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Hard Seat Class on Chinese Trains

Unless on a very long journey, when a train ticket vendor asks me what class I want to ride in I say one thing without hesitation: “The cheapest you have.” In China, this often means hard seat class. Riding hard seat in China is not as bad as it may sound — you’re not being [...]

Unless on a very long journey, when a train ticket vendor asks me what class I want to ride in I say one thing without hesitation: “The cheapest you have.” In China, this often means hard seat class.

Riding hard seat in China is not as bad as it may sound — you’re not being piled on to a wooden bench or anything. Rather, all hard seat means is “cheap seat,” and it’s the lowest class of transport on the Chinese rail lines. Hard seat the class for those whose objective it is to get from point A to point B with as much money remaining in their pockets as possible. It’s the class for those who realize that everyone on the train is going to the same destinations, regardless of what class they’re riding in and how much they paid for it.

In China, the hard seat class of train travel is truly not bad. I’ve even ridden this class on overnight journeys — although I only recommend this for particularly broke or masochistic travelers looking to test their own tolerance. Contrary to nomenclature, seats in “hard seat” class are not even that hard. In fact, they have a nice cushion on them, arm rests, and sometimes even a nice piece of disposable paper on the head rest for cleanliness. Though I’ve never tested this, I have a theory that the seats in soft seat class are not really any softer.

Train of the Nanjing to Natong line

I booked a couple of hard seats from Taizhou to Yangzhou on the relatively new Nanjing to Natong line. As I made my way to my seat through the aisle it became clear that I was in for another great Chinese train ride. As I sat down I became a little disappointed that I was only going as far as the next city. The windows in the train car were big and clean, the seats comfortable enough, and the car was not crowded. Every once in a while a stewardess would walk through the aisles offering hot water out of a thermos for tea. One one end of the car was a bathroom provisioned with toilet paper, a sink, and soap, on the other end was a drinking water purifier, another sink, and a basket of dehydrated noodles for purchase. I could not ask for anything more — especially for the $2.50 I paid for the ride.

Wade Shepard on a Chinese train with an accounting professor from a university in Nanjing

But what is perhaps the best aspect of riding the rails in China is that the train car often becomes the perfect place to talk to strangers, to look out the window at the passing countryside, and to ask people questions about their country. The Chinese relax on trains, and they often engage the people around them in conversation. There is little else to do on a train other than talk to the people around you, and the people of China seem to know this well. As a foreigner you’re bound to draw attention and attract acquaintances. It is virtually impossible to be a hermit on a Chinese train.

Filed under: China, Train Travel

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3548 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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