When I picked up my life and decided to travel around China for a semester abroad I knew I was ready for a huge adventure because I didn't speak even a tiny bit of Mandarin (I even Googled how to say hello the night before I left).
Getting around China without speaking the language is tricky and intimidating, but not impossible.
However I was SO glad I wasn't traveling solo in China - I signed up to go with an experienced organization like International Language Programs (if you've got questions about volunteering in China you can click this link and schedule a call with them!).
I had someone to pick me up from the airport so I didn't have to worry about where I was going the minute I stepped in China, I had a group of new friends to experience it all with, and I had help understanding the culture (which is SO different from American btw).
One of the best ways to get to the best China travel destinations is via train. It's cheap and even though the country is huge, they are adding more and more bullet train options which get you there faster. Also, I got to knock off 'take a train ride' from my bucket list!
Breaking Down The Chinese Train Ticket
Probably the only hard part about taking the train is reading the train ticket. But luckily once you have the breakdown it's super easy...
Date of travel & departure time
Pretty straight forward - year/month/day/hour
China uses military time. If you're not sure how to convert it (or just want to double check that you converted it right), you can use a handy little website like this one.
Just like you would with a flight, make sure you're there early! The train LEAVES at the departure time ... like it's gone, goodbye, not waiting for you. Depending on the size of the train station, I'm ususally there 1-1.5 hours early (so you have time to stand in line to get your ticket, go through security, find your boarding area, grab a snack, etc).
This is the station you're leaving from - it's nice because it has both the mandarin characters and the pinyin (English letters). Typically this isn't that important for you unless you're returning and haven't booked your return ticket yet. You could show that to the person at the ticket counter so they can see where you're going if you don't know how to pronounce it. Some Chinese city names are pretty hard to say correctly for Westerners!
Sometimes in larger train stations there are reader boards that show if the train has departed yet or if it's delayed (similar to the airport). You could find your train's status with the train number.
This is where you're going! This is so important. Most trains run on a line with multiple stops so you have to pay attention to know if you're getting off at the right stop or not. They usually make an announcement but it's not always in English and if you're reading this I'm gonna go ahead and assume you don't speak Mandarin.
Newer trains usually have a sign with red letters that displays the name of the upcoming stop, so you can use your ticket to make sure you're getting off at the right stop. Even if they don't have any pinyin, you can make sure the characters match up. If you're still not sure, show your ticket to a friendly neighbor and even if they don't speak English it's pretty clear what you're asking so they'll nod yes or no if that's your stop.
In larger cities there's often multiple train stations that are named by their location in the city - east, west, north south. That will often be written after that name of the station.
So on my ticket above, I'm departing from the Chengdu station but there's multiple stations in Chengdu. Can you tell which one I'm departing from?
If you answered the east station - you get a high five. So if that was the station I was going to, I would make sure and pay close attention that I'm getting off at the right stop in Chengdu. I need to get off at the east station because that's what I paid for. They usually check your ticket as you leave and if you're not at the right station you'll likely have to pay extra! Yikes. So as we enter Chengdu, I'm going to watch the reader board until it says the current stop is "Chengdudong"...not something like "Chengdubei". Got it?
I can't tell you how many times I leaned over to the person next to me and showed them my ticket to make sure I was getting off at the right stop. Good thing a "thumbs up" is a pretty universal signal.
Not every ticket will have this, but if you're at a large station it will. Think of it like your boarding gate at the airport. After you make it through security (yes, train stations also do a security check although it's much less intensive) then you'll go to your boarding gate and wait there until they start letting people in. Usually they'll start letting people board around 30 minutes before the departure time.
Your passport #
They actually do check your passport against your ticket before security, so don't forget your passport at home and don't think you can just transfer your ticket to someone else if you decide not to go anymore.
What's a carriage? It's just the section of the train where you'll enter. You know how trains are super long? This number will tell you which door of the train to use that will put you closest to your seat.
If they let people into the boarding area before the train arrives there's typically signs with numbers showing where the train will stop. Just find your carriage number and stand with that group of people. When the train arrives, you'll be in the right carriage spot.
Again, you can just point to this section on your ticket to "ask" an official or local at the train station to help you get to the right spot.
Seat or berth #
I know you know what seat number means (FYI there will be signs above the seats just like they have on airplanes), but what's berth?
There are many long trips across China and so you can purchase a bed rather than a seat which is especially awesome for those overnight trips. Berth is the section where your bed is, typically it's bunkbed style (3 high) and about 6 beds to each berth.
Teaching English in China was one of the best decisions I've ever made. It changed my life and I got to help make a difference in my students life plus I came home with incredible stories, photos, and friends. If you're thinking about it, DO IT.
If you need help funding a volunteer experience, ILP put together a "How To Pay Less" guide that works for almost any organization you're looking at traveling with. You can also get more info about volunteering with ILP by clicking below: