China has the third largest train system in the world with both old-style conventional passenger trains and modern cross-country bullet trains. The trains allow you to see places that are rare in the world for beauty, grandeur, and geographic interest. See the scenery above 5,000 meters in the Himalayas or the way of life in Central Asia, or see huge swaths of the country in just a few hours comfortably on a bullet train. Here is our pick of the seven most scenic and interesting routes.
The new bullet trains are especially interesting for those who want to quickly learn what China looks like up close and get around fast and comfortably. The high speed rail system is expanding rapidly. By 2020, it is expected that China will spend 300 billion USD to double the size of the high speed train system. You'll be able to travel from Beijing to Urumqi or Chongqing. Enjoy your regional trip while you watch the scenery from the train windows. The trains are fast and inexpensive, and riding is more scenic and convenient than flying.
See China in a day: How about seeing a swath of eastern China from Beijing to Guangzhou in one day? The G79 Beijing–Guangzhou bullet train leaves at 10 am and arrives in Guangzhou at 6 pm. It is the longest bullet train route on earth. In just 8 hours, the scenery changes from the populous capital city with tall buildings and suburbs to the villages and small huts near the border of Guangdong Province. It is a scenic trip almost across the entire country going from north to south, and it is an eye-opening country tour at ground level.
The train travels 2,298 kilometers (1,427 miles) at an average speed of about 290 km/h or 180 miles per hour. And you can travel in comfort whether in an inexpensive second class section or in the business class section with its fully reclining chairs. For people wanting to see as much of China as they can in one day: this is it. Though the train is fast, you can still see the individual farmers in the fields near the train and watch the landscape and scenery change.
In order to make the journey before nightfall, many cities and stations are skipped by, but the train still stops in Shijiazhuang, Zhengzhou, Wuhan, and Changsha.
China's Karst Landscape
In a regular city subway, you get no view and go from one neighborhood to another. But on this train, you go from one huge province to another, and you can walk around, get drinks, eat in the dining car, and get hot water for instant noodles and tea. You can walk around and see the view out the windows. In business class, you can order a video to watch on the private flat screen.
Setting out from Beijing West Station, you'll be impressed by the station's size and the variety of trains that pull in. The train pulls out slowly at first, but within a few minutes you're in the suburbs, and it starts to run like a subway train with stops called out automatically on the intercom.
If you've never seen Beijing traffic, you may be surprised at the number of cars. But within five minutes, the landscape turns green. Within ten minutes, the train leaves the suburbs and you're in the country. North China is highly cultivated with small fields and orchids.
At Wuhan, you'll go over the Yangtze River, the biggest river in China. The river is 1 kilometer wide, but the train goes across in about 25 seconds. You'll get a close-up view of the river. You might be impressed by the size of the Wuhan station too. Wuhan is a big city in central China noted for its universities and industry.
South of Wuhan, the scenery is more natural. You can see large houses amid more natural scenery as the train goes through hills and mountains. Southern China has the more rugged and beautiful karst landscape. Especially between the Changsha and Guangzhou South Station, you'll enjoy the scenery of hills, forests, ponds and streams. There are small peasant huts clinging to the hills and peasants in little rice paddies.
On this trip, you'll see the regional differences between northern and southern China, and you'll see a stark contrast between the urban and rural Chinese way of life. You'll see the size of several of China's most important cities up close. It is a way to get a view of what the whole country is like.
An alternative is to take the train north from Guangzhou South Station in the morning. A second class ticket costs 143 USD. Business class tickets cost 451 USD. You can easily book this train online with this train ticket link.
Himalayan high: This trip is in marked contrast to the Beijing to Guangzhou bullet train. Instead of cities, you'll see mostly desolate wildness or pastures. Instead of whizzing by places, this more relaxing conventional train rolls along leisurely, and you can watch the scenery pass from your bed. It is the longest high altitude train trip in the world, and the scenery is beautiful, stark, and almost other worldly.
Most of this route is over 4,000 meters, and several times, it goes above 5,000 meters (16,400 feet). The reward of the route is to see a starkly beautiful part of the world that was almost inaccessible. The terrain is like few places in the world. The trip takes about 22 hours to travel the 1,960 kilometers (1,217 miles) from Xining West Station. Xining is a small city high up in Qinghai Province.
Outside of Xining, you'll pass by Qinghai Lake. It is the largest lake in China, and it is a tourist attraction with beautiful landscape around it. Then in Tibet in the summer, you'll pass by a huge beautiful blue lake called Conag Lake. It measures 400 square kilometers, and it is at an elevation of 4,594 meters.
At Tanggula Pass, the highest point at of the journey, you can see snow even in the summer. The altitude is 5,231 meters (17,162 feet), and its so high you might feel the need for oxygen.
Approaching Lhasa in the summer, you might see Tibetan tents along the tracks. They park their off-road vehicles next to their tents. The mountains around the Lhasa Station are bare rock even in summer. The train pulls into a simple clean station.
We suggest that you take the train in summer for better scenery and to see the native people out and about and camping alongside the train tracks with their yak herds. An alternative is to take the train north from Lhasa. Decide on what parts of the route you'd want to see during the daylight hours, and take the appropriate train. Each cabin is supplied with oxygen that comes out of little vents, or if you wish, you can insert a tube to breathe. You can easily book this train online with this Lhasa train schedule link.
The train goes all the way to or from Beijing or Hong Kong. Sometimes tourism closes in Tibet, and there are special visa requirements for foreigners. We suggest you take the soft bed cabins or the hard beds, but don't get a ticket for a seat for this trip. The T class trains are generally higher quality than the K class trains, but on this route, both classes of trains arrive in 23 and a half hours, and soft sleepers on both cost about 132 USD. Let us help you prepare and enjoy a Tibet tour and take this train trip.
The desert far west: The scenery out west is a big contrast to the Tibetan scenery. See the stark scenery and the culture of far western China. There is a high mountain range and desert. This journey goes near sea level near Urumqi. Instead of pastures and snow, depending on the time of year, the sun shines down on the rocky slopes and sand in earth colors, and the blue sky mesmerizes. There is a whole different culture and way of life in Xinjiang compared to eastern China and Tibet. You'll enjoy wide open scenery and the far horizon.
This line traces the Silk Road route of the Han Dynasty and the Mongol Empire. Islam spread into the region on the trade routes during the Mongol Empire period, and the majority of the native people in Xinjiang are Moslem. It is China's westernmost route.
Urumqi is the capital of the region, and at the station you'll see a variety of people boarding: foreign tourists, the Uighur people, and Chinese. The train first goes south to the historically and archaeologically famous town of Turpan through a valley passing the Tian Shan Mountains. You might see snow on the peaks in summer.
In the Turpan depression, one of the three lowest depressions in the world, the trail rolls along the soft slopes of the red sandstone Flaming Mountains at about the 900 meter level. The train skirts about 49 kilometers (30 miles) north of the main town of Turpan.
Going west, you'll see to the horizon dry desert views. It might seem drab to you, but contemplate the expanses. The scenery gets beautiful in the Tianshan Mountain Range. You start climbing among snowy peaks (depending on the season), ravines and streams, and then ride on a plateau before you get to Korla. After Korla, there is a vast desert to cross before Kashgar.
The Urumqi to Kashgar (Kashi) route takes 25-32 hours depending on the speed and number of stops and covers 1,588 kilometers (987 miles). For the best scenery and the quickest travel time, we suggest train K9786 from Urumqi because it leaves at a good time at 9:30 in the morning, and it traverses the most beautiful sections around Urumqi and over the Tianshan Mountains before dark. It crosses the large desert between Korla and Kashgar overnight and arrives in 26 hours usually.
The soft sleeper ticket is 88 USD, and the quality is higher than other trains. Unless you really want to appreciate the people up close and personal, we suggest that you avoid the hard seats. Most tourists will find those coaches uncomfortable.
Alternatively, the Kashgar to Urumqi K9774 train leaves Kashgar at 4:15 pm and arrives in Urumqi at 5:30 pm. You'll mostly have the same scenery as the K9786 train, and the price for soft sleeper is 88 USD as well.
Urban panorama of eastern China: On this five or six hour journey, you'll see three of China's biggest cities and pass by several other important cities in a rapid tour along China's densely populated eastern seaboard. In that time, the train travels 1,318 kilometers (819 miles). It is a trip that combines some of China's main urban landscapes with the cultivated countryside scenery and the mountains in between.
The train traverses the core of China between the world's fifth (Shanghai) and twelfth (Beijing) largest cities and between the country's governmental and commercial centers. The scenery isn’t as natural as along the route to Lhasa or Kashgar, but the thing to admire is China’s infrastructure and expansive urban areas. The route gives a ground level view of the core of China along with some beautiful scenery including the agricultural areas.
The trip starts at the Beijing South Station. Beijing has a population of about 20,000,000 people. Be sure to go to the correct station since tourists often make a mistake and go to the wrong one. On this route, if you miss your train, you can just wait a few minutes and get on the next one with no additional charge.
Going towards Tianjin South, the train passes through a ring of dense urban areas. Tianjin itself has a population of about 14 million. The train passes by high buildings and many broad freeways and roads. The freeways don't have much traffic.
The landscape between Tianjin and Dezhou is flat but highly cultivated. It looks drier than the lands to the north but quite fertile. The cities and large towns are like clusters of spires suddenly rising up out of the countryside. Colorful roofs and signs make the landscape colorful and tidy.
The train then goes to Jinan. Jinan is the capital of highly industrialized Shandong Province that is the second most densely populated province. Three million people live on a flat plain.
After Jinan West Station, the landscape gets hilly and naturally beautiful for some minutes. Further south, between Taian and Suzhou, the country is intensively cultivated and mostly flat. The fields and orchards are small, but they seem to be unusually green and productive.
The landscape of Anhui Province is pretty. It is verdant green generally with low hills to break up the landscape and thousands or tens of thousands of rice fields. Much of the province looks like a giant park.
Just outside Nanjing, the train crosses the Yangtze River. It is China's greatest river, and like the Mississippi River, it divides China in half geographically. It extends into western China and was the demarcation between great empires in the past. It is a wide river about two kilometers wide at this point, but the train crosses in 25 seconds.
All the G trains pull into Nanjing South Station. The land between Nanjing and Shanghai is flat. Fields, factories, houses, towns, villages, and cities fly by. Near Wuxi and Shanghai, there are big lakes and canals.
Shanghai is one of the world's top five largest cities with 22,000,000 people. It is the commercial and technology center of China. Entering Shanghai, you'll see a vast urban plain that stretches from Hongqiao past Pudong to the sea. The Southern terminus is Shanghai Hongqiao Station.
For this route, we suggest that you leave Shanghai or Beijing before noon for the best scenery. In the morning, 15 G class trains leave out periodically starting at 7 am from both stations. The trains are identical. The price for a nice, clean and comfortable second class ticket is 92 USD, and the price for a plush business class ticket with reclining seats is 290 USD. An added plus is that the Shanghai Hongqiao Train Station is only a few minutes away from the Shanghai Hongqiao Airport via a connecting subway.
The fastest trains, G1 (north to south) and G2 (south to north), take 4 hours and 48 minutes with one stop at Nanjing South. They both leave at an ideal time at 9 am, so if you want a fast trip with the best scenery, this is the best one. Our site's train ticket pages might be the best. According to Mark Smith, "The Man in Seat 61," our pages are “the best online timetables in English that I've seen.”
Contrasting cultures and natural scenery: This journey stretches from Beijing to Ulan Bator. Ulan Bator is in the center of Mongolia geographically, and if you wish you can continue the journey to Russia and the Trans Siberian Railway. You'll see the two national capitals and the difference in cultures, scenery, and way of life in both countries.
Mongolia was once a part of the Qing Empire, and in the 20th century, it became a Soviet satellite. You'll see the Russian influence in Mongolian architecture, language and culture and the traditional differences between the pastoral people and the Chinese. There are big differences in scenery: vast cities, the Great Wall, yurts, sheep herds, green grassy steppes, forested mountains, and the vast Gobi desert.
Leaving the Beijing railway station, the train first does a slow scenic tour of southern and western Beijing. It first rolls south to pass through the huge Beijing South Railway Station where you go by the sleek white bullet trains. Then the train turns north going through western Beijing.
An hour north of Beijing, the train arrives in a broad region of sparsely populated rugged rocky mountains ranges that are like rows of natural walls extending east to west. The mountains are Beijing's natural "great wall," and you might catch glimpses of the Great Wall in them. Most of the year, these mountains are green. They are covered with bushes and low trees, and sparse woods are in the many valleys.
The mountains give way to plains, and the train goes by brick houses and sandy towns near the border. After dark, at the Chinese town of Erlian on the border, the train carriages are changed from Chinese gauge to Russian gauge. The whole process of border crossing takes about five hours, and visas are checked.
In the middle of the night unless the moon is bright, you probably won't see the vast Gobi Desert stretching away like an ocean. But you can try to catch the sunrise over the Gobi Desert. It is beautiful. The desert stretches on to an hour from Ulan Bator.
Then the train leaves the deserts and ascends into the green rolling grassy steppes, the Mongolian homeland. Herds of livestock and yurts dot the landscape. The clear blue sky and white clouds contrast with the green land beautifully. Just outside Ulan Bator, the train passes a yurt village by the tracks.
Train K23 leaves Beijing at 8:05 am. It presently costs 200 USD for hard sleeper and 290 USD for soft sleeper. The train arrives in 30 hours. Two free meals are included. However, we suggest you take along your own snacks and drinks. We suggest are arrive at the station much earlier (6:30 am) to make sure you can find your train in the cavernous station and get on in time. It arrives in Ulan Bator at 1:30 pm.
Through the scenic hills of Guilin: This is trip of five hour regular train between Guilin and Nanning in Guangxi Province. On this short trip, relax and enjoy the karst country and the peasant fields.
Most foreign tourists probably know about Guilin. Guilin is one of China's most popular travel destinations due to the scenery, rivers, and natural beauty in the areas. Guilin is known for the Li River cruise and Yangshuo's rafting, hiking, and touring. Nanning is near the border of Vietnam, and it is a stop for tourists going for trips to Vietnam.
Tourists delight in the beauty of the eroded limestone karst hills that stretch over hundreds of kilometers. The Chinese think so too, and Chinese leaders have called Guilin's scenery "the best under heaven."
You can see the same type of low eroded green and grey limestone hills that you'd see on a Li River cruise on the train. The train pulls out of Guilin Railway Station, crosses a river, and enters an extensive country of hundreds of low gnarled rocky hills with rice paddies in between them. At certain times of years, the fields are flooded, and this produces an even more beautiful effect. At other times, various crops are in flower, and this is evening more striking. The urban area of Nanning has a comfortable spread out and homey look to it.
The K1627 train leaves at a convenient time at 12 noon and arrives at 5:18 pm. A soft sleeper costs 11 USD. A hard seat costs 11 USD.
Along the Yangtze River: The longest east to west line opened in July of 2014. So far, the very long bullet train routes have gone mainly from north to south. But now, the first of several long east to west routes is open. It will include the huge western cities of Chongqing and Chengdu in direct fast, convenient, and cheap transportation with the heavily populated east coast. It is a scenic route that follows the Yangtze River basin and connects China's first (Shanghai), third (Chongqing), fifth (Chengdu), and eighth biggest cities as well as other very large cities.
Chongqing is a special case for a city. It is sometimes called the world's biggest city because the area of Chongqing encompasses a large area the size of a small country and includes five big cities. You'll see the Yangtze River several times because the train goes over or comes close to it several times during the journey. But most of the time it takes shortcuts between the cities along the river. What makes this trip special is the combination of urban, rural, and inland mountain scenery.
Going northwest towards Nanjing, the area is heavily industrialized with factory after factory and town and city following one right after another. It is flat land, but rivers and green fields break up the monotony. Around Nanjing, there are more farm plots and greenhouses.
Between Nanjing and the industrial city of Hefei, there are mainly fields and low buildings and houses, and the train passes some hills. Between Yichang and Chongqing, the train passes though a very rough, hilly wooded country. This is a natural area.
Leaving Chongqing, you can see that it seems the whole extensive region is under construction. If it isn't China's biggest city now, when the cities are connected, maybe it will be. Then, the train goes through many forested mountains and hills before Chengdu. There are thousands of individual houses among the hills.
D626 leaves Shanghai Hongqiao at 6:36 am daily and arrives in Chengdu East in about 15 hours at 9:54 pm. In the opposite direction, a train leaves Chengdu at 8 am and arrives in Shanghai at 10:58 pm. First class tickets cost about 122 USD (760 RMB); and second class tickets cost 96 USD (600 RMB).