Stories of China - Chinese Bus Ride Adventure

 Author: Pat

Date: 2003

Since I last wrote, I did something that would have seemed inconceivable just a few short months ago. My niece, Lori, visiting us from the U.S., and I got on a bus and traveled to Yangshuo from Guangzhou. It was a bold move seeing as how my Mandarin isn’t anywhere near fluent but it was also a very special and encouraging time. Since this time I rode the bus without any children to distract my attention from what was going on, I thought you might like to hear what it’s like to take a bus trip in China.

If our bus drivers are any sampling, I think that Chinese bus drivers are the star pupils in mental hospitals for Chinese taxi drivers. Only the very looniest of the loony taxi drivers can make it through bus driving school. Many of you have ridden in Chinese taxis so I can just hear your collective gasps! Yes, to ride a bus in China is an adventure. You see, there are few theme parks here and the citizens must get their thrills somehow. Riding a bus is cheaper than a theme park, is better than “virtual reality”, and comes with free plastic bags attached to the seat in front of you just in case you lose your lunch;-) I know, I know, you’re all stampeding to your phones to get plane tickets to China so you can take a bus trip, aren’t you?

A requisite for bus drivers here is that they must have faster reflexes on the horn than a Jeopardy player does on his buzzer. Our drivers met this qualification. A cross between drag racers, demolition derby drivers, 18 wheeler bullies, and World Class “chicken” players, Chinese bus drivers are the optimists of the open road. They can look ahead of them, see a bus coming toward them in the other lane, have a slow truck in front of them, take in the bicycle riders on each side of said truck and bus, lean on the horns, and just pull out. If that’s not optimism, I ask you, what is? You just can’t beat an optimist though because time after time somehow the road opened up in front of us (or at least sort of opened up) and we suddenly found ourselves past the truck with the bus behind us. For a while I sat in the middle seat of the last row so that I could watch traffic. After a while I thought, “Mmmm, maybe this wasn’t a good idea” and, like an ostrich with its head in the sand I returned to the corner and stuck my nose in a book. The good news is that neither Lori nor I had to use the plastic bags.  I considered this a wonderful victory, all things considered.

Lori decided early on that our bus driver was merely friendly. Actually, he was EXTREMELY friendly! He may have been the friendliest man on the earth, in fact. He had more ways of saying hello than all the delegates at the U.N. combined. Short toots, long blares, quiet reminders, loud blasts, gentle encouragements, angry rebukes…this guy had the fine nuances of horn blowing down to a science! No doubt this big daddy of the highway was just showing his love for his large and varied family of fellow drivers. What a prince! LOL

In spite of the driving, a bus trip is a good way to really see China. Will you sit beside me in the bus for a while and look out the window through my eyes? I’ve taken this trip before and I can assure you that we won’t hit anyone so just relax and enjoy the ride;-)

Being the daughter of a farmer, I was particularly interested in the agricultural life I saw out the window. Terraced fields, subdivided into small plots with earthen walls between them, were in the process of being prepared for spring planting. Except for a few wooden plows pulled behind water buffaloes, all of the work was being carried out by hand. Barefooted workers, sometimes with muck up to their knees, stood in fields wielding wooden hoes and sickles, turning the yellow or orange clay soil. Others worked with small hand tools to chop weeds out of the ground while still others pulled at them with their bare hands.

In some fields, the last of the winter’s greens were being harvested by grandmotherly women wearing the traditional pointed Chinese straw hats. As soon as they had the veggies out of the ground, their apparent family members were waiting to till the soil with their rude implements. On and off the whole way we saw these scenes repeating themselves. What looked to be entire families with grandparents, parents, and children were all working their land together.

Some places were obviously community type gardens where a young couple would be working side by side in one small plot while a lone man toiled in a neighboring field and an entire family tended another. It seemed that many were out on this late winter day to prepare their spot of land to grow the vegetables they would need next summer. (Side light fact: Much of the farmland in China is fertilized by “night soil” which is refuse pumped out of outhouses and community toilets. This is why we wash our vegetables in a little bleach.)

Because I love the land and growing things, I found all of this very interesting and inviting to watch. It was so obviously a family/community affair and the whole scene was teeming with life. This is something I very much admire about China- the ability of her people to just go about life without complaining, working incredibly hard with few resources, and still maintain a resilient humor and joy.

Not everything we saw was as attractive as the farmland, however. Unfortunately, much of the land we passed was covered with litter. There don’t appear to be any landfills or such things but trash was just thrown out of doors and windows ending up in huge piles along the roadway. Many parking lots and home fronts were covered with mountains of rubbish. Discarded Styrofoam take out containers, milk boxes, plastic bags, smoking charcoal briquettes from cook stoves, parings and cuttings from vegetables, rotting fruit peels, and various other stinking remainders defile the beautiful Chinese landscape.

It is culture shock of some magnitude to stand in a parking lot of a bus stop watching men toss empty cigarette packs and food containers onto the ground. The smells in such places can be staggering. The worst places seemed to be the ones designated as the meal stops for the public long distance buses. Huge piles of trash filled the waiting area while the floors of the eating hall were black with grime. A sooty, dusty wall was the only thing standing between this pseudo-landfill and the “dishwashing” area where stood a spigot and piles of grease crusted pots and pans. Needless to say, we eschewed the free meal we were due in favor of the snacks in our bags brought from home. If the dirty appearance hadn’t put us off, the continual hocking and spitting of our fellow travelers would have made eating impossible anyway. This is another culture shock in China. Whether the air pollution makes it worse or whether the unheated homes increase cold symptoms, I don’t know, but it definitely takes a little getting used to!

Having mentioned our bus mates let me say that they were, as is typical in China, very solicitous to us as foreigners. Thinking we wouldn’t understand any Chinese, they were quick to try to show us through pantomime that it was time to eat, that we needed no money for food, and that we were stopping for a potty break. After I communicated that we chose not to eat our free lunch, one of them bought us a packaged snack at the next stop.  Always the kindness of the people toward us counteracts the negatives caused by the things we, as Americans, might consider socially unacceptable. I was touched by their concern and helpfulness.

Some of the vehicles we passed on the highway were also worthy of mention. Half of the people in China seem to be on the roads on rusty bicycles, sometimes riding on tireless rims. Other than the coach buses such as we were in, there were many sleeper buses. These two story unairconditioned conveyances have reclining seats covered with blankets of questionable cleanliness.  In front of each seat is a rack to hold the belongings of each rider. Also amusing were the motorcycle taxis with a new twist. They sported a red sidecar that could seat up to four passengers. The most fascinating thing on the road, to me, are the homemade trucks run by what appear to be tiller engines. I hope to attach a picture of these handy but awkward looking symbols of Chinese creativity! Amazing!

The houses we passed were, of course, of varying size and levels of poverty but neither going nor coming did we see a home that appeared to be owned by a wealthy person. Many homes were what looked like rows of one-car garages with metal doors. In the dusk of evening, these doors would be open to show the interior of the homes. Frequently we could see a can with a heating coal in it topped by the wok in one corner and a few chairs clustered around a TV in the other. Sometimes out front beside the house would stand an old-fashioned hand water pump. But almost always, that obligatory television shone brightly!

Many people apparently live in their storefronts. Riding by at night a light bulb would be cutting through the darkness and revealing shelves of food, racks of tires, the interior of a mechanic’s shop, a small shop that made furniture, or the like. Families would cluster with their rice bowls at the back of their stores…watching television!

I loved these glimpses into the everyday lives of these people. So much of their lives is lived in public with every motorist on the street privy to their activities. It really caused me to understand a little more deeply what I see to be the greatest cultural difference from the U.S. This is the sense of community in China. As I’ve mentioned before, folks here just live their lives together seemingly without an expectation or desire to have privacy. It’s a fact of life and it is widely accepted.  I often find myself thinking about why something is this way or that way here and it seems I usually come back to “community” as the explanation for whatever it is I’m pondering.  Perhaps some will think that this comes from being a Communist government but I don’t think that’s it. To me it seems to stem from something else…maybe the crowded conditions combined with something else I just can’t define at the heart of the Chinese people. Even though I can’t put it into words, I think Mr. Rogers would approve of this facet of the Chinese character!

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