Traveling by High-Speed Train around China

5 min read.

Back in 1978, Deng Xiaoping, one of the paramount leaders of the People’s Republic of China, traveled on the Shinkansen (Japan’s bullet train) during his visit to Japan. The trip sparked his ambition and determination to develop China’s very own “Shinkansen”—and with that, the country’s “Gaotie Dream” was born.

Today, China has built the world’s largest high-speed rail network covering over 35,000km and accounting for more than two-thirds of the total global high-speed railway. Transporting a total of nearly 2.3 billion passengers in 2019 and connecting over 550 cities, this advanced system has revolutionized the way people travel between cities within this vast country. This offers both locals and tourists a more flexible and punctual option than airplanes, and a more time-saving and environmentally-friendly choice compared to cars. If you ever visit China and have more than one city on your travel itinerary, we highly recommend that you give this technological wonder a shot.

Credit: Railway Technology

First Step to Travel: Buying Tickets

  1. Train stations 

Tickets can only be purchased 28 days in advance at train stations. It is recommended to arrive early to get your tickets as the queue at the ticketing windows will most likely be long. For a smoother transaction, we advise that you do a quick search on your preferred train beforehand. You could also write the details down and show the staff at the counter when making your purchase. Keep in mind that train stations do not accept foreign credit cards, so it is crucial to prepare enough RMB cash on hand. If you see a self-service ticket machine, skip it, because transactions there can only be completed with Chinese IDs.

  1. Ticket offices

Outside of train stations, there are dedicated ticket offices located in select cities, where you can also buy tickets 28 days ahead of time. The perk of ticket offices is that they tend to be less crowded than train stations. The trade-off is that a service fee of 5 yuan (US$0.70) will be charged. Bear in mind that if you have bought tickets online, you will be unable to pick up your tickets here. Just like train stations, only RMB cash is accepted. In addition, to minimise any language barrier difficulties, it would be better to prepare a written note with the details of your preferred train, just so that it will be easier to explain your route to the ticketing staff.

  1. 12306 China Railway’s website or app

If you are fluent in Chinese and own a Chinese credit or debit card, you have the option of using the official China Railway website. There, you can get tickets 30 days prior to your day of travel. This platform is not as popular with tourists due to the language and transaction limitations. 

  1. Online Booking Platforms: China Highlights and Trip.com 

China Highlights is a travel agency where tourists can buy tickets several months in advance, and the agency will purchase your tickets as soon as the reservations are open. Payments are refundable if they are unable to provide the purchased tickets. Upon checking out, there are two collection options for you. In the interest of convenience, you can choose to get the tickets delivered to your accommodation, but this will also incur extra charges. If you are feeling thrifty, an alternative is to collect your tickets at the train station. Be sure to leave some buffer time as you might experience a long wait in line.

Trip.com is a common, hassle-free way for tourists to purchase their tickets. You can simply complete the transaction online and perhaps most importantly, the platform is available in more than 30 languages. All Trip.com customers enjoy 24/7 customer support, free seat selection and no hidden credit card fees. You can buy your tickets up to 60 days in advance, and at least 35 minutes before train departure. Do note that on top of the standard price, Trip.com charges an extra 30 yuan (US$5) per ticket. Similar to China Highlights, customers have the options to get the tickets delivered to a specific address or can also be collected at train stations. 

Rule of thumb: It is compulsory to bring your passport along for both the payment and collection of tickets at train stations and ticket offices. Otherwise, you will not be able to make a purchase.

How to read a Chinese train ticket
Credit: China Discovery

Choosing Your Best Ride

There are three different types of high-speed trains, with varying speeds and routes.

  1. 高速动车, Gāosù Dòngchē (G)
  2. 动车, Dòngchē (D)
  3. 城际动车, Chéngjì Dòngchē (C)

We have created a table to help you choose the most suitable ride for your next trip.

At a glance: Types of China’s High-Speed trains 

Keep in mind that China also has non-high-speed trains, which are classified into three different categories: Z and T (express trains) and K (fast trains). Do remember to double-check the train category selected when you make your next booking. Choosing the wrong train type may cause you to miss out on the remarkable bullet train experience in China. 

A Cost-Effective Way to Travel 

As reported in Travel China Guide, although a high-speed train ticket generally costs more than a non-bullet train ticket, it is still cheaper than a flight ticket most of the time. For reference, a soft sleeper class ticket on a non-bullet rail costs 500 yuan (US$72) for a 1,318km trip from Beijing to Shanghai, while the same trip for a second class seat on the high-speed rail costs around 550 yuan (US$79). An economy class airplane ticket for that same trip is well over 1,000 yuan (US$144). Multiply that over a few passengers, and the savings are more than substantial.

In addition to saving costs, you also get more bang for your buck on the high-speed train, where the facilities are similar to what you might find on a commercial flight. There are ample luggage racks to stow travel baggage, well-sanitized Western-style toilets that are clean and well-stocked with the essentials. There are also handicapped toilets provided for persons with disabilities. Most trains come equipped with free wifi for both recreational and business use. For dining, there are food trolleys moving from carriage to carriage selling refreshments, even a range of pre-packed microwavable meals. Depending on the type of food, you can get a meal from 15 to 45 yuan (US$2 to US$6.50). One can also expect relatively decent choices of drinks such as soda, coffee, tea, and alcoholic beverages. Passengers in business class, VIP and first class carriages will be served with free meals and beverages. Halal food is also available on some trains.

Neat Tips and Tricks

  1. During peak periods such as Chinese New Year, it is almost impossible to get a ticket due to the huge volume of travelers. You should consider skipping second and first class, and opt for either two extremes: VIP class (only available on selected high-speed trains), or standing tickets (a ticket with no seat assigned). If VIP class is not available on your train, you can try your luck at securing a business class ticket. However, do expect that these tickets might also be sold out. If you can, avoid traveling during peak periods at all.
  1. If you wish to save money, bring your own food and drink onboard, as food cart prices tend to be marked up. 
  1. Reach the train station at least an hour before your departure time. If it is a public holiday, make it at least 1.5 hours earlier. One should be prepared for the queues at the entrance for ticket and security checks, and also leave some spare minutes just in case to find the right waiting hall and boarding gate inside the station. 
  1. Verify your departure and arrival points to avoid getting lost. High-speed trains stations tend to be located in more remote areas in a city, and can take a while to travel to. It takes up a lot of travel time if you go to the wrong train station and have to backtrack to the correct one.
  1. High-speed trains only stop for a few minutes at each station. Refrain from getting off the train until you arrive at your final destination (unless of course for some reason you plan to take a detour).
  1. If you are catching an overnight train and want to be extra comfortable, remember to bring your own toiletries such as a toothbrush, toothpaste and a towel. If you forget to bring them, fret not, you will likely be able to get extras on the train. 
  1. Recharge your cell phone beforehand and bring along a portable charger. There are only a few electricity charging sockets on traditional style trains, so we advise you not to try your luck there. A portable charger will help you stay connected with friends and family should the need arise, since video calls tend to drain battery quickly. You can also read an ebook, or listen to music on your phone to pass the time.

Six Popular Routes You Must Know

Beijing to Shanghai: Enjoy China’s newest high-speed train—Fuxing 
Distance: 1,318 km 
Duration: 4h 19min to 12h 7min

Beijing to Xian: Visit China’s ancient capitals
Distance: 1,212 km
Duration: 4h 20min to 6h 2min

Chongqing to Chengdu: Check out the Yangtze River and pandas
Distance: 658 km
Duration: 3h 13min to 4h 25min

Shanghai to Hangzhou: Immerse in the Southern China culture
Distance: 159 km
Duration: 58min to 1h 34min

Hangzhou-Huangshan: Appreciate some of the UNESCO heritage sites in China
Distance: 265 km
Duration: 1h 26min to 2h 24min

Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link: Hop on a cross-border travel
Distance: 133km
Duration: 44min to 1h 14min

China’s Railway Map, Photo Courtesy of Travel China Guide

Moving Forward

China plans to add another 2,300 km of high-speed track this year, with the ambition to expand the network to 45,000 km by the year 2030. To up their game and reinforce their clout in the global high-speed railway industry, it has commenced tests for a magnetic levitation (“maglev”) prototype train that runs at 600 km/h. Moreover, China aims to put a 500-km-long high-speed maglev line into commercial use by 2025. 

In just over three decades, China has realized its “Gaotie Dream”. Since the country’s first launch of its high-speed train in 2008, breakthroughs have become a norm in the astounding development of the high-speed railway in China. With ever-expanding developments in the pipeline, the country will likely gain exponential growth in this industry, making them poised to be the global leader of the high-speed railway system for years to come.