Although you can fly a lot of places in China, you can’t fly everywhere and flights to many remote destinations are extremely expensive. Additionally, flight connections aren’t necessarily convenient. If you’re in the densely populated eastern part of China, the extensive network of high-speed trains can quickly and efficiently get you to your destination at a very reasonable price (a typical route is Beijing to Tianjin, a distance of about 220km, which takes about 30 minutes and costs $8). However, if you’re traveling in more remote parts of China, you may be stuck with traditional, ordinary trains as your only option.
With high-speed trains there are three classes: executive class, first class, and second class. There isn’t really much difference between the classes so I always recommend taking second class, which is considerably less expensive. There is, however, a very large difference between the classes on ordinary trains and a substantial difference in fare.
While high-speed trains have fares that are relatively close to discounted airfares on routes where airlines compete, the fares for ordinary trains are very cheap. For example, traveling between Kunming and Dali, a 6 hour journey, costs as little as 61 RMB (about $10). However, the cheap fare will (theoretically) buy you a spot on a bench in a non air-conditioned car sitting with Chinese farmers, who will likely be playing cards and spitting sunflower seeds on the floor. Your seat may be covered by sacks of rice that the farmers refuse to move. This isn’t very comfortable for most Western travelers, or even Chinese people who live in urban areas. Both tend to steer clear of the “hard seat” class. There is sometimes also a “soft seat” class, which buys you a bucket seat in a crowded coach which may or may not be air conditioned. This typically costs 20% more than the “hard seat” class, but is also not particularly comfortable and best avoided except for very short journeys.
The best part of older Chinese trains is the classes that offer lie-flat beds. There are two classes: “hard bed” and “soft bed.” The “hard” and “soft” designations don’t refer to the firmness of the mattress, which is quite firm in both classes, but the configuration of the car. The “hard bed” class offers bunk beds stacked in a 3-bed configuration, in an air conditioned car, with no privacy. This typically costs about 50% more than the “hard seat” class; you will pay around 100 RMB between Kunming and Dali. This class is mostly populated by Chinese middle-class people. As a foreigner, you can expect friendly and garrulous Chinese people to make simple English-language conversation with you and you may be invited to a game of cards. This is a perfectly reasonable and comfortable way to travel if you are a little adventurous.
For another 50% on top of the “hard bed” price, you can enjoy “soft bed” service. This class of service is in an exclusive car, and you will be assigned a bed in a private compartment with a door that closes. However, there isn’t really any privacy unless you buy all 4 beds in the compartment, because the railway will sell the remaining beds to other people. People who travel in “soft bed” class tend to be other foreigners and relatively wealthy Chinese people. Because there is more privacy and the noise is less, you will get a better night’s sleep. Many of the “soft bed” compartments also have a power outlet so you can charge your electronic devices (as long as you bring a power splitter, because otherwise you’re going to be fighting with everyone else in the compartment over the single outlet). Additionally, there is sometimes a Western-style toilet in the “soft bed” compartment.
Slow trains in China aren’t clean and modern like their high-speed counterparts. They are old, and the cars aren’t being replaced or upgraded because high-speed railways are gradually taking over these routes. It’s almost like being transported in a time capsule back to an earlier time in China. I can still remember my first visit, in 2004, riding the slow train from Beijing to Shenzhen, and how different a country China was then compared to now.
It is nearly impossible for foreigners to buy train tickets in advance, and you will need to know some basic Chinese to purchase a train ticket at the train station. If you cannot speak Chinese, it is best to have a Chinese friend buy the tickets for you online (foreigners cannot easily do this because you need to pay using a Chinese bank account), or to arrange tickets through your hotel (this can almost always be done for a small delivery fee, usually about $3). However, traveling by train in China is a great way to see places off the beaten path without spending a fortune!