We did most of our intercity travel in China by train. The train network is very well developed, trains are super convenient, well organized with many connections. And the trains are absolutely punctual every time.
When we entered China (coming from Laos), we had to take the bus as the railway line between Laos and China is still under construction (spring 2020). But the further connections, i.e. Kunming/Yunnan to Lijiang and back, as well as Kunming/Yunnan to Chengdu/Sichuan and further to Xi’an/Shaanxi and then via Huashan to Suzhou/Jiangsi and finally to Shanghai, we all did by train – in total more than 4.100 km.
Train types and rail network
China has been building up a network of high-speed trains which go at a speed up to 300 km/h. These trains have numbers staring with C, D or G. We mostly took these high-speed trains.
There are also “regular” trains connecting smaller villages and offering sleeper cars. Regular train numbers start with K, T or Z.
The most popular and informative website about train travel globally – seat61 – provides lots of detailed information at https://www.seat61.com/China.htm
The train network of China is comprehensively illustrated at http://cnrail.geogv.org/ . This website also offers a search functionality (connected to the offical China Railways site) so you can find specific connections. I used this website to do all our travel planning for China.
How much does it cost
Travelling by train in China is “reasonnably” priced. It is by far not as cheap as e.g. in Thailand. But on the other hand, you will get super modern bullet trains (up to 300 km/h) which are always on time. To show some examples:
- Kunming to Lijiang, sleeper train overnight, about 460 km (~9h), 28€
- Chengdu to Xi’an, high-speed train, about 660 km (~4h), 34€
- Huayin/Huashan to Suzhou, high-speed train, about 1,265 km (~6h), 76€
How to book a train ticket in China
If you are fluent in reading Chinese, you can book your train tickets online via the official Chinese Railway website. If not – as us – the most convenient is to go via an agent. Seat61 (see further above) shows different options. We went for China DIY Travel (https://www.china-diy-travel.com/en/) which I can recommend. You can book online (I used their XLS form and sent it via email) and they do the actual booking. They charge about 1€ per ticket per person, which I think is worth the money. They make recommendations for most suitable connections and were very reliable from my experience (e.g. answering promptly).
Actually for all the trips we made, there was no paper ticket required. China DIY Travel sent us by email a confirmation as PDF which included information like train number, car number, seat number, etc. as well as a QR code for the train station (but we never had to show the QR code). At the train station, you just have to present your passport and the clerk checks your booking against the passport number. Super easy.