Chances are if you are looking to get a feel for the real China and move around this massive country from one distant city to another, you will probably end up taking a sleeper train at some point. Why might one consider such an option, especially when domestic flights can be found at competitive rates?
Reasons to take the train
-Airports are often distant from their respective cities which means flying has plenty of extra transit time, trains often arrive from city center to city center.
-A sleeper train can save you a night in a hotel and allow you to cross hundreds of miles of land, super efficient when you are moving while asleep.
-Sleeper trains are affordable and frequent.
What you hope to get out of your trip
It all depends on your sense of travel. China is a place with seemingly limitless destinations. Thus to make a week or more journey inclusive, a train can be a cost effective and efficient way to get around. One must realize that several options are available. There are slow trains and bullet trains. Within each type of train there are generally 3 classes of sleeper cars available. The most basic might be six bunks in which the room is shared. The most exclusive can be a two person room with quite elegant décor.
Atmosphere and Train culture
A train is a public space so while one can reasonably expect docile and amicable roommates, people have different ways of behaving. On our part we’ve never found our Chinese traveling companions to be rude or intolerable. Taking the train is an experience in which one might be offered food, be exposed to large quantities of boiled noodles and tea and occasional conversations, but travelers have a basic etiquette of sharing. The trains are kept clean and orderly and an unspoken lights out policy is made evident by the custodians who keep watch over each passenger car.
Things to know and expect
Not all trains are created equal. Some of the facilities on certain lines will be wonderful while others are outdated. Also whether you are in line to get tickets or waiting to board the train, be ready for long lines and waits, it is a country of a billion people and many of them move about in this way. Also for foreigners buying tickets must be done at a ticket window or can be done in advance by your hotel concierge if one gives passport identification etc. Only citizens can buy directly online or at ticket machines since they use a national identity card to purchase. Online sales for foreigners have an increased rate because of the company that processes the request. Also some train tickets can only be bought within a few days of departure, not weeks ahead of time.