National Week, Part One: Long-Distance Travel
Disclaimer: This is going to be a fairly substantial series of posts, as it encompasses 4 days of hardcore vacationing away from Shenzhen. I may wax poetical about mud caves. It will be in several parts, number TBA; but I hope to be able to post them one after another over the next few days. (Partly as an apology for not posting anything for the last two weeks…)
Last week marked the National Day Golden Week here in the good ol’ PRC. This national holiday is celebrated on the 7 days beginning with October 1st, commemorating the formation of the People’s Republic of China and the ceremony at Tiananmen Square in 1949. As a Golden week, it’s a holiday for Chinese workers so it’s a time when millions upon millions of Chinese people go travelling. Everything is clogged. The bus systems, trains, airports, boats– any conceivable method of transportation by which a group of foreign teachers from Shenzhen might use to get around is also being utilized by thousands of Chinese tourists. It is utter madness and chaos– but surprisingly organized madness and chaos.
I went with a group of about 40 teachers to a city called Guilin, which is in the next province from where we live. Guilin and the surrounding areas are in what is called the River District, because there are a sort of uncountable number of them running the through the area. The scenery is absolutely stunning, as the county is known for its karst formations– a topography of closely packed limestone hills and an a network of limestone caves. The hills are covered in local flora, mostly trees, and have a distinctive, jagged look to them. The place where I stayed with about a dozen or so of the teachers is a town about an hour outside of Guilin called Yangshuo, which is basically the Chinese mecca for rock climbers and backpackers. I’ll talk more substantially about Yangshuo in another post, but here I want to describe the journey to and around Guilin, because if you’ve never been on a sleeper bus before (and I assume most of you have not), well… it’s an adventure.
35 of us made arrangements to travel together on a bus leaving Shenzhen at about 9:30 pm on Friday night, which entailed us all finding our way to the bus station around 8 pm and then hanging about looking incredibly foreign amidst the hordes of Chinese travellers. I’d like to point out that, in order to get to the Silver Lake Long Distance Bus Station in northern Futian by 8pm, my luggage and I left my house at 5:30 to get on the public bus, which took me to the Metro, which took me to another public bus. (Thankfully, rush hour was not really in effect that day.) Two and a half hours of travelling through the city later, I arrived in time to sit down to a couple of beers with my fellow teachers. Then we all piled into the Silver Lake Station, where we proceeded to mob the convenience store and clean them out of Pringles, Oreo’s, and bottles of water.
In typical China fashion, we were on time– the bus was not. Though it was scheduled to leave at 9:30, the bus didn’t even pull up to our station until after 10:45. By the time we got our luggage situated and crawled into our sleeper bunks, it was about 11:00 and we were ready to pass out. Here’s the thing, though: sleeper buses could not even facetiously be called “comfortable.”
You climb up the stairs, and the first thing that happens after you notice that everything is padded in this sort of weird rubbery red carpet, is that the bus driver hands you a plastic bag and points at your shoes, which you are clearly supposed to remove before setting foot on the bizarre red matting. So you shed your shoes, hoping the person behind you wasn’t close enough to have just gotten a faceful of booty as you bent over to do so. Then you stand bewildered for a second as turn to get a good look at the layout of the bus.
Sleeper buses are laid out thusly: There are three rows of bunks running the length of the bus,, holding about 40 beds in all– down the right-hand and left-hand sides and smack down the middle, with a set of floor bunks and a set of upper bunks. The bunks are (obviously) head-to-foot, about 18 inches wide, and built for people who are, on average, about 5’4″. At least there is a little head room, as the upper bunk sits about 4 feet off the ground. There is, however, very little foot room, and the way this is handled is for each of the bunks to have 45-degree angle bend in the middle (non-reclinable, by the way), and the feet of the person behind you actually go into the space underneath your head and back. Luckily the bunks are made of pretty thick plastic. The downside is, because the seats are rigid, not only can you not recline them (sleeping on one’s side or stomach at this angle is possible, but extremely painful) but you also can’t sit them up any further. So you either have the choice to lie down on your back, or to sit full upright with no back support.
The trip from Shenzhen to Guilin is roughly 10 hours, but thankfully it is overnight. On the way to Guilin, I had been sick and was still on several forms of cold medication so I crashed hard pretty much as soon as the bus pulled out of the station and woke up while we were pulling into Guilin bus station at about 7:30 in the morning.
Man. The Guilin bus station is an adventure in and of itself. Because you haven’t heard enough about them in general, I have to tell you about the bathrooms at this bus station. I’ve been living in China for a couple of months now, but even so I was still mildly horrified. Instead of the regular squatties, the bus station bathroom consists of a raised tiled platform with a trench in the middle of it which runs down the entire length of the back wall. The platform is divided into stalls, which– wait for it– have no doors. So you’re sitting there, squatting over this trench, just hanging out while people are trying not to look at you. Or, if you’re a foreigner, while they are all staring obviously at you. Every now and again the trench is washed by a gush of water from one end of the room. If you are unlucky enough to be in the stall closest to the flushing mechanism, do watch out for splashing. Ew.
We survived the bus station, though, bought tickets for our respective return trips, and then the 15 of us who were headed on to Yangshuo bought tickets for that bus as well. The Guilin-Yangshuo bus runs about every 20-30 minutes, and there were enough of us that we had to go on two separate buses. So most of our group left at about 9:30am, while 4 of us got tickets for the next bus at 9:55. I got adopted by a Chinese family on this particular leg of the trip. It was funny, because there were 4 blond-haired, blue-eyed foreigners travelling together on this bus but this family attached themselves to me for some reason. There was a little girl with adorable, adorable pigtails who was obviously a little frightened of the weird-looking wairen, but her mom kept bringing her over to have pictures taken with me. Then when we got our seats, they shuffled around to allow the grandma the place of honor next to the foreigner. (The other three were sitting on the bench of seats in the very back– I was in a single seat just ahead of them.) We didn’t really talk much, but the grandma kept patting my hand and smiling at me, and I’d catch the various family members staring at me now and again.
I had been asleep for the sleeper bus, but was fully awake on the way the Yangshuo and therefore got the full taste of what travel is like in more rural China. I though city traffic was insane, but this was just out of control. The highways are two painted lanes; but nobody pays attention to that. There were usually 4 lanes of traffic, sometimes two lanes heading west and two heading east, though sometimes it was 3 one way and 1 another, and sometimes it was 4 lanes all travelling in the same direction. Then there was a bit of a traffic jam, so our bus driver decided to pull into oncoming traffic and barrel on through, honking madly, so close to the traffic on the right side that I felt sure we were going to clip some sideview mirrors. Then there was apparently too much traffic on that side, so he dipped through the line of cars out onto the shoulder on the other side, and drove down the shoulder for a while. Oh, and while all this is going on, he’s leaning merrily on the horn about every 5 seconds. Which is totally normal in this area, apparently. I have never heard so many vehicle horns in my entire life.
Suffice to say, we arrived in Yangshuo, unscathed and in one piece, and really, really glad to be done with the travel and traffic for a few days. Or so we thought. Next up: bicycles, buffalo, and bamboo rafts. Stay tuned.