Trains, hands down, are my favorite way of traveling China (behind hitchhiking, of course). They’re economical, and they’re more scenic than taking a plane. If you have the time to spare, hop on a train!
On my last trip out west, I rode very long trains: a 36-hour train out to Xining, a 21-hour train to Lhasa, and then a 48-hour train back to Shanghai. In my time in China, I’ve managed to ride every type of train there is (even the Maglev in Shanghai). While I’ll get into more details about the different places to be within trains, let me first do a quick run-down of train types.
There are two types of fast trains: the G train (高铁, gao tie) and the D train (动车, dong che). These trains are pretty damn fast, and also tend to connect bigger cities together. There’s even a line between Chongqing and Shanghai!
What are the differences between a G train and a D train? A D train is the slightly older model that runs ever-so-slightly slower. The G train is the newer model. A G train is more expensive than a D train, by a little bit.
For example, as of writing this, a G train to Shanghai takes 45 minutes or an hour, and costs 73 rmb (about 10 USD). A D train takes one to one and a half hours to get to Shanghai, but costs 56 rmb (about 5-6 USD). It’s a slight difference, but a worthwile one to know. That being said. There aren’t as many D trains, so the tickets sell out very quickly.
The major perk of the high-speed trains is that, obviously, you get to your destination faster. The hot water machines and bathrooms tend to be cleaner. The only downside (for some) is that people tend to be a bit less chatty on fast trains. Then again, that might be a nice thing, too.
There are several types of slow trains. There are the T trains. There are the K trains, the Z trains, and the trains that are a string of numbers without a letter. These are the trains that tend to make overnight trips, and have different cabins: hard sleeper, soft sleeper, hard seat, and sometimes soft seat (but don’t be fooled: the seats aren’t actually that soft).
The T and Z trains are the faster ones of the bunch, though the K train is also decent. (Fun fact: the Chinese names for these trains all mean “fast,” but in different degrees. T is 特快 which means “especially fast,” Z means 最快 or “the fastest” and K means 快 which is just the plain ‘ol “fast,” which isn’t to say that any of them are actually all that fast. Oh well!) The string of numbers train is definitely the slowest, though depending on where you’re going, you might not actually have a choice of train type. Most train booking places show the amount of time it takes to get there.
I actually do like these slow trains when I have a longer journey to make. They’re meditative in their own rights, you meet an interesting array of people, and you get to see the scenery unfold. If you’re going a short distance (like from Hangzhou to Shanghai) and a fast train is available, though, I don’t really recommend this route. Because for short distances, the slow speed is maddening.
With any luck, you can avoid the L train, which is a very old model sometimes used out west in Xinjiang. How old is it?! The AC unit is just a fan bolted into the ceiling. The hot water machines are still powered by coal. I mean, it was cool for me to experience, but given the choice, I might have chosen a T or K train.
Crazy fast train
This would just be the Maglev. It goes over 300 km/hour, and it’s currently in Shanghai, connecting the airport with the downtown area. When is it a good idea to take it? Aw, just take it. It’s pretty wild to experience something that goes that fast!
So fast it doesn’t exist yet train
Is there something faster than the Maglev? Maybe in the near future! If you check out this link, you can read about some of the super-fast trains that are bound for China!
Those are some train types in China! Stay tuned for more information about hard sleepers, hard seats, and so on.