On the overnight sleeper train from Beijing to Xian
Our trip around the world involved a lot of trains so of course, we travelled across China by train. For our first Chinese train journey, we took the Z19, overnight sleeper train from Beijing to Xian.
Beijing West Station
Getting the train was quite an experience. Trains to Xian depart from Beijing West station which is very busy. Furthermore, when we arrived we had trouble even finding the station entrance. It turns out that it is on the 2nd floor but there are no signs to tell you that. Also, the station is divided into North and South. When we finally found an entrance we weren’t sure which one we needed. However, it doesn’t matter which one you enter by because inside it is only one station. So, if you find yourself here just enter through whichever entrance you find first.
Once we got inside the station it was much easier and quieter. Security is tight at Chinese railway stations and so only passengers get in. You need to have your luggage scanned and show your train tickets. It’s a bit like airport security but rather more chaotic.
Soft Sleeper Waiting Room
One of the Chinese symbols I learned before we arrived in China was the one for the Soft Sleeper Waiting Room. This is the waiting room for 1st and 2nd class sleeper train passengers. I was told that it is generally much nicer and quieter than the general waiting rooms. As it happens, the waiting room was also signposted in English as well as Mandarin Chinese. So no worries there.
We found the waiting room for our train quite easily so things were looking up. Of course, we arrived really early. So our train was still listed as ‘waiting’. No surprise as there were still 2 hours to departure. However, we like to arrive in plenty of time because things don’t always run smoothly and we don’t mind waiting. I always have a book to read with me.
Once we knew we were in the right place we could relax and absorb the atmosphere. Railway stations are fascinating places. So many people, all heading in different directions.
As predicted, the soft sleeper waiting room was quite nice. We stocked up on chocolate and drinks at the small kiosk and settled down to wait. It was a great opportunity to observe how the system works so we were prepared by the time our turn came. I watched the board and where people went when their train showed up on it.
Boarding the Train
The system is actually quite simple when you get used to it. Especially as the information board was in English as well as Chinese. Everyone waits in the appropriate lounge until 40 minutes before the train is due to depart when the overhead sign changes to tell you to head to a platform. You show your ticket at the barrier and in you go. There is a separate ticket check for soft sleeper so it avoids the long queue at the main gates although it is still busy. During the time we waited every single train arrived and departed on time which is pretty impressive. We went through at 8 pm exactly as expected and easily found our compartment on the train.
The train compartment was quite spacious compared to the others we travelled on. We got a ‘Deluxe soft sleeper’ so had bunk beds on one side with an armchair opposite by the window, and also a private toilet. So nice to not have to get dressed in the middle of the night to walk to the toilet. I slept really well but Paul complained that the bed was too hard. I make him sleep on the top bunk and I sleep on the bottom. Mine wasn’t too bad but I’ve slept on softer. Obviously, when they say soft sleeper they don’t mean the beds.
The train departed at 8.43pm and we arrived in Xian on time the next day at 7.58am. We even got hot coffee at 7 am from the very friendly attendant and we had a power socket so we could watch programmes on the laptop. Overall, it was a good travel experience and a great first introduction to Chinese trains.
Buying Chinese Train Tickets
Just a quick note on buying tickets for Chinese train travel. It is possible to buy the tickets at the station as you travel but the more popular trains do sell out in advance. We wanted soft sleeper tickets for the overnight trains and they do tend to sell out early. Especially, if you want the few compartments with a private toilet. Of course, foreigners can’t easily purchase tickets online. However, there is a way and I’d like to recommend them. This isn’t an affiliate link and I don’t get any commission if you use them. They’re just brilliant and worth a mention. We bought all our Chinese train tickets through China Diy. Click here to go through to their website and check availability.
They very charge a small commission but it’s well worth it. You only pay once they’ve secured your tickets. Helen, who runs China DIY, sent us reservation numbers for our trains by email so we just went to the desk at the station and picked up our tickets. She also gives you so much information. We received tip sheets with photos of the station, hints on understanding the train departure boards, using waiting rooms etc. So helpful.