I’d been worrying all day about the sleeper bus bound for Kunming from the southern Chinese town of Mohan, just over the border from Laos. Last time I’d seen a Chinese sleeper bus, in 2001, it had been full of smokers, coffin-like berths, and loud movies – a long steel tube of prospective hell. But as I approached the yellow-and-green modern coach in the concrete lot behind the ticket office, I stopped, surprised.
The coach looked pleasant. Or at least new and mechanically sound. And here I'd imagined myself whinging in misery all night.
A young Korean tourist with a dark-green shirt wheeled his luggage toward the bus. Next to him walked an Irish architecture student with a red-and-black rucksack and a large scrape on his calf.
Us three tourists chatted. The Korean man had just come from Australia, and was struggling to change his Aussie dollars. The Irishman was interning in a city close to Shanghai. Bonus: he spoke Chinese.
The Korean guy and I quickly came to depend on the Irish fellow's Mandarin. He helped us understand what was going on as our bags were tagged and efficiently stored under the coach, and then we were all three stopped at the coach door.
“They’re asking us to remove our shoes,” he explained. We were each given plastic shoe bags and sent on board carrying the little sacks, like dog owners at a public park.
The inside of the coach was as new and decent as the outside. I was surprised to see three rows of bunks – one on each side and a thin row of beds down the middle. There were upper and lower berths. My assigned bed for the night was the middle one in the back, while the Irish guy had the one just to the left of me. Our Korean friend was up top, just in front of us.
"Wow. This is..." I started.
"Comfortable." The Irish guy was as surprised as I was.
There was no television on the coach.
No smoking on the coach. No music.
No shoes, even. I tucked mine under my bed, which was about six inches off the floor. I put my daypack behind me – being at the back had a storage advantage.
The coach first took us to Jinghong, where I was surprised by the state of the bus station toilet. Not how bad it was – the opposite. It was fine. China sure had changed a lot in the ten years since I’d last been there. Chinese toilets in 2001 had been appalling stinky squats with no doors, usually stuffed up by paper that people carry along.
The border town and frontier post had been new and shiny. The bus looked great. Even the toilets weren't the nightmare-inducing frights they once were. Ten years is nothing, normally, but in China's current push to modernise, ten was more like two decades.
We re-boarded and headed north from Jinghong toward Kunming. I ate Oreos in bed, ran down all my phone credit screwing around on Facebook (the mobile app wasn’t blocked like the computer app was), and smeared Nutella onto the slices of bread I'd picked up in Mohan. The road forward was smooth and ran through tunnels under mountains.
I snuggled in among my Oreo crumbs and fell asleep quickly.
The sleeper bus was outstanding, I thought, as I drifted off into a comfortable sleep.
The bus jerked to a halt at three in the morning. The sudden lack of motion woke me up, and I peeked out of my berth to see people shuffling off the bus and into a concrete toilet block.
I joined them, carrying my shoes to the bottom of the bus steps, slipping them on, and following the females to the squat toilets, through the door adorned with the icon of a skirted person.
Chain-smoking men squatted near the bus, desperately inhaling their only cigarette of the night. Smoking had certainly changed in China in the last decade. No one is allowed to smoke in enclosed spaces now. Last time I was here people had smoked anywhere and often.
I removed my shoes at the bus door and carried them back to my bunk, slipping them under. The Irish guy had finally woken up and gone in to the facilities, but the Korean traveller was still asleep. I folded myself back up under the Snoopy-print comforter – the berth wasn't quite long enough for me – and went back to sleep.
The bus stopped again a few hours later. This time some people got off. I ignored them. Most people stayed on. Finally, after a long wait, the bus started again. We didn't drive far before it stopped again. This time, more people got off. The conductor yelled something out, but it wasn't Kunming.
The Irish guy said, "Where are we?"
"I don't know."
He asked the woman next to me in Mandarin.
"Oh. This is it."
He looked at his watch, which barely worked after the spill he'd taken on a rented motorcycle in Laos. I’d asked him how he’d gotten scraped up.
"They didn't even ask for my license, which is good because I don't have one. I didn't know how to ride a motorbike, but I figured, same concept as a car, right? "
The spill had been on a mud track. He'd had to pay a lot for the damages to the motorcycle. He had some cuts and bruises too, but the monetary damage had been the worst.
"It's 6:15. That is when they said we'd arrive."
"Hey, we're there." Now I yelled up to our Korean friend, who was just beginning to stir.
It was odd – this early morning arrival with no one hassling us to get off the bus. We gathered up our leftover snacks and daypacks, found our shoes, and went down to the luggage hold.
The Irish guy and I claimed our rucksacks. The Korean got his wheelie bag. We were in a giant parking lot full of dark buses, a few building outlines just visible on the periphery.
"How do we get to town?" In the bigger cities, China situates bus terminals outside of the centre.
The Irish guy asked someone, who pointed us at bus #71, lit up against the darkness and packed full of dejected passengers all just able to put up with the sardine feeling after getting off all-night bus journeys. When I'd researched the bus to Kunming, the advice had been to take #154 to the end, and then switch. But whatever, #71 it was. We rushed to the bus, but it was full and the driver wouldn't let us on.
"Where's another bus?" The Irish guy’s Chinese-speaking ability was invaluable. He got us directions across the parking lot to a slew of #71 buses. We got on one, standing room only, and couldn't get past all the luggage in the aisles.
"Go in further," yelled the bus driver. I handed my pack to a guy in the aisle, who tossed it up against the back door. I found footholds in the pile of bags and stepped over to the back of the bus. And still they came, until the driver considered the bus full.
We drove about 15 minutes and hit the city as the sun rose. When we saw the golden arches, I knew we had to be near the centre – in China, KFC is everywhere but McDonald's is not, so we had to be in the middle of the city. The train station was around the corner – grand, huge, with an inverted arch for a roof and tall ends, like a post-modern hammock.
The Irish guy led the way to the ticket counters behind the escalators to the gates. At 7am, this place was pretty empty – this wouldn't be the case when I came back. It was normally packed and chaotic.
He was trying to get a ticket to a city near Shanghai and the Korean was looking for a way to find a friend In Kunming.
"This is a student queue," explained the Irish guy.
That wouldn't do for me, so I went to a different line. An old man motioned me over to a separate section behind a metal detector.
"There?" I asked. He nodded.
I walked around and a policeman was guarding the separate section. "Window two," he said in English, pointing me at an empty line.
The woman at Window #2 must be the designated English speaker, I realised. She spoke nervously, uncertain of her words, but with no mistakes.
"Where would you like to go?" Bashful, she didn't look at me.
"Afternoon or evening."
"There are no sleepers tomorrow. Only seats."
Now she looked at the whole day.
"All sleepers are sold out. Hard sleepers and sofa sleepers."
Okay, not 100% perfect. She was talking about soft sleepers, but she was doing great.
"There is one sofa sleeper today at 5pm."
Oh dear. I felt grimy and a little itchy with paranoia from the sleeper bus. I always have half a thought about bedbugs and I wanted to soak my clothes and shower. Now it was just after seven. Maybe I could go to a hostel and shower and come back at 5?
"How much is the sofa sleeper for 5 today?"
"And a seat for tomorrow?"
"I'll take a seat for tomorrow afternoon." I was picturing something like the Amtrak or the trains in Egypt. You can recline comfortably. But it didn't occur to me to ask if there were different classes of seats on different trains. Anyway, I hadn't been to an ATM yet. I didn't have 400 yuan on me.
She printed out my ticket and wished me a good trip. I went and found my travel buddies.
"I had to take a seat," said the Irishman.
"I'll raise a fuss when I get on. I've heard if you ask for a sleeper first thing, it's possible to get upgraded."
"I'll try that too then." This was a useful tip.
But I didn't really think I would have to raise a fuss. I had that Amtrak seat in my head. Amtrak seats are totally reasonable for overnight trips.
"Where will you go until it's time for your train?" I asked the Irishman.
"I don't know. A hostel, I guess."
I looked up hostels on my Kindle.
"The Hump is right there on the main square."
"Oh, I went to that one before. It's not very nice. But the location is good. I guess I'll go there. Where will you go?"
"How much are taxis here?"
"Then I'll take a taxi to my hotel."
"Do you have the name of it in Chinese?"
I looked at my Kindle and silently thanked Lonely Planet. The names in Chinese were next to the hotel names in English. I'd show the Kindle to the driver. Unusual, but it would work.
We all parted ways.
And as they walked away and I headed by taxi to the faded lobby of Camellia Hotel to beg for early check-in and an extra day's breakfast, I realised something about my fellow travellers I'd just spent all last night and evening with.
I never even asked their names.
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