How to Survive Overnight Trains in China

Travelling around China is not for the fainthearted. A country of a billion or so people means that all forms of transport are busy, confusing and always crowded. Read on for some tips for surviving what could be up to seventeen hours packed in a train carriage.

I was ‘lucky’ enough to have four overnight trains on my 3 week G Adventures tour of China. No bullet trains for us, that would have cost more and my travel companions and I were happy to save some cash. Besides, I was sure I could handle it, being no stranger to overnight trains, I had done two in Europe and three in Vietnam. As we were travelling as part of a large group, we were unable to travel first class (soft sleeper) so the tour company booked second class (hard sleeper) for the trains. Read about the different class levels here. Booking yourself you might be able to get first class, they sell out quick and tickets can only be bought 20 or so days in advance. T and K trains are the style that I travelled on, the normal speed trains.


TIP 1: Go with a tour, and that means with a tour guide. The train stations of China are huge, confusing and for a solo female – scary. I was so grateful to have a Chinese speaking guide the whole time. I would never have been able to negotiate which station entry, holding room, platform, carriage, bed etc on my own. If you are going alone – here are some more in depth tips.

TIP 2: Have plenty of time up your sleeve to negotiate the train travel experience. The stations / holding rooms / platforms are crowded and queuing is arbitrary. There is a lot of security scanning and ticket showing which takes time. Our first trip – Beijing to Shanghai had us show our passport or ticket SEVEN times from start to finish. Unexpected delays can wreak havoc on a tight schedule.

Beijing Train Station


Tip 3: Pack soft and light. There is limited space for bags or suitcases, often they have to be hauled up into roof cavities. Luckily the men on our tour could lift them for us, whilst balancing precariously on the bunks and ladders. Suitcases are unforgiving, soft bags and backpacks are perfect for smooshing into spaces.

Tip 4: Pick the right bunk. If you have a chance (or a friend to swap with), pick the right bunk for you. All have their pros and cons.

  • Bottom bunk is great if you are unable or unwilling to climb the small ladders, but this bunk is used as the couch seating for the two or three travellers in the compartment.
  • Top bunk is more private, more secure and you can go to bed whenever. Getting into the top bunk is a gymnastic contortionist routine all on its own. Good luck!
  • Middle bunk is my choice. Usually not too high, or the roof too low, and not full of train travellers sitting there all trip. It can still be tricky to get into, I needed about 6 attempts to get in and it was not pretty. My travel companions compared me to a panda climbing each time I tried to get in my bunk.
This is apparently what I look like climbing into my bunk
Jo and Genie demonstrate how to get into the top bunk
You do not want to be hefting suitcases up on these luggage racks
Each carriage is about 10 cubicles of 6 beds

Tip 4: Bring your own food! You are on the train  FOREVER… there isn’t much to do besides read, write, draw, talk, play games, sleep (ha ha I wish) or stare out the window. Eating passes the time. Some trains do have a food trolley that goes past, items can be questionable. We always bought heaps of snacks, chips, chocolate, fruit, sandwiches etc. If you’re sharing the carriage with 60 or so other Chinese (yes, SIXTY), 90% of them will be heating up noodle bowls with hot water provided at the end of each carriage (use this hot water at your own risk). So the carriage will smell of noodles most of the night. And cigarettes if you are really lucky.

Bring your own snacks

Tip 5: Don’t drink too much. Drinking leads to peeing. And peeing in the hard sleeper carriages means sharing a squat toilet with 60 or more other people. THERE IS NOTHING FUN ABOUT THIS. Try to avoid the toilet as much as possible. We also found that the toilets were dirty, often not even cleaned BEFORE the train trip started. See below for my quick as a fox survival guide for using squat toilets.

Tip 6: Wear comfy clothes. You do not want to be changing into sleeping attire. Wear something that will last the whole 24 hours and can be slept in. Leggings, soft shorts, tracksuit pants are great. I always wear my bandeaux bra thing under my top so I don’t have to sleep in a bra and be uncomfortable. Not that I’m uncomfortable in a skinny bunk bed that resembles an ambulance stretcher or anything… A scarf is a great accessory; to make you look dressier, keep you warm or act as a pillow, blanket or eye mask if needed.

Tip 7: Keep valuables next to your body. I always have a small bag that zips up with my most prized possessions (passport, money, camera, phone, ipod) that either goes under my pillow or between my upper body and the wall. Sometimes I have even craftily tied it to a pole or clip. That way if you do drift off to sleep (lucky you) you don’t need to worry about your belongings. Sometimes (yes this happened to us) someone tries to climb into your bunk during the night or gropes around to see if the bed is free, especially after boarding the train sometime in the night, possibly without a ticket.

Tip 8: What to take: Eye mask, ear plugs, sleeping tablets if you require them, toileting stuff, torch, panty liners (keeps knickers fresh), bottled water – especially for cleaning teeth, items to keep you busy like a good book or a crossword puzzle, snacks, medication – I always get headaches on these long journeys, gum or mints. These are the things I keep in my smaller bag on the end of the bed. You do not want to be trying to get your luggage down when everyone has gone to sleep because you need tissues. I always carry a fold up stash away bag and some plastic ziplock bags too, for snacks and other storage.

My Quick as a Fox guide for using a squat toilet in China

Hard sleeper carriage squat toilets – Deluxe!

– Wear skirts or leggings, don’t wear anything that needs to be held up while you steady yourself, under no circumstances should anything other than your shoes touch the floor.

– Take no bags, you need your hands free! Buddy up and tag team so one person holds backpacks, etc while you do the doo.

– Stuff your tissues and wipes down your top or in your pockets. This keeps your hands free. I found on trains I needed two hands to hold the wall or basin so I didn’t fall over while the train is rocking around. Or you might have to hold the door closed… Don’t even think about going in without tissues, wipes, hand sanitiser etc.

– Squat as low as you can hold. Go too low and you’ll get thigh burn, meaning you may* need to abort half way through and wee on your shoes. I found a half squat was more comfortable to get through the duration of your business. *of course I had to abort.

– If it is smelly (yes it will be smelly), either take deodorant in to spray around or spray yourself with deodorant or perfume first just before entering. I discovered a nifty trick, tuck a wet wipe under your glasses over your nose and mouth. That way all you will breathe while in the loo is that clean sanitising smell. You will look foolish, but who cares!

– Don’t try to flush paper etc. There should be a bin for that. Flushing can be questionable. Just ask the Chongqing department store toilet after I had KFC. Enough said.

– Wipe and spray every part of your body that touched something directly afterwards. I don’t even try to use sinks, jsut get out in the fresh air and wipe-baby-wipe.

– And if all else fails, get out as fast as you can!


Waiting in the holding rooms to board our train


Scenes from the train, somewhere in Southern China


Beijing Station with a bullet train off in the distance. WANT!



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