China's enormous rail network is one of the world's busiest. Trains are usually safe and run strictly to schedule. Although there are certain intricacies to buying tickets, once you've got one, trips are generally hassle-free. Beijing is a major rail hub. Services to the rest of China leave from its four huge stations. The Trans-Siberian Railway leaves from Beijing Zhan, the main station. Trains to Hong Kong and to areas in the west and south of China leave from Beijing Xi Zhan (West). Most Z-series trains (nonstop luxury service) use these two stations. Lesser lines headed north and east leave from Beijing Bei Zhan (North) and Beijing Dong Zhan (East). C- and D-series trains (intercity nonstop rail) mostly use Beijing Nan Zhan (South).
China’s high-speed rail network is rapidly becoming one of the longest in the world, and new routes are debuting every year. Journeys that used to be overnight affairs, such as Beijing to Xi’an or Shanghai, now take around five hours. Smooth rides and few delays make rail travel a tempting alternative to domestic flights. You can buy most tickets 10 days in advance (remember to bring your passport); two to three days ahead is usually enough time, except around the three national holidays—Chinese New Year (two days in mid-January to February, depending on the lunar calendar), Labor Day (May 1), and National Day (October 1)—when tickets sell out weeks in advance.
The cheapest tickets are found at the stations, and there are ticket offices for foreigners staffed with English speakers at Beijing Zhan (first floor) and Beijing Xi Zhan (second floor). Most travel agents, including CITS, can book tickets for a small surcharge (Y20 to Y50), saving you the hassle of going to the station. Tickets can be bought from ticket offices around the city for a Y5 fee. You can also buy tickets for slow trains through online retailers like China Train Ticket, and they'll deliver the tickets to your hotel.
Trains are always crowded, but you are guaranteed your designated seat, though not always the overhead luggage rack. Note that theft on trains is increasing; on overnight trains, sleep with your valuables or else keep them on the inside of the bunk. Overpriced dining cars serve meals that are often inedible, so you'd do better to make use of the massive thermoses of boiled water in each compartment or the taps in the carriage section and take along your own noodles or instant soup, as the locals do.
You can find out just about everything about Chinese train travel at Seat 61's fabulous website. China Highlights has a searchable online timetable for major train routes. The tour operator Travel China Guide has an English-language website that can help you figure out train schedules and fares.
Beijing Bei Zhan. Xizhimen, Xicheng District, Beijing, Beijing, 100004. 010/5182–6623.
Beijing Nan Zhan. 12 Yongdingmenwai Dajie, Chongwen District, Beijing, Beijing, 100054. 010/5183–6272.
Beijing Xi Zhan. 118 Lianhuachi Donglu, Fengtai District, Beijing, Beijing, 100070. 010/6321–6253.
Beijing Zhan. A13 Maojiawang Hutong, east side of Dongbianmen Gate, Dongcheng District, Beijing, Beijing, 100010. 010/5101–9999.
China Highlights. 800/268–2918; www.chinahighlights.com/china-trains/index.htm.
Seat 61. www.seat61.com/china.htm.
Travel China Guide. 800/315–3949; www.travelchinaguide.com/china-trains/index.htm.