The best and the worst of times: bus travel in western China

The bus to the mythical land of Shangri-La. And yes, that is a basket of chickens on top.

This post goes into the category of “utterly random” – something that it (of course) has in common with many of my other posts.

I have been traveling a fair bit over the past month or two. And I live in a province where, unless you are going somewhere (self-)important like Lhasa or Beijing, you will be traveling almost entirely by bus. Normal bus. Mini-bus. Minivan-buslike contraption. Sleeper bus. City bus. Buses in all forms comprise the vast majority of public transportation in Qinghai.

And they are quite an experience. From the “high buses” with unopenable windows (resulting in interior air temperatures which, regardless of frosty conditions outside, regularly exceed those of Phoenix, but is even worse as it exacerbates the ever-present bus smell of shelled sunflower seeds, wet feet, and dried vomit) to the often painfully cramped and dirty (and, of course, smelly) sleeper buses, from the consequences of the buses’ lack of bathrooms (and bathroom stops) to two-hour-long dinner breaks where drivers feast (and drink beer) while passengers wait shivering, stony-faced outside, and from drivers’ suicidal road behavior to local passengers’ uncanny ability, regardless of road conditions, to vomit endlessly and at will – a behavior they surprisingly seem to truly enjoy – you can be assured your bus trip in western China will be a truly memorable experience.

Problems aside, the public bus system is actually quite reliable and extensive, covering every county town and quite a few smaller places, and (despite some uncomfortable moments) is a good way to get around. Though you may scream in frustration as your driver cruises around your town of departure at five miles per hour, picking up the odd person off the street in an attempt to fill his bus to the gills (as he gets an extra cut for each passenger, you can be assured you’re not leaving until the bus is truly packed), the buses are also relatively quick (most of the time)(if you don’t break down)(if there is no road construction)(if your driver is not a drugged lunatic). Sleeper buses in particular are efficient ways to travel; rather than spend an entire sunup-to-sundown day on the bus, you can lounge for a few hours on a (admittedly small) bed, have another few hours of (fitful) sleep, and wake up at your destination. My friend Kailah, in Shangri-La, sums up the experience of the sleeper bus thusly: “On a good day, I feel that sleeper buses are a brilliant invention; on a bad day, I feel like I’m on a slaveship.”

She would know; her town is only accessible (unless you are on an American/European budget) by sleeper bus from the Yunnan provincial capital of Kunming. Over Chunjie (Spring Festival/Chinese New Year) vacation, Kailah and I spent about a month traveling through northwestern Yunnan and southwestern Sichuan, where we gained experience in bus travel; after her epic three-day return to Shangri-La from Chengdu and my recent sleeper-bus trips to Golok and Yushu, I feel that we can modestly call ourselves Foreign Experts in Western China Bus Travel.

Not kidding. I actually am a Foreign Expert. But that title was bestowed upon me because I can speak English like it’s my job (which it is).

Being an expert these days, I can definitively report that one of the major frustrations about bus travel in this region is the dearth of schedules or information. There are no websites, and posted phone numbers are usually (about 90% of the time) wrong, connecting you instead to the cell phone of an ever-increasingly irate individual in a different city. If you (perchance) do reach a bus station on the phone, they most likely will be unable to inform you about buses leaving from their station, and are usually unable to forward you to someone who can help. And lets say you go to the bus station: constantly changing schedules, overbooked buses, frantic and harried (not to mention foreigner-hating) staff and crowds of migrants make the experience sometimes a bit overwhelming.

With that being said, let me present, with great fanfare, my Complete, Authoritative, and Utterly Exhaustive Rankings of Best and Worst Bus Stations in Western China (excluding Xinjiang and the TAR, which are unimportant in this case because I haven’t been to them yet).

Best

1. Darlag (Dari) 达日汽车站

The people who man this station are unbelievably friendly. Even though the twelve-hour overnight bus to Xining is not a sleeper (that’s right – you’re sitting crammed together fully upright in seats for the duration), the general affability and helpfulness of the attendants at the station where you bought your ticket (and ended up chatting with the ticket takers for thirty minutes) eases at least a tiny bit of the pain. Not to mention their willingness to help you reserve tickets at other stations around Golog (see below, and note that the woman in Darlag was the instigator). I ended up willingly hanging out here for more than an hour – something you don’t often say about bus stations in general – and, what’s more, enjoying it.

2. Banma 班玛客运站

Despite facilities which I could generously describe as “rustic”, this tiny bus station in remote Golog prefecture vaults onto this list for its’ ticket-attendants willingness to help passengers. When I was in Darlag and unable to get a return bus to Xining, the bus station here was willing to hold a sleeper bus ticket for more than 24 hours until I arrived in town and was able to pay.

The only problem with this station is the gruesome posters covering the exterior. Designed to inspire safe driving, the posters show, in vivid color, horrific bus accidents from around China, and give a list of the dead and injured passengers alongside gory before-and-after pictures. Not the thing to look at before a 14-hour sleeper bus trip (or anytime before or after a meal).

3. Xining – Nanchuan Xilu 西宁南川西路客运站

The people here are unbelievably friendly, and have been willing to talk me through online bus schedules for fifteen minutes at a time. Unfortunately, buses leaving from this station only go to two or three destinations, and new rules prohibit this station for selling tickets for buses leaving from other Xining stations, so aside from information-gathering this station is of extremely limited use.

4. Litang 理塘汽车站

The fact that buying tickets in Litang was zero hassle was enough to vault the station onto this list, above the legions of stations manned by inhospitable cold people who, in their unwillingness to sell you tickets, will likely adjust your views on Human Nature.

5.Kunming West 昆明西客运站

Though Kailah and I hit this station at the height of Chunjie madness (late January), the station was remarkably efficient and well-run. Attendants were kind and helpful despite the crowds, and people waiting to buy tickets actually lined up!!!!!!!!!!! The bus departures were frequent enough that we didn’t spend too much time waiting in the (clean, well-lit) station before our departure. All in all, relatively innocuous – which is one of the best things you can say about these places.

Honorable mentions: Xiahe (Gansu), Dawu (Qinghai)

Worst

1. Xiangcheng 乡城汽车站

I passed through Xiangcheng, located in remote southwestern Sichuan province, with my friend Kailah in February about ten days after the lunar new year. We walked inside to be greeted by a closed ticket window and a snarling “service” attendant.

“Can we go to Litang tomorrow?” we asked.

“No,” she said. “There are no buses to Litang.”

Litang is the county immediately north of Xiangcheng, and a major town; if buses didn’t go there, they didn’t go anywhere. We went outside to look for a minivan, but to no avail. We returned back inside to find the ticket window open and selling tickets. We got into the scrum outside the window; there were about three people in front of us. As soon as we elbowed our way to the front, a metal gate slammed down in front of the ticket window and the attendants disappeared. We went to the service desk again.

“It’s closed,” she said. “They’re off work.” We looked at the time; it was the middle of the afternoon and a bus had just arrived. I asked the woman if we could buy tickets to Kangding, the capital of the prefecture which lies nine hours past Litang on the same road.

“No,” she said, “they’re sold out. You have to wait for two or three days.”

“If we can buy tickets there,” I said, “we can buy tickets to Litang. The bus has to go through Litang to get there.” And indeed, we had even seen on the destination boards lying in front of the buses outside that they proceeded from Xiangcheng to Litang and thence to Kangding.

“There are no buses to Litang,” she said. “You can only go to Kangding or Derong.”

The conversation continued in this vein for quite some time until we finally decided to give up and come back the following morning at 5am when the Kangding buses would leave. When we arrived in the freezing predawn gloom, there were three Kangding-bound buses, but none of the drivers would let us on – in the station or even down the road (boarding buses at random spots is standard practice). We eventually got to Litang, but it was on a shared minivan – and with no thanks or credit due to the bus station. You have been warned.

2. Xining – Xinning Lu 西宁新宁路客运站

Unhelpful. Brusque. Outright mean. These adjectives outline the reception you will receive at this otherwise practical, well-located, and useful station. Be careful of the “service” desk – the woman behind which seems to be permanently on QQ or porn websites and is consequently unresponsive.

3. Shangri-La/Xianggelila/Zhongdian/Jiantang/Gyelthang 香格里拉/中甸

Lack of information and white lies verging on beige (or maybe gray…come to think of it, black) are the major issues in Shangri-La. We got a range of information from a ticket lady during the course of our waiting for days for a bus to the Sichuan town of Xiangcheng. To be fair, we were traveling five or six days after Chunjie. But there was no reason for the attendants to tell us that there would be a departure the following day, with tickets available in the afternoon, and cause me to repeatedly cross town to purchase tickets only to find out that there were no tickets simply because there never was a bus departure planned. Confirm everything here as many times as possible.

4. Rebgong 黄南州客运站

The problem here is incompetence. The people at the station do not know what buses stop at their station. They do not know when the next bus will be. They do not know the phone numbers for the other bus stations in the prefecture – over which they technically have some type of authority. And they are defensive about their incompetence: if they don’t know something, it’s your fault.

5. Xining main station 西宁客运站

A slightly insane place with unbelievably harried attendants who scream at you if you hesitate for more than a second. The already hectic tenor of the station was raised a notch by the constant influx of migrant workers heading en masse to Yushu to help with the town’s reconstruction. Crossing the main waiting hall to the bathroom has become nearly impossible due to the numbers of people and the piles of baggage. Unfortunately, this is the nerve center of Qinghai’s public transportation network, so if you’re in the province you’re definitely going to be spending some time here.

6. Kangding 康定客运站

The station was plenty nice. However, to enjoy the surprisingly clean, spacious, and well-lit waiting rooms (not to mention civil service-people and scrolling digital schedules), you first have to get in the building, whose doors are permanently blocked by some of the most aggressive taxi touts you’ve ever seen. These people will do what they can to physically prevent you from entering the building, buying a ticket, and boarding a public bus; they want you in their vehicle. Push past them unmercifully if at all possible.

6. Yushu 玉树汽车站

It’s sad to put poor crumbling destroyed Yushu on this list, but not only is there no inside area to the station (which consists of a parking lot with two disaster tents) but the attendants and police “facilitators” are incredibly obnoxious. Instead, go uphill and around the corner to the “extra bus area” – a big gravel area where semi-official buses to Xining and other destinations congregate.

Honorable Mentions: Chengdu Chadianzi, Dali North

Though it at times sounds rather drastic, the above should not discourage you in any way from bus travel in western China. Wherever you go, you will have quite an experience getting there. And after all, isn’t that why you came out here in the first place?

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One Response to The best and the worst of times: bus travel in western China

  1. Kailah says:

    Oh goodness yes, bus travel in Western China. Fully agreed that we indeed now qualify as Foreign Experts of Western China bus travel. You must come back to SGL sometime to experience the town when there are actually people in it, running water, and a functioning bus station that on the whole is not as hair-tearing-out-ingly incompetant/ignorant/unhelpful as during Chunjie, and indeed functions fairly competently on the whole.
    Damn Xiangcheng….

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