Our bus experience on a recent Saturday in Hangzhou, China, clearly sets it apart from all other experiences of the week and lands it squarely in the I-can’t-believe-I-lived-through-that category. In thinking back on it, I’m a little undecided whether to call it “The Bus Ride From Hell,” or, “The Mother Of All Bus Rides.”
Calling it either may be premature; every time I get through a hair-raising experience or a magical moment, I think: “Wow! That’ll never happen again.” And then it happens again.
Our daily life is just so different here than in St. Paul, Minnesota, frigid land of snow drifts and snow throwers and icy driveways—and a predictable daily routine.
We set out about 2 p.m. on a simple task: find Hangzhou’s new food museum south of the city, learn the route to it, then come back another day to spend more time there.
To accomplish our task, we had to take the 25 bus (no cars here—just public transportation) to the West Lake area, then switch to the 504, which would take us south of town. From there we were going to navigate by-guess and by-golly, and hope to find the museum, the existence of which has been previously confirmed by two cartographers.
Well, Saturday was sunny and in the mid-60s, which meant that the West Lake area was absolutely packed. I am speculating that the nice weather brought out the locals and the tourists (Chinese tourists). It was one of the first really nice days of spring, and the entire area was people-packed, and the roads sorely needed an arterial stent and a starter dose of Lipitor to relieve the gridlock and keep it moving.
We walked to the bus stop near the apartment and before too long a 25 came rumbling along the street. Now, the 25 begins its run in the northwestern part of Hangzhou and its destination is West Lake and He Fang Street, another major tourist attraction nearby. On the way, it passes directly through the heart of downtown. So, the 25 is filled to standing-room-only by the time it arrives at our stop, and on Saturdays and Sundays, it is filled to smashed-together-standing-room-only.
When the 25’s doors opened, no one fell off the bus, which I took as a sign that the bus’s people-packing process was still underway and we could most likely get on the bus. I stepped onboard, leaned into the crowd, grabbed a stanchion at the front of the bus and pulled myself forward, and waited for the crowd to readjust itself toward the rear.
As it happens, the driver of this 25 was frustrated and impatient, and instead off allowing the half dozen or so would-be passengers still at the door to crowd on, he slammed the door in their faces, and simultaneously slammed the door on my butt! This had the effect of cutting me off from my wife who, having failed to properly implement her pushing and shoving bus-boarding technique, remained on the street as the 25 whisked her husband away.
Although this had never happened to us in our many, many bus rides, it was not a big deal. We made eye contact as the bus drove off. I managed to call her and she told me to stay on the bus rather than get off at the next stop and try to get on again. Good advice. She caught the next bus.
That was at 2 p.m. At 3:05 I got off the 25, having spent the entire time standing in a jostling, constipated bus, wondering what was going to happen each time the rear doors opened. To my amazement, my wife showed up about five minutes later. The irony, here, is that we could have walked to this bus stop in about 30 minutes.
I’d say we were on the 504 by 3:20 or so. The first one that came by never stopped or opened the doors because it, too, overflowed with passengers. We saw another lurching toward us with the stop-and-go traffic—and so did everyone else—and the prospective 504 riders rushed into the street to meet it rather than wait for the 504 to arrive at the stop. The driver opened the front and rear doors. We managed to squeeze into the back. We never did pay for that ride.
By 5 p.m., we had gone from the east side of West Lake to the south side, a distance of about a half-mile or so. This painfully slow progress arises from the Chinese traffic system, which is governed by a set of rules that all drivers ignore. The notion of right of way at a four-way stop is absent in the Chinese psyche.
At this point, it’s fair to ask why we didn’t simply get off the bus. Well, we were at this time still committed to finding the food museum and we were in an unfamiliar part of the city. We had hoped to see signs indicating that the museum, or the park in which the museum is located, was this way or that, but none appeared. We also hoped that the horrendous Gordian Knot of traffic would untie itself as we passed the south side of West Lake and moved away from the main tourist activity.
I should have realized sooner that our escapade for the afternoon was akin to taking a walk in the woods and encountering a swamp, which you decide to walk around, and as the muddy goo grabs more and more of your feet and legs and you sink deeper into the soft ground, you keep pressing forward, thinking, the other side is just over there, but it’s not, and before long you’re up to your armpits in mud, thinking, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.
It was like that.
The 504 jerked and lurched along for another 45 minutes or so. We saw signs posted indicating various sights were nearby, but nothing that encouraged us to get off the bus. Finally, the bus broke free and turned onto an expansive four-lane highway on the bank of the Qiantang River, but by now we had realized that we had missed the food museum. So now, still standing in a crowded bus, we had to decide when to get off the 504 and head back.
While it was nice to see this part of the city, which appears to be quite new, the time was now just before 6 p.m. and we were concerned about getting back. We moved from bus stop to bus stop as we kept trying to decide if this was the right stop to disembark. However, that decision was made rather abruptly for us when our 504 encountered a stalled 504 on the highway. The stranded passengers sprinted through oncoming traffic to cross the highway and climb aboard our bus, gushing in through the front and the back doors. We knew then that we were getting off, so we pushed against the oncoming flow of passengers and managed to break out onto the walkway. We were not sure where we were, but we at least had a momentary respite from a bus bursting with people.
We crossed the road to a bus stop on the other side, and within about 10 minutes or so, another 504, headed back to the city, appeared. Guess what: standing room only. We barely got on. But we were lucky. Had we decided to head back a couple of stops earlier, we probably would not have gotten on the return 504, because the driver stopped picking up passengers because the vehicle was so crowded.
At 6:08 we got on the returning 504, and we got off at the West Lake stop at 7:14. In all, we spent five hours on the bus, accomplished nothing, but learned never to take the bus into the West Lake area on a nice, sunny weekend.
Off the bus with the ordeal behind us (we thought), we found a favorite restaurant to have dinner and just plain sit down. We both ordered a Thai Beef Salad. The server brought us Roasted Spring Chicken, which was twice the price, which we ate anyway (don’t know what happened, but we were in no mood to fuss). I mean, it seemed appropriate in a way; the day’s plans had been shot to pieces anyway, why should dinner be any different.
Life in the Saturday night street moved all around us as we walked toward our final bus ride. We talked quietly about how to solve the problem of finding the food museum, and decided we would take a cab next time, regardless of cost. I made a photo of a delightful nighttime West Lake scene.
By the time the 25 rolled around the corner and approached the bus stop, an ample crowd had gathered, and once again we managed to just barely get on. This was another ride where my arms extended upward as if I were hanging from a tree branch, but I was actually hanging from the stanchions.
About three or four stops up the road, the doors opened and even more people tried to board. By now, I had worked my way to the rear of the bus and stood near the rear doors. What ensued made our whole day.
Shouting erupted from the front of the bus. One would-be passenger, a woman, was blocking the door so that the door could not close. The driver was on his feet leaning over the crowd, jabbing his finger at her, and yelling at the top of his voice. And when he stopped shouting, I could see the woman’s finger at the end of her fist jabbing back at the driver with accompanying return shouts. Then the driver. Then the jabbing finger. Pretty soon, a passenger uses a stanchion to pull himself up and adds his jabbing finger to the argument, clearly accusing the oncoming passenger of misbehavior. The passenger jabs back with caustic comments. Of course, other passengers feel that they can make the point better, so they start jabbing and yelling, too. This continues for at least five minutes, possibly a bit longer. Meanwhile, other busses pass by, obviously free of altercations that would otherwise hinder their progress.
I’m watching the demeanor of most of the passengers on the bus. For the most part, they all stand patiently watching the argument. Curiosity finally overcomes me, and I start calling, “Anyone speak English?” I do this several times and, finally, a young girl in the company of her boyfriend offers an explanation, as best she can, as to what is going on, and that’s when I learn about the woman who won’t get off the bus so the door can close. I asked the girl whether this is a common occurrence. She said it was not.
After all of this, the doors finally close and the 25 drives on with the troublesome passenger in tow. This last crowded bus ride of the day only takes about 30 minutes, but by the time we reach our hopping-off stop, I find myself in remarkably good humor after this awful day on the bus. I think the argument on the bus at the end of the day was classic. What a cultural experience.
I think my wife captured the essence of why we live here in Hangzhou the way we do. When she told one of the young English teachers (an American) at school about our taking the bus down to West Lake on the weekend, he scolded her and told her to start taking cabs and get on with her life.
“Take a cab?” she said. “You’re kidding. We’re here to experience this place. Where are you going to see an argument like that in a taxi?”