Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Long Distance Bus Ride Blues in China

I can be positive about many things in China, but bus rides is not one of them.
I have taken a few long distance bus rides in the US, Vietnam, Cambodia, and China. I rank China as number one for overall sensory discomfort. Unfortunately, I do them so infrequently that I forget the physical discomfort between and book them again to save money.

First there are all the problems associated with buying a ticket. There is usually a small crowd around the door of a long distance bus station trying to or get passengers on another bus or car. Or, they are simply trying to get customers to buy the same ticket that you would buy inside, but from them. As a fair-haired foreigner, I get hassled more than the Chinese customer (or at least that’s how I feel). I have to nearly push my way through the crowd of gruff speaking, smoky, smelly, ticket poachers to get to the official counter. Once there I have to hold my place in line and try my best to ignore the chatter from black market ticket sellers, who have followed me from the front door. I tell them in Chinese, “You’re wasting your time, don’t bother me, and I’m not Russian” but to no avail. If the official ticket vendor is kind, she will tell them to scram.
My most recent long distance bus experience was on the return to my final trip to Dalian in July. I thought I would save some money and take the 11 hour bus trip back to Beijing instead of flying. Things started well. My dear friend got the ticket for me in advance and the bus was modern and relatively clean. My seat mate was a neatly dressed young woman, which I greatly prefer over the cigarette/booze scented male alternatives. The bus was not full when we left, so the driver crept through concentric circles around the Dalian station, honking insatiably, while his wing man yelled our destination out the door. This is just in case anyone on the sidewalk suddenly decides to drop his/her plans and go to Beijing. I guess it’s possible.

After a couple years traveling in China, I’m well inured to the excessive use of horns on bus rides. The real noise problems began once we were on the open road and the distractions of city driving had ceased. The music and video programs were switched on and I suddenly remembered why I should have taken the plane. Regardless of the genre, Peking opera, traditional comedy skits, the official Spring Festival performance (still showing in July), or mediocre pop singer performances, they are all LOUD! In moments like these I sit and look at the screaming speaker above my head and imagine a Chinese manufactured volume dial with only two settings: “shufu”(comfortable) and “bu shufu” (uncomfortable). I gauge that this time it was set at about three notches past “bu shufu.” I looked around the bus to find that I was the only one wincing instead of grinning during the canned laughter.

Next come air problems. I suppose anytime one boards public transportation she forfeits her rights to climate/air control. Yet I find that my need for a constant flow of fresh air to be more fervent than my bus-mates’ needs. We stopped on the outskirts of town to fill up on gas and take a bathroom break with the air-conditioning off and the doors and windows closed! Much to the amusement and interest of those around me, I pulled out my Chinese style fan to avoid both physically and mental meltdown. Again, no-one else seemed to sweat (pun totally intended) the dreadfully stagnant air of a July afternoon, which was further warmed by of 80 pairs of hot moist lungs.

Reminded of his habit by the no-smoking signs in the gas-station, the driver lit up a cigarette the moment we pulled away. As soon as he finished his torturously long cigarette, his wing man lit another, doubling the haze in the bus and my regret for not taking a plane. To his credit, he opened the tiny window beside him after lighting up. But at about 60 mph, this only rocketed the carcinogens to the back of the bus.

At this point, I had my shirt over my mouth and nose, my fingers in my ears, my cheek pressed up against the window to keep cool. And still no-body else seemed to be bothered about any of it! But just then, a man in the front row with a grandson in his lap asked the men to stop smoking. The wingman put up some protest that the grandpa refuted by telling him that he himself was also a smoker but would not subject his grandson or the rest of the bus to his smoke in such a confined space. God bless him and his grandson!

After countless unexplained stops, identification checks, bathroom/smoke breaks, and traffic jams, we finally rolled into a non-descript bus station parking lot in Beijing at 10:00 PM. I was tremendously relieved to be off the bus and to be reducing sensory stimuli one-by-one. But what would a bus journey be without a grand finale? Just then, we opened the luggage compartment only to watch two heavy eyed sluggish stowaways un-contort themselves from the spaces between our luggage and casually walk out of the station.
But, after all that I did save about 40 dollars!


  1. Oh My God

    I can totally picture everything so clearly!

    Cheers, Laura! And great storytelling!


  2. Woo! I've never seen stowaways. I'm sure the bus driver knew they were there though, or he wouldn't have let them get away with it so easily. Right there with you on the air and noise. I whip out my Western-style ear plugs:). I'm glad you didn't mention the gas station bathrooms. I don't ever want to talk about them...

  3. Remember when we were at the Olympics Village Park and were soooo psyched there was soap in the bathroom!

  4. YES YES! Right with you on the bus trips!

    Is the Chinese fan of yours the paper one with the watercolor paintings on it or the scented, carved wooden one? Is the latter Chinese or did we rip it off from the Brits?

  5. To be honest, I have found the bus travel there a mixed bag. Only one trip really compared to the one you describe, complete with cigarette smoke, stopping every 2 minutes to pick new people up. In my naivety, I assumed that, as I was the only person to get on at the bus station, that I would have a whole bus to myself. 'Excellent!', I thought. It turns out that most people wait around the corner from the bus stop.

    Another overnight bus from Guilin to Shenzhen was only ruined, I'm afraid, by some Americans being a little too boisterous. The following is a direct quote, "I HATE it when the British say toilet instead of restroom. I find it so disgusting." Naturally, I was riled. I should like to refer the two young gentleman in question to the film 'In Bruges', where they will find they were fulfilling an American stereotype of being "loud and obnoxious".

    On another journey, with my own dear mother, she (and I) were delighted to find that the bus had more leg room than usual and, much more importantly, a, umm.. ground stewardess, who promptly served us with a bottle of water, some nuts and tea on occasion. Best bus ride ever.