Well we managed to get from Beijing to Xian on the overnight sleeper train. Although contrary to what the internet may tell you about sleeper trains in China, you cannot just book a few days in advance. When we booked our ticket for that train, it was about 10 days before leaving and all the bottom bunks were already sold out with little top bunks left as well.
There is a lot of information on the internet telling people complete lies and I think this should serve as a fair warning to any travelers looking to try out using a sleeper train around China like us.
Yesterday we arrived in Xi'an in the morning and headed straight to our capsule hotel that we fancied the idea of staying in for 1 night as an experience. We checked in and we decided it was worth finding a train ticket office to book our next leg of the journey out to Chengdu (bearing in mind that is 5 days in the future). After asking the lady at the ticket office, she replies no sleepers only seats. Confused about the situation, we came back to the hotel and went onto the Chinese Railway website (http://www.12306.cn/mormhweb/ – Chinese language only) to see when the next train would be with a sleeper available. Well as of yesterday it was 12th of August, that's almost 14 days of no availability in advance!
There is a reason why the trains are all booked out, it's not holiday season for the Chinese nor is it really the peak travel season still for tourists, it's simply because of the influx of large European tour groups that block book the carriages up as soon as tickets are available for sale, leaving everyone else without the ability to use the trains. On the way from Beijing to Xian we came across one of these tour groups that took almost 2 carriages up (30 or so per carriage). I don't know if it was this particular group of tourists or just the presence of a large group of fellow westerners but after the time since the start of the year just being surrounded by the Chinese, I am growing more agitated of other westerners by the day (will cover why in another post).
Anyway, so we have failed with the Chinese sleeper train plan around China at the 2nd hurdle. We were lucky enough to find a flight out of Xianyang Airport on the 5th of August to Shuangliu Airport for around £75 each one-way. That's about double the cost of the sleeper train, but with the positive that it's a 1 hour 15 minute journey compared with 14 hours overnight and without the prospect of being stuck in a German tour groups disco carriage again – nicht danke! Ho Hum, maybe we will be lucky with the next train from Chengdu to Kunming.
I guess that brings me onto my next point, tips for other travelers!
Tips for booking sleeper trains in China:
- Book in advance as far as possible (this is a given). Internet booking opens almost 20 days ahead of time, telephone booking 20 day and then the ticket offices located around cities 18 days. Don't bother with ticket offices at the station as not only are they going to take up to an hour to queue, they may not sell tickets past a few days in advance. From experience, tickets between Beijing, Xian, Chengdu, Kunming & Guilin are all sold out for sleeper carriages 14 days in normal season. If you want a ticket, you'd better book it on the day tickets open for sale.
- Book at ticket offices for future travel between other cities – You can book for other cities at ticket offices located in your current city, so booking for further travel ahead in the future is the best option as soon as you arrive. That way you don't have to worry about your next part of the trip. This is confirmed as of July 2013 that you can book for future travel between destinations other than where you are buying the tickets from.
- Get a Chinese bank card if possible – This is a double edged sword, you could apply for a Chinese bank card, but that is dependent on how much time you have in China to travel. Also just because you get a debit card, doesn't mean that will work online. My case is a perfect example, I had a lot of grief getting hold of a Chinese Union Pay card through HSBC in China, then after all of this, and spending days getting the Chinese Railway website to work correctly found it didn't accept my card! Yes, that's because for internet purchases in China you need a Credit Card which is even harder to get hold of than the Debit Card. It would make this travel A LOT easier though, as no need to worry then about the next part of our travels.
- Don't trust buying a ticket from anyone reselling theirs – if you get stuck and somehow find someone selling a ticket, do not engage with them. I haven't heard / read of a case this has happened, but just an FYI – tickets are sold with name and ID of the person travelling. So if you did find an option like this, you would just be wasting money as you can't use another person's ticket.