China’s High-Speed Rail 高铁

Whether you’re in China traveling for vacation, or taking a much needed break from your teaching job to travel the countryside, China’s high speed rail will undoubtedly help you get around.  The Chinese high-speed rail connects people from the country to the city, and transports over 1 billion people per year.

The Train:

The Chinese high-speed rail, or bullet train, is a relatively novel system in China, and was built in 2007.  Although the rail system is less than 20 years old, it already spans most the country, connecting almost all the major cities and ports.  The train travels of speeds over 200 miles per hour and almost eliminates the need for airports and their corresponding pricey tickets.  The train has business class and first class tickets at a premium, with regular seats taking up most of the cars.  The high-speed rail stations are almost always conveniently linked to the metro system of the city, making easy access for a quick escape to another city.

By Howchou – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Buying Tickets:

Buying tickets for the high-speed rail can be a bit of a hassle for foreigners.  No matter the method you use of procuring your ticket, whether online or in person, you must wait in line to obtain that sweet little blue card.  Lines are generally very long, so you may spend up to forty-five minutes just to reach the counter.  Once you reach the counter, you have to tell the ticket person your destination and the time you wish to get the ticket for (all in Chinese).  I have yet to run into any ticket seller who speaks English, though they must exist.  Grab a Chinese friend, or polish up you Mandarin and you should be all set in this phase of the process.  Alternatively you could just write down the Chinese characters for your destination, and the time bit is easy to figure out just write down 2:30 etc. (gotta love internationally recognized digital time!)  Once you procure your ticket, grab a snack and wait for your boarding time at the gate labeled on the ticket.  Make sure that you are on time, because the train only stays at one station for roughly 8 minutes.

Chinese citizens can use an automatic high-speed rail ticket buying/ dispensing system that they have in train stations.  With the upcoming change in visa procedures and the accompanying resident card, we foreigners may be able to use the system too (more info on that here:!  We will have to wait and see what happens with that.

Tips and Tricks:

There are several tricks to the high-speed rail that can turn a seemingly awful situation in your favor.  Most of these tricks require some cleverness, and most likely will demand that you speak Chinese to a certain level in order to navigate through the conversations with the ticket-seller and the gate keeper.

Tip 1:

If the tickets for the time you are trying to get are no longer available, you can purchase a ticket for a later time and board the next high-speed rail train.  All you have to do is to make sure that the train you are going to board is going in the right direction.  Then, take that ticket you purchased to the boarding gate.  While waiting for the gate to open, or after most other people have already gone through the gate, speak with the guard at the gate and tell them that you have a ticket, but need to catch this train.  The guard will most likely ask “Why…?” to which you can respond that you have to catch a flight at your destination, or have an important meeting.  With a little bit of persuasion, the guard should let you onto the train.  Just do not expect that you will get a seat, you give it up in order to get home earlier, so be prepared to stand.

Tip 2:

This one is self-explanatory and only requires you to pay a bit more for your ticket.  If there are no more tickets from the station you are buying them from to your destination, try purchasing a ticket from a station or two before your current station.  You can still board the high-speed rail where you are, but there may be more seats available from other stations.  The best stations to try are the terminal stations, as the system normally has many open tickets for longer journeys.  This also works on the reverse side.  If there are no tickets taking you to your destination, try buying one for a few stops after your destination, or to bigger cities past it.  You just simply get off at the stop that you want, no questions asked.

Tip 3: For All of You Penny Pinchers Out There

If you want to save a little bit of cash you can buy a standing only ticket.  There are a few of these delegated to each train, and as the name implies, you will be standing.  To overcome this there is a nifty trick, though you have to be VERY VERY quick.  In the middle of each high-speed train there is a dining cart with seats available for first-come first-serve.  This won’t always work, and in fact probably will only work if you are at a terminal station.

By HKFumi – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Life in China

3 thoughts on “China’s High-Speed Rail 高铁

  1. Nu Haus on Reply

    HSR is excellent if you are traveling short distances. You can easily commute between Suzhou and Shanghai each day if you want to save money on rent. You can also book tickets on Ctrip if you want to make long distance train trips with multiple stops and train changes, say Shanghai to Shenzhen (and then to HK). Although, for now flying by plane is only a little more expensive in China, and will cut that 12 hour trip to 2.

    1. dancrice on Reply

      Yeah,the price of airline tickets is coming down, but in my experience making the trip to the airport, and the quality of the service is a bit low. I once waited in the airport for over 12 hours for a flight from Shanghai to Hong Kong. It seems that the Shanghai Hongqiao and Pudong airports regularly go through changes in their schedules, which leads to long waiting periods for flights. For convenience I think the HSR wins, but for saving time (most of the time) airlines win.

  2. Anky on Reply

    There are some English speaking clerks! Also, usually even very terribly said “jintian” and the name of the city will get you the ticket (you can show the time on the screen).
    The downside? Plane tickets are sometimes almost the same price, and on longer distances they are faster.

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