While in China, we have experienced the sleeper trains two ways: Soft sleepers and Seats. These two are so different from each other, it is ridiculous. When we tried to book our overnight train from Shanghai to Huangshan, little did we know how busy it was going to be. “Do you have any sleepers?” “No…” “um…are you sure? like there can’t just be none available.” “No. Sold out. We have sets only.” …surely they can’t be that bad. “Ok, we’ll take 2.” And it began…
What we expected vs What we got
— It must be like an airplane seat. We’ve done a 16 hour flight, 12 hours on a seat should be simple….nope, not even close. It is 3 people (if you are lucky) to a bench facing another 3 people on a bench, with chairs at 90˚ angles, no armrest or room separation and a half table to share between 6/7 people.
— Well it is overnight, people must just fall asleep….nope, not a chance. Not only were the people talking loudly throughout the entire night, but the service ladies on the train were like infomercials trying to sell things at 2am-“We have bendy toothbrushes and tops that spin to Gagnam style- would you like to buy it?” nooo I just want to sleepppp!!!!!
— Well they are selling things, surely they would offer food..nope… no food for 12 hours unless we brought our own. Thank god for cookies and vegetable crackers.
— We are on a train for 12 hours, you’d hope for some toilets. Yes, actually! …Squatter toilets. On a moving train…and they make you buy your own toilet paper before you get on the train. ugh. Ya, uh no thank you. We vowed, no more unless we had to.
Train Number Two
Next train opportunity came up from Beijing to Guilin. “Please tell us you have hard sleepers!”….”no, sorry.” We looked at each other in horror and disgust and were tempted to just put Guilin behind us and stay extra in Beijing. “But we do have soft sleepers that cost a bit extra!” Done. And let us tell you, this soft sleeper train made our entire China experience.
This wasn’t because we got peace, quiet, beds and a place to eat, but our bunk mates were some old Chinese men who brought tons of Chinese snacks including pig ears, fried bacon, dried fish, and cured meats along with his home brewed alcohol (a whopping 60%!!).
Apparently, this guy loves a good chat with his bunk mates along side good food and drinks all to end in a happy sleep. There was also a large language barrier between us and this man and lucky for us, we found a nice guy named Michael to translate for us. However, with food and drinks, what started out as 4 people in a train bunk, we ended up being 7 happy and full (and maybe a bit buzzed) friends!
This man even invited us over to his house in his city one day to try his home brewed alcohol and his wife’s cookies. This is what we needed- such a true and authentic Chinese experience. All in all, the sleeper train was a lot nicer than the seats in terms of comfort, noise, and company.
If you are looking for more information on the sleeper trains, we found this helpful article!
We even tried the overnight sleeper bus from Guilin to Hong Kong, a 10 hour trip. That was a funny experience. We got onto the bus that had three rows of bunk beds back to back along the entire bus. We got onto the bus and just started laughing in hysterics. We don’t know what we have just gotten ourselves into. We got two top bunks and they supplied a pillow and a blanket for us.
The beds looked quite small, but there was a little cubby to put our feet into, which is underneath the persons head in front of you. You can just see the shock on Jack’s face–he was just thinking, “How the hell am I going to fit in these?” It looked a lot worse than it actually was. If you were tall, it might not be as comfortable though– Jack even had a bit of an issue fitting his legs fully into the space!
To be honest, the sleep was pretty relaxing, until the bus driver would put on all the lights and yell out each stop for people to get off!
From here on out-sleeper beds all the way!
Bonus Tips for China Trains
1 — Check the dates before you travel and make sure it does NOT fall on a holiday. We made the mistake of booking 2 days prior to our departure and nearly all seats were sold out! We even had to fly from Beijing to Guilin because it was fully booked!
2 — You can book your train trip up to 90 days beforehand. If you know the dates, book them. It saves time, avoids miscommunications, and guarantees you a seat!
3 — If you arrive at an airport and plan on later using trains, the airport have kiosks to book train tickets too. 4 -If you sit in the seats on an overnight trip bring food, water, toilet paper, noise canceling headphones, neck pillow, and an eye mask. You seriously need anything to help you fall asleep! 5 – For overnight busses, bring your own pillow and blanket. We have experienced smelly blankets, moist pillows, and other gross and unpleasant things. :/
What’s your favorite way of travel in China?
I’m off to China in January! Cannot wait. Thanks for sharing your experience. I totally thought soft seats would be like planes as well! After reading this, I’m definitely booking soft sleepers.
I think the seats are decent if it is a short trip but for a long, overnight one, we strongly recommend doing the beds! They were good fun :)