Difficult journeys : travelling by bus and by train in China

In China, the public transport network is very extensive and very popular. I got around by bus or by sleeper bus for long overnight trips and by bus for short distances taking a few hours.

By train : 30 hours 'hard-seat'

There are several categories in chinese trains. The most expensive is called 'soft sleeper' with 4 comfortable bunk beds in closed compartments. This is luxury and it costs almost the same as a plane ticket. The next and preferred category is called 'hard sleeper'. One sleeps in a compartment of 6 bunk beds without a door. I often met very kind chinese people, like this engineer who explained me in a very good english the origin of chinese characters. However, other western travellers who chose 'soft sleeper'  told me that the people they met, obviously wealthy, were cold and not interesting in talking with them. Like for the sleepers, there are 'soft' and 'hard' seats. The former is the equivalent of 1st class in Europe. The cheapest of all categories, 'hard seat', is a long way from our carpeted world. This is transport for the masses. I tried....

I was going from Guiyang to Guangzhou, thinking I would complete the first part of the trip by train, stop overnight in Liuzhou and continue by bus next day. This train had few 'hard sleeper' places and they were all sold out. I bought a ticket for 'hard seat' for Liuzhou, about 500 km and 12 hours away. When I board the train, the wagon is already full but the controler kindly makes sure I get the seat reserved on my ticket. I am the only 'laowai' (foreigner) in sight, the other passengers are all staring at me, like it is often the case in China. When I read or write something in my notebook, some would come over just to look, by pure curiosity. A girl sitting next to me is also looking, I ask her if she understands english. She says she does know a little english but she cannot speak well. So we start conversing on the paper. She writes in "chinglish".[1] It is not always very easy to understand her and this is no rapid converstation but we have all the time in the world (this train is slow). She is going to Guangzhou to visit a friend and look for some work. She convinces me to continue with her to Guangzhou, since that train is going there, and to come to her friend's place.

Night is coming and sleeping is not going be easy. The seats are hard indeed and upright, the bright light stays on all night, people smoke a lot while practicing their national sport : spitting, and the loud speaker let out some loud music or some blah-blah. A few passengers manage to doze off but a policeman comes around regularly and wakes them up with an empty plastic bottle. My neighbour explains that he is telling them to keep an eye on their luggage in case of theft. I find his attitude most impolite but she comments in chinglish "policeman useful bottle push us". Since we left Guiyang, the train has been filling up more and more at each stop and there are more passengers than seats. I cannot sleep. I look around. A couple of people are squatting in the corridor, a man standing up is leaning (asleep?) against a wall. Behind me another man is standing up on his seat, he cannot sleep either, he looks like a zombie. A woman, tired, pushes me to sit. We are 4 on a bench of 3. Only the babies are sleeping.

After a sleepless night, dawn comes shyly through the fog. The trip lasts 30 hours, so that still leaves the rest of the day in the train. A sort of cook-looking person passes regularly with a trolley, proposing hot rice, meat and vegetables in a plastic box. In the larger stations, employees in white coats push large carts along the train. Besides hot meals, they sell fruits, dry nuts, instant noodles, small bottles of undrinkable chinese spirit and some other unidentified products. There is often a big rush, people bending out of the train windows, arms extended with a bunch of yuans in their hands, shouting to be served before departure. Others just get off the train. The food sellers are overwhelmed during the 10-15 minutes of the stop. A few blows of a whistle, passengers on the platform board the train. For the food sellers, business is done. On the platform, besides every door of the train, controlers in a blue uniform stands still, in a very military fashion, facing ahead. At a whistle's blow,  all simultaneously board the train. A illusion of order. We leave again.

Nobody waits that their meal cools down. The chinese smile as they look at me handling the chopsticks. What surprises them is the way I hold them, not quite the same way as they do, but it works, I can eat, that's the most important. They devour, spit chicken bones on the floor, speak loudly with a mouthful of rice and finally throw the empty food-box on the floor too. Walking on garbage, someone comes to sell key rings with a very small folding blade to peel fruits. The rests end up on the floor of course.

After 30 hours in the train, we are approaching Guangzhou. An hour before arrival, an employee comes to empty the bin, i.e. to collect the garbage on the floor. With a short broom, she pushes along the corridor a disgusting mountain of garbage, which grows as large as the corridor and knee high, and she simply shoves everything out of the window. I am short of words to describe the toilets, we'll skip that one...

After this trip, I was rather tired and I had an upset stomach. Certainly, the confort and cleanliness of this train are far from ideal, but I prefer that to insecurity for example. I would not call this trip "adventure" like it could come to the mind of some readers. Indeed, thousands of chinese travel this way at this very moment. I met an australian man, retired, who always goes 'hard seat'[2].

The sleeper bus

Certain parts of China are not accessible by train, often because of the topography. The much hated sleeper bus is then the only solution for long distances. I often preferred to make small stages in normal buses but it was not always possible (see story 7). Depending on its size, the sleeper bus can accomodate 15-30 persons. Bunk beds are narrow and too short, but at least, one can lie down during long overnight trips, and this is an enormous advantage. Even with little possible sleep, one feels less tired the next day. Indeed, how to get some proper sleep when you are squeezed in such small space, when the defunct shock absorbers of the bus allow you to feel every bump and hole of the bad tortuous roads, and when nearby feet stink almost as much as the blankets, impregnated with the sweat of the previous 1000 passengers....

Normal buses

The normal bus does not mean confort either. They are often 'coasters', buses with seating space for 20 people and standing space for the rest of the chinese population if they can squeeze in. A bus is never full. Like in Eastern Europe or in Russia, it seems there is always space for another person, even if the bus is already jam-packed. In western Sichuan, buses are bigger and less frequent. Sometimes, there is only one per day, leaving at 5.30 am and breaking down anytime later. The state of the bus apparently has nothing to do with the probability of a technical problem. Shitty rotten buses can make it and seemingly brand new ones will break down. Flat tyres always brought along two questions : 1) are we going to get a flat tyre somewhere photogenic with a great view and 2) now that we have no spare left, are we going to get there before we puncture again ? Once we did not.

The big bus had going strong for about an hour when we stopped : water was pouring down from the leaking radiator. The bus turned around, inches from the void and somehow manage to return to the starting point (it was downhill I must say). We arranged a shared taxi with 7-8 other passengers. First flat tyre on a beautiful stretch of the road. Great view, perfect opportunity for a few photos. Half-way, we changed vehicle at a small service hut. A lonely tibetan monk was waiting for a lift in the opposite direction. We left again, and punctured again, this time in a wind swept wild landscape of big rocks, small frozen lakes and miserable looking shrubs. We left and further along the road, a loud noise again. Another flat tyre. Stuck? Not quite. We finished the remaining 30 km or so at the back of a truck. It was windy, cold and bumpy and I had to keep pushing away some greasy barrel that kept sliding towards me. But we eventually got there (sounds like a trip with British Rail, doesn't it ?).

Other regions in China, like Yunnan, enjoy better conditions. Roads are better, buses are more frequent and go everywhere. It is much easier to travel when you don't have to worry about time (buses leave every half-hour for the most frequent destinations) and about money (drivers are honest).

see the photos from China

[1] "Chinglish" is a word made up from 'chinese' and 'english' which denotes the english language like it often appears in China. It is in fact word-to-word translation of chinese into english, plus a few typos or spelling mistakes, which represents both the (commendable) effort to translate and communicate and the huge differences between both languages. The following example illustrates this point : "Radio pronounce has bus go to my friend where" (the loudspeakers announces that there is a bus to go to my friend's place).

[2] This man travels on his pension. He must be careful with his spendings and 'hard seat' is the cheapest option. I met quite a few other 'permanent travellers' like him. For me too, but especially for them, the french proverb that I could translate "he who wants to go far, takes great care of his mount" is rather obsolete. It was fine for riders. He would much prefer my modified version "he who wants to go for a long time, takes great care of his wallet".





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