I was fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to experiences all of the different classes of rail travel that China has to offer. They have Unreserved (No Seat), Hard Seat, Soft Seat, Hard Sleeper and Soft Sleeper. No Seat is as it sounds, no seat, Hard Seat is usually a seat with a straight back and a couple of inches of padding, Soft Seat is pretty comfy for maybe up to 12 hours, Hard Sleeper is great, nice bed in a group of 6 bunks, Soft Sleeper is almost luxury, soft bed in a separate room of 4 bunks.
- Kunming to Beijing. 38hrs – Hard Seat
- Beijing to Harbin. 10hrs – Soft Seat
- Harbin to Bautou. 29hrs – No Seat
- Bautou to Lanzhou. 19hrs – Hard Seat
- Lanzhou to Xining. 3hrs – Hard Seat
- Lanzhou to Jiayuguan. 10hrs – Soft Sleeper
- Turpan to Lanzhou. 20hrs – Hard Sleeper
My last two trips were by far the most comfortable and after having travelled in the other classes I kind of felt like I was cheating. Both Hard and Soft sleeper classes were clean, comfortable and a nice way to travel. I felt like I was staying in a nice guesthouse. Hard Seat and No Seat however, not so comfy.
I was travelling through China during the entire Spring Festival period. During this time the whole country seems to be on the move and it is BUSY! The ticket halls at the train and bus stations are filled with people day and night. If you can get a ticket at all you’re doing well and if you get a ticket in less than half an hour you’re doing very well. Given I was travelling at this time I just had to take what I could get.
The hard seat carriages on the long haul services start off relatively clean but it is a completely different storey by the time you arrive at your destination. Rubbish and food scrapes cover the floors, people spit on the ground, smoke in the carriages and I won’t mention the condition of the squat toilets. The aisles are full of people who couldn’t get a reserved seat but the atmosphere and manner of everyone is really good. People get up for those standing to rest their legs and to eat, people share food and everyone is really friendly.
My journey from Harbin to Baotou with no seat saw me seating on a bucket for the first 8 hours using my scarf and beanie as a cushion. A nice Chinese man insisted on sharing his food with me and ensured I followed every mouthful of pickled mushrooms with a swig of his rice wine. Thankfully at midnight a lady came and got me as a guy was getting off and I scored his seat for the rest of the journey. It still wasn’t the most comfortable trip as these seats are quite close together, you have to weave your legs between the person sitting opposite you and the back of the chair is not adjustable and it’s at a 90 degree angle…
I never saw another foreigner while I travelled by train, I’m sure they were somewhere but not in my carriages. Often when I would wake up it would be to a number of people just staring at me. In the Hard Seat carriages I was definitely something of an attraction, I never went hungry and I was never without a new friend.