We loaded our bags into the car and then joined two other backpackers who were already sat waiting inside the taxi. A strong Chinese man with a shaved head slammed the doors shut and sped off. Pingyao was lovely, but it was nice to see the mud colored houses and dust blown ancient city behind us. We had a modern destination waiting for us, the large city of Xi’An, where power cuts, cold showers, trickling dirty water and smelly drains would surely not plague our hotel stay.
We had bought tickets for a sleeper bus as the train had long been fully booked. I didn’t know what this was, but being slightly scarred of flying I didn’t mind coach journeys too much. We had tried unsuccessfully to get the hostel to present us with the tickets, with them reassuring us that we wouldn’t need them in order to board the vehicle. Somehow something didn’t quite add up, but as we had already paid, we didn’t have much of a choice but to go along with our instructions. The old car travelled further out of the city and then as we were about to board a motorway we came to a toll booth. The tough Chinese man screached to a halt, turned off the car’s engine and without bothering to close his door, beckoned for us to get out of the car and follow him. We grabbed out bags and scuttled hurriedly in his direction. There wasn’t a coach station in sight. We passed under the orange barrier and started walking along the hard shoulder. Fast cars, lorreys and coaches wizzed passed us. We were ordered to halt someway up the road. The night was silent except for when large vehicles roared passed us. Six lanes of traffic, three going away from Pingyao, three going towards. Behind us, a steep bank, brambles and dark fields. Hot sweat rose on my body and I got a queezy feeling in my stomach. Is this fear rational, should I just run away?
We tried asking our new friend, but he didn’t speak English. After 10 minutes, he started waving his arms and hands at the many large coaches that passed us. He walked into the center of the roads and tried halting the vehicles but to no avail. Just when we thought our ride would never appear, a fast travelling beast of a coach drew up and did a massive u-turn in the middle of the road. It was coming straight for us. “Abi! its not stopping”, shouted Shirwa! “It’s going to hit us”… Jump, Abi, juuump! The bright yellow lights blinded me. I took one look behind me at the mass of bushes and the huge drop. I was blinded by the lights and then, just inches in front of us, the coach stopped. The doors were opened, the driver shook hands with the shaven Chinese guy, our bags were loaded.
“Women at the front, Men at the back” was the order as we boarded the bus. I looked down the corridors and saw three lines of bunk beds stretching down inside the narrow bus. It got darker the further down you looked. Twinkling eyes and little faces emerged from the shadows. Limbs and feet stuck out at odd angles. I had boarded with a few valuables. I push them onto the bed and then made a couple of attempts to jump on the top bunk. After the third attempt, I scrambled up, head and body first and then maneuvered my legs over as well. Everything was dirty and very cramped. My feet faced the front and I knew that being the first top bunk of the coach that if there was an accident, my feet would be the first thing out of the front mirror. It set off and careered down the black motorway at an alarming speed, passing cars and vehicles.There was one driver and we didn’t make a single stop. Being at the front had its horrors, but being in the middle row, under a bunk at the back as Shirwa’s was had its own. I came to visit to the shame of a fat little man in speedos who was forced to cover himself up. It stank of bodies and cheese and it felt really claustrophobic, alarmingly so. Apparently I was good to shag according to Shirwa’s neighbor. Some things, the essentials I guess transcend language barriers. I scuttled back to the front, to the woman’s sanctuary and made a desperate effort to unhinge my lodged safety-belt. I buckled up and pulled it tightly around me for comfort and tried to go to sleep through telephone conversations and mid-night feast of chicken feet.
The journey was long, but by 4 am we pulled up at Xi’An coach station. American girls translated for us and the driver confirmed that we could sleep a bit longer in the bus, at least until it got light or until the taxis started running. Our hostel had organized our pick up, but they had somehow gone to the wrong coach station. It seemed like it was up to us again to find our way. At around 6am, workers emerged from pre-fab houses which lined the coach depot. Some got dressed whilst others brushed their teeth outside in the gutter. Everyone starred and no one understood. A man smiled and gestured wildly though for me to enter his shack which he shared with 5 other people after I exclaimed loudly “Fuck! My arse!” after emerging from the coach with a numb bottom. That he can understand, I ragged!
To be honest the people in Xi’An were the friendliest that we encountered during our stay in China. We had met some nice people in Pingyao, including the son of the owner of the hostel and some other Chinese guests. Xi’An however, we were able to interact with real local people and they were really welcoming. A taxi cruised passed at around 7. We stopped it and got in. We were taken to a sumptuous 5* hotel. Wow! Somehow we had really cashed in! They had said that this place would be nice, but for the price, the location and the decor was incredible, almost one would say too good to be true. It did in fact turn out to be too good to be true.