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November 27, 2023
"Mes de los Muertos"

Riding the Dragon

By Phillip Donnelly

A Bus Journey through Chengdu on a 'Super VIP' Chinese Bus

Long bus journeys are always unpleasant. Twenty-seven-hour bus rides are hell on Earth! They leave you wishing you'd never left, and promising never to leave anywhere ever again. You would trade your soul in the world's worst Faustian bargain just to be off the bus.

You join me in hour 22. My backside feels like concrete, and I wouldn't be surprised if gangrene has set in. It's both painful and numb at the same time. My bottom has never experienced this level of pain before and is probably contemplating a divorce from the rest of my body, which is clearly mistreating it. I'd talk to it to try and explain things but men talking to their bottoms can raise eyebrows, especially on a crowded bus.

In short, I'm tired, I'm hungry and I want nothing more than to be off this infernal bus. Let me describe it to you, in case you're ever fooled by a Chinese travel agent into believing that a 'Super VIP Bus' is something other than an uncomfortable death trap.

Firstly, the bus is very old. In human years, it must be about 15-20 years old, but as with dogs, each bus year is the equivalent of seven human years, so the bus is really well over one hundred. And would you ride a 100-year-old man for 27 hours?!

Many of the windows are cracked and held together with copious amounts of sticky tape. The seats were probably never comfortable, and age has not been kind to them. Everything on the bus is grotty and dirty. It's the kind of place where you don't want to touch anything because you'd have to wash your hands afterwards.

I should have taken one look at the bus and never got on to it. As we went to take our seats, we saw a small orange cockroach was on the headrest waiting to welcome us to his ancestral home. My wife deftly crushed him and buried him in a plastic bag, which we kept beside us as a warning to his family and friends. Unperturbed, a few hours later, a roach colleague turned out to bid us welcome, and he was quickly dispatched and buried with his friend. I spent a large part of the night wondering how many were crawling over us in the darkness. My mind always tends to run away with itself at night, and even under normal conditions, I cannot sleep in a room where I even suspect an insect might be lurking.

Since I couldn't see anything, and my wife refused to stay awake all night to protect me from the insect menace, I had to rely on my sense of touch, which is very susceptible to my paranoid imagination, and often imagines things in the dark that aren't there. So, as the bus spluttered and shook its way through the Sichuan night, I spent my time flicking imaginary insects out of my hair and scratching myself, like some junkie going through cold turkey.

I was never so glad to see the dawn.

Even the darkness, however, could not hide the odour from the passenger behind me, who had feet only a dog could love. And even then, the dog would have to have a very pleasant disposition and be very forgiving. Usually one becomes accustomed to bad smells very quickly and stops noticing them, but this man had feet that just kept on giving. The smell never went away. I comforted myself with the thought that the cockroaches would surely be drawn to that rotting smell rather than me.

At the front of the bus there was a small portable TV which I tried to distract myself with. It wasn't easy: the screen was tiny, the image flickered and there was no sound.

The DVD, or rather the VCD's, were 24 one-hour episodes of a Chinese period piece; some kind of costume drama thing. Chinese TV is full of them. I've no idea what this particular one was called; probably something like 'Kung-Fu Monks and the Magic Mirror,' judging by the plot. Every one of the twenty-four episodes was the same: poorly choreographed kung-fu fights, cheap costumes and three sets.

I was occasionally distracted from this televisual feast by sound of a passenger hawking phlegm at a decibel level loud enough to provoke landslides, and then spitting a disappointingly small amount of phlegm into a bag, or onto the floor if the driver wasn't looking.

With all the noise produced by the hawking, and with night falling ominously around me, I imagined some kind of mutant alien creature was going to emerge from the gaping mouth of the hawking passenger and devour everyone on the bus. I thought of the headlines: 'Mutant Mucus Massacre', or 'White Foreigners Eaten Alive on Chinese Bus'.

By hour 10 of the journey, I would have volunteered to be gobbled up alive. Even being eaten by an alien, I thought, had to be better than this bus journey. At least it would be a quick death.

I changed my mind about that when, in Hour 11, we stopped at a 'roadside café', for want of a better term, for a dining experience I'll never forget. The café-cum-shack looked more like a floodlit garage than anything else, and it had a post-Armageddon Mad Max kind of bareness to it. It was as if civilisation had collapsed and this was all that was left; or like the front line in World War 1 was 300 metres in front of us, and this was all that could be done under war-time conditions.

There was one wok, a gas cylinder beneath it, and a large bamboo drum of pre-cooked rice. The Chinese, of course, saw nothing strange in the place, and happily munched away; stopping only occasionally to spit out bones they'd sucked dry; a Chinese custom that never fails to turn the delicate stomach of a vegetarian like myself. The men also engaged in copious amounts of hawking phlegm, which they could now spit on the concrete floor of the restaurant, unperturbed by our kill-joy driver.

If I had been starving and on the very cusp of death, I might have been persuaded to nibble some of the rice, but I figured there was more than enough body fat on me to see me through the trip. Have you ever noticed that you never get food poisoning from eating your own body fat?

It was the middle of the night, and my lack of sleep, my hunger, and my war with the imaginary insect hordes on the bus were beginning to play tricks on my mind.

I started to imagine a gory horror movie in which a roadside café in the remote Chinese countryside cut down on costs by murdering foreign tourists, butchering them and then using them as chicken-substitute. I looked at the 'chicken' bones on the concrete floor around me and wondered how I could be sure they weren't human bones. I also noticed the chef was looking at me suspiciously, which I had previously imagined was because I had refused to eat anything, but I now realised could be something more sinister.

I decided to keep my eyes open and my wits about me when I went to the toilet, which is always a good idea, I suppose.

The toilet, or 'facilities' as the Americans put it, was nothing more than a nearby shed with four cubicles separated by walls of concrete bricks. The wall, however, was only a couple of bricks high, and there were no doors of any kind, so when I entered I was met by the grimacing supine figures of other passengers, crouching to make deposits and 'straining at stools'.

I suddenly wished I was back on the bus, and I would have run out of this place screaming, but I really did have to pee. There were no two ways about it: I needed to pee, and there was no way on Earth I could hold it in for another 12 hours. It just couldn't be done.

So, in I went and there I was, the centre of attention in a male toilet; a white face, entertainment for the bored passengers -- remember that staring at someone is not considered impolite in China.

I looked at them: three crouching tigers, all smoking cheap cigarettes to speed up the defecation process, adding to an already overpowering smell of urine and faces. I wanted to run, but, as I've said, I really had to go.

I approached the centre-right cubicle, and the heads of the Chinese men turned toward me. I was standing up and they were squatting, so there were no two ways about it. If I went for a pee, they were going to start staring at a part of my anatomy no other man had ever seen before. I did my best to use both my hands to cover the offending article, but it wasn't easy because I'd never used two hands to pee before.

I stood there for what seemed like an eternity waiting to start peeing. Fear, of course, makes urination difficult, and I had to imagine Niagara Falls to get the waterworks moving. I constricted my bladder to make everything move as fast as possible, and suddenly a torrent of urine gushed forth.

I noticed than that there weren't any holes to swallow my pee, just a drain, so my yellow tidal wave of urine must have washed away all the turds of my neighbours.

This wasn't the meeting of cultures I had hoped from this holiday.

Back on the bus, shaking with post-pee traumatic stress disorder, and flicking imaginary insects off my body, I waited for the dawn.

When it came, I tried to rise above the discomfort and concentrate instead on the Sichuan countryside. Western Sichuan is one of the most fertile areas of China; most of the land in the country being barren and suitable only for light grazing, at best.

To be more precise, the soil in Sichuan is fertile, but farming here is technically very difficult. The hilly landscape makes mechanical farming impossible, and in a European context, the land would probably be left to hardy sheep and goats. The Chinese, however, see semi-mountainous terrain merely as an obstacle to overcome, and have farmed it regardless. They have altered the landscape to maximise production and to better suit their needs. The hills have been 'terraced' to allow rice production, using only mud, sweat and an occasional buffalo.

I've haven't seen a single tractor yet, and I think they would probably topple over in this hilly terrain, so farming here is a very labour intensive business. In Europe and even more in America, the countryside has been effectively depopulated, and is now the preserve of agricultural machinery and the monocrops they engender. In China, however, and in Sichuan in particular, the peasants still toil the land, and they toil it with their hands.

There are also innumerable small green rivers and streams, and on the higher hills, where even the Chinese can't farm, trees cling on perilously, wondering what has happened to what was once their sole domain. All of Sichuan was once bamboo forest and the preserve of pandas and other wildlife, forced to retreat further and further into shrinking pockets of wilderness, banished by the inexorable advance of man.

Every now and then, we pass market gardens, which produce much of China's fruit. Even here in the agricultural heartland, however, there are signs of China's industrialisation. Dangerously overloaded enormous coal trucks clog up the roads, and convoys of other vehicles impatiently follow them, snaking their way through the narrow curving roads.

We pass through village after village, whose shops look more like garages and always seem to full of old men whose main business seems to be sitting around.

In spite of the scenery, I must say that the trip was the most wretched and uncomfortable of my life, but I suppose I'm still glad I did it. Not in a masochistic way, but because it showed me how most people actually travel in China. The mobile phone wielding businessmen one finds in the new gleaming airports on the coast are a tiny minority. Most people in China still travel by bus and train.

And, of course, there are many people who never travel at all. Even the other passengers on the 'VIP Luxury Haedes Express' are not really poor. The average Chinese peasant, on a dollar a day, could only dream of holidaying in a different province, or holidaying at all, for that matter. They might regard the bus journey I've spent so much time vilifying as an interesting experience.

My wife and I, however, did not regard the journey that way, and we spent a large part of the trip in an acrimonious exchange concerning whose fault it was that we were on a 27-hour bus journey, rather than a 1-hour flight.

I remembered the decision to use the bus as being a mutual decision, brought about by our desire to see the countryside, a gross misunderstanding of the term 'Super VIP bus', and an attempt to stop us haemorrhaging cash. Sandra, however, had a very different memory of events, and claimed she had wanted to take the plane and I had insisted, Scrooge-like, on the bus. The truth of the matter will never be known.

Reality is subjective.

Article © Phillip Donnelly. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-01-31
Image(s) © Phillip Donnelly. All rights reserved.
2 Reader Comments
01:43:37 AM
Just remember Mr. Donnelly that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, or at least makes for good copy. In this case, I think both.
09:10:24 PM
Was the bus faster than hiking, I wonder?
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