For some it may be an adventure, for tens of millions it is daily routine: a trip on the Chinese railway. China has one of the biggest and busiest railway networks in the world linking almost every Chinese city or town. The quality of trains “en route” is diverse like the country they are crossing: some are equipped with the latest technology; some have still Mao’s footprints on the carpet, all are relatively clean at the beginning of the trip.
The first obstacle the fearless train-traveler has to encounter is buying a ticket. During in the national Chinese holidays and the festival time the trains can be totally overcrowded. That means, not the trains but the train stations. The crowds in front of the station are a popular place for pickpockets. For a careless person the chance of arriving at the counter without a wallet is relatively high.
The western tourist should think twice about whether is worth to fight for hours just to hear a “mei you” (don’t have), it may be better to pay a few bucks to a local travel agency to organize the tickets. Some online travel agencies offer special train trips where everything is taken care of. The tourist is brought directly to its cabin without having to hassle about anything involved in the purchase.
If the gods are merciful or a travel agent has been consulted the lucky traveler got a place in one of the four classes most Chinese trains offer: The two lowest classes are hard and soft sitter. The soft seating places are good for short trips of a few hours; the hard sitter only advisable if a close encounter with people from the agricultural sector is desired. The hard sleeper and soft sleeper compartments offer both clean beds with pillows and quilts. There are six hard sleepers to one compartment; two sets of three facing each other. There is no door on the compartment and 18 compartments to one carriage. The soft sleeper has 4 bunks; two bunks facing another set of two and a door that separates the compartment with the outside world.
The sanitary conditions in the trains are mediocre to bad. To begin the toilets may be clean but after a couple of hours they can be easily compared to the public toilets after the Woodstock festival. Most of the toilets are Chinese style, even though it is rumored that western style toilets are available in some soft sleeper trains. Toilet paper has to be brought from home or bought at one of the frequent train stops.
Even with these obstacles, it should not be a reason for the interested traveler take a train trip, “au contraire!” as the Chinese train is the best place to experience the real china and to get really close to its fascinating population. Some tourists even claim that the highlight of their vacation was the trip on the train and that they learnt more about Chinese culture in a few short hours than in 10 days in Beijing. Where else can you collect so many experiences and adventures for such a small price?