The train ticket booking halls can be vast with up to forty or more counters each with long queues. However they are mostly quite orderly. The one exception was Nanjing where we fled the chaos and headed to the bus station.
Once you reach the head of the queue you still need to ensure you buy the correct tickets. You often end up discussing alternatives in halting Chinese when you discover your original choice of train, date, or seat class is not available. On a couple of occasions we have purchased sleeper tickets only to discover we have been given tickets in different compartments. Once tickets have been issues the only solution is to get your fellow passengers to agree to swap when you board the train. This can be facilitated by an emotional outburst that embarrasses the attendant and your fellow passengers until they finally give way.
If you can’t get an allocated seat you can get a standing ticket and hope there are spare hard seats or try to upgrade once you are on the train. These tickets are very cheap and may be the only ones available at short notice as we discovered when going from Changchun to Harbin. This 4.5 hour trip cost us only £2 each and fortunately there were spare seats. On one of our other journeys some police solved this problem by taking over part of the buffet car for the duration of the trip.
The tickets can normally be booked up to ten days in advance and during the holidays may quickly get sold out. We were fortunate once to get out of Beijing at a few days notice with the help of a friend of a friend who worked on the train. We had to phone her on arrival to set a meeting point in the station concourse. We finally managed to find one another and she walked us through to the platform and arranged for us to buy sleeper tickets from the conductor. An interesting experience as we had never previously met and she only spoke Chinese!