China Train Classes
Traveling by train in China is an essential part of any budget China trip. There are four classes – hard sleeper, soft sleeper, soft seat and hard seat. Which one you choose has a big impact on your trip :
2nd class seat : the hard seat (yingzuo 硬座)
Section of a train is where most of the passengers can be found. Low-wage workers, migrant workers, many students and others that can’t afford a hard sleeper ride hard seats. Passengers sit on wooden benches, facing each other across a tiny table that is usually covered in trash and scraps of food. Cigarette smoke usually permeates the cabin, as no real restrictions are enforced on smoking in the train.
For short distance rides (2 – 3 hours), a hard seat is a great option. However, for a cross-country journey, it’s best to give up the cash for a sleeper ticket. Sleeping on a hard seat can be next to impossible since there is nowhere to lie down, and conditions can be very unsanitary. During peak traveling times hard seats can be packed to the brim, making any trip more than a few hours miserable.
One doesn’t have to be a masochist to appreciate a hard seat ride though; at just over half the price of a hard sleeper, a trip on a hard seat is dirt cheap, and it’s possible to ride halfway across the country for almost nothing. Remember it is usually possible to upgrade a ticket to a sleeper (bupiao 补票) if the ride proves to be too rough.
For all intents and purposes, a soft seat resembles coach class on any major airline. This class of ticket is relatively rare and can usually only be found on short-distance, inter-city lines (such as the ride from Beijing to Tianjin). The price is a bit less than a soft sleeper.
2nd class bed : the hard sleeper (yingwo 硬卧)
The most common way for foreigners and middle-class Chinese to travel long distances is the hard sleeper class. Despite the name, hard sleepers are actually quite comfortable. A hard sleeper cabin on a Chinese train will consist of a six bed cabin, with three beds attached to the wall on either side. The cabin has no door but beds come with small lamps for reading at night.
Comfortable, clean bedding is provided. The bottom bunk is slightly bigger than the top bunk, with the middle bunk falling somewhere in between, so it’s advisable for taller travelers to book a ticket for the bottom (which is slightly more expensive). Hard sleepers are affordable for all but the most penny-pinching budget travelers.
A step up from the hard sleeper, a soft sleeper (ruanwo) is comparatively luxurious. Each cabin has a sliding door and only four beds. As the name implies, soft sleeper beds have much more padding than hard sleepers and are bigger to boot. Air conditioning and plenty of storage space are all provided for in a soft sleeper cabin.
While relatively comfortable, the soft sleeper doesn’t quite merit the price, which is sometimes almost as much as flying. Usually only wealthy Chinese or foreigners for whom money is no issue can be found in the soft sleeper class.