China

Planes, Trains, Bang Bangs and More

by Peteontour69 on February 9, 2011

As a virgin backpacker--and with China being my first stop-- I couldn’t help but be constantly surprised by the interesting cargo and people movers I saw.

Horses and donkeys are the obvious forms of transportation when it comes to muscle power, and there’s no shortage of emails depicting such. By the way, those emailed photos of overloaded carts are not PhotoShopped nor uncommon.

It’s not just four-legged animals though. In Chongqing, China, you won’t miss seeing some of the estimated 30,000-100,000+ (depending on the source) stick soldiers in the Bang Bang Army--mainly migrant men--transporting shop and wholesale supplies. They do this by slinging a piece of bamboo across their shoulders from which supplies are suspended by rope--a very handy service for the hilly city’s many residents.  

In Chinese cities, electric motorbikes are by far the most common form of transportation. Quiet and efficient, they go wherever there’s space. Don’t be surprised in Shanghai if whilst walking on the footpath there’s suddenly a motorbike weaving through the crowd--in either direction. Fear not! For your benefit, they nearly always sound their horns advising trajectory and distance, akin to reverse echolocation of bats. Of course, all the other bikes and cars are doing the same, creating a cacophony of sound--an automobile jam session if you will.

After several months on the road, I am no longer surprised at how many people can fit on a motorcycle--six is the most I’ve counted and occasionally one of them has a helmet on. Nor am I surprised by how many people can fit in the tray of a utility truck--on more than one occasion, I stopped counting when there were enough for two football teams. I've also come to recognize that motorized transport in this region often lack safety features (e.g., seat belts, headlights) we take for granted in the West. I am also now of the firm belief that indicators are an optional extra, and driving licenses do, in fact, come from a cereal box.

Never once did I see someone move aside to allow a police car or ambulance pass. Yet, somehow, the chaos just seems to work itself out as I watched with utter fascination as hundreds of road deaths didn’t occur daily.

In addition to donkeys, motorbikes and bang bangs; planes, trains and other automobiles are also highly useful, and they, too, come with anecdotes of curiosity.

Planes

In need of an escape from the enormity of Shanghai, I booked a flight to Chongqing (not a small place either). I didn't have a preference for airlines in China and ultimately went with Spring Airlines for the two-hour flight. I chose Spring Airlines not only because they were going to somewhere out of Shanghai but also because of their attention to customer service.

Well, we were neither fed nor served water on this flight. Instead, one hour into the flight, two attendants stood at the front of the plane. While attendant talked, the other demonstrated and encouraged a series of exercises to do while seated. "Try this. Raise one hand with a closed fist and make circular motions with it. Now reverse the direction. Good. Now the other hand. Ok, now do the same with your head. That feels better, doesn’t it?"

Here’s the best bit: "Make a fist with both hands, lean forward in the seat, and pat your lower back." Sounds easy, yes, but the seats were so close together that even the shortest of passengers couldn’t manage. Many people tried to complete the exercise though.

Trains

The Shanghai Maglev travels between Shanghai and Pudong International Airport on the outskirts of the city. The world's fastest passenger train reaches speeds of 430 kilometers (270 miles) per hour. I repeat. 430 kilometers per hour. Although the train doesn't go very fair, the journey doesn’t take very long either. It isn’t cheap relative to the Metro, but it is one super-cool mode of transport and a must do. Note that if you have a plane ticket, the trip is cheaper.

If you are going to be in Shanghai for a few days or more, it’s worth getting to know the Metro, the city’s answer to efficient and quick transportation of people. There’s no timetable for the Metro (not for the main loop anyway). The longest I've had to wait was three minutes. Peak hour is when it gets really interesting as many of the city's 20 million people travel by train. If you’re the claustrophobic type, or you have issues with strangers being in very close contact (it's so crowded, you have to leave the train to change your mind), then don’t be catching the Metro during peak hour. By the way, the Metro card is refundable at the airport, not at the train station where it is purchased.
 
Buses

For the Chinese, travel is about the destination, not the journey. On one bus trip I took to the ancient city of Xitang, upon departure, ALL passengers drew the curtain closed and most slept for the one-hour trip. Everyone did this except me, even after given the death stare for rebelling against what is clearly a law against letting the sun shine in. Before this trip, I didn’t know it was possible to sleep whilst standing, but see now that it can be done.

Many of the buses in China have televisions. Even the city buses are often fitted with them. These are nearly always showing a martial arts movie unless you are in Chengdu, in which case, you will likely watch reality game shows.

In Chengdu, when the bus is crowded, people often enter via the door in the middle. These people still want to pay, so they pass either their bus pass or money forward. When the bus fare reaches the front, the closest person will deposit the money or swipe the card and pass the card or any change--through the crowd--back to the owner. I tried this in Kunming but was met with only blank stares. So, this may just be a Chengdu thing.

Once in Chongqing, I was privileged enough to see movies advertised. Interestingly, the promotions were all in English and the movie being advertised was the Facebook movie. Facebook, of course, is banned in China (and Vietnam).

On another journey--this time in a small bus designed to seat 12 people (although 10 more may stand if they are less than 1.7 meters high)--I was lucky enough to be one of the 25 people standing. There was another man as tall as me. Much to the amusement of the other passengers, we shared the roof-hatch for head space.

Minivans

Outside of the cities, I took several minivan journeys. This is another must-do in China as you really get a sense of how many people and their luggage can be squeezed into a vehicle. I know now that eight people plus luggage can fit in a small van. I didn't think this was possible when we were all standing outside the Tardis. With careful arrangement of bags and people, and as long as everyone understands there will be NO personal space, anything is possible. Maybe that’s why the Chinese pack the goods we buy but can never get everything back in the box.

Watching, and being in traffic, in China and Southeast Asia is fun. I miss it. Tuk tuk, sir, tuk tuk?


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