T plus 28 - Hotan to Kashgar
There’s a lot to like about bussing in China. First, it offers a route network that is far more comprehensive than rail. Second, bus stations are usually in the city, unlike some railway stations which can be way out of town (especially the high speed rail stations). Third, you rarely see the 50-person long queues common in railway stations, and there are always more buses than there are trains. Fourth and finally, buses are almost always point-to-point i.e. no worrying about getting off at a station too early or too late.
Interestingly however, buses are not cheaper than trains. The same distance, in roughly the same conditions e.g. a “hard seat” is up to 50% more expensive on bus vs rail. I guess there’s no competing with the economy of scale offered by 20 rail carriages, with 100 passengers each, powered by electricity. BUT with all things considered, it may work out cheaper if one prices in the more direct routes and shorter waiting times.
There are, however, some idiosyncrasies which one should be aware of.
Short distance (under 5 hours)
I posted “Road Rape” earlier, on my experience with minibuses in Zhangye province. Even if you haven’t read it, you may detect undertones of dissatisfaction in its title. Happily however, minibuses in other regions are much better. Not that it would have been possible to do any worse.
Always confirm with the ticket lady at the bus station that it’s a proper bus you’ll be travelling in. My 2 ½ hour journey to the Dunhuang railway station was in a van, packed to capacity with 12 passengers and their luggage – people on top of bags and bags on top of people. There are better ways to spend 150 minutes than being compressed into what I can only describe as the ball position.
Long distance (more than 5 hours)
This is where options and experiences get more varied. The normal seats i.e. 4 astride (2+2) are generally the safest. Because you know what to expect. And the seats recline to business-class angles. Which is great. Unless you’re seated behind someone who is maxing out this luxury.
There are also “sleeper” buses. And although they sound fantastic, well, they’re not. They’ve somehow managed to squeeze in 35 (really) “bunks” into one standard-sized bus. Three astride, six deep and two decks. Minus one to accommodate the front console. The width of one of these “bunks” is precisely 45 centimetres, or one butt cheek of a moderately overweight person. Of course, to actually fit 35 berths into one bus, they’ve had to overlap the passengers. Which means a third of you is actually under the person in front of you, whose backrest is raised. It’s like sleeping on a slide – a constantly losing battle with gravity and inertia.
They make you take off your shoes when you get on, and this sounds like a good idea. But again, it’s not. I don’t know how many of you have been jolted from sleep by SMELL before. This was an entirely new sensation for me. I was dozing off when my olfactory senses were abruptly assaulted by an overpowering odour. Looking up, I found this blackened, mangled claw dangling from the berth above, two feet from my face. With heels so cracked they looked like a close-up of the Utah salt flats. And toenails so foul they would have made any pedicurist contemplate suicide.
Oh, one more thing. Unlike trains, there are no toilets on the bus. And on a 16 hour journey, you’ll have to go, no matter what your bladder is made of. In Xinjiang, there are very very few rest stops with functioning WCs. So the following scenario is likely. Take note.
Tourist: Driver! I have to go to the toilet.
Driver: Ok, we’re stopping soon.
Tourist: Is there a place for me to relieve myself in the privacy of an enclosed area and running water to wash my hands after?
Driver: No. You pee in the open, like everyone else. You walk further away if you don’t want others to see. Always have your back against the wind (for men). Otherwise you will have pee on your pants.
Tourist: What if I have no water?
Driver: If you very steady, you no need to wash hands after.
Tourist: Ok, but what if I want to do a No.2?
Driver: You find a tree.
Tourist: But this is a desert. There are no trees.
Driver: Ok, you go behind the sand dune. Someone may already be there, so you shout first.
Tourist: Ermmm. Ok. What if I have no toilet paper?
Driver: Then, my friend, you’re shit outta luck.