As veterans of a few long bus journeys in China, we approached the intended Kunming to Jian Shui trip with a degree of nonchalance. It was going to be just 4+ hours long, how difficult could that be ? We got our tickets at the bus station ticket counter but we still had an hour to go before our 5:30 p.m. departure. At around 5:10 p.m., we enquired about the boarding gate and the sweep of a hand indicated that we should proceed to the bus immediately. Stepping into the bus we discovered to our surprise that we had unintentionally bought tickets to a "Sleeper" bus. What that means is that there are no seats on this bus! The bus has three rows of two-tiered bunk beds, two rows running alongside the edges of the bus and one in the center with two narrow aisles on either side.
We had heard about the existence of these buses from some forum or another and had read some tales of distress about traveling in them. So we looked anxiously at what we had let ourselves into. Besides it was barely evening and we were not looking forward to napping right now. But hey, it was too late to do anything about it. As it turned out our reserved 'seats' were on opposite sides of the bus and both of us got the upper bunks.
The sleeper bunks in these buses are designed for the average sized local. Neither of us shop in the petites section of an apparel store, so we had to contort our knees and mid sections to ensure that our extremities stayed within the boundaries of our assigned sleeper bunk.
Also due to the curved top edge of the bus, the distance between the bed and the roof reduces progressively from about 15 inches to 5 inches at the window making it an even more challenging configuration for one to maintain a prone position in for any reasonable period of time.
The bus started a few minutes after 5:30 p.m. and everyone settled in quietly. We realized that the AC was either non-existent or it had limited cooling capacity. Barely a few minutes into the journey, the combination of the heat and claustrophobia had V admit defeat, get off his bunk and troop to the front of the bus. M soldiered on for a while longer trying to read while maintaining a semi-supine posture. But then the music came on! As it happened, the crew had be desperately trying to get the video system working and while they were struggling with it, the passengers enjoyed a measure of peace. But unfortunately for all of us, they eventually got it working and had the volume turned up to ear-splitting level. With the speaker barely 5 inches from her ear, M could take it no more and tamely followed V to the front of the bus wondering where V had managed to park himself.
There was actually a raised "bench" directly behind the driver, not long enough to sleep even a sub-adult, local or otherwise, so it could not be offered to a paying passenger. But it was just wide enough for both of us to sit tight while having a ring-side view (actually an over the shoulder view) of the driver and his flunky in action. The flunky actually did not have a fixed seat, he sat right next to the driver on a painted wicker chair that looked like it was once part of someone's garden furniture set.
It was interesting to watch the tried and tested strategies of this professional. He literally used terror tactics to ensure he always had right of way. When there was a slower vehicle in front of him that did not gracefully step aside, he bullied them with his loud horn. If the were still petulant, he just honked even longer and louder ! One of the primary functions of the flunky seemed to be to gesture angrily at such pesky vehicles as our bus overtook them or managed to run them off the lane. (His other duty seemed to be to regularly step outside the bus when it was stopped at a light and throw water from a bottle at the windshield so that the driver could run the wipers - literally a human windshield washer fluid dispenser)
The driver and flunky were smoking buddies. Incessant smoking by the driver and crew in a closed air-conditioned bus was something that we had seen on every single bus journey we had undertaken here, so that by itself is not a ding at this particular driver. The difference for us was that we were sitting immediately behind the driver and therefore in the direct path of the exhaled puffs.
About halfway through the journey, the bus stopped at what could euphemistically be called a restroom stop. V investigated the facilities and declared that they were probably 19th century vintage and the plumbing has not been upgraded since.
There was also a little store at this place and the driver decided to take a break from smoking and cool off by treating himself to an ice-cream stick. The bus resumed its journey, this time with the driver chatting away on his mobile which he held in his right hand and steering with his left while balancing his ice-cream stick at the same time. Every time he wanted to take lick off his ice-cream, it was a case of "Look ma, no hands"! This would have been worrying enough on a good road, but we were off the toll way and the bus had to swerve quite frequently to avoid major potholes. (This was actually the first time we had seen bad inter-city roads in China. All our other bus journey were on tollways end to end and the road were in fantastic shape). We were particularly happy to see when the driver finished his ice-cream, but then he immediately lit up another cigarette!
Gradually it got pretty dark, but our man had some strange resistance to turning on the bus head-lights. In fact a truck passing in the opposite direction even gave the high-beam signal (we think to alert our driver about it), but that only got him a honk back in return. So much for trying to help.
The headlights did come on eventually and we made it all the way to Jian Shui without incident. The loud music was still blasting in our ears as the bus made it into the town bus station and we got off to retrieve our backpacks. While it had its trying moments, we were happy to have spent the last four hours not in the horizontal position, but sitting upright.
Sleeper bus again you ask ? Only if it is to save our lives.
Hope you're enjoying your trip so far! I'm enjoying your blog and wishing I could go to those places instead of being stuck at home. :) Are you going to Indonesia and south to Australia/New Zealand after Thailand or are you skipping the East Indies and going to Myanmar after Indochina? From, on Jul 6, 2012 at 12:37AM
Priceless experience, isn't it ??? Pl go again on a sleeper bus From, on Jul 6, 2012 at 03:59AM
Great experience and fantastic writing recapturing this bus road. Pico Iyer, you are in trouble, M&V are on to you now. Safe travels. From, on Jul 6, 2012 at 03:24PM
@Pranav - We will be heading to Myanmar, but not before visiting Loas, Vietnam and Cambodia. So that is almost 3 weeks away. From, on Jul 8, 2012 at 04:34AM
@Ramesh - We actually carry the Chinese translation of "Is this a sleeper bus ?" with us and monitor the answer closely while buying bus tickets :) From, on Jul 8, 2012 at 04:38AM
@Venki - Thank you ! From, on Jul 8, 2012 at 04:39AM