A tale of mystery, deception … and love on a Chinese bus
18.07.2012 35 °C
Having spent the previous week or so exploring the southern Chinese province of Guanxi, hiking amongst the majestic Dragon Backbone Rice Terraces, cruising down the Li River in a bamboo/PVC pipe raft from Yangdi and enjoying the karst scenery exclusive to the region, it was time to make our way to Beijing. Having made the trip Guilin to Beijing by both train and plane the year before without hassle, the task of travelling the 2,000km didn't seem challenging, but as this was a new year, a new trip and new holiday, there had to be a challenge. The queue for tickets at the Guilin train station was unfathomably long, stretching through the ticket hall and spilling out the front entrance and onto the steps. After making our way inside, I thought my Chinese reading skills were failing me as looked up at a display screen to see that there were no tickets remaining to almost every destination, all booked out for the next 10 days. Hoping my Chinese reading was wrong (it has been known to happen) I followed the queue to the end where the man behind the counter, before I even had the chance to state my destination, uttered the words every traveller in China dreads to hear – “mei you” meaning ‘no’. With flights at this time of the year costing in excess of $300AUS one way we had to find another way.
Fortunately, it was at that moment we were approached by a man who proposed an alternative solution – Why not catch a bus from Guilin to Beijing? Its only 2,000km and will only take 22 hours, he stated proudly. Normally I don’t buy tickets from hawkers outside train and bus stations, preferring to procure my tickets from the legitimate company at the station, but on this occasion, our alternative choices were seriously limited. After haggling the price down from an outrageous 850RMB to a more reasonable 500RMB (I was later told this was still an outrageous price to pay, but I realize my negotiating skills will never equal those of the Chinese). After settling on that price, we agreed to meet at his store (see: wooden table and chair on the footpath) out the front of the train station the next day, Saturday.
Relaxing in the hostel that Friday night, reveling in the fact that we had found a cheap and easy way to get to Beijing and we would be there by Sunday evening, my joy was rudely interrupted by a phone call from the ticket salesman telling me there were no seats on the Saturday bus, the same bus I had just bought two seats on, and he told us we would have to catch the Sunday bus instead. Although an inconvenience, it wasn’t a problem and it did allowed me to bargain another 50RMB off each ticket.
We had an uneventful Saturday exploring Guilin, wandering the streets and a relaxing Sunday morning before checking out of the hostel and hauling our packs to the train station. We agreed to meet the ticket salesman at 2pm at his desk, only for him to explain the bus was delayed and we would actually be leaving at 3.30pm. We took solace in the fact we thought this would just be a short delay and we would be on the bus soon enough and on our way to Beijing. This, however, turned out to be just the first of many, many delays. 3.30 eventually rolled around and, true to his word, the salesman came over to us, the only two foreigners sprawled out on their packs in the middle of a Chinese footpath, to say the bus was here. We followed him as he led us out of the train station and down a series of streets until we arrived at a minivan parked in the shadow of an underpass. My jaw dropped as I saw the six-seater minivan already packed with 7 people and their bags (there could well have been more people hidden inside the van!). I had made it clear to the salesman in my best Chinese that we wanted a sleeper bus (busses with beds along the aisles instead of seats), which he continued to assure me, was the case, even as we both looked at the crowded minivan. The sardines passengers inside where endlessly patient as I argued with the salesman until he eventually disclosed the minivan would drop us at another bus station where the sleeper bus would pick us up, only 10 minutes drive away. I conceded that 10 minutes in a sweaty Chinese oven/minivan wouldn’t be a problem, so we squeezed in, possibly suffocating a few others in the process (legally, Chinese busses only have to deliver 80% of their occupants alive anyway). 30 minutes latter and still crawling through the traffic of the tiny backstreets of Guilin, we began to wonder if we had been conned and we would indeed be spending the next 22hours trapped in this crowded minivan as it struggled along the road to Beijing. Just as I began to question how much of my sanity I was willing to sacrifice in order to reach Beijing, the van pulled over to the side of the road on the outskirts of the city. Sitting there on an assortment of chairs, stools, bags and anything else they could get their hands on were our fellow travellers, all loyally waiting for this mystery sleeper bus that should have arrived 2 hours ago.
Amongst the crowd was a family from Slovakia who had also chosen the bus as an alternative to the currently non-existent train tickets out of Guilin. Their destination was Xi’an, a city roughly half the distance of Guilin to Beijing, but they told me their selling point was that the bus only takes 22 hours and it’s a sleeper bus! Having heard this same sale pitch when we bought our tickets for a further destination, a quick look at a road map and a good memory of how terrible some Chinese roads can be, I was shocked by my naivety in accepting that the trip would only take 22 hours. I sat back down on my borrowed, rickety stool and hoped I was wrong and that we would indeed be in Beijing in 20 hours time, Monday evening. As minivans came and went, dropping off passengers and taking others away, including our new Slovakian friends, the hours crept slowly by and the sun began to sink, along with any hope I had of a sleeper bus arriving.
Finally, at 7pm, a convoy of minivans arrived and told everyone to get inside. Kuai yi dian! Hurry up, they yelled! Better than most tetris players, the man in charge managed to break their own previous record of 9 occupants in the minivan and upped it to 11 for this 30 minute trip. I was more impressed than annoyed - impressed that so many bodies not only had the ability, but also the willingness to contort themselves in unbelievable shapes to make more space for others. Wishing I had a snorkel so I could breath air that wasn’t directly from my neighbours armpit, I did my best to hold my breath for the remaining 30 minutes until we pulled up at another underpass outside an industrial district on the far outskirts of the city. The passengers all disembarked the van knowing more about their own and others bodies than they wanted, we all sat around confused for another half an hour as the leader of the minivan convoy screamed into his phone with who I assumed to be the bus driver. Judging by how stressed he seemed, I assumed the bus would not be making it to Guilin and he would have to break the bad news to what was already a sweaty, impatient and increasingly angry group of 30 travellers. His face eventually broke into a smile and he raced off into the bushes by the side of the road and as we stood there feeling as though he had just bailed on us rather than deliver the news, we heard a distant “follow me!”. Women grabbed their children, men picked up luggage, old women hauled suitcases and everyone chased after the man in the bushes, hoping to see a road on the other side and a sleeper bus.
Feeling more like we were being people smuggled than embarking on a Chinese bus trip, we pushed through the bushes to try and keep up with the old grandmothers and their gargantuan suitcases, only to find that the other side of the bushes did in fact lead to a road, but to no ones surprise, no sleeper bus. As we settled down for what we thought would be another long wait and disappointed conclusion, a sleeper bus skidded to a halt in front of us with its horn blaring. I stood by the door as it opened, feeling the rush of cool, air-conditioned air engulf me as the bus driver stepped outside. We had made it to the bus. Next stop: Beijing!
It was around 7.30pm at this point and I figured the previous 4 hours factored into the trip time so even though we were probably only 20km from where we had started at the train station, I foolishly thought we only had about 18hours to go and we would be in Beijing by Monday afternoon. Rookie error.
The sleeper bus was comfortable enough for the first few hours, but you’re your sharing your bed with a backpack and stand at 6’2”, the length of the beds aren’t exactly designed with you in mind. The height of my fellow passengers was easily a foot or so shorter and the thin beds seemed to provide all the space they would ever need. The coffin design at the end of the beds that places your legs in a cocoon under the passenger in front meant that we could neither fully extend our legs nor bend them comfortably, a position reminiscent of certain torture devices found in the Tower of London. We were therefore initially thankful for the frequent rest stops that provided a much needed opportunity to allow blood back into toes that had otherwise given up hope and use a trough that passes as a toilet at Chinese rest stops. By about the third rest stop in as many hours, each stop lasting for at least half an hour, I pondered whether every estimate had been wrong and the trip would actually take 4 or 5 days like some people had jokingly suggested at the hostel back in Guilin. I settled in to sleep around midnight, the comforting sound of a Chinese movie at full volume playing above my head, daring me to even attempt to sleep.
I had nothing to complain about however as my brother, travel companion and China initiate, Ethan, manage to score a bed that had a fresh, boiling tub of noodles spilt all over it. ‘Welcome to China!’, I yelled from the other end of the bus as I saw the disappointment on his face when he realized this was now his wet, beef noodle scented home for the next 18 hours.
After failed attempts at sleep and trying to embrace the Chinese film that played until 3 am, the bus pulled into a bus station in a small city, where it sat idling for 40 minutes before telling everyone to get out. I knew this couldn’t possibly be Beijing, so I had to ask when all the passengers began removing their luggage from under the bus. They said we were transferring busses, and we were only 5 hours away from Beijing so we would take a normal seated bus. Following the other passengers to our new bus, Ethan shaking the last of the noodles out of his clothes, we loaded the bus and everyone boarded, expecting to depart in a matter of minutes. Sitting in the stifling heat of the bus, a new driver came over and told everyone to get off, as the bus wouldn’t be leaving until 3.30pm, even though it was only 9am at this point. Obviously, there was outrage from some passengers, many of who had already been travelling from further south than Guilin, but the bus driver just shrugged with indifference and disappeared, hopefully to reemerge at 3.30.
We stepped back into the hot sun and looked around at the desolate bus stop with no idea what city we were in, let alone what province of China this was. I asked 3 different people and received 3 different answers, but it seemed as though we were either in Hubei or Henan province, but without a map or Lonely Planet to remind me where those provinces are, it didn’t seem to matter. As we prepared to find a nice comfortable kerb or footpath to sit on for the remaining 6 and a half hours, a parking lot attendant came over and told us to follow him to his air conditioned office, muttering something to himself about foreigners that I didn’t quite understand. He led us just past the bus station to a little tin shed with, as promised, an air conditioner and a row of benches, before telling us we could wait here until the bus came. I asked him if he wanted any money for us being there but he just laughed and said he just wanted a conversation. We sat there chatting about our two countries, as he would run back and forth between us and drivers wanting to park their cars in his spaces. As the day progressed he would see some of his friends passing by and invite them in to have a chat, until it felt as though we had met half the city. We left for a while to grab some Uyghur bread for lunch and some mystery meat sausages from the supermarket, which Ethan was convinced was dog food (“At 10c a stick, they can’t possibly be real meat”). 3.30 eventually arrived so we said our goodbyes and thanked him for letting us enjoy his hospitality and air conditioning, and walked over to the bus to find that the bus driver was still nowhere in sight.
It was now 26 hours after we had started our journey and we where still far from Beijing (estimates varied from 5 hours to 18 hours, depending on the optimism of the passenger I asked). We stood around with nothing to do but wait and stare vacantly until 5.30 when a relaxed bus driver arrives and tells everyone to jump in. What was only moments before a relaxed scene of travellers and passengers lounging around patiently, turned rapidly into an aggressive fight for seats as people at the back of the queue realized there were more people than seats on the bus. As we were near the back we began to think we might miss this bus and be forced to catch the next one, whenever that came, until the driver marched down the steps and brought order to the masses, and surprisingly, pointed Ethan and I out and called us through, not letting anyone else on until we had made it to some seats. We felt lucky to have made it on, especially as we saw fellow passengers standing in the dust of the station, left behind as we drove away shortly after.
Ethan was sitting in the seat in front of me, next to a middle aged Chinese woman, and I was next to a man in a business suit, a clothing choice that was juxtaposed with the dirty condition of the bus and the unwashed Australian in shorts and t-shirt sitting by his side. As we arrived at the first of a bountiful supply of rest stops, I asked if my brother could please swap seats, to which he seemed hesitant, even annoyed, but he accepted. It turned out to be a beneficial decision for him, as the bus ride progressed he struck up a conversation with the woman next to him that must have been extremely interesting as they both began to kiss shortly after until they both fell asleep in an embrace. One does not often find love 27 hours into a cross-country Chinese bus trip!
Several hours after departing the mystery town in the unknown province, I noticed the first sign to Beijing, stating our final destination was only 750km away, the first acknowledgement that we were actually heading in the right direction! Although the bus was full and I had a bag on my lap the entire time, this bus trip was surprisingly comfortable. The 11 hours flew buy until we finally arrived in Beijing, only recognisable due to the capital number plates on the roads. We cruised past the last of the farmlands and moved into more industrial sections the outskirts of the massive city. Assuming we would be dropped off at a bus station or maybe Beijing West Train Station, I thought it was odd the driver pulled over to the side of the road, in an industrial section with no people visible in the twilight as sun was just beginning to rise, and told every one we had arrived. When I questioned him if this was the final stop, he just kept yelling ‘Beijing, Beijing’ and pushing any hesitant travellers through the door. With no bus stops or taxis near by, I thought that even after arriving in Beijing, the journey still wasn’t over. Fortunately, we had our first major stroke of luck as a lone taxi cruised along this desolate road and picked us up. ‘Ni men qu na er?’ ‘Where to?’ he asked with a welcoming smile and an instantly recognizable Beijing accent. Having started in Guilin at 2pm that Sunday, it was now 40 hours later and more than 2,500 kilometres away, but I could finally give directions to the hostel, ‘Sanlitun!’.