How to Buy Chinese Train Tickets
There are a number of annoying restrictions on buying train tickets in China. Firstly, tickets can theoretically be bought only five or ten days in advance (occasionally 20 days in advance for the ‘Z’ trains). However, there is no guarantee they will actually go on sale when they are supposed to. And when they do go on sale they can sell out in a flash. Moreover, you can only buy your ticket in the city where your journey starts (so, for example, you can’t buy a ticket in Beijing for a journey from Shanghai to Xian) which makes it hard to buy in advance.
Buying the tickets yourself is usually an arduous procedure, especially during peak season. Queues can be unbelievably long and slow-moving (see the picture of a ticket hall – right). Some of the major cities have ticket windows where an English-speaker is available, but this is not always guaranteed. It’s a good idea to find out which train you want beforehand, and write down the train number, the date of your travel, the class you want and your destination (all in Chinese) on a piece of paper. Then just hand the paper to the cashier. Cashiers are usually quite helpful but the ticket halls at train stations are always stressful places.
Much easier is to have your hotel or a travel agent book your tickets. There are kiosks around most cities that will sell tickets for a mere ¥5 fee. Queues (if there are any) are much shorter at these places but the staff won’t speak English. Hotels, hostels and travel agents will usually add a fee of anywhere from ¥30-150 for themselves. Another option is to book through an agency online. They will usually charge an extra ¥150 on top of the ticket but the advantage is that it can be bought as soon as it goes on sale, before you arrive in the city, and it will be delivered right to your hotel.
Outside peak season you should have no trouble obtaining tickets a few days in advance. During summer soft sleeper tickets are usually possible to obtain one day in advance but hard sleeper tickets can be very difficult to come by. During public holidays, and especially during Chinese New Year, it’s very difficult to find any tickets at all and most agencies that offer online ticket sales won’t even take bookings for train journeys during Chinese New Year. It’s best to fly during these periods.