We recently took G trains from Shanghai to Hangzhou and then onward to Beijing in business class. The goal of this post is to provide insight (that I couldn’t find online prior to my own journey) into what it’s like to take China high speed trains from and to help navigate non-Mandarin speakers through the departure, journey and arrival process.
Why Take A High Speed Train In China?
C, D and G high speed trains reach up to 400km/h, are non-smoking and (in our experience) are surprisingly clean in all classes of service. High speed trains can be the quickest option, depending on where you’re going.
A flight from Hangzhou to Beijing is about 2.5 hours, however, our train journey was 5 hours. With early airport arrival, baggage, boarding and other factors to consider, taking the train is about the same amount of total travel time though with MUCH less hassle.
Trains are very rarely delayed, unlike planes and cars, due to weather and traffic. Multiple departure options per day are available. The overall process of taking the train is incredibly easy, as you’ll soon understand.
The Train Station Departure Process
You don’t need to arrive much more than 30 minutes prior to train departure. Both Shanghai Honqiao station and Hangzhou East Station (I’m sure others maybe like this, too) are basically one giant, open room. There are no long walks through terminals to reach your train.
In our experience, the security lines upon entering the station were virtually empty probably because the process is just quick. We tossed our bags onto what looked like an unsophisticated security scanner, walked through a body scanner, picked up the bags and were on our way in about two minutes.
Giant lighted screens show your train number and where to check-in. This is the first place you’ll need to look after passing through security.
Note that your ticket is mostly in Chinese, but here is what you need to know:
- Train number: This is easy. It’s something like G32 or G7311.
- Car number: In the station, there will be an A boarding area and a B boarding area that are directly across the hall from one another (A is pictured in the above photo). For example, boarding area 4A might board train cars 1-4 while 4B boards train cars 5-9. Line up where your car is boarding. We were about to board in the wrong area until a nice man saw our tickets and pointed us in the other direction.
- Seat number: Once you board the correct train car, seats are clearly labeled and there’s plenty of staff to help direct you.
Here is how to read a China train ticket.
Trains board 15 minutes prior to departure though people line up about 5-10 minutes prior to that. There’s really no need to rush into line. Slide your ticket into the machine (like at a subway), pull it out of the slot and the turnstiles will open.
Tip: After scanning your tickets during the boarding process, someone on board the train will need to physically check them again. Don’t toss them into the bottom of your bag like I did or else you’ll have to awkwardly search for them all over again.
How To Handle Luggage
I have no idea what the official rules are, but we boarded the train with our huge suitcase, and three carry-ons in tow, with no problem. Not checking luggage saves a ton of time, as you can imagine. I saw many other people doing the same.
If you are traveling with more luggage than you can personally handle, this could be challenging. There are elevators in the train station but most people take luggage to the train platform via escalator and I didn’t see any carts. I’d recommend looking into this in advance.
China High Speed Train Food Options
Station amenities include McDonald’s (at both stations), Chinese fast food and snack options as well as some gift shops. We even saw a Disney store. If you arrive early enough (remember traffic in both Shanghai and Hangzhou can be brutal), go ahead and grab something to eat during the train ride.
For our 5-hour trip to Beijing, we had Four Seasons Hotel Hangzhou at West Lake pack us to-go lunches, because I had heard the food on board is mediocre at best (and, we are not strangers to regional, authentic Chinese). At one point, I walked my daughter back to the dining car where juice, teas, dried Chinese snacks and butter cookies were on offer along with one packaged Chinese lunch offering. She bought the Chinese lunch. The noodles were pretty good, but this lunch would not have suited most Westerner’s palates.
Hot water dispensers are available on board should you bring on dehydrated noodles. Surprisingly, these noodle soups weren’t available for purchase on our train.
The dining car has maybe about 8-10 tables where you can sit, play cards and enjoy the ride. It’s very clean and pleasant.
There wasn’t any booze that I could see. I do wish I would have taken the wine split from our mini bar to enjoy during our 5-hour Beijing train ride.
China High Speed Rail Classes of Service
Second class (pictured above) has two seats, an aisle and then three seats that are pretty close together. This section was completely full on both of our trains as it is less expensive than first or business class.
Tons of people were yapping on their cell phones in second class which would drive me totally crazy. People were understandably eating a variety of foods on our long journey to Beijing so it did have a restaurant-like aroma.
First class was more or less empty. The seats are larger with two on each side of the aisle. Luggage racks also store suitcases above the seats and we saw a baby napping in a stroller (likely with the brake on) behind the back row. There is definitely more legroom, too.
The dining car was at the back of the trains so we walked through all classes.
Business Class With Lie-Flat Seats
Oddly, business class is the top class of service though one might be inclined to think that first class is similar to an airplane (though attendants don’t dote on you in the same manner as in business class on an airplane).
We sat in business class which is incredibly quiet and the price difference from first class wasn’t too eye-watering for either journey. I paid 410 RMB total for both a child and adult ticket from Shanghai to Hangzhou and 2100 RMB per ticket to Beijing… I am not sure why I didn’t receive a child fare but that’s OK. My Hangzhou-Beijing alternative was a business class flight on Hainan Airlines, which was identical in cost to the train.
Our G train seats were in row 1 and quite far apart from each other though they are supposedly the sightseeing seats with huge windows and the ability to lie flat.
Upon being seated during both journeys we were presented a choice of bottled water or orange juice and a nice box of Chinese cookies.
The other reason why these seats are awesome is that there’s plenty of room for our gazillion bags. If your budget permits business class, definitely do it. There’s no question you’ll be glad you did, especially on a long journey.
Lunch was offered on our Beijing trip and our choices were seafood and duck. I declined because we had our lunch from the hotel.
Our G train from Hangzhou to Beijing was noticeably nicer than the one from Shanghai to Hangzhou. It has faux wood paneling and outlets with multiple voltage options. There was also a TV in the arm rest showing multiple Chinese channels. I couldn’t figure out how to navigate it though since my ability to read Chinese is almost nil.
The bathrooms have Western-style toilets. However, the rule of thumb in China is to always carry your own tissue paper and hand sanitizer or soap. Though we didn’t have issues on the train, I’d still caution you to bring some.
We didn’t use the restroom at Shanghai Hongqiao station but the toilets at Hangzhou East (a new station) were in-ground and not exactly clean. I suspect there may be a Western toilet in the handicapped bathroom but didn’t have time to investigate that.
Language Is An Issue
Our Mandarin is limited so language was an issue during these journeys though it’s not unmanageable by any means. Our attendant from Shanghai to Hangzhou spoke zero English nor did our attendant from Hangzhou to Beijing though she did find a staff member who did in order to ask us about our lunch options, however, which was nice.
Announcements are made in both Mandarin and English, however. As mentioned earlier, the TVs on our Beijing train were only in Chinese as were the newspapers. It’s not a big deal though. As we passed through some of the lesser well-known train stations, I did notice that none of the signage was in English.
We were able to navigate the train stations without needing help from staff, but I’m sure there are English speaking counters if you need help.
Arriving At Your Destination
Basically, grab your bags and get off the train quickly as it needs to keep moving. They’ll announce the stop in both Mandarin and English so when they do, prepare for arrival. Train stations have multiple exits so plan for this in advance if meeting someone.
We booked hotel-provided transportation so almost as soon as we exited the turnstiles in the arrivals hall, someone with a sign was waiting for us. I would highly recommend this.
Tips for Shanghai to Hangzhou And Hangzhou to Beijing
There are two stations in Hangzhou: Hangzhou City and Hangzhou East Station. Hangzhou East Station is newer and where we departed for Beijing, however, if you’re going to West Lake choose the Hangzhou City station to shave off about 15 minutes of driving time. During high season or rush hour, this 15 minutes can stretch into more time, however.
Also, we were advised to time our Hangzhou arrival to miss the 3:00pm taxi shift changeover as I guess this adds extra traffic to the streets.
G trains from Hangzhou arrive into Beijing Nan Station though there are multiple train stations in Beijing, depending on where you are going.
How to Buy China Train Tickets
If you’re staying in a luxury hotel in China, the easiest way to book tickets is through the concierge desk and have them billed to your room. Foreign credit cards are not widely accepted in China so otherwise, you’d need to purchase a ticket in cash at the train station or use a third party.
However, for our summer 2017 stay, The Ritz-Carlton informed us that due to new banking laws, they are unable to purchase train tickets that exceed 2000 RMB on our behalf as it exceeds the hotel’s cash payout limit. So, our options are to wire further cash to the hotel so that they can make the purchase (they can accept wires in USD) or use a third party service such as Ctrip, a very popular and reputable travel agency in China. Ctrip also happens to be an affiliate partner of this site which means that if you make a purchase through them, I earn a small commission.
We will try Ctrip and I will let you know how it goes. The will purchase train tickets on my behalf using my American credit card and deliver the tickets to our hotel. You may also want to check out Ctrip for your China train tickets.
I would certainly skip flying and opt for the train again. However, note that high speed train from Beijing to Guangzhou, for example, is an 8-hour journey versus a 3-hour flight. In this instance, I would fly.
Due to the speed of the train my daughter’s ears started to pop so I wish I would brought Children’s Tylenol or similar on board.
Do bring a sweater as the train’s air conditioning can run cold.
And, no, the views from the train aren’t particularly scenic. It’s a lot of poverty and farmland.
Have you taken high speed rail in China? Please share your thoughts.
Photo credits: top photo, Flickr/docsdl; second class seats, Flickr/travelourplanet