Shanghai Stories and Tips

China Railway – Know-How and My Experience

Hard Sleeper Photo, Shanghai, China

Many people warned me about the awful condition of China Railway and their level of services before I traveled to China. I couldn’t imagine the worst scenario and how bad it could be; thus, I made it a point to see China by train, with a friend of mine as a companion.

Our journey started from Shanghai, which I believe is the city with the best train access to the other provinces. Our first train ride was an 11-hour ride from Shanghai to Huangshan, Anhui. Subsequently, we took a train to Jiangsu and stopped at the major towns of Nanjing, Wuxi and Suzhou. Our last stop was Hangzhou, Zhejiang, before heading back to Shanghai. It may seem a bit out of direction, but it was the best way I could think of, considering the Huangshan train tickets are booked through a local travel agency, CTRIP. Plus, the Mid Autumn Festival (a big thing in China) and the peak season of the Chinese National Day have resulted in very busy train travel for Chinese family gatherings and the long National Day holiday!

Shanghai – Huangshan
Date: 22/09/04
Time: 22:02
Train: N518
Journey: 11 hours
Type of Seat: Hard Sleeper (upper berth)
Price: RMB$164

The first time onboard, we were shocked and lost when we found out that we would have to sleep with so many people on a cart overnight. All we did was sit on the bed and see more and more people walking up to this cart. The gap between the two beds was extremely small, so that we could easily touch the person sleeping opposite! The upper berth has so little overhead space that you couldn’t sit up at all. Thus, I decided to sit at the lower berth with my friend.

We sat there without moving for a while, still surprised, until the train reached Suzhou one hour later. The lights were off, and it was a little bit quieter by then. We realized that we were lucky to have two couples with us in the same bunk: a Taiwanese and a Chinese couple who were heading to Huangshan for a visit too. That comforted us a little. We finally accepted the fact that we were in China, and this is how their trains work. So we decided to sleep after two more hours and let the train take control.

Huangshan – Nanjing
Date: 24/09/04
Time: 22:38
Train: N520
Journey: 7 hours
Type of Seat: Hard Sleeper (middle berth)
Price: RMB$105

We were on the second row of bunks from the toilet, where they kept the first row clear for drivers and staff onboard. It was not a very good location, as there were many people walking past us to the toilet and to get hot water from there. Although we didn’t have to worry who slept beside us like we did on the last train, we still had to worry about who was sleeping above us. A man came in and climbed straight up to the upper berth. As the space is too small, he had to lie down and read his paper. I did not have a very good feeling about him, and it doubled my worries when my friend told me that he tried to check us out from above a few times. I knew then I would have to be extra careful that night. I slept with my jacket zipped up to my neck, and I put the quilt at the right side and tried to keep myself very close to the wall so that he wouldn’t be able to touch me or do anything to me in the middle of the night.

All went well--the ticket officer returned our ticket slightly before the train arrived at Nanjing. It was 5:30am, and we were cold and sleepy as we made our way to the ticketing office through a construction area. We bought our tickets to Wuxi with sleepy eyes.

Nanjing – Wuxi
Date: 27/09/04
Time: 13:30
Train: T713
Journey: 2 hours
Type of Seat: Hard Seater
Price: RMB$29

Wuxi is not as big as the other cities we visited. It has nothing much to see, and there were not many people getting on and off at the station. My friend slept through the journey, as she was not feeling too well. There were two men sitting right opposite us, and both of them were sleeping. I thought it would be a perfect time to catch some sleep too! However, the woman with the trolley was out and going, selling fruits and the Nanjing’s specialty, "salt water duck". Announcements were loud and clear, promoting the salt water duck as the perfect gift for family and relatives for this Mid Autumn Festival! I fell asleep after a while, until I reached Wuxi.

Wuxi – Suzhou
Date: 28/09/04
Time: 15:27
Train: T713
Journey: 27 minutes
Type of Seat: Hard Seater
Price: RMB$12

This was the shortest train ride we had taken, which was good indeed, as my friend was not feeling very well that day and traveling with a flu bug. However, the scenery outside was extremely calming--there were paddy fields, rivers, and lakes. Because of that, I knew we were on the right train, heading east to the City of Gardens, Suzhou.

Suzhou – Hangzhou
Date: 29/09/04
Time: 15:25
Train: N503
Journey: 3.5 hours
Type of Seat: Hard Seater
Price: RMB$44

I sat on the left side with two girls and an old man, while my friend sat on the right of the train with a Chinese family. The family was eating Gua Zi and chatting throughout the entire journey, and that was irritating, especially when we were trying to catch some sleep to energize ourselves. I started to read when I realized that there was no way of getting sleep on that train. However, the old man sitting opposite me was making too much movement to get his noodles cooked and his apple and bowl cleaned. I couldn’t concentrate on my reading after all. So I looked at the family sitting with my friend and started to listen to their stories about daily life, which I found quite interesting.

The train stopped at Shanghai for about 10 minutes for passengers to get off and on. The train then started again; however, it went backward, which made me panic for a second. My friend asked if we were supposed to change trains at Shanghai, but I was quite sure that I saw the girl’s ticket next to me, and she was heading to Hangzhou too. I was trying to make some sense out of it when I heard that kid asking his dad why the train was going backward. He explained that the railway from west to east ends at Shanghai, and traveling down south to Hangzhou requires travelling on a different railway, so the train has to go backward and change lanes instead. I felt better after hearing that!

Hangzhou – Shanghai
Date: 01/10/04
Time: 18:47
Train: T178
Journey: 2 hours
Type of Seat: Hard Seater
Price: RMB$33

The Hangzhou train station was the best of all that I saw on this journey. The building is of modern architecture, with a few levels. When the taxi let us off at the departure hall upstairs, there were many people sitting outside the checking point. They were either too early for their trains, or they had no tickets to travel on that day. Security that night was extremely tight, as there were just too many people trying to board the train without a ticket. I guess most of them were trying their luck at getting a free ride to the big city to see fireworks for the National Day.

The train left Hangzhou slightly after 18:47. Although it was a two-hour ride, we could hardly sleep and rest. There were a few men playing Chinese chess at the opposite side who made noise occasionally, there was a girl sitting next to me who was on the phone for almost 10 minutes, and there was a man trying to put on a show on the train to sell socks! He was making extra efforts to prove that the socks were durable and a good value for the money. The show went on for about 20 minutes. When it was finally over, the woman with the trolley was making her rounds on the train, selling cup noodles, junk foods, and some local specialties. Her voice was loud enough to make the whole cart hear! I closed my eyes after an hour of disturbances, and I was awakened by some noise outside the train. I saw fireworks when I opened my eyes, and it was really handsome. I wonder where the fireworks came from. My friend was soundly asleep. I sat awhile thinking about the days that I had been backpacking in China, and I was so proud of myself.

Been to this destination?

Share Your Story or Tip