China: How to buy and read train tickets

China, Train Ticket

Lost in translation

Travelling through China was harder than I thought. I don’t know about anyone else out there but when I landed in Beijing I immediately felt very under-prepared, not having learned much Mandarin, and the few words that I had memorised were totally lost in translation. Thus I found it extremely difficult to communicate with the locals.

How I managed to get to my hostel from the airport and work my way around Beijing is a story for another time, but today I am writing to explain how I worked out the rail system through China. Purchasing a train ticket at any station in China is to be honest, quite an ordeal, but don’t let it put you off going to this incredible land, because there are resources you can use. Basically getting past the language barrier is the main issue.

Language Barrier

I downloaded an app called Pleco which is not just a Mandarin dictionary, but also a way to look up symbols, find the “Pinyin” equivalent of their symbols (Pinyin is the Romanization of the Chinese characters based on their pronunciation), and to help with pronunciation of words.

However (and this is important because it was a massive hurdle for me so I want to make it easy for you): China has blocked Google, so it’s almost impossible to download apps if you are using Android because obviously Google Play is blocked as a result. So I really recommend getting this app, I used it on a daily (hourly!) basis, but remember to download and install it BEFORE you leave on your trip!

Purchasing your train ticket

Next hurdle, the train stations! They are huge, and there are queues like you’ve never seen before, but don’t let this deter you, they move fast, the Chinese are very efficient. But before you get to the station: find your train! Go to (there’s also an app for this!). There are two ways to book a ticket:

1) Buy your ticket with an online agency – not always the best option because they cannot guarantee seats will be together, and if you decide to change journeys, or miss a train you will have to go through the agency for every detail. However, if you are worried about the language barrier, this may be the option for you!

2) At the station: before you arrive, look your journey up on Ctrip and write down the following:
– train number,
– class (see below for options),
– departure station,
– departure date,
– arrival station,
because it’s most likely that staff will not speak English, and the led boards display all information in Chinese. Be sure to book as far in advance as possible, because seats sell out fast, no matter what time of year!

If you are doing this trip on the cheap I’d recommend going to the station, you can buy 1st and 2nd class tickets online, but if you are going on a short journey (and don’t mind being uncomfortable for a bit!) and want to save some money, you can choose hard-seating or even standing, which will save you some money.

Below is a list of available classes:

China Train Class Travel

Z, T and K trains have the option of hard sleeper/seat (as well as soft and deluxe soft sleeper), as these are the ordinary trains, where as G, D and C trains are high-speed, more expensive and offer business, 1st, 2nd etc.

Do not make the same mistake I did and accidentally ask for “hard-seat” instead of “hard-sleep”, resulting in me sitting upright and squashed next to hundreds of locals on a wooden bench for the nearly 20 hours traveling from Guangzhou to Chongqing.

How to read your train ticket

After my first train ride I realised that it’s not just a ticket they give you, it’s more of a guide to everything you need to know, you now just need to learn how to translate it! Don’t be overwhelmed, the ticket is simple once you know how to use it.

China Train Ticket Travel Guide

Take note of the carriage number and birth number (seat/bed), because these trains can be huge, 20 carriages long with 100 seats per carriage, so you don’t want to board at the wrong end (I did that in India but only realised once the train started moving and had to navigate my way through 18 carriages of chaos to find my bed)!

Make sure you have your passport when you’re buying because as you can see your details get printed on the ticket. Oh and don’t bother going to the electronic ticket vendors because you need to have a national Chinese identity card for this, so yes, the queues are much shorter, but don’t be tempted!

See, easy as!

So yes that all seems like a lot of information just buy a train ticket, a bit daunting perhaps, but once you work it out, its easy! I managed to work it out with none of this information and if I can work my way through China, anyone can! And once you’re on board and settled, at the end of every carriage is an urn with boiling water, so bring a flask and some tea, or noodles for a snack, all the locals do it so join in, get on board (no pun intended!), its such an amazing way to travel.

And if you need anymore information on trains through China, I’ve got tonnes, so let me know, or even just send me a comment on whether this blog helped at all, I’d love to hear feedback!

Travelling on the spur of the moment, unplanned and unprepared. Total freedom


I'd love to hear any comments or feedback, thanks guys!

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