The Chinese bus that straddles traffic

China is suffering some growing pains. Its cities are booming and road builders are having trouble keeping up. After last month’s nine-day traffic jam that stretched for 62 miles, it’s become obvious that something needs to be done.

One company has come up with an innovative result–a large bus with a tunnel underneath to allow two lanes of traffic to pass below it. The so-called Straddling Bus will cruise along at 60 km/hr (37 mph) and can carry up to 1,400 passengers. It’s 6 meters (6.6 yards) wide and up to 4.5 meters (4.9 yards) high. Sensors will warn when cars are getting too close to the sides or if a truck is too tall to make it into the tunnel.

The Straddling Bus has already been approved for use in Beijing, with 186 km (115 miles) of lines earmarked for the new system. Construction will being at the end of the year.

The video shows how it works. Hopefully the safety measures will be built with someone who has a greater grasp of engineering than the translator has of the English language.

Five ways to make bus travel bearable

I’ve been spending a lot of time on buses lately – and not the kind that trace an east-west route across Manhattan. For the trips I’ve been taking, it’s been the best way to go, but rolling by bus is still far from exciting. From having to smoke outside with the homeless people in front of Port Authority to being stuck next to or in front of a loud cell phone talker, it’s hard to find a less appealing way to travel. Some bus lines are better than others, and I’ve been fairly impressed by the one I’m taking these days. Nonetheless, it’s still a drag.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to make your bus ride much easier.

There are obvious tactics, from music to reading materials, but anyone who travels (or has merely waited in a long line somewhere) can figure them out. Instead of the basics, which you should be able to figure out on your own, let’s take a look at five tricks that only come from painful experience.1. Get in line (or on the bus) early
This may seem obvious, but the reasons come with some subtlety. You want to claim your space as soon as possible. Wait too long, and you could wind up having to set next to someone who is already on board. Step onto the bus early, and you’ll be putting someone else in that position. The odds of having your own seat for the ride increase profoundly.

2. Look undesirable
As people get on, especially when there are no empty pairs left, they have to make some tough choices on where to sit. Your goal is to make them pass you without even considering an invasion of your personal space. Eat some smelly food, wear torn or dirty clothing or cough and sneeze. This will help you win the opportunity to stretch out later.

3. Spread out
If there are multiple stops before your destination, more passengers may get on. This only happens when you’re headed toward the “big place,” though. When I leave New York, for example, I don’t worry about losing space to passengers who get on later – the net flow is outward. Yet, when I’m headed back home, it’s hard to rest easy until we’ve left the last stop before the city. To further discourage people from sitting next to me, which is harder than in (2) above, I tend to spread out a bit, pluck away at my laptop and generally make it look time-consuming and annoying to clear space for another passenger. Nobody wants to wait in the aisle, especially for someone who is not really interested in helping.

4. Enlist your friends
While you don’t want to be among the degenerates who talk on the phone during the entire bus trip, you will need to be entertained. Texts, communication via BlackBerry Messenger and even traditional email will amuse you without annoying those around you. Make sure you have a few people on board to help you out, case someone gets bored or busy … or just doesn’t care about your plight.

5. Engage the world
I think the number of tweets I send while riding the bus skyrockets relative to my already elevated volume. If you aren’t a Twitter addict already, become one if you’re going to be spending a lot of time on a bus. It’s quiet, and it will keep you busy. Follow the right people, and it will also keep you laughing. To start, may I suggest @Gadling?

[tweetphoto via @tjohansmeyer]

Travel by bus – International travel tip

Americans are used to either flying to a destination or driving on the interstate. However, don’t pass up the chance to take the bus when traveling abroad.

Many bus companies offer more luxury accommodations than the national airline. Moreover, the cost is usually comparatively low — even for long distance travel. Additionally, bus travel gives you the chance to see the local scenery and meet other travelers. Finally, there is no arduous security, so you can take your razor and as much shampoo as you like.

Just be sure to bring enough water and food.

[Photo: Flickr | E01]

Somaliland adventure: getting to nowhere

One of the tempting things about travel in Ethiopia is the proximity to other nations offering a variety of different experiences. I decided that my two-month trip would include a side trip to Somaliland.

The first reaction most people have when I say I’ve been to Somaliland is, “You went to Somalia? Are you crazy?”

The answer is no on both counts. Somaliland is the other Somalia, the place that doesn’t get into the news because it’s at peace. Somaliland encompasses the northern third of former Somalia and declared independence in 1991. After a bloody war of independence it quietly settled down to create a nation in a region better known for its pirates, terrorists, and warlords. It’s east of Djibouti, northeast of Ethiopia, and west of Puntland, another breakaway region.

Somaliland isn’t recognized by the rest of the world. Other nations insist the Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu is the legitimate government of all Somalia, despite it only controlling the airport and half the capital. Somaliland is officially nowhere.

Luckily for me, Nowhere has an efficient office in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa that issues visas. Actually getting into Somaliland is less straightforward. There are daily flights to the capital Hargeisa from Addis and other regional cities, but I prefer overland travel because it’s cheaper and allows you to see the countryside. I’d spoken with various Somaliland officials as to the advisability of this choice. Some said the overland route wasn’t safe for foreigners, while others insisted it was. I decided to visit Harar in eastern Ethiopia and check for myself.

Harar is a small city and within the first day I’d heard from three different people that the man to talk to was Muhammed Dake, a Somali-Ethiopian author and guide who has many connections on both sides of the border. I found him to be a font of information. His English is good and he can be contacted at guleidhr(at)yahoo(dot)com. Please note he’s very busy and can only answer serious inquiries about travel to Somaliland. As luck would have it, his cousin and a friend were headed back home to Hargeisa on the bus and agreed to take me along. Both were jalabis, women who wore the traditional Muslim garb of the region that covers everything but the face and hands. Traveling with them was bound to get me even more attention than usual.

“Don’t worry,” Dake said. “They’ll say you’re a convert to Islam and that they’re your wives.”

%Gallery-92636%My “wives” don’t speak much English, but as we head to the bus station one manages to tell me she used to live in Mogadishu before fleeing to Hargeisa and how grateful she is to live in a place where there’s no gunfire in the streets.

The first leg of the journey is a bus from Harar east to Jijiga, capital of the Somali province of Ethiopia. People are jammed in the rickety seats–old men and workers, women in jilabas, hordes of children and infants. A leper shoulders his way through the crowd begging for alms. We’re packed in with our luggage because the roof is covered with kegs of beer. The bus descends through a winding mountain pass dotted with villages. My attention is divided between the landscape and a poster taped to the partition behind our driver. It shows a Western model posed like a Hellenic statue, a perfect ruby of a nipple leading us on to Jijiga.

After a couple of hours we pull into Jijiga’s bus station–a clamorous, dusty, crowded place thick with flies. My traveling companions decide it’s a good place to have lunch. They take me to a stall made of a latticework of eucalyptus poles covered in plastic sheeting and cardboard. The only thing on the menu is spaghetti that we eat with our hands.

I quickly make a fool of myself. Since in this region you can only eat with one hand (the other being reserved for the final stage of the digestive process) there is no way to get all those unruly strands of pasta together long enough to make the trip to your mouth. Of course the four-year-old boy next to me is doing it just fine. He gives me a wide-eyed stare.

After amusing everyone with my bad table manners we squish ourselves into a minibus and head to the border. Soon the low concrete buildings of Jijiga disappear behind us and the road descends through rockier and drier terrain. We pass through a valley filled with boulders and eerie spires that loom over the road. Soon it flattens out and we’re speeding along a dry, featureless plain of stone and scrub. The beehive-shaped huts of wood and thatch so common throughout Ethiopia are replaced by low domes of wickerwork covered in tarpaulins, rags, and plastic. Lines of camels walk sedately along the road.

Tog Wuchale, straddling the Ethiopia-Somaliland border, has the distinction of being the second ugliest town I have ever seen. It’s a huddle of concrete buildings, shacks, and tents in the middle of a dusty plain strewn with garbage. Flies swarm over masses of rotting food. Every thorn bush is draped in plastic bags. There doesn’t seem to be a trash can in the entire province. This is what happens when a nomadic people are suddenly thrust into consumer culture. Before, a family might have occasionally thrown something away, a worn-out basket perhaps, but it would soon disintegrate. Nothing ever accumulated because the people themselves were always moving. Now they’ve settled and joined The Age of Plastic.

As soon as we’re off the bus, a “customs agent” tries to shake me down for money. My travel companions fling a few choice Somali words at him and he slinks away. Anyone who thinks Muslim women can’t stand up for themselves has never been to a Muslim country. They hire a porter with a bright yellow wheelbarrow to take their suitcases across the border and we pick our way through heaps of garbage past a sad trickle of a river choked with trash that oozes through the center of town. My poor boots. I pity the ladies in their sandals.

As we approach the border another guy comes up saying he’s a customs agent and asks to see my passport. Of course I blow him off. I mean, he has no ID, not even a uniform! But he speaks good English and is persistent.

“Where’s your uniform?” I ask. He looks confused.

We arrive at the Ethiopian side of the border, marked only by a tent in front of which two soldiers sit chewing chat, a narcotic leaf, their AK-47s resting on their laps. I try to hand them my passport but they point to the fellow who’s been following me.

“I told you I was a customs agent,” he grumbles as he stamps my passport.

A quick inspection on the other side of the border and I get my Somaliland stamp. I am now officially nowhere.

Now it’s time to get somewhere. My companions, who like all the other Somalis didn’t get checked on either side of the border, find a shared taxi. It’s a beat up old station wagon with a slow leak in two tires. The driver is a bleary-eyed maniac with chat leaves sticking out of his mouth. He’s also a sadist. He stuffs ten adult passengers, one infant, and an immense pile of luggage inside. One guy straddles the gear shift. I’m squashed between the door and my friend from Mogadishu.

Mr. Chat slams on the gas and we peel out into the desert. The only road is a groove of tire tracks over sand and pebbles. We weave between bushes and dodge the occasional camel. The view out the front window looks like some low-budget video game. I’m not afraid. Even if we hit something, the door and my “wife” have me jammed into place better than any seat belt. We head into the dusk as the broken window funnels a spray of fine sand into my face.

After a while we mercifully come to a newly paved road and speed on, halted only by regular checkpoints. My passport is scrutinized at every one. While I’m sorely tempted to use these breaks to get out and stretch my legs–they haven’t moved for hours and my knees get slammed by the driver’s seat every time we hit a bump–everyone warns me not to get out of the car. At this point my left leg is getting excruciating cramps, and for the last half hour into Hargeisa I stand up with my back pressed against the roof.

Entering Hargeisa at night the first thing I notice is that all the lights are on. In Harar I endured daily blackouts. Neon signs flash ads for expensive imports. People sit at cafes. Shoppers stroll along the street. We pull up in front of the Oriental Hotel and I thank my companions. I limp inside to discover I’m in a posh hotel.

Nowhere has a First World capital.

Coming up next: Hargeisa, a capital in search of a country.

Greyhound taking passengers to the future

When you think of modern travel, you probably don’t spend much time considering buses. However, Greyhound, the largest bus service in the United States, is trying to change that with new buses that may just make ground transportation enjoyable (and modern).

This past April, Greyhound introduced 102 new buses to east coast routes servicing cities such as New York, Montreal, Washington, Boston and Toronto. Equipped with free wi-fi, two AC power outlets at every seat and three-point seatbelts, the new buses are poised to change Greyhound’s image and move bus travel closer to the forefront of people’s minds. In addition to those new features, the buses have fewer seats to allow for more legroom.

According to Greyhound, they launched in the Northeast because it’s their busiest region. Eventually, though, their entire fleet will be replaced by the new buses. And all these upgrades have been made with no adjustment to ticket prices.

Will these enhancements alter people’s perceptions of bus travel? Greyhound is banking on it. Gadling’s own Jamie Rhein already thinks that Greyhound is a worthy option for travelers, so new buses could only sweeten the deal.

I have a few international trips on the horizon, but when the time comes for me to turn my attention back to domestic travel, I would definitely give Greyhound a try. If my long legs and internet addiction are accommodated, I have to consider it worthwhile!