At the moment I am in Panzhihua, I arrived here at
4:30 am on the worst bus ride that I have ever experienced.
Long bus journeys are always unpleasant. But at 17-hour bus ride in
China is worse than unpleasant! The age of the bus and the appalling
roads make me feel as if the bus is using my head in the same way a
pinball machine uses the speedball. Let me describe the bus to you, in
case you're ever fooled by a Chinese travel agent into believing that
a 'Super VIP Bus' is something that might slightly resemble luxury.
To begin with the bus is very old. In human years, it must be about
15-20 years old, and as with dogs, each bus year should be the
equivalent of seven human years, so the bus is really well over 100
years old- trust me it does look that old. Many of the windows are
cracked and held together with copious amounts of sticky tape or
covered with cardboard. The seats/beds were probably never
comfortable, but age has not been kind to them. Everything on the bus
is grotty and dirty - it's the kind of place where you don't want to
touch anything because you'd have to wash your hands and your entire
body afterwards with disinfectant. I dread to think how many people
have slept in the beds, or when the last time the blankets were
washed- if ever. The odor is intense, a mix of feet, smoke, sweat and
urine. The noise wonderful as well, with the sound of a passengers
hawking phlegm at a decibel level loud enough to wake the entire bus
(or those lucky enough to catch some sleep inside the pinball
machine), and then spitting a disappointingly small amount of phlegm
into a bag, or usually onto the floor if the driver wasn't looking.
With all the noise produced by the hawking, I imagined some kind of
mutant alien creature was going to emerge from a gaping mouth and
devour all the passengers. By hour 10 of the journey, I would have
volunteered to be gobbled first. Anything to end the bus journey.
Around hour 4, we stopped at a 'roadside cafe', for a dining
experience I'll never forget. The cafe-shack looked more like a bright
garage than anything else. The Chinese, of course, saw nothing strange
in the place, and happily munched away, stopping only occasionally to
spit out bones they'd sucked dry and engage in copious amounts of
hawking phlegm, which they could now spit on the floor, unperturbed by
our kill-joy driver. If I had been starving and on the very cusp of
death, I might have been persuaded to nibble some of the rice plain,
but I figured there was more than enough body fat on me to see me
through the trip. Have you ever noticed that you never get food
poisoning from eating your own body fat? Perhaps that's why it evolved
- to protect you on long Chinese bus journeys!!!
The toilet was an adjoining shed with four cubicles separated by walls
of concrete bricks. The wall, however, was only a couple of bricks
high, so when I entered I was met by the grimacing supine figures of
other passengers crouching to make deposits. They all smoked cheap
Chinese cigarettes which added to an already overpowering smell. As I
peed into one of the cubicles, or cubiclettes, I noticed that there
weren't any holes to swallow my pee, just a drain, so my small
fragrant stream of pee would have to wash away the turds of my
neighbours- lovely huh?!
As we boarded the bus for the remaining 11 hours of the journey I
tried to rise above the discomfort and concentrate on the Sichwan
countryside. Western Sichwan is one of the most fertile areas of
China, 80 per cent of which is barren and only suitable for light
grazing, at best. To be more precise, the soil in Sichwan is fertile,
but the hilly landscape makes mechanical farming impossible. The
Chinese, have altered the landscape to suit their needs. They've
terraced the hills to allow rice production, using only mud, sweat and
an occasional buffalo. There are also tons of rivers and streams
crisscrossing the countryside. We pass through village after village,
whose shops look like garages and are full of old men whose main
business seems to be just sitting around.
All in all, the trip was the most wretched and uncomfortable on thus
far in my life, but I suppose I'm glad I did it, in a weird way, I was
able to see how most people actually travel in China. The mobile
phone-wielding businessmen you see in the airports are a tiny
minority. Even the passengers on the Super VIP bus are by no means
poor, and they all had mobile phones too, come to think of it. But
the majority of Chinese people are only able to, and often chose to
travel by bus. However Ill happily stick to train travel from now on.
Well Ive once again set out to write a short update and gotten carried
away. I am off to the train station to continue a 7 hour "layover"
before the 15 hour train trip. I'm just hoping that it will be a bit
smoother than the train trip I just endured. Wish me luck!!!!