A cheap and convenient way to visit the beautiful cities of Guilin, Yangshuo and their surroundings is by train. Everyone who has been in Hong Kong and China for a while know that the high-speed trains are a symbol of modern China, becoming one of the most efficient ways of reaching different corners of the country (and avoiding the hassle and constant delays when travelling by plane).
Guanxi Province, with its world famous karsts, breathtaking landscapes, good food and friendly locals is a great destination for a short getaway from Hong Kong (you can read more about it here). To preserve our precious annual leave, my friends and I chose to go there for Easter and enjoy the 4-day long weekend we had this year. By then, plane ticket prices had already skyrocketed so we opted for taking the high-speed train.
Note that there are no direct trains from Hong Kong to Guilin. They depart from Shenzhen North station (深圳北站), ending at Guilin North station (桂林北站) and making a few stops on the way (including Guangzhou).
Tip #1 Know when to buy your tickets
This is especially true if you are planning to travel during public holidays (more so if it’s also a holiday in mainland China). Tickets can be easily purchased online on websites like Ctrip and China Highlights, and the tickets are usually made available 30 days before your desired departure.
However, our friends at China Railways know when there’s a high demand for tickets, so not always they will be available exactly one month before your trip. When I tried to purchase tickets via Ctrip, I got a notification that trains were not available at that time due to “readjustments on train schedules”. And not surprisingly, the only days where you couldn’t buy tickets were the first and last days of Easter, when a heavy inflow of tourists coming from Hong Kong and abroad is expected.
We also visited a few agencies, such as China Travel Services and were also told that we couldn’t buy only the train tickets at that stage, unless it was part of a package. Since we didn’t want to spend our days in Guilin and Yangshuo inside tour buses and overprices shops, we had no alternative but to check back Ctrip regularly until we saw that the tickets became available for the dates we wanted. Which leads me to…
Tip #2 Have your travel documents ready
Around one week after our frustrated attempt of buying the train tickets, I got to work on a sleepy morning and decided to visit Ctrip to see whether they had any updates. Guess what? Tickets were finally available, and selling faster than umbrellas during an Amber rainstorm! Tickets for our preferred travel time, at 11:00a.m., were already sold out, and I had to act quickly to buy the last seats available on the 7:20 a.m. train.
If you are travelling with friends, make sure you get their personal details and travel document number (passport or China entry permit, HK ID is not allowed) beforehand, since you must input them at the moment of purchasing the tickets. Tickets are non-transferable, so you can’t just add a random name or ID number and try to change later.
When purchasing train tickets, you don’t have the option of selecting a round-trip. Each leg of your trip must be purchased separately, and you also don’t have the option of selecting seats.
Tip #3 Tickets are refundable
One person in our party couldn’t join the trip, and fortunately he had no trouble in refunding his ticket. At Ctrip, for online purchases, they follow these policies:
• Ticket refund requests must be made at least two hours before scheduled departure time.
As for handling fees:
• 15+ days prior to departure: free.
• 49 hours-15 days prior to departure: 5% of ticket price.
• 25-49 hours prior to departure: 10% of ticket price.
• Within 25 hours before departure: 20% of ticket price.
• Booking fee is non-refundable for successful bookings.
From Shenzhen to Guilin and back, booking fee was around 30RMB, so not very expensive.
Tip #4 Arrive at the station early
When you buy train tickets online, you can go to any railway station or authorized ticket office within mainland China with your ID (the same one used for your booking) and a copy of your reservation, normally sent by email right after you purchase your ticket. If you live in China this is very convenient, but coming from Hong Kong it does make more sense to retrieve your tickets right before boarding the train at Shenzhen North station. You can also pay 5RMB extra to get the ticket for your return trip from Guilin to Shenzhen in advance. I strongly recommend doing that, to avoid queuing on the way back.
Talking about queuing, try to arrive early, since the lines to get inside the station as well as to retrieve your tickets tend to be very long. Don’t be afraid to stand your ground and say some expletives to mainland Chinese people trying to get in front of you, which will most likely happen!
Shenzhen North station is around 20 minutes by taxi from Huanggang port, and expect to pay 40RMB for the ride (if no traffic). You can also reach the station by subway in approximately 35 minutes, being Lok Ma Chau the closest MTR stop on the Hong Kong side. The station is huge and quite new. Apart from convenience shops, it’s also possible to find local fast food restaurants and even a McDonalds and Starbucks!
People tend to also queue up in front of the gate that leads to the train, but don’t worry about that – as all seats are already assigned you can board the train 5 minutes before the departure time and still have plenty of time to store your luggage and settle in your seat.
Tip #5 Sit back, relax and enjoy the ride!
The train leaves right on time, and the journey from Shenzhen to Guilin takes approximately 3 hours and 15 minutes. You can keep track of the speed of the train on the electronic board at the entrance of each car – it’s really cool to see the train reaching speeds of almost 300km/hour!
The seats on the train are comfortable and spacious. They do offer food service onboard, with cup noodles and other simple snacks, but I do recommend to bring your own food to the train, or else expect to pay 35RMB for a cappuccino.
Around 2 hours into the trip, one can start seeing mountains and karts as part of the landscape, it’s a nice change to finally see some rural scenes in China.
The train arrives in Guilin North right on time as well, and expect to face dozens of people approaching you to sell all kinds of tours and transportation as soon as you step out of the station. I’d recommend to have your itinerary ready and someone already waiting for you in Guilin if possible. We did some shopping around and decided to join one of the tours on the Li River on our way to Yangshuo. We had a good time, despite having a very ‘Chinese’ experience, but that’s a story for another time.
Last but not least: Where to stay? Guilin or Yangshuo?
If you are looking for a smaller city and more laid back vibe, then Yangshuo is the place to be. Located right in the middle of beautiful karsts, Yangshuo still tries to keep a village atmosphere, with smaller buildings, traditional architecture and the famous West Street where you can buy all kinds of souvenirs and snacks (don’t miss the mangoes, they are delicious).
We stayed at Yangshuo Zen Valley, a cute little hotel in the outskirts of Yangshuo, perfect for those looking for some peace and quiet and a great starting point to explore the region by bike. Both Gulin and Yangshuo have good hotels at cheap prices, so it’s worth doing some research to see what accommodation options meet your needs and interests.
As for Guilin, we only spend half day before taking the train back to Shenzhen the following morning, but it was enough to visit the main attractions in the city. Guilin can be a good base to visit some famous caves nearby the city, as well as the famous Longji Rice Terraces, which unfortunately we didn’t have the chance to visit on this trip.
Pro tip: in Guilin, the recently-opened Vienna Hotel (Xiangshan Branch) has an amazing view of the famous Elephant Hill, without the need of paying the overpriced lake cruises. Just go to the bar on the top floor, order a drink and enjoy the view!