Friday, April 24, 2009

Hop on the bus, gus

8 hours to Xiamen, 8 hours to Shenzhen, 16 hours back to Wenzhou. All for four stamps on my passport. Whee.

What can I say about the sleeping buses of this wonderful country? There are the sleeping pallets, a cot that wouldn't fit anyone beyond 5'7" and whose top bunks I really don't like clambering up on. There are the quilts and questionable pillows; do they ever get washed? I suspect not. There are the passengers, a majority are men, mostly adults (haven't had the pleasure of a vomiting child next to me yet, oh dear, I just know that now I've thought of it, I'm bound to have one the next time around), and not too many (if any) foreigners. I was probably the only non-Chinese on all the buses I've taken thus far and I don't stick out too much if I don't open my mouth and ask questions. The other aspect of my fellow passengers is the basic level of hygiene they observe. There's no telling who is going to take their shoes off and perfume the air with foot-halitosis (you must take your footwear off at the time you get on the bus, and place them in a plastic baggy. That reduces the amount of dirt tracked in on the buses, but not necessarily reduces odor problems.).

Finally the bus drivers and conductors - most of them are quite solicitous, demanding, and helpful when needed. One steward made sure I was heading in the right direction at Shenzhen, and the bus drivers always recommended I put my backpack into the luggage compartment. I would still take it inside with me, and use it to protect me against any pallet bugs that the last passenger may have left behind.

Over the last 10 years China has built up its road system, the highways are laid out, north to south, east to west and so on. What might have taken me a day to get to in 1996 now only requires 8 hours. If I took the train, it would take me 12 hours. So I chose the bus as my form of coast to coast travel, even with horrible memories of being bounced around for hours, being pecked at by my neighbor's chickens, or hearing the sound of a child puking me behind me. Since the advent of the sleeper buses, there's a bit more room and no chickens have clouded the door of my trips so far. But the last couple of days, I've truly wondered if I have the strength to deal with any more nauseatingly foul body odor, smoking (which turns out to mask the smell of feet if only for a couple of minutes or two), and bus toilets. Here are a few lessons I must remember for future trips:

1. Wear long pants, long socks, and long sleeve shirts. Not merely to add a layer of protection against the linen on the bus, but because they love blasting the ac even if it's 10 degrees celcius outside. A couple of layers helps, and something like a hat to cover the head is doubly useful.
2. Bring the ipod portable charger, there isn't anywhere to plug in the usb charger.
3. The public bathroom at the midway point isn't as bad as I have come to expect, definitely much better than trying to balance oneself over the hole in the bus lav while the bus is roaring down the interstate.
4. One Snickers bar is insufficient caloric input on an 8 hour journey. The salad lunch at the Helena May (muchisimas gracias to J!) on the other hand kept me from rushing towards a bowl of murky soup at 10 pm (a third of the way into the 16 hour leg).
5. The name of the bus station doesn't necessarily mean it's in the same district. Case in point, Shenzhen has a few large bus stations, and the one I needed to find to head back north, Futian Bus Station, wasn't in Futian District, rather it was in some other part of town. Imagine my near heart attack at getting to the end of the line (on the Shenzhen subway), believing I was at the right area only to be told that I would have to get back on the train and head in the other direction. WTF!!!! Amazing Race, believe you me. I had to catch a 5 pm bus, and it was 4:50 pm.
6. Have a sense of humor and imagination. They're sorely lacking at midnight but as one sensible and wise man said, if you lose your temper, then you are merely showing the lack of insight into yourself.
7. Endeavor to create a smell barrier that will reduce the feeling of gagging when the smell of ripe feet or even more foul bathroom aromas penetrate one's consciousness. I bet I could make a fortune if I found something like that.

In the meantime I am back in the comfort of my temporary home, washed and disinfected my travel clothes, and glad not to have to go forth and stamp for another few weeks.


Katrina said...

You mean you have to do again in a few weeks?! Is the train ride any better? I think I'd choose the 4-hour additional travel time if it were much better.

For the smell barrier: bring a light scarf or blanket and pretend you're cold as you wrap it around your neck & face. That's what I'd do. I'd probably have to do that regardless, due to my low tolerance for the cold.

Watergirl said...

If I have to do this in another four weeks, I'm flying back! 16 hours on that bus was too much. As I hadn't planned to go all the way to Shenzhen /HK, it would have cost too much to fly back at the last minute. Problem with the train was that the schedule was off for me. The bus left and arrived back in time for me to go to work.

Cecilia B. said...

Well, with the advent of swine flu, it will be perfectly acceptable for you to wear a surgical mask! And at the risk of looking snooty, I'd probably bring my own sheet and pillowcase-- they pack flat anyway. I learned the pillowcase thing on my many travels to unknown hotels in the provinces. Put my own pillowcase on one of the pillows, and I sleep better knowing that my face is touching something that I know is clean and nice smelling! CJ

christine said...

I could almost smell the funk from your descriptions! Oh my, I couldn't handle that. But commuting in London has provided me with similar experiences, for some reason I always get the greasy whino who wreaks of sweat, alcohol and all sorts of other bodily fluids as my seatmate. Katrina, I've tried your advice, pulling my scarf up over my nose, but I couldn't keep it that way long enough. I'd start feeling claustrophobic.

Mila, why don't you rub some mentholated ointment under your nose, get the Lifesaver from Echo Store of Legaspi Market next time you're here. It's really been a lifesaver for me many times over!

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