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For foreign travelers who want to experience China's trains, you may be quite nervous about taking an overnight train during your China trip. The useful tips below will help to explain what it is like on an overnight train. Just relax; it can be a nicer experience than you think.
There are three types of sleeper class for overnight trains that we recommend: hard sleepers, soft sleepers, and deluxe soft sleepers. These three types of sleeper are air-conditioned and carpeted. There is a clean pillow and a quilt for each passenger. Not every train has all three types of sleeper car. Sleeper cars are usually found on Z, T, K, and D trains, e.g. Z139, T41, K629, and D321.
A hard sleeper compartment doesn't have a door, and opens straight onto the corridor. This makes a hard sleeper car quite noisy during the day. It will be quieter after the car's lights have been turned off by the train staff at 9:30pm or 10pm. There is a small light on each bunk.
Many backpackers, young travelers, and students tend to choose a hard sleeper. A hard sleeper car may be clamorous, but is much better than a seat for long journeys, and even an interesting cultural experience.
There are some differences among the three bunks:
Lower bunk: A lower bunk is the most convenient and comfortable bunk among the hard sleepers. It's the most expensive, as the head room of a lower bunk is the largest and there is no difficulty with getting up and down. You can stretch all the way out when you sit on a lower bunk, which you are unable to do on a middle bunk or upper bunk. Although it is an overnight train, you may not want to sleep for the entire journey. You may want to sit on the bunk to read a book or surf on the Internet. Bear in mind that the lower bunk allows less privacy as people can see you from the corridor, and passengers from the upper/middle bunks may sit on the lower bunk during the daytime.
Middle bunk: Although you can't sit up completely on a middle bunk, the room is bearable. It is ideal to choose it if you are traveling with a friend who has bought a lower bunk. Alternatively, you can sit on a seat in the aisle beside the compartment when you need to. It is not difficult to get up and down from a middle bunk. There are steps for you to climb and a safety rail is on the bunk to prevent you from falling out at night. Bear in mind that it also doesn't offer much privacy. Other passengers can see you from the corridor.
Upper bunk: This is the cheapest bunk. You may need to be spry to climb onto an upper bunk and there is not much room available as you are close to the low ceiling, meaning that you can't sit up on it. However, it generally provides the most privacy, as you are in the highest place. If you can bear the former two points, it can be a good choice.
A soft sleeper compartment is larger and more comfortable than a hard sleeper, and the price is about double that of a hard sleeper.
There is a door to each compartment. An enclosed compartment provides more security and privacy. However, you might be uncomfortable being in a closed room with people you don't know.
If you are traveling with friends and you feel more comfortable only having people you know in your compartment, or you are a lady traveling alone and want more security and privacy, a soft sleeper compartment is recommended. People who choose a soft sleeper for traveling in China are mostly businessmen and they may speak English. If you want, you can talk with them about traveling in China, Chinese history, or different customs. It can be an interesting experience.
An upper bunk is slightly cheaper than a lower bunk. They all have clean bedding and there is enough head room for each passenger, so either bunk is good for an overnight journey.
A deluxe soft sleeper car is the most expensive and the most comfortable sleeper class. The price is almost double the cost of an ordinary soft sleeper.
A clean en suite washroom is the most convenient part for a passenger. Some new deluxe soft sleeper cars even have closets, showers, disposable slippers, and an electric kettle. There are only two bunks in a deluxe sleeper compartment. Therefore, it's perfect for a couple, or two friends.
These cars are only available on particular trains, such as some Z/T/K/D trains departing from Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou.
There are also hard/soft seat classes for overnight trains. They should not be considered as sitting all night long is extremely uncomfortable regardless of whether the seat is hard or soft. However, if you are unable to get any tickets for sleepers during the peak season, please be prepared for an uncomfortable night. After an overnight train journey on a hard/soft seat, you may regret having decided to try an overnight train.
Tips for you to be less uncomfortable:
Aside from the toilets, there is also a place with sinks and a mirror for washing for face and brushing your teeth at the end of each car (only some luxury soft sleepers have showers).
Take all you need for your pre-bed and getting up routines. There are no toiletries provided on hard sleepers (and few on a soft sleeper), so take a cup, a toothbrush, toothpaste, shaving gear, brush/comb, etc.
Tissues / toilet roll: Most trains don't provide tissues. Don't forget toilet paper!
Wet wipes / hand sanitizer / soap: Hand washing liquid is not available on a train.
Towel and washcloth: There is nothing to wash your face or dry your hands with on a train.
Sandals: These are very important when taking an overnight train, especially when you have bought a top bunk. Even if you have bought a lower bunk, wearing sandals is much more comfortable for a long train journey.
Food and snacks: Although there are staff members with carts heading up and down the train selling drinks, snacks, and fresh fruit, the food and snack choices are not very varied and are expensive. It is recommended that you buy food and drink before you get on a train, such as vacuum-packed tuna, crackers, pretzels, dried fruit and nuts, chocolate, tea, and instant coffee.
Water: Boiled water is provided on a train. You can use it for making a cup of tea or a quick bowl of noodles. Bottled water is buyable for drinking, so you don't need to wait for the boiled water to cool down. You might want to use bottled water for brushing your teeth too.
Clothing: Take a long-sleeved lightweight cardigan — all sleeper compartments on a train in China are equipped with air-conditioning. Sometimes it can be too cool in summer on a train as the air-conditioning is too strong. Wearing a long-sleeved lightweight cardigan can solve the problem.
Pillow case: The bedding on a train is always disinfected after every use. In case the sheets aren't as nice as you had hoped, you can use your own.
Sleeping mask: In a hard sleeper car, the light can only be put out by the staff members after 9:30pm or 10pm. If you want to go to bed before that time, it is nice to have a sleeping mask.
It could be boring on a train if you can't sleep. So take books for reading or fully charge your phone/iPad to kill time. You might want to take a portable charging pack. Alternatively, when the lights are on you can explore the train and try to find some interesting/funny English speaking people in the car, or talk with different people in your compartment.
There are overhead luggage racks to store baggage in sleeper cars opposite the compartments, across the corridor from the bunks. You can also put large items of baggage inside your compartment on the floor or under the lower bunks.
Keep your belongings in sight and carry valuable items with you when you sleep.
Don't go to the wrong train station for your train. Read your train ticket carefully and reach the train station at least 30 minutes before departure.
After you get on the train and find your bunk, a staff member will exchange your train ticket for a plastic "bunk card" after departure. About 1 hour before arrival, he/she will exchange your bunk card for your train ticket and remind you to get off at the correct station. Make sure you do not throw the ticket away because sometimes you need it to get out of the station.
There is no broadcasting service for arrivals at night. Set an early alarm on your phone according to the arrival time on your ticket. Sometimes trains run (very) late, so confirm you have actually reached your station before getting out.
Your post-train touring could be quite tiring if you don't sleep well during your overnight journey. So consider not rushing to explore your destination when you arrive, and spending 2–3 hours for a rest at your hotel.
If you are planning a tour in China, please see the following itineraries, for inspiration. Train trips can be used as intercity transport instead of flights.
Our tours can be customized or tailor-made from scratch. Just tell us your interests and requirements and we will help you design your China tour. If you have any questions about taking a train in China, feel free to contact us.