China's enormous rail network is one of the world's busiest. Trains are usually safe and run strictly to schedule. Although there are certain intricacies to buying tickets, once you've got one, trips are generally hassle-free. Beijing is a major rail hub. Services to the rest of China leave from its four huge stations. The Trans-Siberian Railway and services to Shanghai, among others, leave from Beijing Zhan, the main station. Trains to Hong Kong and to areas in the west and south of China leave from Beijing Xi Zhan (West). Most of the Z-series trains (nonstop luxury services) come into these two stations. Lesser lines to the north and east of the country leave from Beijing Bei Zhan (North) and Beijing Dong Zhan (East). C-series and D-series trains (intercity nonstop rail) go to Beijing Nan Zhan (South).
You can buy most tickets 10 days in advance; two to three days ahead is usually enough time, except around the three national holidays—Chinese New Year (two days in mid-January to February, depending on the lunar calendar of that particular year), Labor Day (May 1), and National Day (October 1). If you can, avoid traveling then—tickets sell out weeks in advance.
The cheapest rates are at the train station itself; there are special ticket offices for foreigners at both the Beijing Zhan (first floor) and Beijing Xi Zhan (second floor). You can only pay using cash. Most travel agents, including CITS, can book tickets for a small surcharge (Y20 to Y50), saving you the hassle of going to the station. You can also buy tickets through online retailers like China Train Ticket. They'll deliver the tickets to your hotel (keep in mind you often end up paying double the station rate).
Overpriced dining cars serve meals that are often inedible, so you'd do better to make use of the massive thermoses of boiled water in each compartment and take along your own noodles or instant soup, as the locals do.
Trains are always crowded, but you are guaranteed your designated seat, though not always the overhead luggage rack. Note that theft on trains is increasing; on overnight trains, sleep with your valuables or else keep them on the inside of the bunk.
You can find out just about everything about Chinese train travel at Seat 61's fabulous Web site. China Highlights has a searchable online timetable for major train routes. The tour operator Travel China Guide has an English-language Web site that can help you figure out train schedules and fares.
Note that the information numbers at train stations are usually only in Chinese.
Beijing Bei Zhan (Xizhimen, Xicheng District, Beijing, 100004. 010/5182–6623.)
Beijing Nan Zhan (12 Yongdingmenwai Dajie, Chongwen District, Beijing, 100054. 010/5183–6272.)
Beijing Xi Zhan (118 Lianhuachi Donglu, Fengtai District, Beijing, 100070. 010/6321–6253.)
Beijing Zhan (A13 Maojiawang Hutong, east side of Dongbianmen Gate, Dongcheng District, Beijing, 100010. 010/5101–9999.)
China Highlights (800/268–2918. www.chinahighlights.com/china-trains/index.htm.)
Seat 61 (www.seat61.com/china.htm.)
Travel China Guide (800/315–3949. www.travelchinaguide.com/china-trains/index.htm.)