Looking over my photos of China, I mentally revisit Beijing’s Forbidden City, Tianenmen Square, Temple of Heaven, Yangshuo’s Li River and Moon Hill, Guangzhou’s busy shopping streets, and re-immerse myself in Hong Kong’s Symphony of Lights. Some photos have the strange capacity of recreating a mind-set, an atmosphere, a place. At the same time, they are integral to the trip itself, in the sense that they give us a new perspective après-coup.
As I sift through these, I stop on one which had clearly been intended as an amused reminder of the less enjoyable parts of travelling – those that we refer to as ‘an experience’. Taken from the back of an overcrowded sleeper bus going from Yangshuo to Shenzhen, this photo focuses on the parts of travelling that we would usually not try to remember. I mean who even came up with the idea of a sleeper bus? Sleeper trains make a lot of sense, considering their rhythm and tracks, but trying to sleep in rows of bunk-beds as the bus turns, accelerates, decelerates, suddenly stops on Chinese roads, was never going to be a good idea. Not to mention the maximisation of the bus’ capacity according to the standard Chinese svelte physique, with three rows of thin beds parted by narrow corridors, each person’s legs trapped under the next bunk. This is China – health and safety are not the priority.
So once every bunk was filled, more people were crammed in the narrow space between the bunks, who would sit on the coach floor with no back rest for the duration of the ride. Apart from these ‘places’, the worst possible spot would probably be right at the back, where the bunks had been merged into what can only be described as a very large bunk-bed the width of the bus in which five people were squeezed together. The worst of these two bunks was undoubtedly the lower one, where claustrophobia was intensified by the distinct feeling of being trapped like a rat, with no possibility of escape once the aisles were filled too. The worst place on the lower bunk was the middle of this ‘bed’, with people lying and sitting everywhere around, left, right, above, in front… and very little air.
Needless to say, that was my place.
I suspect the man on the left of my neighbour wasn’t very friendly, as she spent most of the ten hours cuddling up to me. This photo immortalised Discomfort. Eventually I drifted into a half-sleep, trying hard to concentrate on the music from my mp3 player and blessing the (very) faint breeze reaching me through the ventilation. Until someone lit a cigarette. And just when I was about to complain, I remembered that I don’t speak Chinese. Trapped like a rat; it was impossible even to squeak! By the time we reached Shenzhen in the early hours, my appreciation of air, space and simple comforts had all been significantly altered – all to be revised a few days later by my next Chinese transport experience!
Having missed the last bus home after a meal and drinks out in Guangzhou, it quickly became apparent that the only way back was a motorbike taxi. Once we managed to correctly say the name of our destination, the motorbike taxi gave me a plastic Bob-the-Builder helmet and we set off. We got lost several times, and the driver stopped at every open shop or petrol station to ask for directions. Frozen and in pain from holding onto a motorbike seat supporting three people for over an hour, we made it back at the break of dawn. We paid the motorbike taxi man double, as they never usually transport people over such long distances. He was over the moon; we were just relieved to retrieve a bed.
The more I think about transport in China, the more related anecdotes spring to mind; and as I reminisce, my perspective on the trip is altered somewhat, brought back to reality. Travelling is far more than just about the idealised, aesthetically-pleasing snaps of smiling people with beautiful background sceneries. Cameras are great travel companions and photos are wonderful reminders of what we have seen – but when used too selectively, they easily become an impediment to memory. Much hindsight enjoyment is derived from the least enjoyable parts of travelling – so why not try to remember them too?