Mass Transit– emphasis on “mass”
A lot of people live in China. A lot. My current home is also home to at least 13 million other people, and that’s just at last count. Shenzhen is not the largest city in China, but it doesn’t miss by much– at recent count, Shanghai clocks in with 17 million, Beijing coming in second with around 14 million, and Shenzhen and Guangzhou each contributing roughly 10-13 million.
Moving 13 million people around a city requires, as you probably imagine, a rather extensive network of public transportation sharing the road with an absolute swarm of cars and trucks. The Shenzhen buses, as I’ve mentioned before, are pretty great as a rule– clean, air-conditioned, there are televisions that show random Chinese shows and America’s Funniest Home Videos. Being stuck on a bus for a while, which you are because Shenzhen is HUGE, is not the worst way to spend an hour.
Unless it’s rush hour.
The following is a guide to not getting lost/separated/crushed/run over/groped inappropriately (welcome or not) on a rush hour bus in Shenzhen, people.
Step 1: Collect all the members of your group at one bus stop. Make sure you are not trying to move a group of more than 3 or 4 people. Otherwise bad things will happen. People will get left behind.
Step 2: Gape in horror as the first bus rolls by, jammed completely packed with people pressed against the doors and windows. Then curse in frustration as it chugs merrily along without opening the doors.
Step 3: Realize it was probably a good thing you didn’t try to get on that bus. Besides, the next one will be along in a couple of minutes.
Step 4: Stare open-mouthed as the next bus, equally packed, pulls up. This is going to be tougher than you thought.
Step 5: Steel yourselves. Make sure you have a head count. This might get a little hairy.
Step 6: The third iteration of your bus pulls up. (Three’s the charm, right?) You sprint to get ahead of the throng, feeling your friends’ hands on your arm as you all try to stay together. You momentarily form a wall as you clamber onto the bus together. Once you’ve made it up the step you scramble for a handrail or seat to grab to steady yourself against the press of humanity that has followed you aboard. Once you have some semblance of equanimity returned to you, you look around and try to spot the other foreigners on the bus. Do this now, before you get too many stops away, in case you have to try to dash off the bus at the next stop to catch up with the stragglers.
Step 7: Cough it up. Shenzhen buses have two methods for paying fare. On fixed-fare buses, you swipe your metro card against an electronic pad and it deducts from your balance. On the variable-fare buses, there is a person (usually a woman) whose job it is to walk around with a little card scanner and visit each new arrival on the bus to scan their card or take their fare. Both of these processes become slightly more complicated when there are roughly 150 people on a bus that is supposed to seat 40, and you are climbing in helter-skelter through any available opening (i.e. front and back doors).
Shenzhen-ers have developed a couple of rituals to help with this process. On the bus with the woman who walks around, she basically stands at one of the doors, let’s call it the back door, and as soon as the doors close she holds out the scanner in the direction of the throng that just boarded and people perform some amazing contortionist acts to swipe their cards against it. She then makes her way up the (completely occluded) bus aisle towards the front door, and repeats the process. By this time, often the bus has reached a new stop, so she repeats the process all over again, this time starting at the front and making her way to the back.
On the fixed-fare buses, with the scanner at the front door, the process is slightly different. After you clamber onto the bus, one industrious passenger proceeds to collect all the metro cards from the new arrivals. The stack is passed forward amongst the passengers to the crowd standing basically in the driver’s lap, and one of them obligingly scans each of the cards (or drops the coins in the coin receptacle), stacks them back together, and passes them back down the bus to their owners. Without fail, every single time I have seen this done, I have gotten my own metro card back intact with almost stunning alacrity. Amazing. In a city known for its pickpockets, the respect for the bus fare somewhat astounds.
Step 8: Settle in. You’ve navigated the treacherous mounting process, you’ve paid your fare; now you get to relax and enjoy the sardine aspect of the bus ride. Basically you just have to accept the fact that there is absolutely no personal space, and trying to keep any semblance of it will just make you nuts. So you become perfectly okay with the fact that you are pressed rather closely up against the guy in front of you, and the girl to the side might lean up against you and/or grab your arm to steady herself because she’s hanging out in the middle of the aisle with no hand holds so she’s braced against you and maybe the guy on the other side of her, who’s holding on for dear life to the pole next to the driver. There is also probably another smallish woman who has hopped up onto the seats, feet placed carefully so as not to step on the folks sitting in said seats, and she may have a thigh or, depending how short she is, a butt cheek, pressed nonchalantly against the side of your head. Especially when you go around corners. Oh, and don’t mind that woman sitting nearby who suffers from motion sickness; someone will pass her one of the plastic bags that are provided on every bus just for this purpose.
Step 9: Disembarking. Depending on your final destination, you might be one of the lucky souls who watches the bus slowly empty out as you get further and further away from the middle of the city. Suddenly you feel the blessed relief of the air-conditioner, and your foot is no longer being stood upon by a small child (or small adult). Eventually you might even get a chance to sit down as the throng subsides slowly.
But usually you are not that lucky. Usually, you are getting off at one of the stops in the middle of the route, along with 30 other people. And there are usually another 30 trying to get on at the same time. So again, you steel yourself, take a deep breath, look around for your travel-mates, and start getting into position to bolt from the vehicle. If your Chinese is not completely atrocious (or even if it is) you can tell the people around you, “I need to get off the bus” and they will begin to shuffle and press you forward closer to the door. Finally the bus stops, the doors fly open, and you push like an infant exiting the womb, flinging yourself into space for a moment before landing on the concrete (blessed, blessed concrete) and ducking out of the way of the people trying to fill the space you just vacated. One of your friends might have an oversized purse that is caught between two other passengers, and you might have to rush over and yank on her until she and her bag come free and land with you on the sidewalk. A few seconds later, the bus doors close once more and it peels away, and you are left, somewhat breathless, glad of your relatively unscathed state and slightly bewildered by all of the breathing room you now have and the fact that you can move your arms.
Count your fingers, toes, and handbags, and then proceed to scuttle merrily off to whatever activity it was for which you chose to brave the harrowing gauntlet of the Shenzhen mass transit system at rush hour. You mad fool, you.