Saturday, January 15, 2011

TONGREN to XIAHE - Epic Bus Ride

January 12, 2011
Eng: Tongren, Qinghai, China to Xiahe, Gansu, China
Chn: 同仁,青海省,中国 到 夏河,甘肃省,中国
Tib: Rebkong, Amdo to Labrang, Amdo
Written by Em

   We woke up early and made our way to the bus station in order to catch our 8 am bus to Xiahe. In case you can't tell already, I hate bus rides. I get a bit of motion sickness and hate being on Chinese buses where people smoke, spit and vomit throughout the entire journey, no matter how long or short it may be. It's completely irrational, but I also have this fear of having to pee so badly that I eventual pee my pants or down the aisle of the bus because the driver refuses to stop. I know, I'm insane, but have you ever been on a bus in China or try to reason with a bus driver? 

   Anyway, we got to the bus a bit early, settled into our #1 and #2 seats in the front row (to the delight of Dan who was excited about the unobstructed access to views it would provide) and waited. I check my watch and mentally prepare for our 4-5 hour ride. It's 8:15 and still no movement. I start to get antsy. A number of Tibetans keep getting on and off the bus, adding luggage, buying snacks, forgetting their snacks outside and going for last minute potty breaks. Finally, at 8:20 the doors closed and we crawl out of the station. I take a deep breath and close my eyes.

   Not more than 30 seconds later we stop. Two Tibetan men get on the bus, discuss seating arrangements and then get off again. The doors close again and we crawl another 2 feet. Doors open and a Tibetan family now get on. More confusion regarding seating and the driver
refuses to move until everyone is settled. I'm dieing. Now 8:30, barely a block away from the station and we stop again. The Tibetan family gets off. We still sit and wait. About 5 minutes later, the Tibetan family reappears. Again, the seating conflict arises and we wait for them to settle in. Just as we're about to set off, the mother realizes she's lost her bottle of tea. The bus stops and we wait as she looks outside for it. Apparently she's left it in the luggage compartment, so the driver must turn off the bus and unlock the compartment. I'm pulling at my hair as Dan giggles.

   Tea bottle retrieved, I'm certain we're really going this time. The bus starts up and we begin to drive down the road. And then a taxi speeds next to us and cuts right in front of the bus, causing us to come to a screeching halt. "What the fuck?!!" The aforementioned Tibetan men hop out of the taxi. They've changed clothes and now load their things onto the bus. More seating arguments ensue and finally, by 8:50, everyone is settled and we set off, every seat on the bus now occupied.

   Not more than 10 minutes into the journey we stop by the side of the road to pick-up passengers. Even though every seat is taken, there is small area next to the driver where people can sit. I understand picking-up 3 more people. Convinced this is the last stop, I close my eyes and try to sleep. Five minutes later, we stop again to add 2 more passengers. Another 5 minutes and 3 more are added. My mouth is wide open as we stop every few minutes, cramming people onto this small island. Dan and I are now forced to squish ourselves together as someone sits on the very edge of our outer seat. Another woman is
giving me the 'evil eye'. In a whisper, I ask Dan if we should switch and allow the older woman to sit in our seats. I point out the 'evil eye' look, but Dan assures me its only because we're foreigners. I agree and try to sleep.

The sea of late boarders who sit on the small island 
near the front of the bus - To Dan's dismay, they block the view

   Ten minutes pass and I feel someone nudging me. It's Dan, wanting to switch seats. Even though I've followed protocol and taken the aisle seat, he wants to switch because the windows are frosted over and he can't see anything. I object, insisting that the 'evil-eyed' woman will think we're offering her a seat. Dan is adamant about the importance of scenery shots and so we switch. Finally, I start to drift asleep.

Passing through the grasslands - 
Dan wishes he had that lady's seat!

  I wake up to someone pinching my arm. I look next to me and a carsick, gum-smacking Tibetan woman has replaced Dan, who is now sitting in the middle of the island next to the driver, snapping pictures and giving me the thumbs-up. We're driving along some winding roads and this poor woman is seriously struggling, grabbing my arm in agony. I'm now
getting nervous that she's going to vomit on me as Dan joyfully teaches a fellow islander how to take pictures. We stop in a small town, about 2 hours into the journey for a pee break.

We run down a small street, pee and get back on the bus. The Tibetan woman is puking next to the bus. I have to give her credit for holding it in until she got off the bus.

   We settle back in, Dan recovering a seat. A Tibetan woman with braids boards the bus, holding a large tray of Yak-yoghurt. Dan, "Oooh, I'ma try that." The woman hands him a small plastic bowl of yoghurt sprinkled with sugar. To be honest, it's actually pretty good; a bit chunky, but not too sweet or sour. Dan stands to pay the woman and as he sits down, the 'evil-eyed' woman has snaked his seat!!!! In the 5 second window Dan stood to pay the yoghurt woman, the 'evil-eyed' woman has sidled in and looks pissed when Dan sits on her. Everyone on the bus is in agreement that this is bad form.

   The bus driver, trying not to laugh, insists she has to move. The woman is not budging. The driver sighs and pulls a bucket into the middle of the aisle, places a cushion on top and points for Dan to sit. I laugh and Dan takes his new seat, a bit miffed, but happy to have a clear view of the road. He snaps a view pictures and falls off the bucket several times while getting the best angle for the perfect shot. At one point, the driver puts on some atmospheric Tibetan music. 

   Dan whips out the video camera and films the view as we drive over a crest in the mountains, revealing the expansive grasslands on the other side, all set to the bus music. Dan's photography protégé looks on in amazement as he puffs on a cigarette, blowing smoke directly into Dan's nose. I do admit the pictures are pretty great!

We know we're in for a treat when the sky turns 
from grey mist to pure blue

Driving straight through the Ganjia Grasslands - Get it?
Ganja Grasslands?

An interesting rocky outcrop

A sea of sheep grazing by the side of the road

The bus nearly running over a flock of sheep as they cross the road.
Apparently they can't hear the shrill sound of honking buses.

A more peaceful crossing

The last view of the Ganjia Grasslands before we cross 
the pass in to the valley

   After another hour, we stop and the driver instructs everyone on the island to get off. I too get off for another potty break. I walk behind the bus so no one can see my bum. The driver starts to honk the horn, but I really have to go. The bus moves an inch and I start hitting the back of the bus begging him to wait. I finish and run to the bus, buttoning my pants as I go. The bus driver shakes his head and drives another 10 minutes to our final destination. How was I supposed to know? Overjoyed at being done with the trip, we gather our bags and walk towards a hostel.

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