What better way is there to see a country than by train? Having already experienced the 24 hour train journey from Hong Kong to Beijing, with its postcard-perfect rice fields and run down villages, my two friends and I were keen to travel that way again. However, due to some sort of flower festival and China’s barely existent pre-booking policy, we were unable to get a train ticket. Not going to Shanghai was not an option for us. Not because Shanghai is an appealing metropolitan city but because we had a plane to catch.
Our next option was a 16 hour night bus which we all decided couldn’t be that bad. We were very wrong.
When we first boarded the bus, we were pleasantly surprised. We’d forgotten that we were in China and that they were pretty lapse on health and safety. Inside the bus they had created three rows of bunk beds, complete with a pillow and blanket. Two of us grabbed top bunks and one sat below. We were all amazed and exclaiming how great this was going to be, we could sleep all the way to Shanghai! In high spirits, we soon set off.
On the outskirts of Beijing, the bus stopped. We had no idea why and no knowledge of Cantonese to ask. We waited to see what was happening and realised that we had once again forgotten where we were. If there was a space on the bus, then there was money to be made. People piled on, one by one, to fill the aisles of the bus and sit on the floor. We were now surrounded by a sea of strangers who we had no way of communicating with. As three western girls, we had grown accustomed to being stared at but one of my friends got so fed up she gave a man her pillow, hoping he would fall asleep and stop staring! We began to realise that this wasn’t going to be like a fun train journey, we couldn’t even see the rolling countryside because it was dark outside!
Our next problem was the toilet situation. It looked as though there might be one at the back of the bus but we didn’t want to climb over people to get to it, although this didn’t seem to stop the majority. Luckily, or unluckily, we pulled into what we assumed was a rest stop. Thinking this would be just like the ones at the side of the A1, we grabbed our stuff and stepped off the bus. Again, we had forgotten we were in China. This was no rest stop, just a pitch back car park next to a road in the middle of no-where. I was suddenly very glad to have my friends with me. There were other coaches and lots of people but there was nothing else around but darkness and the whole place reeked of sewage.
There was a little shack with a toilet sign on so we headed over. We walked into the ladies’ section and saw 5 or 6 women squatting in crudely made cubicles. There were no doors on the cubicles and the walls were only hip-high. We stared horror-struck but realised we would have to go as we still had 10 hours left on the bus. We all went in a mild form of shock, trying to ignore the growing stares. Most of the people there had probably never seen a white person so they were getting a good look! Their faces said, ‘what are you doing here?’ a question I was also asking myself.
After that ordeal, we got back on the bus and tried to sleep. I managed to sleep a bit but it was definitely not a sound sleep. Thank goodness we arrived early and we could get off that bus after a mere 14 hours. Tired, hot and irritated, we made our way to the underground, decided we were too exhausted to figure it out and got a taxi to the hostel. I think we deserved a taxi ride after that journey, a taxi ride and a nice shower.