Going with the flow on the bus in Yunnan

APRIL 3, 2018 — Twenty years ago B.C. (before children), on a trip to the Philippines with my wife Ruth, I described being in and getting around that nutty country as “like Dr. Seuss on acid.” Everything was topsy-turvy; nothing worked according to the logical rules one could expect when traveling elsewhere.

China still has the occasional echo of that unreality, as we experienced today taking buses about 100 kilometers from Lijiang to Shaxi (pronounced Sha-shee) in Yunnan Province.

All our guidebooks and Internet sources promised that we had to take one bus 90 minutes to the town of Jianshuan and then grab an on-demand “minibus” just outside the bus station for the 45-minute ride to Shaxi. We were further assured that we’d be deposited downtown, adjacent to the old town of Shaxi, a close walk to the well-known Horsepen46 hostel.

Just to be sure, we had our English-fluent hostel manager in Lijiang check the bus schedules. He showed us the official bus service website that listed departures for Jianshuan at 10:00am, 10:40am, and so on at 40-minute intervals.

Thus reassured, we set off early to the Lijiang bus station to buy tickets for the 10:00am bus. Once there, the ticket agent told us the bus left at 9:10am, not 10:00am, and said we had to hurry to get it. She pointed out that it was then 9:04am, so we had a mere six minutes.

Good thing we got there early, I thought. How come the online official bus schedule was wrong, as were our guidebooks and other references?

But not so fast! The agent needed our full passport details because we are foreigners. She typed in each passport data set of three as fast as she could. All this for crummy bus tickets, I thought.

Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. We had just three minutes by the time the tickets were printed.

We ran from the ticket office to the main waiting area entrance. It wasn’t well marked, but we found it. Not so fast! Armed security there made us go through a perfunctory body scan and luggage X-ray and hand scanner, delaying us further. In a bus station? Why?

No matter, let’s run to the platform and find our particular bus. Not so fast! At the door we ran into an airport-style gate where tickets were scanned. It was now 9:09am and counting. The “gate agent” was very nice, though, and ran us over to the correct bus, which was just buttoning up to leave.

The bus itself, however, was not as advertised. It was just a small bus, not a large intercity motorcoach, another anomaly that didn’t jive with anything we had been told or had read in our research.

We found it full and jammed with the usual bags and boxes that come with bus travel in China. We stumbled over stuff and managed to find seats, though separated, and the bus left immediately at 9:10am.

It was a rough and uncomfortable ride, but a fast one. Expecting a 90-minute trip, as all sources indicated, we were very surprised when the little bus arrived in Jianshuan Station (below) at 10:18am.20180401_221900_resizedFollowing our carefully researched instructions, we expected to walk out of the station and look around for a minibus to Shaxi. That didn’t happen. Instead, a woman met our incoming bus asking if we were going to Shaxi. When we affirmed, she showed us to a nearby bus nearly identical to the one on which we had arrived. It was already mostly full and it filled up completely en route.

The young man sitting next to me was wearing a face mask. Many Chinese wear them every day, presumably to guard against catching germs from others. But he was also smoking. The irony apparently escaped him.

The bus trip to Shaxi was long and as uncomfortable as the one to Jianshuan. Supposedly 45 minutes, the ride actually took more than an hour. Then we were dropped way out on the edge of the town, nowhere near downtown. That required us to walk a long distance with our luggage since Shaxi is too small to have taxis.

I was pitted out by the time we reached our hostel. Like Lijiang Old Town, the streets of old Shaxi are paved with cutesy, fake “cobblestones” that make it impossible to pull rolling bags without ruining the wheels. It was not fun carrying the heavy bags from outside town, but we finally made it to the charming Horsepen46.

Stray observation: Our passports were checked repeatedly at the Lijiang bus station. Once we bought tickets, both the security personnel and the bus “gate agent” had to check our passports carefully against our lousy bus tickets. When we got to Jianshuan, nobody operating the second bus cared about passports. In fact, I had to remind them to charge us for the ride to Shaxi.

Bottom line: Nothing went according to Hoyle–or the Chinese equivalent of Hoyle–though we got here fine. It’s an example of how sometimes in China you just have to go with whatever happens and not obsess when the experience doesn’t correlate to expectations.

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