If I had a penny for every kilometer that I have traveled by bus in China, I would never have to travel by bus again. Twenty-eight hours by bus from Qinghai Province to Lhasa, Tibet. Twenty-four hours from Central China to Xiamen. Twelve plus hours from Laos to Kunming. There were many more; too many to remember. One might think that I became very comfortable traveling by bus in China, but in reality, I always tried to avoid buses as much as possible.
Traveling by bus is definitely the cheapest way to ‘get around’ in China; it is also the most dangerous method of travel. During my extensive travel by bus in China, I have encountered crazy drivers, bold thieves, ‘turbulence’ as bad as on an airplane, and brain cell killing fumes. Obviously, I survived to write about these experiences so there is some hope for other foreigners who happen to find themselves trapped in a bus for hours on end.
You might be asking yourself right about now why I have chosen to take the bus so much. ‘Chosen’ is not the correct word to use. While the train system in China is modern and extensive, there are times when 1). you cannot even find a ‘standing room only’ ticket and 2). a train is simply not available to where you are going. In these situations, you have to ‘bite the bullet’ and hope and pray that a Chinese bus can get you where you want to go in ‘one piece.’
There is one advantage to traveling by bus in China that you do not typically find going ‘Greyhound’ in the United States; most long distance buses in China are equipped with beds on which, if you are very lucky, you may be able to catch a few hours of ‘shuteye.’ Beware. If you are unfortunate enough to be perched on a top ‘bunk,’ you may find yourself flying off in the middle of the night should your bus happen to screech to a halt or hit even a moderate sized pothole. You definitely want to keep your belongings in a bag and keep that bag securely attached to yourself. Once your cell phone or MP3 player has fallen off your bed, you might as well start thinking about how much money you are going to spend on your next one.
If it was possible, it would just be better to stay on the bus for the whole trip. Unfortunately( or fortunately depending on how you look at it), most long distance buses do not have bathroom facilities which means that at some point, you will have to get off. Make sure you take everything with you in case someone else decides to ‘hang around’ and ‘sniff’ through your bags. When you do get off the bus, make sure you keep a close eye on it so that it does not end up leaving without you. Chinese bus drivers are notoriously impatient and your absence will probably not ruin any one’s day. Always pay attention.
Everything else is out of your control. Saying a prayer before you board the bus and frequently while you are on the bus is probably a good idea. Your life is in the hands of a bus driver who very well may be half asleep from the 24 hour run that he he completed the day before. Hopefully, he has just been drinking water and juice but one never can tell; driving a bus in China is a rough job.
Hopefully, I have not completely frightened you about riding buses in China. You just need to be prepared for what may be a moderately uncomfortable experience or your worst nightmare. Either way, traveling by bus in China is the adventure of a life time. Happy trails!