With an enormous population like the one you find in China, it is to be expected that the country has an extensive and well-run circuit of trains available to the masses. And this is true—China rail travel is usually a breeze, the trains run on time and the coverage network includes just about anywhere you want to go. Whether a short trip between neighboring towns or a long jaunt across the countryside, there are a few things you should keep in mind when attempting train travel in China.
The most important aspect of Chain rail travel, as in many countries, is what class of ticket you are purchasing. Since little to no English (or any other foreign language, for that matter) is spoken, it is wise to pay close attention to what you are buying. China train travel is notorious for having a large variation in cleanliness and comfort between the different classes, and for being impossible to use over festival or holiday periods.
Most visitors go and buy the ticket themselves, which can be a time-consuming event. Special China rail travel passes can also be purchased ahead of time, though your reservations are sometimes only for the train, and you will have to purchase another ticket to reserve an actual seat.
Train Travel in China has four different travel classes. Hard Seat is the most common and cheapest way to travel, though you will find few foreigners here. The greatest numbers of Chinese travelers use this class, and more tickets than seats are sold so only the very quick are assured a seat. But what it lacks in comfort it makes up for in discounted price - just be sure you are ready to make the trade.
Soft Seat is a better way to travel and most of the time you can reserve a seat. They are a far cry from the hard seats—comfortable and you won't have to fight the crowds to get your own. These are the best for city to city or fairly short distance train travel in China.
Hard Sleeper are for long journeys, and not for the novice traveler. The definition of the word "cramped" will never be the same for you after sharing the tiny quarters with five others—six bunks to a room, and they are often noisy and look as if whoever was hired to clean them committed suicide due to the impossibility of the task. But you get a threadbare blanket and pillow for your travels, so that's nice.
With a Soft Sleeper you upgrade to a room with an actual door. Not to mention a fairly decent bed, though you are usually on your own for food. This is the preferred way for many to experience China rail travel.