Sandy's Ramblings

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Why not to travel by bus unless you must...

I am a smoker. Recently, however, I am on a campaign to cut down quite dramatically and so far so good... I was smoking roughly a pack a day and last week I decided to try to smoke a maximum of 10 day for a week, then 8 a day for a week etc. The 10-a-day week went well (some days I smoked only 8 or 9) and yesterday was my first 8-a-day day. I had 6. Anyways, this is relevant.

I've now travelled on many a Chinese bus. Generally speaking, if the trip is 4 hours or less you're onto a winner. Sadly, China is big and short bus trips rare. The other day we were in Lijiang and needed to get to where we are now, Chengdu. The only option (due to the mountains getting in the way) was to bus to a small industrial town called Panzhihua and then hopefully catch a train to Chengdu. To our great dismay, it is the tail-end of the Chinese New Year week-long holiday, and everyone is trying to get home.

We arrived after almost 8 hours on the bus in Panzhihua quite grossed out. The trip was very winding and up and down the mountains (200km took almost 8 hours...) and someone vomited half-way into the trip. The smell was pervasive and stuck for the rest of the trip. Apart from that though, the trip was good and the scenery quite spectacular.

We got to Panzhihua and we on local bus 64 to the train station when we met an Israeli couple who had arrived (doing the same thing as us) a few hours earlier and reported to us the sad news that the first available train ticket to Chengdu was 4 March, about a week's wait. The only accommodation we could find was the Panzhihua hotel which is somewhat beyond our usual budget we decided to spend one night and then, by hook or by crook, get the hell out.

The next morning we got up early, had a sterling breakfast in the hotel (one plus side, although salted duck eggs are not nearly as good as they sound) and motored off to the bus station to see what tickets we could get. We got one for 1pm and were thrilled. Short lived.

At 12.30, having returned to the hotel, checked out and returned again to the bus station, we waited eagerly for 1 o'clock to come our way. The bus station waiting is fairly jacked up, although filthy, and they have nice electronic signs above each door showing which bus goes where and when. Not one mentioned ours. We kept bugging the luggage check guy about it and he kept responding mutely to us with a hand motion that seemed to indicate "Wait here", with increasing annoyance. So we waited. At about 12.58pm a kind soul, looking stressed, came running up to us and asked if we were going to Chengdu. "Yes" was our obvious response, and he shepherded us to our bus which was marked with a different destination on the front (but did mention two of the main places we'd be passing through). Somehow all the other passengers had managed to divine their way to this bus, but either way we got there. 20 minutes late, the bus departed. I must mention that the seats were pretty comfy.

It was a typical bus with a television, about 40 seats and windows that you can't open. We got going and immediately all the men on the bus light up cigarettes. This never stopped for all of the 18 hours it took to get to Chengdu. It's really fun, despite being a smoker myself (I never smoked on the bus, gloat gloat), to be breathing in second-hand smoke in a confined bus. Add to that that the guy behind us kept using our seats as a means to stand up and every now and then would whack us accidentally on the head in doing so. There was a small window at the far back of the bus on either side which could open, and an old man who looked like a monk was sitting at one a few rows behind us and seemed to have this habit, or a tic, or perhaps he was sick, of churning up a big phlegm-ball and spitting it out the window, every 2 or 3 minutes, the WHOLE WAY. I don't know how he managed this - I was impressed by his stamina and his ability to produce so much moisture in his mouth. Of course, in true Chinese style, this churn and spit skill is not a silent one, it is in fact unbelievably loud. Great fun to listen to while you're fanning smoke out of your face.

On the plus side, no-one vomited on the trip. On the down side, they used the television to show us hour upon hour of Chinese karaoke at full volume. I'm starting to recognise, and despise, many of their songs. We did have about 2 hours of peace at one point when they switched off the TV - perhaps it broke? After a dinner break, we got back on and were treated to a movie that was actually not dubbed into Chinese called 'The Marine'... anyone seen it? If you haven't, don't. It is the worst film I can remember seeing.

Gabi and I took some stomach nausea pills which had the handy side-effect of extreme drowsiness (our reason for taking them) and so, at around 1am, we sort of slept through the rest until we arrived at 7.30 or so this morning in Chengdu.

So, don't take a Chinese bus unless you must.


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