China is a beautiful country and everyone seems to wear a smile, most of the time. However, a few of our travel tips below may help you not come face to face with any difficulties during your stay.
Recently China Daily reported that China are now ranked no.1 in worst tourists / travellers abroad. It's easy to see why, just go to a railway station and find that although Chinese people can be warm and friendly to family and close friends & acquaintances when it comes to strangers in a high stress environment all hell breaks loose!
It's also where you need to become ‘chinese' for a while and forget a few of your western ways and just go with the flow. Read on, for some tips to help planning your travels across China by Bullet Train.
1. Book your train tickets far in advance if possible
You can book train tickets (up to 14 days max is allowed) through your hotel / hostel or alternatively visit a railway ticket office. Usually your accommodation will be able to organise this for you and will charge a small ‘delivery charge' per ticket (expect around 20CNY). The railway ticket offices are easy to find, just do a Google search. I recommend this, as the only other way to buy in advance is online if you have a Chinese credit card (unlikely) and you would need a postal address. Otherwise the ticket offices at stations are another option, but as I have said already our experiences are the ticket sales windows are sometimes closed completely or from what I have read online don't sell more than a few days in advance.
2. If tip 1 is not an option, arrive early at the station on the day
Turning up on the day to buy your ticket might work for majority of inter city travel that is under 2 hours, but like our trip to Beijing shows, being early at the station pays off. We saw on the ticket boards that earlier trains had plenty of unsold tickets, as soon as lunchtime hits, the stations are mobbed by Chinese travellers also trying to buy tickets and travel same day. Avoid all this by getting to the station early (like before 9am) and you will be more or less guaranteed a seat to your destination.
3. Avoid the automatic ticket kiosks
Buying a ticket at stations in China is the worst experience of probably any stations in the world. They have built many of the worlds largest stations in the past decade, huge modern looking structures with dozens of railway platforms and they still can't provide enough manned kiosk windows to sell the tickets! Don't also let the automatic ticket machines fool you, as although you may see westerners queueing for them, they will likely get to the front of the line and then have to walk away and find a manned kiosk, because they don't have an RFID equipped Chinese ID card.
4. Choose the right ticket kiosk queue
Manned kiosk windows aren't unfortunately always much help either. With the exception of Hangzhou, every other station we have been to hasn't had an English speaking window available (FYI the internet lies!). Also, as every digital LED ticker is in Chinese characters, you likely won't know what each queue is for. Therefore take this tip.. it won't be the shortest queue 🙂 that will likely be for ticket collection only. Take a mid size queue in the middle of the ticket kiosk lines and you will pretty likely be in the right one and avoid half an hour or more of waiting in the wrong place.
5. Again, avoid automatic ticket kiosks (ignore at your peril)
When buying metro tickets on the other side when you eventually get to your destination, avoid the automatic kiosk machines, even if their queues are shorter than the manned windows. Put it this way, recently more Chinese people are travelling long distance by rail from the countryside, many of them it will be the first time using such machines and technology. If you are from the UK, you probably remember when Tesco's introduced self-serve and the fun it was at the beginning. Same thing here. The manned windows are 100x faster and will help you get to where your going quicker.
6. Get to the train departure gate earlier than your departure time (no brainer)
Chinese high speed trains are punctual and not late very often. They will also arrive 5-10 minutes before departing and they WILL leave on time. Get to your gate early and queue up to avoid a potential frenzied rush last minute.
7. Redeem your free water voucher
You are eligible to get a free bottle of water in the departures terminal with your train ticket. Don't try queuing for the water western style, you likely won't ever get to the front. Go with the flow and become a frantic Chinese traveller for a few minutes and grab what is rightfully yours!
Oh and if there are any major delays to your journey, run for the hills and hide as all hell may just start to break loose. Good luck with your travels.
Watch our adventures on the Shanghai to Beijing Bullet Train in China
If you are looking to travel to Beijing on a budget, make sure you read our Beijing (China) – A Backpackers Budget Guide & Travel Itinerary.