Only Losers Take The Bus

By Jane Mountain | October 20, 2013

As Stephen mentioned yesterday, we decided to take public transport yet again, this time to get to Xi’an. We knew we’d have to resort to bus or train at least once more to make our November 9 deadline in Shanghai, and we are hoping that the industrial smog-choked lands we avoided by taking the bus today will give themselves over to something a little more scenic if we head south from Xi’an.

It was the right decision, I think, though it does feel like so far in China, despite our claim to be cycle tourists, we’re just backpackers with really awkward luggage. Oh well, at least on the bus, you can just heave your bike underneath, and don’t need to worry about it going AWOL inside the mystery that is the train cargo system.

Getting There Is All The Fun

To help us get to the bus stop, a woman from our hostel walked us through the twisty ancient streets of Pingyao, where we stopped outside a nondescript house. A few seconds later, a man came out with a bicycle, grinned at us, and took off riding. We hopped on our bikes and followed as fast as we could – this guy was quick.

It was only a few kilometres later that it occurred to us that we might not have been meant to follow him at all. I imagined the woman from the hostel standing in the street where we’d left her thinking, “Where did they go? Crazy foreigners.”

We eventually arrived at the toll booth for the freeway, where the man we were following motioned us to stop. It looked about right, being a wide place in the road where buses and cars were all taking a break.

A wide place in the road where the bus stops.

A wide place in the road where the bus stops.

A few of the vehicles, including a Rolls Royce and a red tour bus, were decked out with huge red ribbons, like gifts from overindulgent parents to their sweet 16s.

The people on the tour bus were all dressed alike, men and women. When they spotted us, most of them waved manically and smiled widely. With nothing better to do, we waved back.

The Worst Man On The Bus

A long-distance bus ride is never a great way to spend the day. I’m happy to report that a bus ride in China is no worse than a bus ride anywhere else; I’m sad to report that it’s no better either.

The bus was a typically stinky, noisy place, with people all crammed in together. When we got on, there appeared to be no seats available, yet the conductor ushered us to the back of the bus, yelled at the other passengers until a few disgruntled young men moved around. Then magically there were two seats together. We were very embarrassed, but also very glad to be sitting together.

The guy behind us cracked sunflower seeds for almost the entire ride. That is, when he wasn’t smoking illicitly (it is not allowed on the bus, and he’s the only one who broke the rule) or coughing his throaty smoker’s cough.

He was probably the worst guy on the bus, and I felt sorry for his seat mate. Instead of getting annoyed at him, I just kept thinking to myself, “This is China. This is what it’s like here. No big deal.” It worked. I was much less perturbed by such seemingly anti-social behaviour than I would have been at home.

London Fog Times Ten

Around 12:30pm, the bus stopped behind a gas station off the side of the highway. An insignificant building turned out to house a toilet, a restaurant, and a small grocery store. Of course, we had no idea how long our break might be, so we were afraid of ordering anything too substantial.

People from our bus were paying for silver TV dinner style trays (but made of shiny steel, not disposable aluminium) and helping themselves to a tasty array of foods on the lunch buffet. Others were buying big pot noodles from the grocery store and cooking them with water from the boiled water dispensers there.

Coming to China, I expected most people would drink bottled water like they do all over Europe (despite the tap water there being potable). They also drink bottled water in Mexico, but at least there’s good reason for it there. In China, almost everyone carries a reusable bottle that they fill wherever there is a boiled water dispenser, which is almost everywhere, including trains, gas stations, construction sites, hotels, and grocery stores.

I wish Westerners would adopt this environmentally friendly practice instead of continuing the devastatingly wasteful practice of drinking bottled water.

Back on the bus, we were both feeling out of sorts and drained (me more than Stephen). Bus rides are exhausting in a way that cycling is not: they sap your will to live. The scenery got a little prettier as we moved towards Xi’an, though it was mostly obscured by a dense grey mass of what we are now calling “fog” in an attempt to make it slightly less insidious.

After six hours, the length of time the ride was supposed to take, I was more than ready to disembark.

That’s when we got caught in a rush hour jam at the toll booth in Xi’an. The only worse-placed toll booth I’ve ever seen is the one entering San Francisco, which causes mass tailbacks daily. Here, it didn’t look bad, but it still took an hour of crawling forward in minuscule jarring increments to get through the gates. We attribute this to our bus driver’s lack of skill in negotiating the lines. He seemed to stay in one place while cars, trucks, and busses all flowed around us and through the gates.

No Meat. No Eggs. No Problem.

Finally having been released from our temporary prison, we hopped on our bikes for a short but frenetic ride through the streets to our hostel. Let me say once again, PocketEarth is a godsend, and anyone going anywhere should immediately load it onto their phone or phablet (almost everyone in China it seems already has a phablet).

Please note, I hate the fake word phablet and only use it here for the comedy value.

Our room is absolutely lovely, with a comfy double bed, private bathroom, and cool modern-yet-traditional orange lacquered furniture. It was such a relief to be in a quiet, clean place, I could barely stand the thought of going out again.

But we hadn’t eaten all day, so, faint and a little dizzy from hunger, we ventured out into the night. It didn’t take long to find an impressively busy street noodle stall manned by the hardest working family in China.

The hardest wok-ing family in China.

The hardest wok-ing family in China.

Having already accepted that our no-meat no-egg dishes would be cooked up in the same wok that had just handled lots of meat, we were impressed when they used a separate wok for our meals, so as not to contaminate our food with animal molecules. One of the benefits of so many Chinese being Buddhist, I guess. They take this whole vegan thing very seriously in China, another thing I wish the west would adopt!

Noodles awaiting eaters, Xi'an.

Noodles awaiting eaters, Xi’an.

We were 7th in line when we ordered, but just a few minutes later we were filling up on hearty plates of freshly seared noodles and bok choy. Delicious as usual.  

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  1. Comment by Mauricio Osorio

    Mauricio Osorio October 23, 2013 at 9:18 pm

    Nice ;-)

  2. Comment by Naomi

    Naomi October 23, 2013 at 4:40 pm

    what? nobody spat on the bus? things are looking up!

    • Comment by Jane

      Jane October 28, 2013 at 2:33 am

      True, the spitting doesn’t seem to take place anywhere but the streets these days, at least from what we’ve seen. So glad this is the case!

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