of personal space is a whole other animal here than compared to the West. I find the atmosphere pretty jovial, actually.

Soft seat are kind of like small airplane seats. You get cushions (soft, you know?), adjustable back, small tray table, roomier carriages, no standing passengers leaning against you, and they line up four in a row with two in either side of the aisle.

Hard sleeper are open compartments with six fixed bunks, arranged three on each side: upper, middle and lower. They come with basic bedding – sheet, pillow, blanket – that I personally don’t like to directly come into contact with. I usually keep my hoodie on, or lay a T-shirt on my pillow. People are walking back and forth alongside these open compartments all the time, so we wedge valuables in the corner of bed next to our heads or on our person, and shove our backpacks underneath the lower bunks.

Soft sleeper have four fixed bunks, two on each side, and a compartment door that you can lock. You get nicer bedding, a big area near the ceiling to store luggage, temperature controls, a large stainless steel thermos (hot water is provided on trains free of charge),  a small reading lamp per bunk, hangers, trash can, wall socket, tea cups and toilet paper. That’s generally speaking – sometimes you get more, sometimes you get less, depending on if you’re on a nicer train or a not-so-nice train.

Along the same vein, that applies to things like air conditioning, which this train did NOT have. You have to check the letter preceding the train numbers (K? T? Z?) to figure out whether you’re booking a decrepit, old, middling, new or brand-spanking gorgeous train. If you’re, oh say, taking a hard sleeper for 10 hours in the dead of summer, it’d be really, really, really smart to check this first. Trust me.


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