Thursday, April 19, 2012

How To Read a Chinese Train Ticket

If you're among the 4/5 of the world's population for whom Chinese is not your native language (and, frankly, if you reading this, I think it's safe to assume that you are), then independent travel in China might seem like a daunting prospect. To you I say, "take heart!" Though it is admittedly easier to travel in China if you know at least a handful of Chinese words, it is possible to get by without any Chinese language skills. When it comes to communication, a series of gestures and pointing can usually get you the basic necessities. As for reading, you won't often find yourself in a position where you have to read important information in Chinese. Most of the time the inscrutable Chinese characters you see are not vital to your well-being, and if they are there is usually an English translation. One exception to this rule is train tickets. Your life will be much easier if you can decipher the information on your ticket. That being the case, I thought it might be useful to provide this short guide to the parts of a Chinese train ticket. Here's a picture of a ticket with different parts numbered for explanation below.

  1. This is the origin city for your train ride. Tickets always include the Chinese characters and the pinyin.
  2. This is the destination city. Again, you will always have the city name in Chinese and pinyin. A tip: if you have a guidebook or something else that lists the Chinese characters of your destination city, it's worth double-checking your ticket after you buy it to be sure you are going to the right city. Some city names sound very similar, or even have the same pinyin, and it's better to find out you have the wrong ticket before you leave rather than finding out upon arrival. One other note: big cities often have several train stations servicing them. The different stations are typically distinguished from one another with one of the cardinal directions. In Chinese, these words are Bei (北) (North), Nan (南) (South), Xi (西) (West), and Dong (东) (East). On the sample ticket above, you can see that my destination was Shanghai Nan, or Shanghai South Station. This is a good thing to be aware of when you are buying and reading your ticket.
  3. This is your train number.
  4. This is the date and time of your departure. The sample ticket says: 2012年04月08日 17:09开. You're a smart person and can figure this out on your own, I'm sure, but 年 means "year," 月 means "month," 日 means "day," and 开 means "start." My train above left on April 8, 2012, at 5:09 p.m. (actually, it ended up leaving about twenty minutes behind schedule, but that's beside the point). All tickets use the year-month-date format, and use a 24-hour clock for departure times. 
  5. This is your carriage and seat number. My ticket above says: 14车 107号. 车 means "car" and 号 means "number." So, in this case, I needed to find seat number 107 in carriage number 14. Easy enough, yes? If you have a ticket for a bed on the train, this section of the ticket will also tell you which bunk you are assigned to. It will either say 上 (upper), 中 (middle), or 下 (lower). In that situation, the 号 number will indicate which column of beds your bunk is in. 
  6. This is the price you paid for your ticket. If you booked through a ticket agency or a ticket office outside of the station, you will have paid a service fee on top of this price. 
  7. This is your name and/or passport number.
  8. This tells you where you bought the ticket. In the example above, I bought the ticket at the Yiwu (义乌) train station.
  9. This gives you information about the carriage you'll be in. The ticket above roughly says that my car is a hard-seat car with air conditioning.
  10. This tells you what days it's okay to use your ticket. The above ticket (and, to be honest, every ticket I ever got in China) says that it can only be used on the date shown on the ticket. Apparently you can sometimes buy tickets that can be used any time within a certain window, but I never came across that as an option so I can't say much about it.
  11. Most tickets don't have this, but if they do it's worth paying attention to because it's important. This tells you which entrance you should enter the station by. In the example above, it says I should enter from the South Square. Most stations either only have one entrance or have multiple entrances that all get you to the same place. Here and there, though, a station has multiple entrances that lead you to different places, so it's important to enter from the correct entrance.

And that's about it. So long as you know what your ticket says, you should have no trouble navigating China's excellent train system. Happy traveling, friends.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Final Stastics

I've run the numbers and come up with the following statistics about my journey. Whether or not you're the type of person who thinks in numbers, I hope this will put the trip into perspective a bit.

Number of days (including first and last): 92
Number of cities visited: 53
Number of provinces visited: 32
Number of provinces not visited: 1 (Tibet, due to restrictions on foreigners entering in February and March)
Combined population of the cities I visited (urban areas only): 172,560,038* (≈2.46% of the world's population)
Number of different street foods eaten: Uncertain, though I estimate at least 300
Number of times I got sick: 0
Number of miles traveled by train, bus, or boat (no planes) within China: 16,736 (26,935 kilometers) (Note: For perspective's sake, this is slightly more than the overland distance from Lisbon, Portugal, to London, England, with a stop for lunch in Vladivostok, Russia, along the way.)

This is about half of my train tickets.

Average number of miles traveled by train, bus, or boat each day: 186 (299 kilometers)
Longest single train journey: 1,596 miles (2,568 kilometers); 34 hours and 30 minutes (Urumqi - Xi'an)
Amount of time spent on trains, buses, and boats within China: 16 days, 14 hours, and 30 minutes
Amount of time spent on trains in "hard seats" (no bed): 13 days, 1 hour, and 43 minutes
Average amount of time spent in each city (omitting time spent on trains): 33 hours and 7 minutes
Number of hotel nights paid for: 5
Number of nights on overnight trains: 17
Number of nights hosted by friends: 14
Number of nights spent Couch Surfing: 53
Total money spent (including plane flight and two visas): $2716.87
Money spent within China: $1426.87 (≈$475 per month)
Money spent on intercity transportation within China: $697.38 (≈$12.91 per leg of the journey)
Money spent on hotels: $61.88 (≈$12.37 per night)
Money spent on food, intracity transportation, and other sundry items within China: $667.61 (≈$7.42 per day)
Books read: 5.5 (A Passage to India, Moby Dick, Never Let Me Go, The Great Railway Bazaar, Silas Marner, and half of Tristram Shandy)
Pairs of pants used: 1
Number of times I shaved: 1 (the day before I flew home)

The last picture before I got it shaved off for 10 RMB.

So there you have it. My China trip by the numbers.

*This is only a rough estimate, as the population of Chinese cities is notoriously difficult to calculate. This information came primarily from Wikipedia, with other sources used when necessary.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Trip Complete!

Though it is difficult for me to believe, the facts are undeniable: my trip through China is finished. On Wednesday, April 11, I returned home to my wife in Washington, DC. How was the trip? In short, it was amazing. It was also exhausting, but let's focus on amazing for now. You may recall that my goal was to hit 50 - 60 cities in my three months in China, and that I had planned to visit all 33 provinces (using the term "province" loosely to encompass all of the provincial level administrative divisions in China). I managed to achieve the first goal, with a grand total of 53 cities. The second goal proved more difficult, as the Chinese government forbade all foreigners from entering Tibet in February and March, which was exactly the time of year that I was in that part of the country. So no Tibet. I did, however, visit all of the other 32 provinces, so we can basically call the trip a success on that front as well.

Here's a map of the cities I visited:

Click on the picture for the Google Map.

I saw a huge variety of landscapes (mountains, deserts, name it), met lots of interesting people, and ate hundreds of different foods. I've compiled some statistics about the trip, which I'll post a bit later. For now, I will limit myself to offering my great thanks to you, dear readers, for following my journey here at You should know that although my trip is complete, there is a lot of content yet to come on the website. As I compile my book, I will continue posting street food reviews, funny things from China, book progress updates, and whatever else seems appropriate. I hope you will continue to check in from time to time.

My trip through China was a phenomenal whirlwind of an experience. Now I look forward to continuing the project here at home. As one look at that map could tell you, it is going to be a real treat to stay in one place for a while.