So ten days out from my planned departure from Beijing to start traveling the country during the peak period of travel, I ventured to get a ticket from Beijing to Xi’an. Now, in China, train travel is a complete mystery. I’m convinced not a single person actually knows how the purchasing system works. So roommate in tote, I ventured to the local travel agency to get a ticket.
Arriving in the afternoon, we were told to come back at 7PM, when tickets would go on sale for ten days in advance. Arriving at 7PM, the small travel agency was filled entirely with people. We managed to squeeze in the door. Now this is not for the faint of heart. No one will tell you what is going on. Some people are getting tickets, some aren’t. No line. No list. Just push your way to the front and yell out your preferred ticket. Now, I’ve had the luxury of never having to buy my own train tickets in China but I have had to push and shout for things before, so I joined the fray without skipping a beat. My roommate did the yelling, and I did the pushing. It took us about 20 minutes to learn what was going on exactly.
This is what I learned. Essentially, train tickets are booked through a computer system. The reservation agent must first put a request in and then the system will show if there are tickets available. Ten days in advance, some trains have tickets available, some don’t. Particularly off-hour, extra-seat, and otherwise odd trains get placed on the ten-day list. All other trains are made available four days in advance. Also, the type of seat on sale can also determine which list seats get placed on.
I was offered a ruan wo (soft sleeper) leaving at 2AM to Xi’an on Jan 27th. That’s good and dandy, but I was looking for a evening sleeper train on Jan 27th because I’m meeting up with my cousin during that day.
The moral of the story is, when trying to get train tickets during the high season in China: 1) bring a Chinese person with you even if you speak Chinese, 2) be persistent, 3) ask lots of questions and hope some of them get answered, 4) try a lot of different methods of getting what you want, 5) be flexible.
Now in reference to my last post, imagine getting tickets for a group of ten people who want to travel together because us American students travel in packs… Thank goodness I’m not leading a group anywhere!