Hey! Where’s My Sleeper Bus?

Ed. note: The following entry was originally posted on Kerrin’s blog ‘Piao Bo Productions’ during his year-long teaching stint in China.

Feb. 2, 2009…

I travel cheaply. I travel how I must. I travel wildly. I use short terse sentences to get my point across. In China, there are various ways to get around. Trains are by far the most common and most accessible way to travel. On a train ride that is longer than six or seven hours there will usually be four different choices while buying your ticket. They are:

Hard Seat: Hard seats are the cheapest and most uncomfortable way to travel. Packed in tighter than economy class on a Southwest flight, these seats are a risky choice. Oftentimes, they will overbook these parts of the train, which makes it hard to even get a seat – even if you paid for one! However, if you want a truly authentic China experience, this is what the average Chinese person can afford, so go ahead and purchase a “seat” and cram in with 1.3 billion people. Luckily for me, I don’t really want an authentic Chinese experience.

Soft Seat: A substantial upgrade from the Hard Seat. These seats are numbered and you will definitely have your own seat. Whether someone is sitting in it when you arrive is your own problem. This happens on pretty much every soft seat train ride I’ve been on. Solution: Kick them out! (yelling “America!” as you do so is not recommended.

Hard Sleeper: The middle-class’ economy option. Anything less than six or seven hours, and I am going soft seat, but anything over that I usually look to this option. A Hard Sleeper has six beds in one room, stacked upon each other like bunk beds. There is a (very) narrow alleyway in between the two bottom bunks. Above them is the middle berth, and finally way up in the air is the upper berth. Usually the higher you go, the cheaper the cost. I prefer the middle berth.

Soft Sleeper: Because oue waiban (Where’s my internet Chester!) is concerned for our safety, whenever he buys us tickets he gets us this high-class posh option. These beds are very similar to the Hard Sleeper, but there are a few differences. The first is that there are only four beds per room. The middle berth is pushed up a few feet, giving the bottom bunk more headroom, and the top bunk is taken out altogether. There is also a door on the front of the room for privacy, something the Hard Sleeper lacks. While this is the priciest option, it is still relatively cheap. A nine-hour overnight train from Xuzhou Beijing will only cost you about 210 Yuan, or 30 dollars.

Standing Option: This isn’t really an option, but when they run out of seats they sometimes sell these. Basically, you cram in with the rest of the Hard Seaters and stand in the aisle, the corner, or in the bathroom. Only one person I know ever bought one of these: Ashley O’Keefe. When she trained over to meet my mom and I in Xi’an (an 11 hour, overnight trip) she bought one of these to escape complete boredom in Xuzhou. Luckily, she was able to upgrade to a Hard Sleeper 30 minutes into the trip. Still, a brave soul she is.

Besides trains, there are others way to get around. Bus is the second most common. There is also something called a Sleeper Bus, where there are three long rows of bunk beds. Think Harry Potter, except a lot less magical. For places that don’t have train stations, this is your only option, such as Jinghong. Ashley and I rode two ten-hour overnight buses to Jinghong and back. It is hard to sleep on a seriously bouncy bus. Also, the beds are only made for an average-sized Chinese woman, making me five inches too tall. Luckily, we had the bottom bunks, so I could spread my legs out in the aisles. The buses weren’t entirely painful, so when we were trying to figure out how to get to Hong Kong from Yangshuo, we decided that a sleeper bus would be the best bet. We were very, very wrong.

The Story Begins:

It was January 20. It was a mildly warm night in Yangshuo. Our bus was set to leave at 6pm, so Ashley and I brought our stuff to the lobby of our hostel, where the owner told us we would be picked up at 5:30pm. 6:30 came and went without any word from the bus. Finally, at nearly 7pm, someone called the hostel to tell us that the bus was running late. So, still we waited. We had been sitting in the small lobby for nearly two hours, watching one of the girls who worked there play random, children games on the computer. Basically the game consisted of one goal: find the difference between the same picture put side by side. It was a game for eight year olds, but these twenty-somethings couldn’t get enough of it. To add to the strangeness, the game only had about ten different pictures, so they would play the same ones over and over again. Oh, China.

Finally, at just after 8pm, a small minibus came to pick us up. We were definitely confused by now. First, the lady at the hotel who bought our tickets never actually gave us a ticket. Upon questioning her on whether or not this would be a problem, all we ever got was “its no problem, no problem. You get them on bus.” Okay, we thought, that doesn’t sound sketchy at all. We threw our bags in the minibus and jumped in. They said they would take us to where the bus would pick us up. I assumed we would be getting a small minibus to take us to the bus station, so this wasn’t entirely strange to me. However, when we began our trip, we were definitely not headed in the direction of the bus station I saw downtown earlier in the day. We drove through the dark streets for 10 minutes, driving outside of downtown and onto the main highway that runs outside the city. There we pulled to the side of the road. The driver announced we had arrived.

“Arrived?” I whispered to Ashley. “This is the side of the friggin road!”

We both began to wonder exactly what was going on. Neither of us had tickets. There was no bus station in sight and our driver had said two English words the whole time: “no problem, no problem.” We decided that getting out of the van was a better idea than staying in the van, where we were at the mercy of these sketchballs. We pulled our luggage out of the van and waited. Our driver was busy running up and down the street, either looking for our bus or getting some much needed exercise. I was also busy – reassuring Ashley that we weren’t going to die. Finally, after another twenty minutes of standing on the side of a road, a large bus pulled up. Our driver called to us from across the road that it was our bus and that we should hurry onboard.

“Thank goodness,” I said. “I can’t wait to lie down and relax.”

We hurried over to the bus. Ashley noticed that something was wrong before I did.

“Kerrin,” she said, “It’s not a sleeper bus. And it’s full!”

I looked up into the windows and noticed what she had seen. This was definitely not a sleeper bus. It was just a regular, large bus with seats. There were no beds. And from the outside, it looked jammed full. Not an empty seat was in sight. To make matters worse, when they opened up the bottom compartments, they were overflowing with luggage, mostly in old chicken feed bags. I ran around to the other side of the bus and opened up that luggage compartment. There seemed to be just enough room to cram a camera bag in. However, I had to stuff two oversized backpacks into the small space. I pushed and I shoved, straining against the weight of a thousand bags tumbling out of the luggage storage. This sucks, I thought, but didn’t say for fear of upsetting Ashley, even though I’m sure she had caught onto that fact already. But sometimes its better to not say it out loud. The minibus driver came around to help me, and with our combined strength (him: 90%, me: 10%) we were able to shove both bags into the luggage compartment, though I think my badminton rackets hanging on the outside of my bag took a serious beating.

I came back around the bus and boarded the bus with Ashley. I prayed and I hoped we would be able to find a seat. I closed my eyes and asked God that if he was ever to grant me a single wish for the rest of my life, it would be to have a seat on this twelve-hour bus ride through China. I nearly dropped to my knees to beg for mercy on the first step of the bus. Please God – please let me have a seat on this bus ride. I promise to be good for the rest of my life. I promise, I promise! I opened my eyes. And, like usual, there were dozens of Chinese eyes staring right back into them. The seats up front where taken. The middle: taken. The back: taken. Every seat was filled and accounted for.

Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!! I thought.

Ashley was laughing hysterically. She has lost her mind, I thought. I must keep my cool, for both our sakes.

“Hey! This will be fun!” I said enthusiastically. “A real Chinese traveling experience.”

Ashley turned to look at me, but there was only a crazed, hysterical darkness in her eyes. Her laughter was maniacal. Bloody terrifying.

Jeepers creepers! I thought, but didn’t say, for I didn’t want her to notice that I was completely and utterly terrified of the situation – and her for that matter. The minibus driver came up behind me suddenly. I jumped. Again, I was scared.

“You will switch buses in two hours,” he said.

You can speak English? I thought, but didn’t say, for I did not want him to know I was on to him and his sly games.

“You will take this large, diesel-engine fueled bus past the Moon Hill rise of the Qing Dynasty,” he continued. “Then around the bend of a thousand sorrows, and straight over the river of death. It is there that you will be faced with three challenges. If you accept these challenges and are victorious, you will then be granted passage onto a more comfortably plush sleeper bus, where you will be able to rest your weary, but attractive, heads.”

Sweet mountains of Thor! You speak English better than me!

Like the credibility of A-Rod, he was gone in a flash.

He was creepy too, I thought, but didn’t say, because by this point I had grown quite fond of my inner monologues.

I looked at Ashley and she seemed to be back to normal. The whole thing about changing buses in two hours seemed to have appeased her for now. She apparently didn’t hear the second half of the minibus driver’s explanation. You know, the part about river’s of death and deadly challenges. She never did pay attention.

We moved along the aisle, where we now noticed people were already seated. There were two Europeans near the back, so we moved towards them. The floor was wet. We spun in circles wildly like dogs looking for a comfy place to lie down, but found nothing that resembled ‘comfy’, let alone ‘dry’. A lady near the front of the bus started motioning wildly to us.

She’s using sign language to get our attention, I thought, but didn’t say for reasons unknown. I watched her carefully. Apparently she was aware that I was a Cranium® master and could therefore discern her every movement with calculated precision.

Okay. She’s pointing to small plastic seats. Now she is pointing to her butt. Now, back to the seats. Now her butt. Seats. Butt. Seats. Butt. Seats… Gosh, Timmy was always a better partner than this lady. I don’t think she’s ever played this game in her whole life!

“I think she wants us to use those plastic seats to sit on,” I jumped at the voice and whirled around quickly. It was Ashley. I should have known.

“I knew that…” I said. Ashley must also be good at Cranium® – That will help this relationship in the future.

We moved to the front of the bus and we graciously took the small plastic seats from the lady and began to set up camp in the aisle, Ashley behind me, both facing front. Seated to my right was a young Chinese woman holding a small toddler.

Awww how cute, I thought but didn’t say because I didn’t want Ashley to think that I was a pansy for thinking things were “cute”. The lady lifted the child off her lap and spun him around. It was then the true horror sunk in.

Slit pants!!!! I screamed in my head, but not out loud for fear of scaring the rest of the passengers.

The child’s small bare bottom stared at me like a full moon on Lunar New Year. His loose-fitting pants fluttered from the breeze coming through the open door of the bus. His mom was bouncing him up and down, and the baby was giggling uncontrollably. Awww, how cute, I thought again. The women then started tickling the toddler and soon the child was giggling uncontrollably. Tickling and laughing. Tickling and laughing. It brought a smile to my face. I laughed along with the baby and for a moment, we were giggling together, me on the floor, him on his mother’s lap. And then I had a flashback. There was a time not too long ago when I would get tickled like that. Perhaps by my parents, or my brothers as they held me down and tortured me. It was fun for awhile until… oh no.

“Excuse me miss,” I began. “If you keep tickling that child like that he is going to urinate all over the place, and seeing as it is impossible to potty-train children in China, I would be very appreciative if you stopped tickling that child. You see, I am sitting on the floor, with no room to escape and that child’s open pants are hanging right around my eye level and if that child would lose control over what he has no control over in the first place, well then I would be swimming in a sea of urine and feces. So, please stop tickling that poor child. Great, thanks.”

The woman stared at me blankly, but her confusion brought the same result that comprehension would have, so I was pleased. Finally, the bus began to move. I looked back at Ashley and gave her a warm we’re going to get through this smile. I didn’t say it out loud though, because it would have sounded corny and melodramatic, and melodrama is something that I just don’t do. We bounced along in silence for fifteen minutes before coming to a stop next to a small shopping district. The bus driver jumped off and left the rest of us to sit there in silence.

“Are we there?” I asked Ashley. “That wasn’t nearly two hours!”

Ashley said something I don’t remember, because I am writing this about a month after this happened, so it is hard to remember everything everyone says. The people who write stories and claim that people said things at certain times are liars and fakes, because I can’t remember what I said earlier this morning, let alone a month ago. In fact, most of the things I say in this story may not even be exactly what I said, but I try to put myself in the shoes of the people in the story and try to think of what they would say at a time like this. Which is easy, because in this story I am a main character, and I actually did experience this exact same thing – and that is why I am able to write this story.

Our hopes that we had arrived at our Sleeper Bus slowly faded with each minute that ticked off the big red clock at the front of the bus. The whole bus sat in relative silence for nearly an hour. Ashley and I wondered what the heck was going on, knowing that every minute we sat here was another minute we weren’t going towards our destination. Finally, at the top of the hour, the bus driver came back on. He looked a bit more cheerful and red in the face and his arms were full of delicious snacks: chips, soda, cookies.

“He just made a snack run!” I said in disbelief to Ashley.

“This is the worst.” Ashley declared. I nodded my head in agreement. I shifted my weight for the hundredth time.

“This stupid stool can’t even contain my right butt cheek,” I said in pure discomfort.

“This is the worst.” Ashley repeated.

Riiight – you just said that, I thought but didn’t say, for that would be incredibly rude and upset the already tender state that Ashley was in.

After the bus driver had licked his lips and burped up some of the baijou he was surely just drinking with some of his friends, we set off again. The bus bumped and jolted down old backwood country roads in the middle of China. The small TV was playing some 80’s Chinese horror-comedy and I shifted my position again. The small plastic seat was beginning to feel like a seat of nails, and each time I moved the nails dug a little deeper into my tender, but firm, buttox flesh.

“This is the worst.” Ashley said.

Are you still on that?

On we bounced. My head dangerously close to the child’s butt and people everywhere crammed around me. Something wet and putrid was running down the cracks and crevices of the bus aisle and I lifted my feet each time to avoid whatever it was from soaking into my shoes. The bus was hot, and despite the fact that the air outside was cool, I began to sweat from my brow. The windows of the bus fogged up. The child was now crying and screaming and I wish the lady would start tickling it again. Ashley was mumbling to herself and the two Europeans were cursing in Danish. The rest of the passengers started to grow restless when we stopped once again. I tried to look out the window, but it was just darkness and an empty road. I glanced at my watch – 11:30pm. We had been on the bus for nearly three hours, surely we were almost to our final destination. The bus driver opened the door, and instead of everyone filing off, a peasant woman and her two young children clambered on, quickly grabbing some stools and claiming some of the aisle in front of me. One passenger began to voice his disapproval at the overly crowded bus and raised his voice to the bus driver. The speech was very fast and I was unable to understand what he was saying, but I heard “foreigner” a lot and he kept motioning wildly at me. I assumed he didn’t think we had tickets at all, and because we actually didn’t have tickets, that frightened me. The man went on this way for nearly ten minutes and I began to feel like an illegal immigrant sneaking across the border after paying someone off for ten yuan.

Hold on a second there mister, I thought. I spent 200 yuan for a sleeper bus! So don’t you start getting angry at me for overcrowding this bus. I was supposed to be asleep by now! In a comfortable bed! Of course I did not say this out loud, for I have found the best approach to situations like this is to act like a confused foreigner. Luckily, I am very skillful at this approach. I furrowed my brow, quivered my bottom lip, and puffed up my eyes like an injured kitten. The man melted like a witch doused in boiling water, and off we went again.

“This is the worst.”

– Ashley.

I bobbed in and out of lucidity for the next hour or so. I began mumbling and speaking to myself. Ashley’s rightful, but annoying, claim that “this is the worst” rang in my ears like an echo. That is until I realized that it wasn’t an echo, but she just happened to be saying it over and over again. At 1:00am we pulled into a gas station and we jumped up and filed off. It was raining outside and I lifted my face to the sky, arms outstretched, letting the rain pound my face like Tim Robbins in Shawshank Redemption. The only difference is that he escaped from prison, whereas I was escaping from Hell itself. Ashley filed off behind me.

“That was the worst,” she said.

“oh?” I replied. “I hadn’t noticed.”

Still confused, we went to the restroom and stood in the parking lot for another 45 minutes, wondering if this was just an extended break or if we were waiting for a miracle. Turns out it was the latter. Just as I was about to lose hope and think that it was our fate to sit on the floor and lose our limbs to complete numbness all the way to Hong Kong, a larger bus coming from the opposite direction pulled into the gas station.

“It’s a sleeper bus!” Ashley shrieked in delight.

I rejoiced at the news and watched in excitement as it pulled into the gas station.

“Wait a second,” I said. “It’s full of people!”

Son of a….

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