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Getting into China (from Hong Kong) – getting Chinese Railway tickets in advance

3 March 2012

As the conclusion of our travels, we had decided to go to China, booking a flight home from Beijing. Planning to come up from South East Asia, we decided to spend a few days in Hong Kong first, in its traditional role as gateway for China but also to take the chance to catch up with an old friend of mine who had moved out to Hong Kong six years before and also to catch up with some current friends and old work colleagues who were also out there. We were struggling with how to get Chinese Railway tickets in advance and this explains how we did it…

As a UK visa for China is only valid for 3 months from date of issue, we also opted to obtain this in Hong Kong, although the official advice found on the internet seemed to imply that this was not technically possible, travel forums seemed to suggest it would be ok. It was actually a remarkably simple and efficient process, although the form initially looked daunting (to include addresses and telephone numbers of places in China, we were advised just to list some cities) and the staff in the Chinese Visa office (near Wan Chai station on the Hong Kong Island Line) were remarkably helpful. The basic price for the UK visa for China is HK$369 for a four working day service and we opted for the HK$200 addition for the express service in three working days (including day of drop off and receipt so we dropped it off on Wednesday morning and picked it up on Friday morning) so we could head to Macau over the weekend (there is also a one day “rush” option for another HK$100).

The visa sorted, we were slightly anxious about getting into the Mainland proper. There seem a number of ways of doing this, the simplest being to fly but we wanted the cheaper option of taking the train. The two main routes to this are either to Guangzhou or Shenzhen, neither of which seem particularly attractive places to stay and we wanted to head straight to Guilin on the overnight sleeper. Guangzhou involves going through customs before boarding a train from Hong Kong whereas Shenzhen was itself on the border, a short walk from the Wo Lu station on the Hong Kong Metro. There are two daily trains from Guangzhou to Guilin and only one from Shenzhen. We wanted therefore, to know that there was availability, rather than crossing the border only to find that there were no trains to our destination and having to stay in cheap hostels in these cities rather than with friends in Hong Kong, not to mention to continue to enjoy the activities of Hong Kong.

We tried to no avail to find online tickets (there is a Mandarin website) and visited several branches of the China Travel Service (Hong Kong) Limited, but there seemed no way to buy tickets in advance. Through various sources on the internet, it seemed that tickets for the Chinese Railway could only be bought in person at the station and that various hostels offered a service which basically involved sending a staff member down to buy tickets. Other sources seemed to indicate that tickets and should be bought at least three days in advance and some seemed to suggest even a month in advance.

We finally decided that we just had to pack our bags, take the leap, cross the border and hope for the best. However, we had our bags packed on the Sunday we were due to depart but were somewhat lethargic about leaving, from a mix of hangover from watching England lose to Wales in the Six Nations the previous evening and concerns over our mixed chances of getting a train ticket, when Chris (our kind host) mentioned that a friend had found the staff at Hung Hom (a Metro station en route to Shenzhen) quite helpful and dug out a helpline number.

This seemed promising and Chris gave us the lifeline that we could stay another night and sort our sorry selves out (Anna had also failed to tick off her shopping list of warm coat and thermals in five days of Hong Kong) so I took the proffered phone and made a few calls. The initial helpline said they could not get tickets and referred us to the China Railway but did give me a telephone number (2264 1314 – Hong Kong number). I gave them a call to see if there was anyway that I could buy tickets over the phone (having failed on the internet) and they said that their company could sell us tickets for a HK$ fee, that there were tickets available on the next night’s sleeper from Shenzhen to Guilin, that they could not sell over the phone, but that they were based in Hung Hom!

To cut an already long story short, we hopped on the Metro to Hung Hom, where we found the staff very helpful (the store is located underneath the McDonalds and by the Seven Eleven walking away from the useless China Travel Service (Hong Kong) Limited and gave us very concise details of how (and when) to get to Shenzhen. They could have booked other tickets but we have not firmed up our plans.

So, it is possible to book China tickets in advance, but it was a cash service, in person and located at Hung Hom. After several days of fruitless searching, we were both so relieved that I just wanted to share this gem in case anyone else ever needed the information.

Hard sleeper was remarkably peaceful, only the intermittent hawking and gobbing of the Chinese the slight disturbance. They turn the lights off at 10pm but there is hot water on the trains and big pot noodle packs in the station for about 50p (take care to look for a fork symbol on the lid unless you are travelling with cutlery!) and arrived efficiently on time. The hard sleeper provides a sheet, pillow and duvet although you can get a sensation of pins and needles after a while! also contains useful info about trains in China.


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