Recounting train travels. 17 March 2019
With eerie precision, the train lurched forward at exactly 22:05, launching the wheels in motion for a nearly eleven-hour journey. Eleven Hours. I’ve always been skeptical about long- distance sleeper trains and I’m not even sure why, when I’ve done plenty of long-distance flights. As a young traveler, with limited funds and one who relishes the idea of minimalism, budget travel, and the concept of backpacking, it’s even more surprising that I’d never opted for train travel before. I guess it’s true what they say: comfort is a safety net, and you fall back on that which you’re familiar with. And, while I had stood an hour before in the rather outdated and VERY authentically Chinese train station in the tiny coastal city of Zhanjiang, South China, dazed and confused, trying to figure out where to go and what to do, I almost regretted my decision and wished I had rather taken the tried and tested flight option.
But, finally, as I scoped out carriage 11, a sense of accomplishment and adventure embraced me as I stepped onto the train. There always is a sensational feeling of wonder when doing something new, especially something you’ve had doubts about. I hesitantly claimed my humble upper berth bunk bed that would be hosting me for the night. Straight off, I may have flinched slightly at the bare minimums, but even before the first hour flew by, the two pillows, duvet, clean sheets and coziness all somehow seemed to paint a perfect portrait of hospitality. It may just have been a combination of relief stemming from succeeding in actually boarding the train, and exhaustion from the long day.
HARD SLEEPER VS SOFT SLEEPER
Before I get into the sleeper options, note that there are, of course, plenty of high-speed trains that complete the same route in a portion of the time. There is a high-speed train on the route I was taking too, that would have only taken three hours. However, besides this option being sold out, the departure and arrival times of these high speed trains did not coincide with my other plans for this particular trip. Taking a sleeper, departing at night and arriving early morning in Shenzhen was a more feasible option for me. Obviously, if you have plenty of time at your disposal, and don’t mind whipping out a few more hundred Yuan, then the high speed trains prove efficient, comfortable and a first option. If not…..
Hard Sleeper and Soft Sleeper. These are the options at your disposal if ever booking Chinese long distance sleeper trains. There is a third ticket option too: ‘hard seat‘. But, ‘hard seat’ doesn’t exactly seem very welcoming-especially not for eleven hours-and so, instead, I booked a soft sleeper on the way to, and a hard sleeper on the way from. The difference in price was about a 100 CNY. Honestly, both were way better than expected, but, in future, you will only find me in soft sleeper compartments. The main difference is that soft sleepers are in compartments hosting four people altogether and have a door to close off your compartment, while the hard sleeper has six people bunking together, and is rather open and cannot be closed off entirely. This means that, on the way back, the noise filtering through the passage kept me up almost all night. Chinese people can really be noisy and raucous, and screaming as a means of communicating seems to be an accepted part of their culture. So, unless you have a reliable set of headphones-or ear plugs- that soundproofs all else, and you don’t mind sleeping with them in, sleep will be as evasive as silence. The soft sleeper also had individual bedside lamps above your mattress, and a little basket attached to the wall where I stored my phone and cables-amenities absent in the hard sleeper.
The hard sleeper by the way, really does have a harder mattress-well, I think.
TICKET OPTIONS AND PURCHASE
TICKET OPTIONS AND PURCHASE
Of course, there is an option to buy your ticket at a station the day of and right before you intend to board your train- however, you will run into a significant problem if tickets are sold out. I opted to, therefore, reserve and pay for my tickets in advance online- as I suggest you do too. If you have a Chinese bank account, then train tickets can easily be purchased via WeChat, pretty much like everything else.
If you don’t have a Chinese bank account and WeChat pay set up, I suggest using C-Trip (https://www.ctrip.com). Tickets can be reserved and paid for online, however, whichever channel you decide to reserve and pay for your tickets, you still need to physically collect the train tickets from the station. This is one of the most annoying train-travel snags in China-despite reserving and paying online, you still need to grapple with finding the ticket collection counters in stations-which is time consuming itself, long queues which depending on the city you’re in, can sometimes take an hour or more and communication barriers once you actually reach the counter teller. I’m quite surprised buying a Chinese train ticket online doesn’t issue you with some kind of mobile ticket or QR Code that would render the need for old-fashioned paper tickets unnecessary.
I’m so glad I ended up taking the train-yes, I absolutely still prefer flights and shorter travel time-but it really wasn’t bad and I wouldn’t mind doing it again.