Traveling in Sleeper Bus

Written by Feb 23, 2009 07:25
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A Lonely Desert Road

1,000 kilometers can be a long way to travel in one sitting. Let me rephrase that: 1,000 kilometers IS a long way to travel in one sitting! Unfortunately, that's approximately the distance one would have to cover in order to get back from border town of Kashgar to the capital of Urumqi. The Taklamakan Desert offers only a few small towns along its northern edges as relief during this journey and beyond large stretches of flat desert there isn't much scenery to enjoy.

I could fly back, of course. Airports are popping up everywhere in Xinjiang, including four along my intended route to Urumqi (Kashgar, Aksu, Kuqa, and Korla), but this would be too expensive. I would love to take a train, opened in the past few years and currently being expanded, but my trip to the Kashgar train station on the eastern edge of town left me empty-handed. Apparently there are quite a few people who are heading to the capital at this moment and the train is the most popular method of travel. No more tickets available unless I wanted a hard seat - and I don't.

So I'm left with only one other option, the one option I was hoping to avoid: the sleeper bus. The international bus station, located on Jiefang Bie Lu just past the Tuman River, is packed with people carrying heavy bags and preparing for long journeys, yet these bus stations always seem to have a ticket available. Only two days has passed since I stood in line and bought that ticket but it feels like an eternity. I just stepped off that bus here in Urumqi after 26 hours on a small bed; I just crossed the interminable desert in a sleeper bus and survived to tell the tale.

A Sleeper Bus Cabin

I figured as long as I viewed this trip as an adventure I could actually make some good come of it all, and I think I did. The same day I bought the tickets I also scoured a local store in Kashgar looking for drinks and snacks that would sustain me while traveling by bus. I charged my iPod and prepared some reading material knowing that all on-board entertainment would probably be in a foreign language. Odds were that I would be the only foreigner on this bus and I was determined to keep myself entertained.

I've been in a sleeper bus before, but never for this long. These buses are usually the same size as every other commercial bus in China with an interior which is divided into three long rows of beds with two aisles. Each aisle has an upper and lower bunk and all passengers are provided with a pillow and a blanket. Shoes are never allowed to be worn while on the bus and are usually wrapped in a plastic bag and placed under the bottom bed because there is no place for extra luggage. All these items which I had prepared for my journey would need to be stored at the foot of my bed, a bed which was already a foot too short for my six foot frame.

Taklamakan Rest Stop

Despite all this I actually enjoy a good overnight bus trip every once in a while. My only complaint is the absence of an on-board toilet, a fact which has left me a bit uncomfortable on more than one occasion. Unless I had an emergency, in which case I would have run to the front of the bus and threatened the driver to let me off, I would have to wait for the bus to make a routine rest stop as it did every 3-4 hours.

Of course, these rest stops are one of the reasons I love to take buses. Because we're traveling along the northern edge of the Taklamakan Desert much of the land we traverse is uninhabited save a few small towns. These small oases would be completely missed on an airplane, barely seen on a train, yet they can be momentarily explored while traveling by a bus. A few huts caught in between the mountains to the north and the deadly desert to the south can be beautiful scenery.

Wind Farm, Urumqi

Although the vast majority of this journey was along the desert, there were a few parts along this route from Kashgar to Urumqi that were interesting. Upon first exiting Kashgar I witnessed a bazaar taking place in a small village outside of town, a town lined with tall trees and filled with colorful people and items for sale. Watching the sun set over the desert sands was certainly a sight to see as well as the grape vines along the road in Turpan. Finally, as a welcome to Xinjiang's capital I was treated to the largest wind farm in China, a collection of white blades spinning wind into harnessed electricity.

Thankfully the major highways of Xinjiang are smooth which meant that car sickness never became an issue and sleep was easy to come by. Despite all the "No Smoking" signs even our driver was lighting up at the front, but it didn't bother me too much. Twenty-six hours is a long time, but it was bearable and went by relatively quickly.

In hindsight I would have to say that the sleeper bus isn't a bad alternative means of travel. I would still rather take a train and if my budget wasn't an issue I would love to save time and fly, however sometimes I've found that the journey can easily become more memorable than the destination. In this case, I would say that is true.

Tips and Prices

**Bus travel is easy; comfortable bus travel takes planning. Buy your favorite snacks and drinks, get your iPod ready and bring along a couple of good books. It's also a great time to practice your language skills as most people on board are just as bored as you are!

**Bring your own slip-on shoes if possible. Getting on and off the bus with lace-ups is a drag.

**Bring a book light if possible. Bus reading lights never seem to work when you need them!

Although this is a review of sleeper-bus travel in general, here are comparative prices for this specific trip I took from Kashgar to Urumqi:

Airplane: 600-800 RMB (2 hours)
Train: Around 300 RMB (24 hours)
Sleeper Bus: 180 RMB (26 hours)

 More Xinjiang Travel Reviews
1. All Silk Roads Lead to the Taklamakan JSUMMERS83 from CN Dec 2, 2008 03:53
2. Kashgar: The Id Kah Mosque JSUMMERS83 from CN Oct 14, 2008 03:33
3. Kashgar's Best-Kept Secret: Karakul Lake JSUMMERS83 from CN Oct 8, 2008 07:42
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