Transportation Stories #3. Why would you ever take the bus?

The morning

This story is a bit different from our previous transportation stories, in that it is not centered around people who we met or travelled with. This is probably not surprising for most who have travelled through China, as it seems like we are almost routinely ignored by the locals. Instead this story is about what was for us a unique set of circumstances which led to a chaotic night of travel in which we weren’t entirely sure when we’d reach our destination or even if that destination was going to be the one which we had expected.

Our original intention was to travel from Turpan to Kashgar via the overnight train rather than the overnight bus. Upon arrival in Turpan, however, we learned that while the bus station was conveniently located next to our hotel, the train station is actually located some 50km away in Daheyan. Being quite happy to bow to convenience and also having been satisfied by our previous overnight bus ride from Almaty to Urumqi, we opted instead for the bus.

Now I don’t like to spoil the outcome of the story prematurely, but this was not in any way a good decision on our part. Instead of being packed away quietly and comfortably on the bunks of a slowly rocking train that lulls you to sleep and might be hermetically sealed the way it keeps the dust and heat of the desert on the other side of the large clean windows, we opted for the something that was not entirely as comfortable.

Upon boarding this bus it was instantly obvious that this trip was not going to be quite as comfortable as the bus from Almaty to Urumqi had been. Instead of the nice wide sleeper bunks aligning either side of the bus and the wide, clean, carpeted aisle between as we had found on the Kazakh bus, the Chinese buses are, well, more Chinese – by which I mean their design is focused on efficiency and not comfort. The bus we boarded contained three rows of much slimmer bunks including one row of bunks along each side of the bus and one up the middle. There were two very thin aisles dividing the bunks which barely allowed one to pass without turning partially sideways and many people did adopt a crab-like side shuffle on the way to their places. The result of this much more confined layout is that the Chinese bus fit approximately 54 people against the maybe 35 the Kazakh model carried – Hallelujah to the land of efficiency, where the ideals of the CAFO are projected to better serve the human population!

Scene from a bus window

We had paid a slight premium price for two bottom bunks, as Angie had not enjoyed the motion of the upper bunk on our previous bus ride, and we had bought tickets early enough to choose two seats next to each other. We rode this bus without issue for about six hours, though we both realized that we would probably not sleep as well tonight as we had on our previous bus due to the slimmer and shorter bunks, particularly me as I’d most certainly have to curl up sideways in order to fit comfortably enough to sleep. Still, it was a pleasant enough ride through some very unique landscapes of alternating flat dusty desert and jagged rocky desert.

Rocky desert between Turpan and Kashgar

And then the bus stopped for dinner at about 10pm and things got a bit worse.

Having brought our own snacks for our dinner we did not go into any of the roadside restaurants but waited outside the bus (the bus drivers eat at this time too and they don’t allow people to stay on the bus, I assume to prevent theft). This was not a major inconvenience at all, we’ve done this before. There were no toilets here, so our only option was to walk accross the street to a dark unlit lot that was mostly used as a parking lot for work trucks. We crawled over a fence to this lot an were instantly covered in a film of silt – the soil was so soft and fine that the slightest agitation resulted in a large cloud that adhered to everything. And I do mean it stuck to everything. Recall that we were here to relieve ourselves.

About thirty minutes later a second bus pulled up behind ours, an elder statesmen of this dusty road by its ragged appearance. The people on this bus unloaded for dinner as we had also just done, and all seemed normal.

Soon enough, however, a group of younger men who had been on our bus were allowed back onto the bus to retrieve their belongings and moved to the elder statesman. No worries on our part, a transfer to another bus is not uncommon and should we need to move certainly the driver would approach us to let us know, as has always been the case elsewhere when we are clearly the only ones who do not speak the native language.

But apparently in this assumption we again were incorrect and, as the saying goes, came out looking quite a four legged beast of burden (or maybe spincteresque for those who interpret the saying differently). Angie then thought she may have heard the man at the elder statesman say “Kashgar”, which was of course where we’d hoped to end up, but she wasn’t quite sure why he’d have said this or even that he in fact had.

Once we loaded back on our original bus, we looked around and realised that there were a number of different people around us. I then found someone who looked to be possibly in control of something, and showed him our tickets, to which he reacted excitedly and motioned for us to hastily deboarded the bus and board the elder statesman.  We motioned that we needed our bags from the compartment beneath the bus, and he went running all about looking for the other man who was possibly in control of something, found the keys, and allowed us to retrieve our bags.

As the first man possibly in control of something left us at the doors to the elder statesman and retreated back to our first bus, which by comparison looked a luxury cruise liner, Angie realized that he had not returned our tickets and became a bit worried. When none of the men possibly in control of something on the elder statesman attended to us we threw our bags into lower compartment of the elder statesman and jumped on the dreamy dust wagon of a bus.

And to our surprise, the elder statesman was full! Regardless we started squeezing down one of aisles but were shouted at to come back by one of the men possibly in control of something. Once we had returned to the front of the bus, the man possibly in control of something pointed to the numbers 12 and 13 on his bus seating chart, and we obediently headed up the other aisle towards the indicated bunks.

But of course as luck would have it – though it probably had less to do with luck than the incredible organizational skills of the men possibly in control of something – we found those bunks to be already occupied by people attempting through the din to resume the slumber that dinner had interrupted. We wandered further up the aisle as more people crowded up it leaving us with no place to escape, until the man possibly in control of something clawed his way through herd.

Of course the man possibly in control of something realized that we had paid for lower bunks and attempted at this point to rectify the situation – by waking with some force a woman who may have somehow have been older than the elder statesman and who was understandably unhappy to be woken and even more understandably furious when the man possibly in control of something told her to ascend to the upper bunk so that a perfectly healthy looking and much younger foreigner could take her place. And despite both this elderly woman and Angie arguing with the man possibly in control of something, trying to tell him that they did not need to be switched (while I fulfilled the manly role by looking on sheepishly), the man possibly in control of something proved that, at least in this situation, he was definitely in control of something. Angie settled reluctantly into the lower bunk while the elderly woman crawled up top.

But here I was still without a seat, and while the man definitely in control of something looked frantically around the interior of the elder statesman trying to find an open bunk, you could see by the look on his face that the control had vanished and he had reverted to again being the man possibly in control of something or even possibly the man who is definitely not in control of anything. He sheepishly motioned to the upper back bunk, the only one open, his eyes hoping against hope that I would find this bunk acceptable and not force him to wake another slumbering elderly woman.

Let me tell you that the back top bunk is most certainly the worst seat on a Chinese sleeper bus. It is cut short by the curvature of the back of the bus, and as you can imagine the shrinking of a bunk already made for people smaller than I did not help me find sleep. I’m fact, I sat awake with the majority of my weight being transferred through my knee, which rested on a thin metal sleeve which was meant to contain my legs, had they fit. I did not sleep at all in this position which was really the only one I could adopt without tumbling to the dirty bus floor below or into the occupied bunk beside me.

And so we were separated on an unknown bus, without tickets showing our intended destination and without actually being certain of the intended destination of the bus on which we sat.

Thankfully things did improve from this point.

At 3.45am the bus stopped and about 30 percent of the passengers disembarked, including the woman who had been in the bunk next to Angie. She fetched me from the back of the bus and I thankfully moved to the newly opened seat which may as well have been a king sized bed so comfortable did it feel compared to the shoebox of a bunk I’d been pretzeled into for the last few hours.

More importantly we were able to get a phone signal here in this town and determine via Google maps that we were at least heading in the correct general direction of Kashgar. While the bus could surely still veer off to some other desert town, it was reassuring to at least know our direction.

And then I slept finally, as evidenced by this lovely photo which Angela so kindly snapped.

Most elusive slumber

By early afternoon the bus pulled into Kashgar, and despite the bus station being a few kilometers from the town center and our hostel, we were not in a mood to jump on a public bus or succumb to the taxi sharks, who are actually much less aggressive here. We started walking.

We are still uncertain as to why we were made to switch buses, but we are fairly certain that this is not the intended method and that there was likely a bit of corruption and such between the drivers and assistants. While we did arrive at our intended destination this experience definitely will make us opt for trains in China from this point on, and this is something perhaps others are already aware of as we’ve yet to meet any other travelers who have taken a bus.

And so we walked on down the road, eventually arriving at the Pamir Youth Hostel not only greasy and gritty from the ride but now also sweat drenched from the walk in the hot sun. We were very nicely greeted by the girl at the desk and she made some small talk as she filled out the paperwork to check us in.

Girl: “So which train did you come in on? It’s not too bad on the ones without air conditioning right now but it’s very hot in the summer. Did you get a bus or a taxi from the station?”

Me: “We took the bus from Turpan and we walked from the station.”

Girl [abruptly stops work and looks up with a face expressing both disgust and amazement]: “Why would you ever take the bus?”

The morning


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