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Let the train, take the strain

Updated: 2012-10-01 08:22
By Cao Yin ( China Daily)

Planes may be faster, but train travel across China offers an altogether more relaxing journey, as travelers are finding out, especially those taking a 'sleeper', as Cao Yin reports from Beijing.

China's train system is considered one of the biggest and busiest in the world, hardly surprising, maybe, given the country's size. But the great news for travelers is that its huge network of tracks, run by the Ministry of Railways, is efficient, comfortable, and relatively cheap too. Travel industry experts say that given the sometimes-mixed reputation of the country's ever-expanding air network, the train has becoming the travel mode-of-choice for a growing number of people, with its overnight 'sleeper' services gaining a particularly strong following.

Let the train, take the strain

The special tourism train from Moscow to Beijing offers a variety of food for travelers. Comfortable facilities and great service are two of the biggest attractions. [Photo/Xinhua]

There's something special about spending a night on a train.

Maybe it's the engine's gentle rhythm rocking you to sleep, or the thought of falling asleep in one place and waking up in another.

Or maybe it's just the hassle-free feeling, that once you're on board you can simply throw your bag on your bunk and relax, without wasting any valuable travel time rushing to where you want to go.

Hou Guanyue is the manager responsible for booking train travel at the nationwide China Youth Travel Service.

He says that given the high quality of some of the sleeper carriages now in service, many can feel more like mobile hotels, and realizing that standard, travelers aren't just using them for overnight trips, but as holiday 'venues'.

"Traveling can be very tiring and stressful by bus or plane. Then you have to check into your hotel. Why not combine them both, and use the train?" he adds.

"Traditionally, taking a train has been thought of as merely a means of getting from A to B; but today's Chinese sleepers are so much more than that. They have facilities on board on a par with many hotels. They are great ways to travel and brilliant ways to relax, at a very reasonable price," Hou says.

He adds that overnight train travel has become especially popular among senior citizens, who can find flying especially trying.

"You have so much more time to enjoy the journey, than you might if you were taking a flight. After so many years of hearing that air travel has become cheaper and cheaper, it's train travel which is growing now," he told China Daily.

"These special sleeper trains connect some of the country's most beautiful tourist attractions; there is no problem with traffic; you can save time and money - what's not to love about it?"

Ticket prices vary depending on which service you chose and how many days you chose to stay on board your moving hotel.

But as a rule of thumb, there are generally four types of train travel in China, to suit all sizes of budget.

The most luxurious is the 'soft' sleeper, normally spacious, four-berth compartments with two upper and two lower berths by night, which convert into two sofas for daytime use. Your bedding is normally provided, there are tables with tablecloths; and usually flasks of hot water for making drinks. Compartment doors lock securely, and there are smartly-dressed attendants looking after each car. In some trains, there are can be TV screens and power sockets for laptops and mobiles.

One step down, are the 'hard' sleepers, which aren't in fact, that hard at all, just more open-plan carriages with a broad aisle on one side housing six bunks (upper, middle, and lower). Despite the name, hard sleeper bunks are reasonably well padded, and bedding is again supplied.

Then, there are soft seat and hard seat options. These are the equivalent to first and second class seats on an overnight European train, but again the 'hard' seats are usually padded and reasonably comfortable, in spite of the name.

Taking a six-day trip, for example, in a lower soft sleeper can cost you about 4,000 yuan ($633) per person, with the most luxurious berths costing up to 10,000 yuan.

Hou's China Youth Travel Service has designed and developed a range of packages and routes for sleeper travelers, including the Changbai Mountain Trip to the north east provinces, and re-traveling the Silk Road, in the south east of the country.

He plans to launch others at the beginning of November, he says, which will cover four or five other scenery spots in Hunan and Guizhou provinces, such as Phoenix Ancient City and Huangguoshu Waterfall, which will last eight days.

"Travelers will be able to visit various spots during the day, and their nights will be spent traveling on the sleeper in comfort."

Usually sleeper trains are about 10 coaches long all with food services on board; although more luxurious than regular train services, they do travel slower than day services.

Hou adds that in some cases, other special travel packages might include having medical staff on board in case of emergency, for instance.

Sun Liqun, assistant manager with China International Travel Service, one of the largest travel agencies in China, is also a great enthusiast about traveling the country by train.

"One of the great advantages is that in some of the areas they travel to - in Gansu or Qinghai provinces, for instance - the local hotel accommodation might not be as developed as people might like, but you are guaranteed a level of comfort on board.

"Travelers really enjoy the fact don't have to worry about taking their heavy luggage or suitcase with them during stops. They can leave them on the train, and travel agency people on board can look after them," she adds.

"They can concentrate on enjoying the beautiful scenery out the window when they are on board, or sleep. And when they get off, they can focus on the fresh air and the destinations themselves without having to worry about getting to their next destination, or getting to a busy airport."

Yu Bo is 26-year-old, and lives in Beijing. He says his only memories of traveling by train were when he was young.

"The coaches were crowded and dirty, and the trip was exhausting, so I've generally used flights in recent years," he told China Daily. "Because I've never traveled by sleeper, I'd still be worried about the standard of facilities on board - but I do admit, the thought of being able to enjoy the views out of the window along the way is very attractive."

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