Taking a “hard sleeper” train in China

Over Spring Festival my parents and I took a “hard sleeper” (硬卧) train for the first time. After all the stories I’d heard I was expecting the worst, especially since it was 春运,the Spring Festival travel season when public transportation gets beyond maxed out. It wasn’t really all that bad, though I can easily imagine how it could be really bad, depending on your fellow passengers. Definitely wouldn’t want to do it with a baby. The hardest thing for us this time was getting tickets in the first place, which required some serious string-pulling by a friend of a friend — I’m afraid to ask how he got them. But if you like to chat/practice Chinese, and you bring snacks (that you can share), a book, a cup and some instant coffee, a hard sleeper doesn’t have to be a brutal experience, at least going from our recent first trip.

I put a bunch of photos into a gallery, along with details about our ride in the captions. If a hard sleeper train ride is in your near or potential future, the photo gallery will give you a good idea of what to expect, snogging couples and all. Haha, poor mom!

Click a photo to go to the hard sleeper gallery.

10 thoughts on “Taking a “hard sleeper” train in China”

  1. I don’t understand why anybody would’ve told you hard sleeper was a rough experience. It’s not the cushiest form of travel, for sure, but there’s a restricted number of people per car and the facilities are certainly adequate.

    Hard seat, on the other hand, that can certainly get to look like a scene out of Dante’s Inferno.

  2. I think my parents found something online before we went that made it sound worse.

    When hearing other people talk about traveling during Spring Festival, hard seat/hard sleeper/standing room often don’t get distinguished very well, I guess.

  3. It really wasn’t bad at all. The worst part was Mom being sick and being unable to enjoy it, from feeling so terrible.

    I just wished my Mandarin was better, ’cause the people around us were really interesting. The train was slow, but that was OK, too, ’cause there was so much to see out the windows. Went through all kinds of places that show up in the history books that I’ve been reading.

    The article we read beforehand was from some blogger who apparently was more daunted by the experience than he had to be, or something like that. I wouldn’t necessarily want to do it every week, but once a year for Chunjie might not be so terribly bad. The visit we had with our friends in Henan was certainly worth the hard-sleeper return trip.

  4. I took my family on a train over Christmas a few months ago and I have to say that it wasn’t a bad experience. I think that the deciding factor in your comfort is not completely determined by which class you take but rather by how long the journey is.

    Hard seat, hard sleeper, soft sleeper…it doesn’t matter. 46 hours from Shanghai to Urumqi was tough.

  5. Babies on hard sleepers?

    For what it is worth, last summer we took Mulan on a hard sleeper from Guangzhou to Hainan (and back again) when she was about 28 months old.

    For us, it was really not bad at all. No worse than aeroplanes — in fact, probably better, as there is more to see out the windows. (And the struggles at the train stations were no worse than some struggles on the local city streets or local metros, where Mulan goes all the time.)

    We also took Mulan on a soft sleeper when she was about 10 months old. It is hard to remember details (and no, not because I have blocked out the bad memories!), but I don’t think it was a big deal for us.

    We have also taken Mulan on numerous seated trains and inter-city buses throughout her life (not to mention aeroplanes). I would do it all again.

    Having said this, we are lucky that Mulan is a very easy child. Some children should probably never be taken out on long-distance travels! That is the personality of the child, not the nature of the transportation.

  6. Those photos certainly bring back memories. I booked a hard sleeper between Beijing and Xi’an about 10 years ago and I have to say it really wasn’t that unpleasant. I was stuck on the top bunk and my only concern throughout the 20-hour journey was that I wouldn’t fall to my death while I slept as I rolled dangerously close to the edge every time the train stopped at a station.

    Hard seat, on the other hand, was an absolute nightmare. First of all, my classmates and I spent a good hour or so standing (or rather, wedged) as there were no spare seats. We finally managed to find some seats and tried to get as comfy as possible but there was no such luck. Trying to get some sleep on the 20-hour journey back was impossible thanks to the constant movement of people getting on and off the train and the ladies coming down the aisle at all hours trying to sell us instant noodles and other wares. How I longed for the hard sleeper that night!

  7. Kelly,
    That does sound like a nightmare. Even on the soft sleeper I was really not a fan of those instant noodle cart pushers — I could have slept another hour or two were it not for them!

    Glenn,
    We’ve had no problem with Lilia on the subways and the 动车s (she packs around pretty contentedly in the baby backpack). Haven’t had much other travel opportunities with her yet, but from what everyone says she’s also apparently a really “easy” baby.

    I also thought the soft-sleeper was comparable to an airplane. Maybe not as clean and no food or movies, but can you imagine an airplane where you can lie down or walk around? How awesome would that be? And of course the train’s way cheaper. After that trip made me realize how bad it isn’t, I actually started planning some extra ones to see friends for this spring and summer. Knowing the different kinds of trains is a big help.

  8. I took an overnight hard sleeper from Tianjin to Shanghai about ten years ago and had a great time. I had flown that route a dozen times and just saw clouds and sky so felt it was time to see some country. Everyone adopted me as the sole foreigner so I was spoiled rotten. It took about 18 hours back then but I definitely preferred it to a flight. I don’t live there anymore but I’d like to try the new HSR. The one in Taiwan is fabulous!

  9. I took an overnight hard sleeper from Beijing to Dalian. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The ride was glassy smooth and quiet, and not smoky, and I got about six hours quality sleep (all I need). All in all, far better than a plane trip!

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