Pacific Tides
My name is Thomas Sturm and I'm a programmer, photographer and writer.

Now go outside and look at the sky.

Memories: Long Distance Buses

Memories is a random series of memories of my trips to Asia in the late 80s and early 90s.

Long-distance buses were probably my least favorite mode of transportation in China. It is safe to assume that if you saw me on a bus in the middle of nowhere, I was officially desperate to get from point A to point B.

China is large - improbably large - and even with a relatively dense network of trains there are many places that are only reachable by long-distance bus. The services tend to be in private hands and vary from sleek hourly coaches with all amenities to little irregular operated minivans that are at least 100.000 kilometers beyond the last recommended maintenance cycle.

A small bus service was often the very first private business for enterprising families and I frequently encountered buses where the family literally lived on the bus. Dad drove the bus, mom sold the tickets and stowed luggage on the roof, grandma managed the money and the kids did their homework on rickety little seats next to the driver's seat.

Some of the buses operate through the night on long hauls across provinces and these typically have beds instead of seats. Sleeping on the narrow cots while the bus bounces across unlit, winding country roads with heavy truck traffic was an impossibility and led me several times to question my vacation choices.

On the positive side, bus travel allowed me to see parts of the country that would have been impossible to visit otherwise, and the remote scenery along the way was often breathtaking and unanticipated.

Many of the memories of my bus trips are a haze of sleep deprived disorientation. Fragments that stand out...

...waking up on a sleeper bus somewhere in southern Guangxi province. 2am, 3am, nobody knows. What woke me from my slumber was the sudden lurch of the bus towards my side. We were leaning heavily with my view out the window just water. A river. Very close. The driver was taking us down along the shore of a river to avoid a construction site and the bus was in serious danger of tipping over into the muddy stream. It took several tense minutes to get the bus back out of the soft dirt and onto what counted as a road in this area...

...running down a hot, humid country road on central Hainan island, late at night in near total darkness with only the moon as illumination as there were no lights. Many drivers on China's roads try to conserve energy - or light bulbs, who knows - by turning the lights off whenever possible. I was sitting up front and couldn't sleep, which means I got the full effect of what happened next. We overtook a slow tractor coming over a hill and a small movement on the road ahead prompted the driver to turn on the lights, only to be greeted by the exact same mirrored scenario ahead of us - a bus overtaking a truck coming straight at us with their lights suddenly on. The few of us awake to witness this had barely time to let out a gasp as the two busses swerved back into their respective lanes, with only a few centimeters to spare...

...somewhere near Nanjing, on a local country bus route with many, many stops. The bus was slowly filling up with farmers and their - living - wares for the local market. There were several crates with pigs on the roof, leading to a rain of panic-induced manure down the windows. More crates with chickens and ducks filled the corridor of the bus to the point where passengers had to climb over the seat backs to leave the bus, and my seat neighbor had a huge tank with fish on his lap that nearly didn't even fit. With every major pothole along the way some of the water splashed over the side of the fish tank and onto my backpack and pant legs. The trip took about six hours, but it felt like the longest bus ride of my life... a bus driving across rural Henan, not far from the Yellow River. There had been major floods in the area and reports of receding waters had been premature. All around the bus as far as the eye could see there was only muddy water with the odd tree or farm house sticking out. Heavy dark clouds were hiding the sun, promising more rain, grey sky over grey water. The road was a slightly elevated dam that at best was barely above the water and often was actually completely flooded. The driver took it slow as the tires only kept tenuous contact with the flooded tarmac. It was easy to imagine that I was on a boat as we floated across the flooded, desolate landscape like in a feverish dream. We passed a sunken truck that had gone off the road over night, the two drivers sitting on their cabin roof. A village on a slight hump appeared as a small island, with locals standing in front of their houses, listlessly gazing at the watery landscape...

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