What I’ve learned about train travel in China is that it’s a bit trickier than it has been in other countries. There are a few reasons for that.
If you are on a short vacation or need to travel on specific dates, make sure you book your ticket well in advance (1 month or more). Seat61.com was really helpful for me when I was figuring out how to book my tickets.
Otherwise, you run the risk of not getting the train you need or being in cramped cabin with standing rom only for 12 hours.
If you do not get a higher class ticket, on some trains you’ll be in the smoking car where they sell standing room and it is totally cramped and miserable.
Pay close attention to what each class means when you’re booking and when in doubt, choose the higher class ticket. It will be worth it.
There also is not always an English translation on your ticket so you need to try to guess which number is your seat and which is your train car.
The lucky part is, it’s easy to find someone to help you. The younger generation almost all speaks some English and they’re friendly and helpful generally.
Overnight train travel in China is definitely more modern from major cities than I had in Thailand.
In first class you get your own little flat screen tv in the bunk with you. I stayed in the compartment below on my trip from Xi’an to Shanghai. There were 3 business men as well but they were all polite and, besides the snoring, it was really an easy trip.
I’d definitely suggest taking trains from city to city since you get to see so much more of China and also because their rail system is efficient and comfortable. Be prepared to spend a bit more for comfort but it’s totally worth it.