Far West in the Far East: Eighteen hours on a Chinese sleeper bus

With huge distances to cover, long-haul bus travel is a norm in China. The good news is that overnight buses here are set up for long distance travel; rather than seats that recline, these buses have actual beds in them. The bad news is that there tends to be no lines drawn between what I consider “indoor” behavior (sitting quietly, reading, or staring out the window) and “outdoor” behavior (spitting, screaming on your mobile phone, and smoking). However, the journeys aren’t anything a seasoned traveler can’t handle, especially one used to being in China.

It’s hard to photograph the inside of the bus, since three rows of bunk beds run the length of the vehicle. Not surprisingly, the beds are narrow and short, making it difficult for a Westerner to get comfortable but certainly better than sitting upright. Luggage, sacks of rice, and shoes are all tucked under the bottom bunk.

My ride from Menglian to Kunming wasn’t my first trip on a Chinese sleeper bus but it was my longest. Eighteen hours is a long time to do any one thing, and riding a Chinese bus is no exception. Before we left, we found out that our rickety vehicle was twenty years old and making its final run. Despite maneuvering massive vehicles, drivers routinely pass slower cars on blind corners, careening around turns with no guardrail. I find it best to just not look out the window, and hope for the best. My traveling companion required pharmaceutical help to deal with her nerves.

%Gallery-80323%We made only two lengthy stops and the bathroom on the second one was a wooden outhouse with a hole in the floor, and no light. In a way, I’m glad I couldn’t see what I was stepping on (or in). There were other quick stops for gas and water, and during these men would sprint off to pee in the bushes. Once back on the bus, they lit up cigarettes, filling the vehicle with their smoke. My friend even woke up to cigarette ash on her pants. When finished smoking, most would hock up a giant loogie, which they spit on the floor. This behavior is common in China and for the most part I’ve gotten used to it, but being trapped in that bus for so long about did me in. I spent a portion of my trip with my face in front of my open window, while my friend used my bandanna to filter the air entering her lungs. For two days afterward I was blowing black grit out of my nose.

Still, for a trip that long when train travel isn’t an option, the overnight sleeper bus is a good choice. Cheaper and more environmentally-friendly than flying (though it’s debatable based on the cloud of black smoke we left in our wake), the buses are perfectly adequate for any traveler who is mentally prepared for the smoke and death-defying driving.

Read more about my life in China here.