First of all, tickets are needed. While websites exist from which it is theoretically possible to book and buy tickets, in reality it seems that these are only good for looking up the timetable to see what train you want to take.
Armed with this information, you'll then need to: a) go to the train station to buy the tickets or b) pay through the nose at a hotel or travel agency so that they will go stand in line at the train station instead of you.
As much of budget travelers as we profess to be, and as tightfisted as we are usually, I will happily, gladly, enthusiastically pay for someone to get the tickets for me. I would add up to 50 RMB onto the original price of each ticket, that's how much I hate the train station.
However, if there's no other way to get the tickets and I do have to go stand in line at the station, it usually goes like this:
Me: Why is it so crowded?
Passerby or Security Guard: It's a festival/back to school/weekend. (pick one)
Me: Excuse me, but where can I buy tickets to ____?
Passerby: I'm sorry,I don't know either.
Me: Okay. I'll try this line.
(15 minutes later)
Ticket Clerk: Wrong line. Go to counter X.
(30 minutes later)
Me: I'd like to go to _____ on XX train.
Ticket Clerk No. 2: Sorry. No tickets. Next!
Me: I guess we're going to take the bus.
If we do get the stupid tickets for the train, then the next hurdle to leap over is on the day of travel, first entering the station and then at the platform gate.
Because of concerns about terrorism, all baggage is put through an airport-style conveyor-belt metal detector before it is allowed in the station.
There isn't always someone watching the detector to see what is going through, but there is always someone waiting there to make sure you put your bags on the conveyor belt. Because everyone is in a rush to get to the waiting area, this bag search becomes a big bottleneck, with people first trying to put their bags in before anyone else and then trying to snatch them out on the other side.
Once safely through the metal detector (at least once on this trip my parents' clean laundry fell on the floor), it's time to proceed to the waiting area.
Passengers except those holding soft-sleeper tickets wait together in the train station hall. The early travelers, say three or four hours before the train departs, might score a place for themselves and their luggage on the seats that line the corridor to each gate. After those are filled, say two hours before the train departs everyone just stands and waits, watching the gate for any sign that the railway guard is ready to open it, and slowly pushing forward as it gets closer to the posted departure time.
At last, ten minutes before the gate should open, everyone is crammed in as close to the gate as they can get, luggage in hand (this means carrying poles and baskets and buckets in rural China). Once the railway worker opens it everyone pushes harder, trying to squeeze through the hip-width aluminum gate with all of their baggage without tripping. They do this one-handed, since they have to give the ticket to the guard to punch with the other hand.
Once through the gate, travelers turn into stampeding elephants and rush out to the train. Often, this involves going upstairs to a walkway over-passing the tracks and then back down stairs to a different platform. Old people, pregnant women, women in stilettos, everyone is ready to trample whoever is between them and the train.
Once at the right carriage, no matter that the conductor's yelling on the megaphone to slow down and line up, everyone squishes together trying to board the train-- at times even before disembarking passengers have made it off.
Sometimes, when the passengers make it to the platform before the train has arrived, the conductors tell them to line up in specific places for specific cars. However, this is usually the wrong place, which means when the train pulls up, everyone who was neatly lined up then surges for the carriage as if it contained gold or diamonds instead of just train seats.
The reason for this madness is because the train is often overbooked, and if people don't get to their seats soon enough, someone may have taken it, which will then require kicking them out, or, if there's a lot of luggage, then the luggage compartment areas may be full and they'll have to store their stuff farther from where their berth or seat is.
This rush, the physical crush, creates a physical excitement and a mass nervousness. A normally polite individual, stuck in the midst of the hard-seat crew bound for Chongqing on the T109 will pick up his or her rolling suitcase and use it like a wedge blocking another group of travelers from getting to the gate. A gentle and calm retiree will scream at the guards because the train is a fraction of a minute late. Small children, confused and unused to travel, cower on their mother's shoulders, little knuckles white with anxiety.
Crowd mentality starts to blossom, and the passengers are a single entity with unified desires...get to the gate, get to the platform, get on the train!
But, once on the train, the blessed train, all this madness is replaced by a giant, gliding sense of elation . The train bucks and takes off, and as the passengers start to breathe normally again, they look around, smile, and, watching the others scuffle for their seats, relax and start to enjoy the journey.