Over the past few years, my partner and I have made it our missing to travel all the way from Singapore to London overland. From Thailand’s idyllic beaches to the mountains of China and the vast wilderness of Siberia, this was to be our ultimate journey. Sadly, the reality of busy lives in London prevented us from tackling the entire journey in one go, and forced us to split it into numerous smaller segments. Our most challenging leg to date was that between the high-rise hub of Hong Kong, to the historical citadel of Hanoi, thanks in large to the logistical issues that can arise from both arriving in and departing from the People’s Republic of China in anything other than an airplane. This, however, was our journey…
Train Travel in China
China’s rail network is vast, largely efficient and good value for money considering the distances involved. With several different classes of train ranging from the brand new high-speed G Class trains, to the older and slower (although still perfectly good) K Trains, there is usually an option to suit all needs and budgets. 2nd class seating on daytime trains is perfectly suitable for 99% of visitors, although First or even Business Class on the high-speed network can be an experience in budget is of no concern! For overnight trains, there is usually a choice between “Soft” and “Hard” sleepers, although this has nothing to do with the quality of the bed! The main difference, realistically, is the price. Soft Sleepers are arranged in cabins of 4 bunks whilst hard sleeper has 6, but both come with sheets and a pillow and are perfectly acceptable for the odd overnight journey, and have the added bonus of saving the cost of a hotel bed! The excellent www.seat61.com is a great place to read more about travelling by train in China.
When it comes to booking, Chinese trains (particularly the overnight sleepers) can book up days in advance. Whilst it’s perfectly possible to book the trains in person at the station once in China, booking through the online agents listed below can save a lot of headaches and missed connections. If you do opt to book in person at the station, don’t count on the ticket agent being able to speak a single word of English. A better bet would be to print and complete this excellent form and simply present it at the booking window. Just don’t forget to take your passports with you!
A Word on Visas…
My first experience applying for a Chinese visa was whilst I was living as a teacher in Kolkata, India, in 2008. It didn’t go well, and I never made it north over the border. Fast forward 10 years and from what I can tell, progress in the application system has been minimal! All visas for China are best processed in your home country, well in advance of your planned departure date. You can’t apply directly to the embassy itself, but rather through the Chinese Visa Application Centre, who add a hefty fee to the already significant visa charge. Budget travellers be warned, your visa will be valid for 30 days, although it is possible to spend as little as 48 hours in the PRC on this trip – if you have time it may well be worth extending your itinerary beyond what I provide below, to get more value from your Visa!
In a nutshell, the best advice for a pain-free visit to the Visa Centre is to read their website back to front, in minute detail. And then read it again. The exact requirement can vary slightly depending on your nationality, and where you are physically applying from. Generally, at the very least, you will need to provide details of exactly how you will be arriving in and departing from China, and where you will be staying on each night that you are in the country. And when I say details, I mean Confirmed Reservations.
And this is where things can get tricky. It is not currently possible to book Chinese Trains online from abroad, meaning you will need to use an agent – more on this later. Unfortunately, most of the booking agents are unable/unwilling to book trains for you without a copy of your Chinese Visa. See the conundrum here? No visa without tickets, yet no tickets without visa! Fortunately, once you’ve got your visa, your official itinerary can go out the window – meaning that with a little creativity, getting a visa might not be so bad after all. My favourite method is to book the ferry between Osaka and Shanghai as my return method of travel, as they will issue you with a booking certificate without any down payment or credit card guarantee. As for hotels, I generally book two weeks in a reputable Shanghai institution that offers free cancellation, send my papers off and hey presto – a shiny new Chinese Visa! A few quick cancellations once the deed is done and you’re home and dry…
Arriving in Hong Kong
How: Airport Express Train
How to Book: Buy at Station
Recommended Connection: Departures every 10-12 Minutes
Where to Stay: Ovolo Central
Get Around: Buy an Octopus card at any MRT Station for discounted fares on all public transport.
Having arrived into Hong Kong’s vast and shiny airport, by far the quickest (although not the cheapest) way into the city is using the Airport Express train. If you’re staying in Kowloon or the New Territories, alight at Kowloon station, or continue to Central station to be delivered to the heart of Hong Kong Island. Your Airport Express ticket also includes a free shuttle -bus from the station to many of the main hotels, so be sure to follow the well signed route to the shuttle bus desk!
Whilst in Hong Kong
Having historically belong to the UK up until 1997, Hong Kong is a fascinating blend of colonial British and Cantonese influences. The central business district on Hong Kong island is a hub of global business, with modern high-rise buildings, fine restaurants and exclusive bars operating late into the night. Whilst on the island, be sure to explore the maze of backstreets and alleyways that weave across the city, punctuated by surprisingly calm and pleasant parks and temples. A trip to the summit of Victoria Peak is a must for incredible views across the towering skyscrapers to the bay beyond, with sunset a particularly popular time to visit. The historic tram that runs to the peak is charming, although rather expensive and often with huge queues – it’s quicker and cheaper to take a taxi, particularly if there’s a group of you! Finish your day on the island in one of the many bars that make up the nightlife district of Lan Kwai Fong, where the early evening happy-hours take the sting out of the Hong Kong prices!
For a taste of Cantonese life, jump on one of the famous Star Ferries that cross the harbour to the main land every few minutes. At just HK$2.50, this is by far the cheapest way to experience Hong Kong’s manic harbour waters and the old boats are quite an experience in themselves. With over 21 million people living in just 47 square kilometres, Kowloon is one of the most densely populate places on earth. Prepare yourself for a crazy mix of markets, malls and tower blocks that seem to never sleep! For shopping, the area around Mong Kok has something for everyone, whilst Temple Street Night Market is a great place to get a taste of authentic Chinese street food.
Hong Kong to Guangzhou
How: Intercity Train
Cost: HK$210 in “First Class” (Standard Class) / HK$250 in “Premium Class” (First Class)
Recommended Connection: 13.11 (Train Z826)
Where to Stay: Lazy Gaga Hostel
Get Around: Metro
Up to 10 days per day leave Hong Kong’s Hung Hom station, bound for the mainland. Just a short hop from downtown Kowloon on the MTR, the station has a definite airport vibe and be prepared for extensive security and immigration checks! Rather confusingly, the entry level seats are named “First Class”, whilst “Premium” is what we would call first class. Whilst the normal seats are perfectly fine, the extra US$5 for premium buys you a very comfortable seat with free nibbles and at-seat service! The trains are generally punctual and take around two hours to make the trip into Guangzhou’s east station, passing through the industrial areas to the north of Hong Kong before reaching a more scenic stretch on the way into Guangzhou.
Whilst in Guangzhou
Formerly known as Canton, Guangzhou is China’s third largest city and dates back over 2000 years to when it was founded a key trading town for the region. Today, the city is an important business hub with a sprawling and modern city centre, and numerous large and beautiful parks. For visitors, it is probably the historic and cultural side of the city that holds the most appeal with a number of temples, monuments and memorials dotted across the town.
A great starting point for visitors to Guangzhou is the historic European quarter on Shaiman Island. The beautifully renovated buildings, squares and churches are a great area to explore on foot and soak up the quirky, artistic vibes. For shopping, the pedestrianised Beijing Lu is Guangzhou’s answer to London’s Oxford street, whilst Qingping Market is home to an array of exotic goods, foods and traditional Chinese medicines.
As the hub of Cantonese culture, Guangzhou is also home to some unique and delicious delicacies which are traditional to this part of southern China. A word of warning, however – the Cantonese are famous within China for their use of all parts of the animal when cooking – and I mean all. The squeamish may be wise to ask for English menus when possible, although even then the translations can be misleading!
Guangzhou to Nanning
How: High Speed Day Train or Overnight Sleeper Train
Cost: From $26 (Day Train, 2nd Class) / $31 (Overnight “Hard” Sleeper)
How to Book: www.chinahighlights.com
Recommended Connection: 13.02 (High Speed Day Train G2914) / 17.25 (Overnight Sleeper Train K1205)
Get Around: Metro
Taking a little under 4 hours to cover the 600km between Guangzhou and Nanning, a ride on one of China’s new “G” class trains can be a great experience in itself. Hurtling through the countryside of southern China at speeds of up to 300kmh is both a comfortable and convenient option. That said, the scenery on the way is not particularly exceptional, and by the time you’ve got to and from the station at each end you lose practically a whole day travelling.
Our preference has always been to cover such stretches at night in one of the comfortable sleeper trains that ply the route. This means you maximise your time in each city, with the added bonus of saving the cost of a hotel for the night. The trains are clean, comfortable and a great way to meet local Chinese people!
Whilst in Nanning
Nanning, although a large city, has relatively little to offer the average tourist. Instead, it tends to act merely as a staging post for those making the journey to or from Vietnam by train. A number of modern shopping malls and some nice landscaped parks are perfectly pleasant places to spend a few hours whilst in town, but one night here is usually enough for most visitors. In fact, if you’re short on time, it’s perfectly possible to arrive at in Nanning in the morning on the overnight train from Guangzhou, and then leave again the same evening on the sleeper train to Hanoi. If you choose to do this, the train station has a convenient left luggage option where you can store your bags for a few dollars whilst you spend the day in town!
Nanning to Hanoi
How: Overnight Sleeper Train
Cost: From $38 in Soft Sleeper
How to Book: www.chinahighlights.com (Search for “Gia Lam” as your destination!)
Recommended Connection: 18.05 (Train T8701)
Where to Stay: Central Backpackers Hostel – Old Quarter
Get Around: Walking / “Vinasun” or “Mai Linh” Taxis
Whilst technically a sleeper train, and it does indeed have perfectly comfortable Soft Sleeper berths, don’t count on getting too much sleep on this journey! Expect to arrive at the Chinese border town of Pingxiang at around 10pm, where an announcement will be made in English that the trin will stop here for around two hours whilst customs and border checks are completed. You will be required to leave the train, taking all of your luggage with you, and pass through Chinese immigration before returning to your berth.
Once everybody is back on-board, it’s then a relatively short trip to the Vietnamese border post at Dong Dang where the routine is repeated again, this time for the benefit of Vietnamese immigration. It’s worth noting that it is worth changing a small amount of money into Vietnamese Dong here, as you will need some cash when you arrive in Hanoi!
From Dong Dang, it’s then non-stop to Hanoi’s Gia Lam station, a few kilometres away from the Old City. This stretch is your best chance to get a little shut eye before arriving at around 6am. The station is pretty remote and you will be greeted by hordes of taxi drivers offering to deliver you to the old town for an extortionate price. You can try to haggle with the drivers but the chances of them turning their meters on for you is slim as they know you have few other options. At this stage, many passengers are so tired that they give in a pay the higher rates, although walking a few hundred meters down to the main road may get you a better price. If you can, flag down a green ‘Mai Linh’ or white ‘Vinasun’ taxi – these are two of the most reputable companies in Vietnam and their drivers are friendly and always use their meters!
Whilst in Hanoi
Walking the buzzing streets of Old Town Hanoi has to be one of the all-time great travel experiences. With many relics of the communist days, the city is packed with history and is home to a number of great museums, memorials and temples. The Hanoi Citadel and Military Museum both offer great insight into the history of the Vietnam War, whilst the grand Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is a triumph of communist era architecture.
For culture-vultures, the Temple of Literature dates back almost 1000 years and offers an oasis of calm in the sometimes-overwhelming madness of Hanoi’s streets. Another great escape is to take a walk around the central Hoan Kiem lake, and even join the groups of locals practicing Tai Chi or martial arts in the park area surrounding it.
For food, one of the must try dishes when in town is the famous beef noodle soup, or Pho. At around $1.50 per bowl, this is a great value, healthy and filling meal. For a snack on the go, the Banh Mi is Vietnam’s answer to the French baguette, and comes packed with delights such as BBQ pork, fresh chilli, herbs and pickled vegetables. For drinks in the Old Town, head to Ta Hien, affectionately known as ‘beer street’ and join the locals sitting on tiny plastic stools on the street side. Bia Hanoi is a classic bottled brew, whilst the draft Bia Hoi is the cheapest option at as little as $0.25 per glass!