Travelling around China is a rewarding, yet challenging experience. English speakers are a rarity making simple tasks such as ordering food and booking train tickets a major accomplishment. However, with myself in charge of communications, and my travel companion Paul taking the role of navigator, we made a good team. We were a team only beaten by “Spring Festival”, a two-week period around Chinese New Year. During this time the millions of Chinese natives heading back to their home provinces throw the nation’s railways into chaos. Train tickets cannot be purchased more than three days before the departure date; a rule that was supposedly invented to prevent a backlog of fully booked trains. Consequently, crowds of keen travellers, determined to purchase tickets as soon as they are released, invade the train stations at midnight. This is not a time when the foreign ticket counters are open, nor when it is appropriate to annoy the harassed, unfortunate behind the counter with barely recognisable Chinese writing copied meticulously from the Lonely Planet. Hence, we found ourselves stuck in Luoyang, totally incapable of booking a train anywhere. It had become time to bus it, a decision not welcomed thanks to previous experiences in Asia.
Remarkably the bus station in Luoyang has English signs. These informed us that there were no direct buses to Shanghai, our desired destination, however we found we could get a bus to Zhagzhou from where our guidebook promised good connections. It all seemed too easy. The bus to Zhangzhou was brand new, with spacious, reclining seats, fully functioning air-con and a western toilet. At Zhangzhou we immediately found a ticket counter, behind which was an obliging man who understood both my pigeon English and frantic referrals to the Lonely Planet. Within minutes we had booked two tickets on an overnight bus, leaving for Shanghai in two hours. Overjoyed with our purchase we ambled down to McDonalds to celebrate with a western feast before heading back to the bus station for our 5:20 departure time.
On boarding the bus we shared a mixture of admiration and alarm at the number of bunks that had been crammed into one vehicle. These were barely big enough for even the smallest of people to lie comfortably and sitting up was not an option. To squeeze in as many passengers as possible the bunks were designed such that each person’s feet fit into a compartment, which is the next person’s pillow. We had been supplied a duvet but these were small and gave off an odour, largely dependent on the previous user. I looked around for a toilet and was horrified to discover that there wasn’t one. From previous experience I knew that the pressure of not having a toilet on demand would make my bladder even more active than normal. By the time we got moving, fifteen minutes behind schedule, I was already regretting not using the facilities in the bus station waiting room.
Despite these discomforts the journey began fairly pleasantly. I lay back, relaxed and chatted to Paul about our plans in Shanghai. The bus was peaceful and it wasn’t until the driver chose to switch on the in-bus karaoke machine that our evening took a tragic turn for the worse. If there’s one thing more agonising than being dragged to a karaoke bar on a night out, its being trapped on a bus full of people singing Chinese Karaoke. We didn’t understand a word and had no alcohol to help numb the pain that all non-karaoke fans feel when they have it inflicted on them. The sound was cranked up well beyond the potential of the bus speakers, hence was severely distorted. The main participant was a rotund man a few bunks in front of us. Singing wasn’t exactly his forte and we cringed as he painstakingly skipped through the songs, only attempting a few lines before changing to the next one.
About three hours into the journey, the driver obviously felt he had tortured us enough and abruptly ended the karaoke hell. Now it was film time and for the next few hours we suffered two fairly reasonable films, ruined by the struggling speakers blaring out an incomprehensible mix of English and Chinese. We still hadn’t had a toilet break, and my bladder felt like it was about to burst at the seams. In too much pain to move myself I bellowed at Paul to head down the bus and inform the driver that I desperately needed to stop and was beyond caring where. After much flapping about and desperate attempts at charades he sauntered back down the bus, confident that he’d got his message across. It seemed that I wasn’t the only passenger with toilet issues. During the next hour the driver acquired a small crowd of agitated people all of whom appeared to be pleading with him in Chinese. However, he remained untouched by the situation and stayed focussed on the road ahead, seemingly with no desire to pull in before schedule.
A further hour went by before we finally pulled up next to a moody looking concrete building. As soon as the bus doors opened I rushed out, totally oblivious to the horror that I was about to endure. I found myself in a room with nothing but a gutter running through the middle. My immediate thought was that somehow I was in the wrong place. However, this theory was soon crushed by the arrival of my fellow female passengers. There were no partitions, which made squatting over a trench of open sewage even less desirable. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the facilities had been designed such that the waste from the men’s toilet flowed via the ladies on its way out of the building. Desperately trying not to make eye contact with any one else in the room I joined the embarrassingly snug line of ladies hovering over the offensive sewage. Some of the women, having finished at the gutter, proceeded to pace around the room, still half undressed, spitting on the ground as they went. Choosing not to partake in this activity, I legged it out of the building as quickly as possible.
We endured another hour of multilingual movie madness before the bus stopped again. This time we were ushered into a draughty room where our fellow passengers all seemed to make themselves at home, wondering in and out of smaller, cosier looking rooms and helping themselves to cups of boiling water. Feeling cold and hard done by we stood by the door and did what English people do best, moan. Next to us was a bowl of murky water, supposedly for hand washing. An enthusiastic man gestured at us to use this unhygienic facility and seemed shocked that we would rather have dirty hands than indulge in the germs of the hundreds of other unfortunate passengers that had stopped here since the water was last changed. It wasn’t long before we deduced that this delightful service station was to be our dinner stop. At the far end of the room a cheery crew of people slopped out plates of unappetising looking food. We were almost tempted to sample chef’s culinary masterpiece until we saw a truck pull up with what we could only presume was the latest meat delivery, a trailer crammed with mangy, diseased looking pigs.
Before leaving I decided I should brave the toilet, after all, I couldn’t guarantee that I’d get another opportunity for the next five hours. Paul wished me luck as I marched towards my destiny, another ominous looking concrete dwelling. I took a deep breath before making my entrance, and psyched myself up for another round of communal gutter hovering. Before this moment I couldn’t have envisioned a toilet more loathsome than the previous one. The designer of this foul amenity had obviously felt that a gutter, or any other form of waste outlet was an unnecessary luxury, the result of which was indescribable. Around the edge of the room were concrete platforms to stand on, the only feature that distinguished it from my garage at home (had my garage been full of sewage!). Privacy was only achieved by being the only fool that had chosen to use this primitive outhouse. Stomping back to the bus I silently vowed to dehydrate myself in the hope that this would deter all bladder activity until we were safely in Shanghai.
Back on the bus the lights were out and the television finally turned off. It was now past midnight and the window next to my bunk had frozen. This meant that any part of me that had the misfortune of touching the glass was instantly cold and damp. Cold air was blasting out of the air conditioning, the reason for which could only have been known by our unsympathetic driver. I huddled under my miserly duvet, wrapped up in hat, scarf, coat and gloves and was still too cold to have a hope of getting to sleep. We stopped several more times but I refused to leave my bunk, scared that any movement near my bladder would spur it into action. As the bus jerked and jolted its way to Shanghai I spent a long night contemplating the benefits of lying against the icy window or risking my life on the edge of my child size bunk.
At 6:30a.m the lights came back on. I sunk further under my duvet, we still had a few hours of travel left and I didn’t see why we should be blinded with bright lights at this unsociable hour. Within the next ten minutes the general morning hullabaloo of an Asian public vehicle had started up. This was a fairly sufferable background noise, however the afore mentioned karaoke machine was not. By 7:00a.m the fat Chinese guy was belting out tunes at the top of his voice, which made waking up on a cramped, cold, toilet less bus even more unbearable than it already was. The ordeal soon became too much for Paul, who had been near breaking point since the first Karaoke incident. Not known for his tolerance first thing in the morning, he finally let rip and, in language that was more colourful than Joseph’s famous Dream coat, informed the Chinese Karaoke King exactly how abysmal his singing was. This torrent of abuse had the desired effect, the Pop Idol wannabe forfeited the mike and the karaoke machine was swiftly turned off. An air of uncomfortable silence filled the bus, before those that were most daring started sheepishly chatting for the remainder of the journey.
Our spirits soared as we finally arrived in Shanghai. We were promptly dumped at a bus station in the middle of nowhere and had no idea how to get to the city centre, but that didn’t bother us at all. We jumped in the nearest taxi, feeling too disillusioned to bother working out the local buses. We had already vowed never to use a Chinese bus again. Once in the City Centre, we had one, simple goal, to find somewhere with a Western toilet and not a Karaoke machine in sight. On achieving this goal, we sat back and saw the funny side of what had to be the worst journey either of us has ever undertaken.
Copyright © 2004 Michelle Lane