In addition to my train travel adventures, I’ve taken a few long-distance bus trips. Some were tolerable, but others were absolutely miserable–so miserable that I no longer wish to take a bus unless it’s part of a tour.
My first real bus trip was during my semester in London. The university arranged a trip to Amsterdam–it was 12 hours overnight, and wasn’t comfortable enough for sleeping. After my semester, I took a bus to Edinburgh because train service at the time suffered from a few problems, causing significantly longer travel times–the bus wasn’t much slower and cost a lot less than the train. Again, overnight buses weren’t comfortable enough for me to get much sleep.
I didn’t take another long bus trip until I moved to China five years later.
During my first May holiday, I set out on a long journey from Chengdu to Jiuzhaigou National Park. I would’ve liked to take the short flight to Huanglong airport, but it was a bit out of my budget for that trip. I was told the bus to Songpan, a brief stopover along the way, was a second-class bus. I maintain that to be second-class, it would require the bus to have some class. It was hot and humid in Chengdu, but the bus had no air conditioning. There was still snow on the ground when we reached mountains, and the windows wouldn’t close. Along that 12-hour bus ride, at least 10 men chain smoked (never stopping for a breath)–and this included the bus driver sitting beneath the “No Smoking” sign.
Along the route to Songpan, our full bus stopped a few times to pick up more passengers–not that the bus company would approve, but the driver and ticket taker needed to make some extra cash. These passengers sat on the floor and were told to hide when we reached checkpoints because it was illegal to have an overloaded bus. I don’t know what the authorities would’ve done had they discovered the illegal passengers.
The only worthwhile part of the smoke-filled bus through the winding mountain roads of Sichuan was the scenery. There were beautiful views of terraced fields, roadside villages, and rivers. The bus also stopped a couple times for bathroom breaks. At each of those stops, there were also some local vendors selling tasty treats like dried yak meat. On the way back, I even got to sit on a yak.
I only used the rest stop for a bathroom break once on that trip. I paid 5 jiao (about 7 cents) for the privilege of walking into a wood shack converted into a public toilet. I knew public toilets in China were generally dirty, but this one was on a different level.
I walked on the creaking floor to find the hole in the floor in which to urinate. As I looked down, I discovered that I had just paid to pee off a cliff. There was no plumbing, just a hole that gave a great view down the side of the mountain. I paid to do what I could’ve done outside.
We drove on to Songpan, the driver and passengers continuing their chain smoking, and arrived a couple hours before sunset to enjoy a little of what the town offered.
Fortunately, the bus back from Jiuzhaigou a few days later was more modern–it even had air conditioning. Of course, it still had a few passengers who insisted on smoking during the journey, which was exacerbated by the fact that this bus didn’t have windows that opened.
It certainly turned me off from ever taking a long bus ride again. But, I’ve been known to make the same mistakes, and a bus ride through a foreign country is probably one of those repeatable mistakes.