Tuesday, January 11, 2011

DUNHUANG to XINING - The Neverending Bus Ride

January 7-8, 2011
Eng: Tongren, Qinghai, China
Chn: 同仁,青海省,中国
Written by Dan

   So after Em finally gave up her protest at the laundry shop, we caught the bus just as it was taking off. We were so late that we had to throw our luggage in the back of the bus with the engine instead of underneath the bus with all the other luggage which caused our bags to become covered in dust...

   As we boarded the bus we were told to take our shoes off and put them in a plastic bag, which was confusing at first but made sense once we saw that the entire bus was carpeted and consisted of three rows of bunk beds - two on the sides and one in the center. Everyone on the bus was struggling to fit their shoes, carry-on baggage, and insane amounts of snacks and drinks (us included) in the tiny spaces underneath the slightly-raised headrests and where the person-behind-you's foot would start. This space was about 30 inches-wide and 6 inches deep. Even the Chinese people were struggling to fit their entire bodies in the provided space - imagine what it was like for us giants!

   To make matters worse, squeezed into the narrow slits that the call aisles were little garbage cans. These proved to be completely useless and even hazardous. First of all, Chinese people love snacking on nuts and seeds and their idea of throwing out the shells is tossing a handfull of shells in the direction of the garbage cans. After what felt like only minutes into the trip, I could barely see the rug through all the saliva-covered shells. Second of all, the lights in the back of the bus never worked so whenever anyone wanted to get on or off the bus from or to the back they would step in and trip over almost ever garbage can on the aisle until they got to where they wanted to go. Of course the poor people sleeping on the bottom bunk beds (us included) would get an occaisional shell-covered foot in the face - all part of the fun!

   So, here we find ourselves in 'reclining' (read: fetal) position after having just woken up from 8 hours sleep only 4 hours earlier and where we will have to remain for the next 20 hours.
   Once settled, I got out the guide books and contact numbers given to us for Xining and other planned destinations in the Tibetan plateau. As my excitement grew in anticipation Em's waned until she was in a deep slumber, hogging the window bed while i was stuck in the middle aisle. I only found this out when I poked her awake to ask her to take photos of the dusty unpaved road and the endless desert.

Emily on the verge of sleep in the window bed with the
endless desert outside her window

   I thought it was so cool that our huge sleeper bus was the only vehicle on this bumpy road in the middle of the desert in winter. It felt so wild and remote - i was secretly hoping we would breakdown so i could use my wilderness survival skills to save everone. Unfortunately we had full mobile coverage and would have been able to order another bus to pick us up if anthing had happened.

   Anyway, Em felt guilty about being a sleepy travel companion (Dave Gold would agree with me here) and seemed happy to take a few photos out the window. But after a few shots that did not meet my expectations of what i wanted to capture (she took blurry close-ups of passing rocks), i took the camera and went off around the bus taking photos from various empty window beds.

   In the first few hours we passed some great scenery as we crossed from the barren desert of Gansu province into the snow-capped Altun Mountains of Northern Qinghai province. Unfortunately, the frost on the windows from the extreme cold outside caused most of my photos to come out blurry as well, but I got a few to capture the moment.

   At one of my window beds, i found the guy next to me puffing away on a cigarette. Since it was freezing outside and heated inside, all the windows were closed and his smoke soon became suffocating. Like I did with Em I poked him and said "hey! you know if you smoke on the bus, then everyone is going to smoke on the bus and that's not fair for us non-smokers." No Response. "hey! I have breathing problems! don't you care about anyone else? Oh, I guess you only care about yourself!" No Response. "hey! I'm speaking to you! do you understand me?" He nodded and put out the cigarette. I expected to find that butt and man cigarette butts like it stuffed inside my sleeping bag at some point on the trip. I never did.
During our roadside pit-stops in the desert we got some great photos of me peeing, the mountains beyond the desert, and Em posing with the fella's from the bus. As I ran around the bus trying to capture photos in the best light, i discovered the female toilet behind the bus when i disturbed a middle-aged lady with full perm and sparkly silver down-coat, straddling her mess in knee-high boots while pulling up her long johns. Luckily I only saw a sliver of her bum and didn't catch her in the act.

 Dan in a moment of zen

Em with the fellas

   I quickly gave up photography for a little while and stood by the door read to get out of the cold and get back on the bus. It was then that the driver decided that something was wrong with the transmission. He got out the necessary rags, hammers, drive belts, and wrenches and slid under the bus to find the solution. To feed their curiosity, the local Chinese immediately huddled around the driver to watch him and give him suggestions or to tell him the quintessential "oh there's no way to fix that", some even opened the stick-shift hatch on the bus while others got under the bus.

   On the other hand, I got excited and thought that this was my chance to be a hero. Ignoring the fact that we had plenty of blankets, drinks, and lighters on the bus, I began looking around to find things we could use to procure water, start fires and make shelter with. Since i actually know nothing about desert survival, I didnt find much that i thought would be useful but instead i found all the trash that my fellow travellers had decided to discard on the ground of this pristine desert. I continued me crusade against inconsiderate travellers: I collected all the trash that i was willing to pick up (i'm not dedicated enough to pick up soggy cigarette butts) and broke the complete silence by rhetorically asking out loud "haven't you ever heard of a trash can? there's plenty on the bus! this isn't even my homeland and i care more about preserving it than you! My god!"

   I expected to be able to go on the bus right after i said that and throw away the trash as a final demonstration and leave my fellow travellers to contemplate the epic-ness of my lesson. But instead i found the steps blocked by one of the guys who was half watching the driver fix the bus and half staring at me in disbelief, and so I was forced to stand in awkward silence with a bunch of trash in my hand until the transmission was fixed and we were finally able to board the bus 10 minutes later.

   Buddha rewarded my environmental crusade and obsession with scenery by leaving the front bed in the middle aisle open upon returning to the bus - it's previous occupant had decided to get off the bus in the middle of the desert and find other transportation to a location not on our route. I was in heaven! I was finally able to capture scenery from the best seat in the house, from the perspective of someone going head first into it. The best photo I took was of one of the driver sleeping against the dashboard while the other driver drove. They switched off in this manner throughout the entire trip. During the trip one of the drivers chainsmoked inside the bus and threw the butts at the floor and it was then that i realized my fight was futile. In a complete moment of zen, i accepted the cancer, environmental and blatant fire hazards and appreciated the scenery in silence as other travellers began to light up as well. I could feel them grinning at the back of my head knowing the had won the war. As long as you keep you mouth shut about the gov't, you have more freedom in China to do what you want than in the USA.

 The peak of a snowy mountain pass

Driver 1 sleeping againt the dashboard while 
Driver 2 steers us in oblivion

   There was a little girl who sat on top of her sleeping mom in the bed next to me. Unlike Em, she stayed awake and talked with me the until dark. Like Em, she was not interested in the scenery or taking pictures. Sadly, neither she nor her parents seemed bothered by the littering or smoking on the bus.

My new best friend

   Once it got dark I went back to my bed next to Em and listened to Ghostface until we arrived at our dinner stop in the dirty, mining town of DaChaiDan. We literally had to push our way off the bus through a crowd of town locals who were eager to take up empty spots on the bus. Luckily the driver made them wait until we all came back from dinner. Otherwise we probably would have found our beds occupied and covered in shells when we got back.
After dinner, Em and I played the 'movie game' until we fell asleep. We spent half an hour trying to remember John Candy's name and what movies Winona Ryder had been in.
We woke up almost every hour to readjust our position and relieve the whole side of our body that had become numb from poor circulation. 

   Finally, at 6:30am we got woken up and told to get off the bus. Em remembers hearing the bus driver saying something like he's off the clock and we have to switch buses. since we were originally told that we would arrive at about 8:00am we were confused but thought this explanation had to be right. 

   We sleepily grabbed our snacks, bags, sleeping bags, and the mess of discarded socks, shoes and coats around us as we stumbled off the bus only to find that we had arrived in Xining! We waded through the mass of people with our stuff hanging all over the place, too tired to realize that we were now in Tibetan territory and that the dress code and dialects had completely changed.

   We quickly found a taxi and drove off to the Sunshine Pagoda Youth Hostel. After tossing about in our beds for the last 20 hours, the only thing on our minds was a shower and more sleep - but we were on an epic-adventure and knew we had to seize the day no matter how painful it would be.

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