Go Travel China | Things to know before hoping on bus

In an earlier post, ‘off to the villages – China by bus : a survival guide‘, I tried to demystify the bus-station choosing, timetable-reading and bus ticket-purchasing processes.

Airplanes and trains will get you near off-the-beaten path travel destinations and ancient and ethnic villages I have described in this blog, but bus is an unavoidable means of transportation in rural China.

Some bus rides are more pleasant than others,  but taking the bus is part of the China travel experience. Here are a few notes and thoughts about what to expect on your next bus trip through the countryside.

Taking the bus in China can't be that bad, can it?

Taking the bus in rural China can’t be that bad, can it?

At the bus station

  • Bureaucracy
    It is the essence of China. Your ticket is (sometimes) checked multiple times before entering the bus and when entering the bus. Drivers have to sign forms and have them stamped at different check-points before leaving the bus station and on the road.
  • Boarding the bus
    It can be a very animated process. If your bus ticket gives a seat number (座位号), you will have to seat accordingly. However, in the countryside people usually seat wherever they want (get there early to get the best seat). For many rurals, reading a bus ticket is a puzzling experience. People go back and forth, argue, scream. You won’t get bored.
  • A seat with or without leg-room
    As an average sized Caucasian, I find that Chinese bus seats don’t leave much leg-room. Even Chinese people have trouble fitting (southern Chinese are shorter than northern Chinese). It’s not the case for all the buses. Bus service between major towns and cities can be pretty comfortable, but not always.
Some are more comfortable than that

Some are more comfortable than that

  • Smoking on board
    In 99.9% of the passengers respect the non-smoking sign. Ten years ago, I remember that most Chinese men were smoking like chimney in buses (even in urban buses). There is 0.1% of passengers who think they are above every one else and still light up in buses. It’s the driver’s duty to enforce the smoking ban. In rural areas when you take a small-sized bus to a village nearby, the driver and a few passengers may smoke, but it is rare.
  • What do I do with my backpack?
    In most cases, specially if the bus is full, you will have to put your backpack in the baggage compartment, below the deck. I have always feared that someone will mistakenly take it or simply steal it. It never happened. However, common sense applies, have all your valuables with you.
    In some cases however, when the bus is too small (no baggage compartment available) or not full, the driver will let you take your backpack on board.

On the road

  • Overloading
    In the past, bus drivers would pick up more passengers than there are seats available so as to make some extra cash. This time is over.
    Overloading is strictly forbidden. It still happens in some cases, but only between villages. It’s not rare that there is a check-point on the road where a man with a uniform comes up for inspection.
Overloaded bus = passenger seating on a bucket

A ride between Chengyang and Sanjiang in Guangxi.

  • Half empty buses
    In rural areas, some buses link a main small town to nearby villages. They leave when full (which can take some time) or half empty, multiple stops are done in key spots in town and along the way to pick up more passengers. These buses are shuifa che (水发车) or gunfa che (滚发车) with high frequencies (every 10 minutes to 40 minutes). You pay your ticket on board to a lady who is usually wearing a fanny pack and has a very loud voice so that everyone can hear where the bus is going.
  • Road conditions
    The Chinese government is building highways and improving road conditions in almost every parts of the country. Some areas have been forgotten by development (so far), specially in mountainous or poor areas (I am thinking aboutnorthernYunnanandeasternGuizhouorevenGansu province). During the rainy season, some sections of road may be closed because of mudslides ( I was stuck oncefor3daysinDeqin in northern Yunnan).

    A couple of hours lost to drivers' impatience. Thank you.

    After a mudslide between Deqin and Zhongdian – A couple of hours lost to drivers’ impatience. Thank you.

  • In-bus entertainment system
    A bus ride is rarely complete without music or a movie. The louder the better. Add children playing video games, people who decide to change the ringtone of their phone and listen to every ringtone twice, those who scream over the phone (because the music is too loud) and you will understand the meaning of the word renao (热闹), literally ‘lively’ or ‘bustling with noise and excitement’.  Some bus rides can be quiet.
  • Sensitive nostrils
    I was once in a very clean bus that smelt of bleach. Most buses aren’t that clean and it’s a euphemism to say that Chinese buses do not smell like a garden of roses. There is an interesting scent of spicy instant noodles, hard-boiled eggs, sweat, old socks and possibly old cigarette butts. Whatever it is, even locals have trouble coping with it.
She has sensitive nostrils.

She has sensitive nostrils.

  • Where is Motion sickness
    Many people in the countryside suffer from motion sickness and some (unsuccessfully) try not to vomit. Most bus stations sell motion sickness medicine (yunche yao 晕车药), but it may happen that one of your bus-mate vomits in a plastic bag, directly on the floor or out the window. It may trigger an unexpected chain of events ( half of the passengers start vomiting in the bus).  I saw that pretty scene once in northern Yunnan.
  • Free passengers
    In the countryside, people transport pretty much anything, including small-sized animals. Chicken, geese, piglet in woven closed baskets or mesh bags are the most usual. A chicken vs goose fight in a mesh bag can be very entertaining, specially with Chinese techno music in the background.
  • Pee / lunch break
    On long journey (above 4 hours), drivers are required to stop every 2 to 2.5 hours to rest for 15 minutes. It’s time to go to pee. Chinese public toilets are not known for their cleanliness, although things are improving, get psychologically ready for the worst.
    Some buses stop on the way for a lunch break. I have never been tempted by the food in these placed by the road. Eat whatever you want at your own risk. Packing a small lunch is never a bad idea.
Mid-journey break between Jishou and Changsha in Hunan

Mid-journey break between Jishou and Changsha in Hunan

  • Honking
    Chinese drivers can’t drive without honking. I was once in a mini-bus waiting for departure when the driver realized the klaxon wasn’t working properly. Passengers were kindly requested to take another bus. In cities, loud and repeated honking means “get the f*ck out of the way, I am barging my way into the lane whether you like or not, you [any insult of your choice]. On mountains roads of Guizhou, Yunnan and Gansu, honking is a safe ‘heads up’ before a curve.
  • Countryside style traffic jam
    Of course. The main cause of traffic jams in the countryside are small-scale clusterf*cks and they happen when your rural hopper reaches a small town. Many towns on the road usually consists of one main street which are easily cloaked by the morning market and people parking their vehicle on the side of the road.
    Outside of towns, small roads section are just a muddy trail full of pot-holes where trucks get easily stuck. Add reckless driving and you have the right combo for a traffic jam even in the middle of nowhere.
    On this types of road, accidents happen. They are rarely serious, mostly “bumper to bumper” situation. Drivers argue for hours on who has to pay how much to whom, blocking traffic for some time.
Birth of a clusterf*ck.

Birth of a clusterf*ck.

Traveling by bus in China is like a chocolate box, you never know what you are going to get, but they sure contribute to creating everlasting memories.

Share your stories, leave a comment.


There are 2 comments

  1. pbrasser

    Your post, brings up lots of memories, the only place I have come across were the toilets were more disgusting was in Malaysia, Borneo. I have to say that that part is something I never get used to. In general I find public transport highly entertaining in China or other parts of China.
    Last year we were traveling from Beijing to, when I remember well direction Datong, first class on the train, a little girl decided she needed a pee, in the middle of the train, the only reaction from the Chinese passengers was to move there briefcase when the small puddle travelled on the floor looking for the lowest point. But I assume that this behaving will be a rare advent in 10 years time.
    Great post again Gaetan, loved your pictures and very entertaining writing

    1. Gaetan

      Thank you Peter. After reading your comment I felt like China is changing faster than its people. Hopefully everything will change for the best during the next 10 years!

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