Traveling by train in China, especially in Xinjiang, has been one of the most rewarding journeys my wife and I have experienced. Experiencing Xinjiang by train is not only cheap from the Urumqi train station, it’s also a great way to see the beautiful scenery the province has to offer.
I will admit however that my first time in the Urumqi train station (乌鲁木齐南站) was daunting. It’s huge and it’s often crowded – but it is a “necessary evil” so to speak. I wished I had been told how to navigate all the confusion during my first time, so I thought it might be helpful to do that for others.
The Urumqi Train Station
The Urumqi train station, located in the southwestern portion of the city (see map below), looks like any other major train station in China. Three floors of waiting rooms filled with hundreds of chairs, a few snack stalls, and one measly bathroom for everybody to share.
There are many different waiting halls spread along each floor reserved separately for hard seat and standing tickets (economy class) and for hard sleeper (business class) and soft sleeper (1st class) ticket holders. As you can tell from the pictures below, the waiting room seating accommodations are fitted accordingly.
Hard Seat Waiting Hall during Spring Festival
Soft and Hard Sleeper Waiting Hall during the same Spring Festival. Definitely the place you want to be. It even had a huge TV.
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How to Buy Urumqi Train Tickets
One of the most frequent questions I receive about train travel in Xinjiang is how to get tickets. It’s not always a simple process unfortunately, but it’s definitely good to know your options.
- Book Train Travel Online: Back in 2011 China opened up the option to buy tickets online (http://www.12306.cn). There’s a catch, however: in order to do this you must 1) be able to read Chinese and 2) possess a Chinese credit or debit card. You’re out of luck if you don’t meet that criteria.
- Buy at the Train Station: The cheapest way for foreigners to buy their tickets is at the Urumqi Train Station ticket hall. As of January 1, 2013 you can purchase tickets up to 18 days in advance, so keep that in mind. There is no “foreigner line” like there is in Beijing and Shanghai, so do yourself a favor and use this resource to check availability of your desired ticket before you stand in line.
- Buy Through Your Hotel/Hostel: If you’re staying in a Urumqi hotel or hostel, they will usually offer a service to purchase tickets for you. There is a fee involved (budget around 50RMB extra) but if you’re short on time it’s worth it.
- Buy Through a Travel Agency: For those who want to purchase their tickets before arriving in Urumqi, this is going to be your best option. You will probably pay a pretty good fee up front, but it takes all the hassle out of purchasing train tickets. The ones I know are good are: ChinaHighlights.com and ChinaTrainTickets.net.
Bear in mind that China’s latest “real name” ticketing system requires you to show your passport or valid ID both when you purchase the ticket and when you board.
Trains in China
Xinjiang trains are no different than any other China train, but if you’ve never taken a train here you’ll find it to be quite a unique experience. Most every train (with a few exceptions) is divided into three sections, listed from the cheapest to most expensive: hard seat, hard sleeper, and soft sleeper. Some trains are also fitted with a soft seat section, but I haven’t found these to be common in Xinjiang.
The names pretty much describe what it is, but here are a few pictures to give you a better idea:
Soft Sleeper: 4 beds in a room with a lockable door
Hard Sleeper: 6 beds with no door. Much more crowded but not unpleasant.
Hard Seat: Like the name says, these are no Lazy Boy recliners. Imagine sitting for hours on end in your dining room chair.
Train Stations in Xinjiang
Xinjiang railway is one of the fastest growing modes of transportation with billions of RMB being spent on new construction every year. The good news is that this is making it easier to travel throughout the province.
There’s only one way into the rest of China, and that’s through the Gansu province to the southeast. Future plans have a couple more lines running into Qinghai, Mongolia and past the borders out west. That’ll take another decade. For now, this simple map should suffice.
Update 6/2011: New rail lines have been opened that can take you from Kashgar-Khotan and from Kuitun-Altai.
Update 4/2013: It is expected that the Lanzhou-Urumqi high-speed train will soon be completed that will allow passengers to travel all the way to Beijing in 12 hours.
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- If you’re taking any train longer than 8 hours (which is most all of them here in Xinjiang), for your own sanity you really ought to avoid the hard seats. It’s just not fun. I’m sure there are plenty of people who’ve lived here a few years in China that could tell some good stories.
- The Urumqi train station is about a 20-25 minute taxi ride from the center of town. If you’re leaving during peak traffic hours, you’ll need to adjust accordingly.
- Urumqi is the primary point of departure, although there are a couple trains that begin in Kuytun.
- Here is a link to Urumqi’s Train Station on Google Maps.
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