Monday, March 16, 2009

The Overnight Bus to Kunming

If I had planned things better, I would not have left a package at my hotel in Kunming. From Lijiang I had an opportunity to travel to a few other cities that would have taken me farther and farther from the parcel I had left behind. So, I had no choice but return. This did, however, give me an opportunity to take the train from Dali to Kunming … except there was no way to get a ticket. That left the bus.

There are quite a few night buses making the trip from Lijiang to Kunming.It wasn't until I went to a ticket office that I learned what kindof buss. Walking pass the behemoth I marveled at its modern stylingbut stopped in my tracks when I figured out what was going on inside the windows. The bus was equipped with bunk beds!

My Tiger Leaping Gorge guide, Lee-oh, accompanied me so I left him in charge of getting me a ticket. Unfortunately I could not travel on that particular bus, but he assured me the bus at the depot would be thesame model and have beds. I was gleeful at the thought of sleeping the night away while traveling to my destination.

The bus station was some distance from the old city so it was necesarry to take a city bus to get there. We walked to the other side of the city and waited on the side of the street for one particular bus. After a considerable wait and a reasonably long ride, we arrived at the bus station.

Leaving my backpack at the left-luggage room, we headed across the street to eat supper. Several restaurants, all catering to bus travelers, vied for our business. I was eager to eat something substantial, something tasty and not overcooked. I failed at this endeavor but managed to satiate my hunger.

Night had fallen and it was time to go to the bus. I bid farewell to Lee-oh, picked up my bags and made my way through security - yes, they run your bag through an x-ray machine. My backpack went into the hold of the bus and took my camera bag and overnight bag on board with me.

I'd taken far too many overnight buses where I was forced to sit upright and hope that I was seated next to someone smaller than me. The thought of having my own little bunk was quite exciting. I was a bit concerned at the fact that it might very well be a tight fit, but I figured I could curl up and make the most of it. Ticket in hand, I boarded the bus.

This bus was the sister of the one I saw earlier. It had three rows of double-decker stainless steel bunk beds. Nearly all the other passengers had taken to their beds and were busy organizing their belongings and chatting away. They watched me make my way through the
narrow aisle to my bunk. I couldn't find it.

Although Arabic numbers were used, the bunk numbering system was mystifying. I kept an eye out for an empty bunk hoping it matched the number of my ticket. I still couldn't find it. I showed my ticked to one of the helpful passengers and he pointed to the other aisle and way to the back.

I made my way to the back of the bus and realized that my bed was very different from the others I'd seen. The back of the bus was set up with two huge beds stretching from one side of the bus to the other, where the passengers sleep shoulder to should. My spot was one in the middle.

Thoughts of a pleasant journey evaporated as I realized that I'd be squeezed in between two other people. Dejected, I hauled myself up into the upper bed and got arranged. I was able to stuff my bags next to the window at my head and my boots fit into a shelf at my feet.

I introduced myself to the three other guys laying there by offering them each a piece of gum. None of them spoke English, which is just as well as I was not in a mood to talk. I put on my MP3 player and tried to put myself in a positive mood.

The bus was ready to leave, but the back bed was not yet full. My spirits lifted. If the spot beside me was not taken, I would have a much larger sleeping area. I shifted to the left to test out my new comfort zone. Oh, no.

The back beds were designed to make sure you kept to your own spot. The thin mattress pads were separated by a steel ridge. It wasn't high enough to be painful, but it was high enough to be really uncomfortable. I tested out a few strategies to make use of the extra
space. Curling up, I could put my head on the other bed if I padded the spot below my knees. Not exactly like home, but it was a lot more comfortable than laying straight

My newfound pleasures were soon dampened as two other people made their way to the back. One of them was a teenage girl who was quite upset at the prospect of sleeping with all those strange men in the back. She sat on the edge of the bed as the bus moved along, and complained to the other passengers. It was clear that she was trying to browbeat
one of the other young men to change places with her. After about an hour, one of them gave up his bunk and swapped with her.

lay on my back and tried to relax. I was uncomfortably aware of the two young men trying to sleep on either side of me. They managed, some how. I took a few melatonin to help ease the transition and listened to an audio book.

I really thought I could sleep. While I was barely comfortable, I was certainly tired and the melatonin made me drowsy. Unfortunately, the bus had a tendency to shake. It was not the steady motion of a typical car or bus ride, but a sort of rhythmic sway. Furthermore,
whenever it hit a rough spot in the road, or the driver dodged something, the jolt was amplified by our distance from the ground. A small wiggle of the tires tran
slated into a resonating jostle at the top of the bus. This would happen every fifteen or twenty minutes. About every hour, the bus would hit a pothole and we poor fellows in the back were knocked awake.

Of course it didn't help that my bedmates would occasionally change position and I had to deal with an elbow or knee poking at me. I used my spare blanket to fend off these intrusions into my territory.

Somewhere, in the middle of the night, the bus stopped for a bathroom break. It was not until then that I realized there was no toilet aboard. Being an old had at overnight trips, I eschewed the consumption of liquids since the afternoon. Fortunately, my bedmates didn't have to go either so we actually got a good bit of sleep.

The bus stopped again and people started moving about. I rolled over and tried to go back to sleep. Something didn't seem right. My bedmates had departed. I looked up and noted that just about everyone had left the bus. Those that remained were packing their belongings. I looked out the window and noted that we were not in a bus station but on the street. My clock indicated that it was four in the morning. Apparently, the bus arrived early.

I gathered my things, made my way out of the bus and picked up my backpack. The street was lined with long-distance buses and thronged with people. Some folks sat curled up on the pavement, probably waiting for a bus, while others made their way one direction or the other. I skipped the taxi offering and just started walking in a random direction, hoping that I would gain my bearings. Eventually, I figured out that I was not far from the train station.

From the station, I knew I could walk to the hotel where my bag was stored. It was a long walk, but I had plenty of time and really needed to work out the kinks.

Heading up a side street, I noticed a familiar neon sign. It was in Chinese, but I had a suspicion I knew what was inside. This might well be one of the few establishments open twenty-four hours a day in a Chinese city. I followed the broad stairway down into the bowels of the building – the people who came here had no need for windows. I stepped into a large, dimly lit, room. This is one of those businesses barely tolerated by the Chinese government. Young men flock to these places for entertainment. I was standing in the biggest internet gaming shop I'd ever seen.

The shop easily held two or three hundred modern computers with modern desks and comfortable chairs. I grabbed the first machine I saw and stated transferring my photos to my hard drives. There were perhaps a score of people using the computers at that early hour, so I had the place nearly to myself, comparatively speaking.

One of the staff dropped by and gave me a cup of tea. This was promptly refilled every time I emptied it. I drank a lot of tea that morning. I managed to pick the computer that received a steady draft of cold air from the open doors. I didn't realize this until after I started the complicated process of file transfers, so I wrapped my blanket about myself and went to work like some modern monk.

After a few hours of catching up on my e-mail and reading the latest news, I walked back to the hotel and settled down to a hearty breakfast. I needed to plan my next destination. I was, quite frankly, too damn cold. I had to decide if I wanted to continue my trip in China, or go elsewhere. As exotic as the place is, I really didn't want to spend my holiday in the cold.

My preference was to get to Vietnam, but my visa did not start for another two or three weeks. (Dear Vietnam, please be more flexible with your visas. Surely a one-month visa could begin upon arrival and not on a specific date?) Myanmar was not an option so that left Laos and Thailand. I wanted to go back to see the monks at Luang Probang, so Laos it was. However, there was still one thing left to see in Kunming: the Stone Forest.

Kunming in the morning

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