Using the Bullet Train in China

Ask anyone in China how you should travel from place to place you will certainly be told about the bullet trains. When you apply for a visa to China you need to give an itinerary for your trip. It won’t be a problem if you make changes to your itinerary at a later date. It does force you to plan where you want to go in China and how you will travel between places. Bullet Trains can be a quicker and cheaper option than flying. The 300km/hr bullet trains are certainly something China can be proud of. 

After huge investment China has a vast rail network which is modern and fast. In fact the metro too seemed to be very modern and spacious as well. In fact all the transport infrastructure and even the roads and cars in the cities looked practically new. When I returned to London the cars just looked old and using the underground felt like being in a drain. Unless you are travelling from one side of China to another it is likely to be faster to use the bullet train than fly.

Book Ahead 

The bullet trains are very popular. The railway system doesn’t work quite like it does in Europe. If you turn up at the station you might well find that all the trains are full as it is normal to book in advance. If you have turn up at a busy time, including most weekends, and don’t have a reservation you may well have a long wait particularly at busy times. We certainly found that to be a problem.

Most Chinese people book using the 12306 app or on the website 12306.com. Unfortunately as the site is only in Chinese, it won’t be useful to most visitors. In fact most Chinese sites do not have an English translation. Don’t think you can use the automatic Google translate facility in a browser. Google is blocked in China.

I found that Trip.com was very useful for all travel bookings in China. You can use it to book the trains or hotels. It is just a bit more expensive for train tickets than 12306.com as it charges a booking fee. You can use the Trip.com app or via the website Trip.com

The whole experience of using the train is more like travelling by plane in Europe. The stations are huge like airport terminals. There is security at the entrance where bags are scanned and you are likely to be checked too. You need to leave time to pass through security. The tickets are marked with the departure gate but its not obvious unless you read Chinese. The departure board also shows the gate for your train number. Before departure you go and wait in the lounge near the boarding gate. 

This is the vast terminal at Nanjing.

On board the Bullet Train

Below is an economy class carriage. Even in the economy class where we travelled the carriages were modern and comfortable. 

Each carriage has a screen with information displayed in English and Chinese and the speed. All trains we used seemed to go about 300km/hr all the time. The tracks were straight with as few bends as possible for maximum speed. 

 

board in carriage showing speed of 298km/hr

I actively like taking the train as it is probably the most relaxed way to travel. It’s nice to look out the window and enjoy the world go by, We took a journey between Beijing and Nanjing then between Nanjing and Shanghai. The first journey was unremarkable as it doesn’t pass through amazing scenery. The journey onto Shanghai gave some insight into the extent of development here. It was built up for much of the 400km we travelled. I knew that the south east of China was the most developed part of the country, but the number of buildings under construction was amazing. 

We saw many high rise buildings all of the same design. Dozens of them stand together like giant concrete tomb stones in a graveyard. I couldn’t imagine living like this. Towns of high rise building without gardens and only small areas of green. This was how towns were planned in 1960s but I guess there are more than a billion people  who need somewhere to live. 

Here is a video from the train showing some of the high rise buildings

See how smooth the ride is even at 300km/hr. This is over double the speed of most trains in the UK.

In Summary

The bullet train is often a better option than flying. Most important is to book ahead and leave time to pass through security into the station.