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But in all other cases, long-distance train tickets often sell out days before departure.
Now the bad news: Foreigners cannot buy tickets at it's only in Chinese and only accepts Chinese bank cards (although if you happen to be an ex-pat with a Chinese bank card and a basic knowledge of Mandarin, you can follow these instructions for using 12306here).
So you should buy tickets through one of the following reliable recommended agencies, who charge a small fee. Or buy from a local train ticket agency for an RMB 5 fee.
China has one of the biggest and busiest rail networks in the world, and trains link almost every town & city.
Chinese trains are a safe, comfortable & cheap way to travel around China, and a Chinese train journey is an experience in itself, in contrast with less reliable and environmentally-unfriendly internal flights.
So arrive in plenty of time, at least 40 minutes before your train leaves, assuming you have already collected your ticket. Whether you arrive by subway or taxi, you end up on the station forecourt seen in the photo below left. Immediately after the ticket check, there's a luggage X-ray check as you enter the building itself. You can then check the departure display to see which waiting room to go to for your train.
You then enter the station through any of the 30-odd red-canopied ticket-check kiosks seen in the photo below right in front of the main entrance. Boarding usually starts around 20-30 minutes before departure. Beijing West (= Beijing Xi) is 7 km (4.5 miles) west of Tiananmen Square.
Peak holiday periods means on and around the Spring Festival, May Day on 1st May and National Day on 1st October.
It's also busy throughout the summer, and the beginning or end of university terms.
The better the category of train, the faster it is likely to be, and the more modern & comfortable the carriages are likely to be.
Slightly higher fares are charged for the better train categories.
At other times, trains can still sell out but it's usually possible to secure seats or sleepers a few days ahead. If you run an enquiry on for today, tomorrow or a few days time, you'll see how many tickets are left in each class for each train.