“You must submit to supreme suffering in order to discover the completion of joy.”
– John Calvin (1509 – 1564)
We took the overnight bus from Beijing to Xi’an. We were told the 1,100km trip was going to take about 13 hours. Quite simply, it did not.
After being aggressively rushed onto a bus that didn’t leave for another 30 minutes, we were met with a wall of faces intently beaming down on us. Chinese men were staring from every angle imaginable: in front, behind, above and below. Heads peaked from under blankets, over railings, and from alcoves at foot level. They seemed to be looking at us wondering, “What the heck are you two doing here?” They were right.
As we shuffled past our inquisitive (leering) bus-mates, we quickly realized how tight our accommodations were going to be. The bus, which was the size of a typical coach bus, had three aisles of beds running from front to back. The beds were arranged in bunk style, stacked one atop the other all the way back. There was a small walkway between the bunks with just enough space for a person to shimmy along sideways. Arienne and I had to move carefully down the aisle, making sure not to kick the faces of those in beds below or whack our bags into the faces bunked above.
Our beds were number 5 and 6. The first bed we arrived at, number 5, was near the front, in the middle aisle on the bottom. It was entirely surrounded on all sides by local men who were all fixated on our every move. Bed number 6 was the next row back, on the upper level next to a window. With simple non-verbal communication between us, it was quickly decided that Arienne would take the less central bunk number 6, and I would cozy up in the hotspot bed number 5.
Climbing into our respective beds, we quickly became aware of an odour most offensive to our olfactory senses. Quite simply put, the bus reeked of feet. Really dirty, sweaty, sopping wet feet that must have just run a marathon. Upon further investigation, we learned that the main source of the feet smell was not from the dirty, sweaty, sopping wet bare feet of the men surrounding us, but in fact from the 30 blankets placed on each bunk. These were the blankets we were expected sleep with, and to shield ourselves with from the frigid air-conditioning that circulated the aforementioned feet smell.
The “beds” felt more like luge or bobsled type mechanisms, with railings on the side that kept passengers locked into permanent horizontal positions. Compounding the issue was the shape of the “bed”, which was a hard surface that curved up around the small of the back rising progressively before leveling off around the neck. This made it impossible for any average sized male to sleep on anything but his back, which after 5 or 6 hours began to ache from the being kept in the same position. After 8 hours, the bunk began to feel more like a cell. Anyone 6ft or over should seriously consider forgoing this mode of transport.
The washroom onboard was a small alcove on one side of the bus, about half way to the back. It resembled less of a lavatory and more of a large plastic box that had a door slapped on it and a squatter inside. After 4 hours of traveling, and under duress, Arienne was forced to use the lavatory. Upon return, she refused my initial request for details and simply muttered something along the lines of “there is no God!” She then described that the lavatory had recently been “redecorated” by a recent user. Ten minutes later, the bus stopped at a rest stop and I gallivanted into a much larger and less ungodly public washroom. Arienne was not amused.
About 6 hours into the trip, the bus’ lavatory odour began to mix with the dirty feet smell already on the bus. The air conditioner acted as the blender.
Peace and order was maintained on the bus (prison) by the bus warden. He and the other drivers (guards) sat at the front of the bus, delighting passengers with their cacophony of conversation, laughter, and a nauseating selection of music that kept passengers from sleep or maintaining any semblance of emotional stability. The no smoking rule was firmly enhanced by the warden, who occasionally patrolled the aisles… cigarette in hand. Indeed, the smell of cigarettes was a welcome reprieve from the cesspool of odour that had become our bus.
After managing to find some sort of semi sleep through the night, we were rudely awoken by the warden at 6am. He went up and down the aisles, yelling and banging on our beds while shaking a small wad of bills in his hand. For all the times during our trip that I wish I knew Mandarin, this was not one of those occasions. As the Chinese ballad music started up again, we felt certain the end was in sight. We had been traveling for almost 13 hours. Surely we were almost there?
The 13th hour passed. Then another, and another, and another. Something seemed to be wrong. Why had the warden woken us so abruptly if only to continue lying in our cages? The bus continued rolling along, though occasionally stopping to pick up random passengers the warden deemed fit (paid) enough to join our foot and feces paradise. There seemed to be no end. I started to wonder if there was an MSDS (Materials Safety Data Sheet) for this bus, how long ago had we passed the maximum exposure limit? Was it possible to get a nasal infection from atmospheres like this? Delirium had set in.
Somewhere in the early stages of the 17th hour, the bus mercifully pulled into the station. We all let out a sigh of relief, and then remembered what we were breathing and wished we hadn’t. We had arrived alive and well, though in desperate need of a change of clothes and 3 to 4 showers.
It was quite an experience, but in the end, despite everything, it was all worth it. We were in Xi’an, and the next day we got to see the Terra-cotta warriors. The 17 hour bus ride as terrible as it was, paled in comparison to the splendour of the so called “8th wonder of the world.” The joy easily outweighed the suffering.
And now, after all that you have read, the grime and the glory, the particulars and the melodrama, I will try to be brief in my summation. If you are taking the overnight bus from Beijing to Xi’an, heed my advice: take the train. Or if you are like us, and find the train to be sold out… buy some Fabreez, sleeping pills, or cyanide. (Just JOKING!)