(as published in the Sunday Times Newspaper, Travel weekly on 1 April 2012)
You think you know what travelling by bus is all about, and then you go to China.
I lie on the top bunk and peer awkwardly out of the gap in my jacket. The bus is filled to capacity and – judging by the landscape rushing by – travelling rather fast. It’s a hot August night; my friend and I are on a sleeper bus headed from Beijing to Shanghai. Our initial plan was to travel by overnight train. However, it was late in the season and train tickets were sold out. But we were scheduled to leave for South Korea in three days – from Shanghai.
Our friendly backpackers suggested an overnight sleeper bus. Being both familiar with long-haul bus rides from our varsity days, we thought: “Sure, we can do that.”
But it was not all “been there, done that” in the end.
We headed by taxi to the bus station. At the ticket booth, the sales woman blanched at seeing us “foreigners”. This was not our first experience of such a reaction. We’d been in Beijing for a week by then and had been stopped in the street, had our photo taken and, like true celebrities, had been chased through a monument by camera-wielding locals demanding (not asking) to take a photo.
Thanks to hand signals and a few words from our little guide book, we were able to convey that we were travelling to Shanghai and required two bus tickets. The consultants’ limited English gave us the most useful information: “OK . Shanghai bus . outside now.”
Relieved, we paid and headed through the gates – only to discover that ALL the buses were outside. We then began the painstaking task of asking each driver: “Shanghai bus? Shanghai bus?”
After a few misses, a man kindly told us: “Number two.”
We nodded, made our way to the bus and with our tickets in hand, boarded the bus.
The reception was not great. No “hello”, no “welcome aboard”. Instead the driver turned and angrily shouted something (well, a whole lot really) – none of which we understood.
We politely attempted to hand over our tickets but well, I guess he wasn’t asking for tickets. He shouted some more, before promptly throwing us off the bus. In disbelief, and a little scared, we scampered off the bus, linked arms and reverted to the two words that had been serving us so far. “Shanghai bus?” “Shanghai bus?”
Not surprisingly, this didn’t work. Most people ignored us, others laughed and others ran away. Dazed and confused, we headed back inside to the ticket booth. We located the lady who had assisted us earlier and asked again: “Shanghai bus?” She pointed and said: “Outside.” We stared at her blankly, until she took us to the exact bus.
Relieved at finally finding our bus, we stowed our luggage and got on. Relief turned to incredulity as we discovered exactly what was meant by “sleeper” bus. Rows of bunk beds lined the bus, each one bolted to the wall, with a seat-belt looped into a handle attached to the bed. The foot of each bed was hidden underneath the beginning of the next bed – not quite the reclining seats we were anticipating.
I scrambled onto the top bunk and tried not to think about how dirty the mattress was, or how there was half a seat-belt connected to the wall or what lurked at the foot of the bed (the end of which I could not see). I looked over at my friend, who looked equally distressed, and we burst out laughing.
The bus started to fill with passengers, many surprised to see foreigners aboard. Some even seemed a bit distressed by our presence but none, I’d guarantee, were as distressed as we were. A sudden roar of laughter raced through the bus. Surprised, I looked up and noticed a small TV screen, playing a silent comedy. I didn’t laugh. This trip was going to be nothing like I thought it would be. As the roaring bus pulled out of the terminus, we grabbed onto the half seatbelt-handles and said a silent prayer.