China offers a huge diversity of experiences across the country, but its vastness requires planning ahead. Flying can be expensive for those last-minute trips, and buses are not for everyone.

China’s rail system, however, is an awesome experience and a great way to see the country.

China’s bullet trains run mostly out of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. When I traveled to Xi’an from Shanghai, my only option was a regular train, but it was hardly a shabby option. The trains were clean, the service was efficient and the beds were comfortable.

The key is to book as early as you can. If your budget allows for the first-class seats (which are far more comfortable than the second class “hard seats”), then you need to make sure you book your ticket ahead of time. And you can book those tickets online: the system is a little clunky but it works, and you can purchase your tickets before your trip. You need a PayPal account, scans of your passport and a little patience. But by the time I booked by ticket and woke up the next morning, the tickets were confirmed and booked.

Be sure you have your paper confirmations just to be safe, and an electronic copy stored in your Dropbox or email. When you show up at the station, go to one of the will call windows, show your passport and confirmation, and your ticket will be printed. To be safe, you may want to have your hotel or guest house write “I’m here to pick up my train ticket” just to make sure the process is seamless. China’s train stations can be chaotic, so give yourself plenty of time to show up for your trip.

Once you are on the train, you can relax, catch up on that reading or clack away on your laptop. Food is available; if you’re a fussy eater, bring your own snacks, but beverages and snacks are plentiful for purchase. If you are in a 6-person sleeper, bring earplugs.

Enjoy the ride. Becoming drowsy while the train rocks you back and forth to sleep is one of the wonders of train travel, and you’ll be glad you booked your trip.

Image credits: Leon Kaye

China, train travel, travel, rail, Xian, Shanghai, Leon Kaye

Early morning in the countryside

China, train travel, travel, rail, Xian, Shanghai, Leon Kaye

Relics from China's rail past

China, train travel, travel, rail, Xian, Shanghai, Leon Kaye

Get comfy and fire up the laptop

China, train travel, travel, rail, Xian, Shanghai, Leon Kaye

Bullet trains crisscross the country

Leaving Xi'an station

China, train travel, travel, rail, Xian, Shanghai, Leon Kaye

Farms and small groves of trees

China, train travel, travel, rail, Xian, Shanghai, Leon Kaye

Sweet dreams

About The Author

Leon Kaye

Leon Kaye is the founder and editor of Based in California, he specializes in social media consulting and strategic communications. A journalist and writer since 2009, his work has appeared on Triple Pundit , The Guardian's Sustainable Business site and has appeared on Inhabitat and Earth911. His focus is making the business case for sustainability and corporate social responsibility. Areas of interest include the <a Middle East, sustainable development in The Balkans, Brazil and Korea. He was a new media journalism fellow at the International Reporting Project, for which he covered child survival in India during February 2013. Contact him at You can also reach out via Twitter (Leon Kaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost). Since 2013, he has spent much of his time in Abu Dhabi, UAE, working with Masdar, the emirate's renewable energy company. He lives in Fresno, California.