I would like to share my best tips for train journeys for people who don't plan ahead. These were shaped from my travel experience riding seat-less in China with three friends as we criss-crossed our way down through the country using the busy train network. We travelled on a shoestring budget, and with no fixed agenda we often arrived at stations with only a loose idea of where we were heading. However, demand for seats and beds on these trains is huge and when there are literally millions of citizens using the network at anyone time, these spaces are booked days in advance... Surprisingly, my tip isn't to plan ahead, be sensible and book in advance - but top tips for surviving and enjoying an overnight train journey with no seat or bed to speak off. Following these tips allows you to get closer to the fascinating Chinese character and fully involve yourself to feel like a true and accepted local which is lost in 1st and 2nd class travel.
My first tip is to play the Chinese at their own game in order to get the best floor positions for your overnight journey. Your competing 3rd class companions will be travelling with half their kitchen larders strapped to their backs, which can include two or three 'cash and carry' style bags of rice or even sacks of chicken feet! So i would advise teaming up with a friend or fellow westerner, which combined with your likely height advantage and 20kg backpacks, you'll find yourselves with some kind of purchase on the crowds of surging travellers to get to your carriage first.
The second tip is on boarding and locating your floor space. With competition fierce, and the odds stacking against you, you will need to prepare for your mini sprint. Try and establish from platform gates, which end of the train your carriage is in; you don't want to find your self running in the opposite direction as you are then likely to be stood beside the toilet for the next 15 to 20 hours. So, once at the carriage doors, I would recommend boarding at the same time as your friend, guarding yourselves from the beating crowds to give you the opportunity to seek the best position, ideally not near the toilet or wash basin, but next to a guards door, which is likely to leave you some good leg room and uninterrupted sleep from people getting on and off through the night.
The third and final tip is spread yourself out, as selfish as it might sound, conceding early on or showing weakness will leave you sharing your pillow another guy who likes to chain smoke and cough up loosening flem from his lungs. This early initiative also gives you the flexibility of lying down and sitting up to read throughout your journey, as fidgeting to get comfortable will become your new best friend. Once you have your little enclave, you can pick and choose who you share your space with, and observe the fascinating culture and characters on board your train as people pass through and squat to chat to the unlikely westerners slumming it on floor.
These light-hearted tips are really just great memories and a product of clashing national psyches, for which I believe brings so much colour, character and adventure to a train journey and gets you right under the skin of a nation which is quite literally on the move.
Many thanks for reading my top tips for character rich 3rd class train travel in China.
There aren't too many hostels in China, and you can be sure that this one is going to be fully booked by August. Still, worth a shot. Nestling among the hutongs - the traditional Chinese streets that are now all but gone - the Far East Hostel has some English-speaking staff, a range of facilities and is dirt cheap. What's more, it's within walking distance of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City - and if you venture up Nanxinhua St you'll find a fantastic Peking Duck restaurant that's far less pricey than the overrated Hepingmen.
Reconstructed, re-opened, and smoothly re-surfaced, Dongcheng District's Nanluoguxiang is one such hutong.
The flood of tasty restaurants, cosy bars, and unique shops that run up and down the hidden street will no doubt remove the lane from the list of Beijing's best- kept secrets. Still, despite the renovations and ongoing grand openings, this area has retained its original essence of an inner-sanctuary. The fact that public toilets outnumber the private ones also add a certain cultural authenticity.
If in the area, this hutong is definitely worth wandering around aimlessly, day or night, ohhing and ahhing along the way.
Consider going to a restaurant where the locals dine for your Peking Duck. Ok, you may not get the fancy furniture and uniforms that you will get in the touristy restaurants, but what you will get is a restaurant full of character and, of course, local people.
Think about it, if you have been to any of the advertised Peking Duck restaurants for tourists, have you seen many locals ? Of course the answer is probably no. The reason is probably due to the costs involved.
Myself and a few friends went to a restaurant close to a Hutong and had Peking Duck for three people. It cost less than £7.50 for the whole meal including beer and cola, not bad for three people. The portions were very large and we couldn't finish what was served.
Do consider trying a local restaurant, you will be amazed at the reception you will get and the locals will enjoy you as much as you will enjoy the experience of dining with them.
The history of this district stretches back 700 years to the Yuan Dynasty. For 120 rmb per night, you get to stay in an old courtyard house in a lively neighbourhood full of boutiques, bars and restaurants.
Nanluogu Xiang hutong, Xicheng area; Tel: 8400-2429
Very close to Chongwenmen tube stop, easy walk to Tianenmen square and Forbidden City, clean and comfortable and about £30 a double ensuite in high season. Nice staff, speak English.
Close to Chongwenmen tube stop, www.asiarooms.com
Hotel in central Beijing, opposite tube station, couple of stops from Tiannenmen Square, 500m metres from main Railway station, clean and cheap at £31 per night per double room.
No. A2, Chong Wen Men Wai Street, Beijing, China;
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