Flying’s fine if you’re in a hurry, but nothing beats China’s train system for a slow, relaxing and down-to-earth journey through the country that’s practically a continent in itself.
About 100,000 kilometers of railways form the Dragon’s Back, connecting some of the best nature, culture and landscapes in China. Here are seven Chinese train rides you will not want to fall asleep on:
1. Beijing-Lhasa, Tibet
Renowned as the highest railway in the world, the “Sky Road” (its nickname in Chinese) climbs to a light-headed 5,000 meters. Much of the journey is at an altitude of more than 4,000 meters.
A mind-boggling number of bridges dot this magnificent train line – 675 in total, spanning ravines and fast-flowing rivers; the route also passes the Hoh Xili Nature Reserve, which is known in China as a “death region” for its harsh climate.
Headaches from the high altitude pale into insignificance beside scenes of wide open plains, nomadic herders with their animals, the reaches of the Tanggula Pass and exotic towns such as Golmud (格尔木) in Qinghai. This plateau train line is one of China’s modern-day engineering miracles, especially as sections of the track had to be laid over the permafrost.
Distance: 4,064 kilometers
Time: 47 hours 28 minutes
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2. Urumqi-Kashgar, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region
This train route into China’s western desert region is a trip into its medieval past. Uyghur towns along the way formed part of the famed Silk Road.
The ride meanders through remote desert country with striking views of the snow-capped Tian Shan mountain range and the red-sandstoned Flaming Mountains in Turpan.
It’s hard to believe you’re still in China – the people, bazaars, curling Uyghur script, minarets and food seem to owe more to Istanbul than Beijing. To maximize the – very pleasurable – culture shock, time the journey for Kashgar’s Sunday Market which is known for its abundance of exotic foods and goods and babble of Central Asian lingos.
This is the most westerly train journey in China.
Distance: 1,588 kilometers
Time: 25-32 hours (depending on train speed)
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3. Shanghai-Beijing high-speed railway
Sleek bullet trains hurtle between China’s two largest metropolises at speeds of more than 250 kph. The trip is a blurry but comfortable experience lasting less than five hours.
Despite the population density on the east coast, the train track was built in a straight line and steers clear of mass development. The scenery isn’t as incredible as along the route to Lhasa or Xinjiang, but the thing to admire here is China’s ability to develop modern infrastructure.
“(This is) China at its fastest and its best,” says 30-year-old Swiss-Chinese train buff David Feng (冯琰), who blogs and hosts radio shows about train travel in China.
“My best memories are the greener-than-green scenery of Anhui,” he continues, noting the fields were still “resilient green” even in November.
Some of the trains’ notable features include seats which can be fully converted into a two-meter-long bed in business class, fold-out TV sets and a free power socket for every passenger. Passenger numbers are growing on the line as the nouveau riche are spreading their wings.
Slower trains still take this route; however, they take up to 20 hours.
Distance: 1,318 kilometers (high-speed rail)
Time: 4 hours 48 minutes
4. Beijing-Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Acting like a feeder to the Trans-Siberian Railway, this epic journey provides incredibly scenic views of sheep herds and green fields. Passengers can see the Great Wall giving way to brick houses and sandy towns near the border, before crossing the dry undulating reaches of the Gobi desert.
The train uses Chinese rolling stock – but at the border the bogies need to be changed to the Russian gauge.
Each coach is jacked up so the wheels can be replaced before they are lowered back onto the tracks – an interesting process that can take several hours, together with customs and passport checks.
After this, the view out of the window is sand stretching out in all directions like an ocean.
Two-humped Bactrian camels and the odd sand-blasted frontier town are the only things to keep the train company until it nears ger settlements outside Ulaanbaatar.
Distance: 1,357 kilometers
Time: 33 hours or 29 hours 35 minutes
5. Nanning-Guilin, Guangxi
Winding through China’s dramatic karst mountains, this train ride is one of China’s most scenic. Even the Chinese think so and have called Guilin’s scenery “the best under heaven.”
The river views, the gnarled rocky hills, and the verdant paddy fields make for an exceptional introduction to a region which begs for further exploration off the train. An exciting extension to the journey is to continue from Nanning to Kunming (828 kilometers) through Yunnan’s beautiful southern mountain ranges.
Nonstop services are possible but in order to make the most of the views, break the journey and take the day trains.
Distance: 437 kilometers
Time: 5 hours 30 minutes-8 hours (direct service)
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6. Xi’an, Shaanxi-Chengdu, Sichuan
This trip links two of China’s most famous tourist draws – the terracotta warriors and the panda reserve – through farm land in Sichuan’s fertile river valleys.
Northeast Sichuan is relatively hilly. The border with Shaanxi features dramatic escarpments. A good place to view the increasingly mountainous terrain is at Jiangyou (江油) on the Fu River and Guangyuan (广元) just south of the Shaanxi border on the Jialing River.
The other highlight of this journey is the rivers. The train line never seems far from water, obviously utilizing the river valleys to crisscross the rugged terrain.
“Lose yourself in tunnels and bridges and watch for wider-than-reality rivers,” says Feng, who has clocked in more than 65,000 kilometers traveling around 20 Chinese provinces in the past five years.
He remembers having to pass a river so wide that it took the train more than one minute to cross it.
A new high-speed railway between the two cities is set to open in 2015. This line will cut the distance to 510 kilometers, take less than three hours and traverse the lush Qinling and Daba Mountains.
Distance: 842 kilometers
Time: 12-17 hours
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7. Beijing-Kowloon, Hong Kong
Crossing almost two-thirds of the entire country, this China train journey is one of the best ways to get to grips with the nation’s majesty, landscapes, culture and sights.
While it would be quicker to fly, the train allows you to whiz through numerous provinces on a single ticket, including Tianjin, Hebei, Shandong, Henan, Anhui, Hubei, Jiangxi and Guangdong.
The journey starts and finishes with plenty of urban sprawl but there are some scenic highlights to watch out for, particularly when the train passes over the Yangtze River in places like Wuxue (Hubei) and Jiujiang (Jiangxi) just to the south.
In Jiujiang a seven-kilometer bridge spans the river – there are actually 790 bridges and 160 tunnels over the entire route.
Jiangxi as a whole is a particularly beautiful region – from the train you will see wooded hills and highlands of the region, particularly around Lushan (庐山).
Feng says his favorite bits are between north Guangdong and south Hu’nan.
“(The view is) not exactly as stunning as rice terraces but very close to,” Feng says. “I also liked the bit of Hong Kong you just before I crossed the borders. (It) shows boomtown Shenzhen at its max.”
Distance: 2,475 kilometers
Time: 23 hours 36 minutes
Editor’s note: This article was previously published in 2012. It was reformatted, updated and republished in 2017.