Planes and trains might be fast, but during holidays, they’re utter madness. A good friend tells a story of a hard-sleeper trip taken years ago over Spring Festival, with a carriage packed so tightly, he claimed, that his feet never touched the ground. Maybe he’s exaggerating, but stories like this are easy to come by. And flying? Well, if you don’t have your tickets by now, forget about it! (Plus, have you ever seen footage of Chinese airports during holidays? Hai-ya!)
Bus travel, on the other hand, offers a gorgeous, leisurely ride. Sure, there’ll be traffic, but it offers a taste of China that few other foreigners get to experience. Huge windows revealing luscious views of village life are just an arm’s reach away. Don’t forget about the wide-open access to places that trains and planes wouldn’t dare take you, like the grasslands of rural Sichuan, or the mushroom fields of Yunnan. Best of all, you’re sure to be the only waiguoren (foreigner) in sight.
Tickets can be bought in advance at travel agencies. And while it’s probably not the best idea during peak hours—like anytime during the week of Chinese New Year—we’ve never had a problem buying tickets directly from the station. Prices range greatly, from a handful of RMB to triple digits, depending on the distance and what company you’re using.
Typically, bus tickets have an assigned seat number for you. Fellow passengers are sometimes not aware of this and you may find someone warming your seat for you, but feel free to urge them to relocate—politely, of course. One thing’s for sure, if you don’t, and settle for a random seat instead, that seat’s rightful occupant will more than likely expect you to move.
On smaller, rural buses, seats are usually first-come, first-serve, so if you’re late getting on, don’t expect a front row window seat. And if you’re very last (don’t be!), the center seat of the very back row will sit gaping at you like a lonely cyclops looking for a hug.
Do be wary of the rare buses that squeeze on passengers past capacity. It’s uncomfortable, very illegal, and the squat plastic chairs they set out are incredibly dangerous. Instead, hold out for the next bus—chances are it’ll be just around the corner, and mostly empty.
Usually, bags are stored in the ample belly of the bus before boarding, so don’t fret if you’ve got two XL suitcases. Wait until you see the loads some of the migrant workers are lugging around! Rural buses will sometimes stack bags in the back, so be careful packing your bottles of baijiu or pickled turnips. We mention this only because of a bus-weary colleague who turned up in Beijing reeking of pickled turnips after a jar was crushed in his bag. Poor, sad fellow.
Food and Drink
Eating and drinking on-board is fine, so feel free to bring a handful of nuts, a bag of steamy baozi (stuffed buns), or a gallon sized jug of Great Wall aboard. Waste bags are usually provided for trash, or if the local wine takes its toll. On a long-distance ride, regular pit stops are made at shop/restaurants selling snack foods and hot meals (if you’re there long enough.) At the very least, there’s always time to pick up a pack of instant noodles. With this in mind, some buses even have hot water dispensers, so be sure to pack a thermos and instant coffee!
Oh, right, the toilet. The one downside to long-distance bus travel in China is there seems to be no class of bus equipped with any, so go easy on that coffee. You can, however, expect pit stops every few hours. If you’re male and don’t like that idea, you may want to check into importing a Stadium Pal. One try later and you’ll never leave home without it.
A long journey won’t always be a barrel of laughs, but some buses try their best to compensate. DVDs of hit movies dubbed into Chinese, sometimes with English subtitles, will often play. If you’re really lucky, they might even show a Top 20 Karaoke Videos compilation.You’ll feel obliged to sing along to “Laoshu Ai Dami,” so get started on memorizing those lyrics!
Types of bus
There are two main categories of bus: the sleeper, and the seater.Seaters vary greatly, so describing them is kind of, well, impossible. Odds are you’ll be riding in a typical modern coach, with enough room to sit back and dive into your Kindle. Further from cities, though, you’ll start to ride rickety old models, with leg-room less friendly to Western builds.
Overnight sleepers feature two or three rows of bunk beds, lined up on either side of the aisle and in the middle. While it sounds dreamy, like a scene from a Totoro movie, these coaches aren’t exactly a lullaby.
They’re a few sizes too small for an average-height Western adult, and are curiously raised in the head and knee positions.With enough rides, you’ll get used to this, and even start to replicate it at home. All in good time, young travelers among you, all in good time.
The Wildest Ride
Our favorite of all the long-distance bus rides available is the 40- hour Chengdu-to-Lhasa trip. You’ll cross 2000 kilometers of countryside, zoom through an unbelievable four seasons of landscape, and bounce between altitudes at a rate that’ll leave you winded. Primeval forests? They’ll be flown through. Want to add a remarkable fourteen 4-5000m peaks to your “done it” list? You will. Best of all, this wild ride along the Sichuan-Tibet highway only costs around 500RMB. You’ll be left breathless. Or maybe that’s just the altitude sickness.
One ticket for Datong
yìzhāng qù dàtóng de piào
When’s the next bus to Shenzhen?
xià yí tàng qù shēnzhèn de chē shì jǐdiǎn？
Is it a sleeper or seater?
shì wòpū háishì zuòwèi?
Where can I put my luggage?
xíngli fàngzài nǎér？
Excuse me, you’re in my seat.
duìbùqǐ， nǐ zuòle wǒde zuòwèi。
Hi! Do you mind if we trade seats?
nínhǎo， kěyǐ gēn nín huàn yíxià zuòwèi ma？
When’s the next stop?
shénme shíhou tíngchē ？
How long are we stopped for?
wǒmen yào zài zhèér tíng duōjiǔ ？
I feel car sick.
wǒ yùnchē le.
Stop the bus! I can’t hold it any longer!
tíngchē! wǒ biē búzhù le!