Tip #1: Buy your ticket in advanceTrain ticket purchasing is still one of the leftover relics from China's more communist days, and is surprisingly tough given all the other technological and modern advances China has made in past years. To purchase a ticket, you have to go in person to the train station with passport in hand, or to an authorized reseller which may be just as far away from your hotel or home as the train station. Most sleeper tickets sell out early, especially during peak season such as summer holiday. Tickets go on sale as early as 10 days before departure, so if you arrive at a destination with only a short time between leaving for your next stop, keep your fingers crossed.
Tip #2: Buy food before you get on the trainWhile there are snack cars that go through the train periodically, it is usually not of good quality and is more expensive. The food that they wheel around on little thin carts will leave you feeling bloated, uneasy and dissatisfied. Before coming into the train station, load up on fruits and small snacks at the market or supermarket. There is a dining car on the train that separates the fortunate souls in the sleeper bunks from the less fortunate souls who have to fight it out for space in the seated-only section. Reserve your dining car meal for dinner when you need to stretch your legs a little bit before bed time.
Tip #3: Bring a blindfold or bandanaIn case you want to do extended napping in the train it is very useful to have a light blocker to allow for better napping. Bonus points if you can score some ear buds for noise reduction.
Tip #4: Load up on music, podcasts and audio booksLong train rides can often be monotonous and boring. To keep the brain functioning instead of melting into a pile of ooze, load up on audio books, educational podcasts, or even some Chinese lessons. Going hand-in-hand with tip # 3, you can even download some ambient waves or rainforest noise to block out any unnecessarily loud passengers.
Tip #5: Buy a good bookSince trains don't have power outlets (some of the classier lines from Beijing and Shanghai have power outlets in the hall and individual soft sleeper cabins, but don’t count on it), it is not unreasonable to find that all of your electronic devices have been sucked dry of power. As a low-tech backup, bring a paperback edition. Have a fun book, possibly an adventure or historical novel to go along with the adventurous nature of your train ride in China.
Tip #6: Upgrade to soft sleeperMore comfortable but more money. Less cabin mates, quieter and you even have a door. A door! Privacy!
Tip #7: Top or bottom bunkIf you do decide to go with a hard sleeper, you have two options. Go with the top bunk if you are looking for privacy, in need of getting a task done or trying to ultra nap. Pick the bottom bunk for making friends and practicing Chinese. If you have a bottom bunk, be sure to be ready to share your bed as a 3 person seat. Whatever you do, do not pick a middle bunk that encapsulates the worst of the top and bottom bunks. You are eye level with every passerby as they walk down the aisle with little privacy or comfort.
Tip #8: Don't start speaking Chinese until the second dayThe first day, act like a loner. If you speak Chinese, hide it well. If you fall into a conversation too soon, you will most likely run out of things to talk about with your limited vocabulary, or just get a little claustrophobic as your new friends start to attach themselves to you. By waiting till the next day, you can always make a quick and quiet exit from the conversation as the train pulls into the station, while leaving your newly established relationships on a high note.
Tip #9: Bring slippers or sandalsYou don’t want to get your bed dirty with your gunked up hiking boots. An easy alternative is to pack a light pair of flip flops or a pair of grandpa slippers to protect your feet while making trips up and down the aisle and to the bathroom. Wait....
Tip #10: Go to the bathroom before you get on the trainTry squatting on a stationary dirty China toilet in flimsy slippers with no traction. Now try doing it on a rambling train car that is splashed with a lot of ungodly materials. Try and get your tank down to zero if possible before the long-distance train haul. You nose will thank you for it.
For more insight on traveling in China, check out the travel tips section of Anthony's website