Language barrier in China makes it difficult for foreigners to buy train tickets

Language barrier in China makes it difficult for foreigners to buy train tickets
Foreign travelers wait to enter Shanghai Railway Station on Sunday.
PHOTO: China Daily/ANN

Faced with the language barrier and cultural divide, foreigners are finding it hard this year to buy rail tickets in China ahead of Spring Festival.

More than 300 million people are forecast to travel home to celebrate the festival, which falls on Feb 8.

But most railway stations don't provide English-language services for international travelers, according to a staff member at China Railway Corp.

The employee was speaking on the company hotline, which also has no English service.

China Railway Corp suggested that international travelers be accompanied by Chinese-speaking friends, or ask other buyers for help at ticket windows where there are no signs in English.

Launched in 2011, the official online ticket reservation system does not have an English-language service.

Even if foreign travelers have mastered Chinese, they can only make a maximum of four reservations online.

They must take their passports to stations for identity checks before making any further bookings.

Once an online booking is made, travelers can collect tickets at stations or have them delivered by mail.

The company suggested that foreign travelers should always carry their passports or other identity documents.

Milou Pol, a Dutch citizen who came to China in April last year, said, "At the ticket window, you have to speak Chinese as there are no signs in English or staff members who can speak the language."

She said station employees always ask to see her passport and ticket.

Pol, who works for a Dutch higher education company, said that booking online is a good choice, and that travel websites other than the official railway site have English-language versions.

Robin Wordsworth, a Canadian who has lived in Beijing for three years and works for an organic food producer, said: "There aren't many signs in English to help. ... You need to be able to speak Mandarin to get what you want.

"Buying tickets in person is not the most convenient thing to do as most ticket sellers speak little or no English."

Wordsworth said he was once stranded for two days on a scheduled 24-hour journey between Kashgar and Urumqi in Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region when the train was caught in a sand storm.

"The desert is not the most enjoyable place to be with the air conditioning turned off in the middle of the day. The only food available on the train was spicy noodle soup, which made us sweat more," he said.

The Ministry of Transport estimates that 2.91 billion trips will be made during the peak Lunar New Year travel period.

China Railway said on Monday that 332 million trips are expected to be made by train, a year-on-year increase of 12.7 per cent.

Nancy Gabriel, a 32-year-old teacher from the United States, said her attempts to buy a train ticket from Beijing to Chongqing ended in frustration.

"All tickets were sold out. This route is very popular around the Lunar New Year," she said. "My suggestion for international travelers would be to avoid the Spring Festival travel rush."

How to hit the tracks in China

1. Buy tickets at station windows.

If you can't work out which window to go to, make for the one with the longest line. Remember to take your passport.

2. China Railway's booking website, 12306.cn.

The most popular and convenient way to buy rail tickets in China.

On Monday, the first day of the 40-day Spring Festival travel rush, more than 4 million tickets were booked online.

The site does not have an English-language version.

3. Other travel websites.

Some sites, including Qunar.com, travalchinaguide.com and the Ctrip site provide English-language services for ticket searches and reservations.

Any purchases other than those made through China Railway come with certain risks.

4. Local travel agencies.

Booths and windows with signs saying huo che piao (train tickets) can be seen on the streets in most cities. They are usually run by small travel agencies.

Buying tickets generally incurs a fee of between 5 and 10 yuan(S$2.17).

pengyining@chinadaily.com.cn

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