It doesn’t take long for a foreigner in China to become accustomed to travelling around with the easy nature of China’s rail network. I had been here all of three days before I was on my first train north to Shanghai. The trains themselves are some of the best I have seen anywhere: clean, fast, and efficient. Above all, they always run on schedule. For shorter distances passengers will be seated in either first or second class, both offering spacious and comfortable seating. For longer, overnight journeys, a soft or hard sleeper can be bought, or for those who want to pay the premium, luxury sleepers. I recommend the soft sleepers, as there are only 4 beds to a room. While they are twice the price, they are far more comfortable than the overcrowded and more public hard sleepers.
Train stations, especially within major cities can be large and overwhelming, but bilingual and easy-to-see signposts and schedules can make them easy to navigate. It can be rather intimidating however when buying the train ticket. There are no automated ticket dispensers (only for the Chinese with national ID cards), so tickets are bought over the counter by speaking to a ticket agent. I’ve had varied experiences with this. If you write down the date, time and train number that you want (found online), the process can run fairly smoothly and not much speaking is required. Usually there is a monitor that the customer can see that shows the different train times and you can point to the one you want. I had an experience in Beijing recently where this wasn’t the case and none of the staff spoke English. The fact that my Chinese is far from good enough to communicate clearly made for a difficult situation.
I’ll admit I hate large crowds of people, so riding on the metro system, in any city, is never going to be a pleasant experience for me. The Beijing metro system is cheap and extensive, but there is never a moment when you can get in a car and see down the hall as it is always packed with locals and travelers. It is also older and can require long walks up and down stairs and through long corridors between subway lines. The Shanghai metro on the other hand is more modern and easier to get around, but is also twice the price as Beijing. I also find the Shanghai metro to be less crowded during the day (except for maybe Line 2), making it at least possible to get a seat. The bilingual subway maps and announcement service on the trains makes getting around cities to be super easy.
For the avid traveler, hostels become familiar settings that offer a bed, comfort food, and tours around the area in which you are staying for a relatively cheap price. Most of them are comfortable and about what you would expect from a low-price accommodation, although customer service might not be what you would expect it to be from Western locations. I recently stayed at a hostel in Xi’an, where I had to remind the server to bring me a coffee after half an hour, and was then charged full price (20 yuan) for a small, cold cup. This same hostel charged me 20 yuan for losing their luggage tag. I also found that hostels in China attract different crowds. While European hostels are known for rowdy, alcohol-loving young people in their 20s, Chinese hostels can attract older, middle-aged travelers from Western countries, as well as Chinese travelers from different parts of China. This makes the hostel atmosphere more quiet and low key, without the party atmosphere I found when travelling Europe. And while all Western expats in China enjoy eating the comfort foods from home, I found that much of the food offered in hostels is low quality and over priced. I would highly recommend saving your money on hostel food and venturing out into the city for a cheaper, of the local region.