Travel by train in China is safe, convenient, reliable and a great way to see the country and meet people. Buying train tickets is normally easy and trouble free even if you are in China for the first time and don’t speak the language. Occasionally though due to language barriers, or even just perceived language barriers, buying train tickets can be a little tricky.
My experience buying a train ticket this morning is a classic example of what can go wrong and how to avoid it.
You can buy train tickets from train stations and from small local ticket offices. The ticket offices are preferable because they more accessible, less crowded and much less chaotic than train stations. They do charge a fee of around 5rmb per ticket which is well worth the convenience. I needed to buy a ticket on the 23rd from Beijing to Chang Chun where I live.
I first checked the train table online here http://www.cnvol.com/station-1/en-239.htm and found a couple of trains I’d be happy to catch. The D25 fast train and the D21 fast train. Yesterday afternoon I went to a local ticket office to buy a ticket on one of these trains. There were seats available which was great BUT as a foreigner with no Chinese identity card, I had to go to the train station with my passport to buy the ticket. At the moment foreigners in China can buy tickets for sleeper trains at ticket offices but not for the fast trains. Fair enough, I could deal with that.
The next morning I arrive at the Chang Chun train station and line up with hundreds of other people to buy a train ticket. Don’t let the hordes of people scare you. Train stations are very efficient and you are rarely stuck in the queues for very long. With passport and cash in hand I reached at the ticket office window and had the following conversation in Chinese.
“Hi, I’d like a ticket on the 23rd from Beijing to Changchun. Train D25.”
“Ok, what about train D21?”
This was surprising because the previous night there were plenty of seats on both trains. Oh well, can’t be helped.
“What tickets do you have that day to Chang Chun?”
“Leaving Beijing 8pm and arriving in Chang Chun the following night after 7pm.”
Fast trains from Beijing to Changchun take 6 to 7 hours. Slow trains take between 10 to 14 hours. He was telling me that the train was going to take 24 hours. No way.
“That can’t be correct. No train take 24 hours from Beijing to Changchun. Please tell me again, how long does that train take?”
I know he is wrong so I’m trying to sort out what the problem is and he keeps on saying 24 hours. By that stage an audience had gathered and was having a bit of a laugh. I’m not sure if they were laughing at me, him or both of us. He grabbed a piece of paper and wrote 24 which did not change my opinion so he shook his head, made a comment about foreigners and abandoned his window to seek help.
A few minutes later one of his colleagues came over and raised his eyebrows at me.
““Hi, I’d like a ticket on the 23rd from Beijing to Changchun. Train D25 or D21.”
“Hey, you speak Chinese!”
“Yes, your colleague is the one who can’t speak Chinese. “
“Ok, D25 is sold out but we have tickets to D21. Do you want that ticket?”
If I was not familiar with the train times and had not stood my ground, I would have ended up on the wrong train leaving at the wrong time and wasted half a day because of a perceived language barrier.
Many Chinese have the belief that if you are a foreigner, you can’t speak Chinese. So no matter how well you do speak Chinese, they will not understand you. This problem is partly due to perception and partly to do with a lack of experience dealing with foreigners speaking Chinese.
This kind of thing happens all the time. For example I have been with a group of Chinese friends in a shopping center trying to find something. I tried speaking to the shop assistant but she could not understand me. So I spoke to a friend in Chinese using the exact same words who passed my question on to the shop assistant with out any change. What happened? The shop assistant understood perfectly.
The solution is very simple and with out knowing a word of Chinese, you can avoid all language barriers when buying train tickets.
On a small piece of paper clearly write the name of the train you want to catch and the date. To make sure there are no misunderstandings, use the Chinese dating system which is year, month and day. For example if you want to buy a ticket on the D21 train on the 23rd, you would write this on this on your piece of paper.
This clearly shows which train you want and when. Then all the ticket staff have to do is to tell you it is sold out which is easy to communicate or that it is available which is also easy to communicate. Then all you need to do is tell them how many tickets you want (use fingers) and hand over your money.
Just to be sure, double check your tickets before walking away from the ticket window.
I’ll definitely be doing this solution next time I buy a train ticket.