Pamela MacNaughtan

Ah, a Chinese sleeper bus, they are complete heaven -well as heavenly as a bus can be. The bus is divided by two aisles and contains three rows of what I call, sleeping pods. Each row of sleeper pods are set up like bunkbeds and gives the bus a dorm room kind of feel. When I took a sleeper bus from Jinhong, China to Kunming, I was beyond excited when I boarded the bus. Well, after I had to shimmy down the aisle.

The aisles in Chinese sleeper buses are tiny, which means I had to turn and shimmy my way down to where my bed was located. What made the experience even more unique was the fact that the other passengers would giggle at me when they noticed that Laverne & Shirley (Yes, I named my boobs) were being squished to death in the process. Ah, to be the entertainment of others. It’s a constant hobby for me, here in China.

Fast forward about 10 days and I once again found myself in the possession of a sleeper bus ticket. This time I would be traveling from Beijing to Erlien (China/Mongolian border). As I walked into the bus station, I was a little disappointed. I was expecting it to look like the Beijing train stations. Instead the white walls were now grey and there was so much dirt and grime on the ground that I didn’t want to set my backpack down for fear of contamination. The best -or shall I say worst- part was the benches. The benches were old blue plastic bucket seats sitting along a metal bar that ran down the middle, which also ran down on the sides to create the leg of the bench. Normally these types of benches are bolted down -or they were destroyed in the 90’s for lack of style and comfort. However, in Mainland China, these benches “live long and prosper” and like the bus station in Beijing, none of the benches were bolted down.

As I sat in the bus station, waiting for my sweet ride to the border, I watched as people started to load massive bundles into a purple bus outside the door. Within a few minutes I realized the bus outside was the one I’d be taking to the border, so I got up and made my way to the door. I didn’t get far before being told to sit back down. When I was finally allowed outside to board, I waited for the driver to take my backpack and store it. Instead, he motioned for me to bring it on board. Um, are you kidding me? This thing is big and heavy and a sleeper pod barely covers my bum. There is no way I can sleep and hold my bag. With a little help from another passenger, we explained the situation to the driver. He then walked to the back of the bus and opened a hatch, reveling the buses motor and a wooden shelf. I watched as he placed my bag on a shelf above the motor, knowing that if there was a fire on the bus, it would most likely be my fault. But there was no way I was taking it on with me, so I was ready to take the chance and climb aboard.

As my foot hit the top step I had to stop. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Both aisles were full, and not just with people looking for their pods. Luggage and parcels cluttered the way, making it more like an acrobatic event. With Laverne and Shirley squished beyond belief I tried to make my way down the aisle. I had to step on parcels, or over luggage. I would grab onto beds or people to steady myself and at one point I had to thrust my water bottle and bus ticket at a woman when my foot became wedged between two parcels. I felt a rush of sweet relief when I finally found my pod and crashed down. As I sat there and watched the rest of the passengers board, I couldn’t help but laugh. This bus is insane. There were parcels piled on either side of me. For the first little while, I became a go to person, handing around cell phones and food between passengers on opposite sides of the bus (my sleeper pod was in the middle).

I had just settled into my pod and found a comfortable position to sleep in when I felt the pangs of urgency coming from my bladder. No, I cannot go pee now. I need to hold it. This bus is too full and trying to get down the aisle is a nightmare! I held out for a few hours, but when the bus stopped for a meal break about 4 hours into the trip, I crawled out of my pod, braced myself and made the challenging trek down the aisle. Once I was outside, I was oddly relieved to discover that the toilets were outside. After all, I had just walked through the gauntlet again -my avoidance of public bathrooms had been forgotten.

As I approached the cinder block wall, I could see a wooden roof on the other side. I took a deep breath and walked around to find stable of sorts. In other words there were only three walls, a roof and four pits in the ground. Privacy was non-existent, but I had business to take care of. I walked to the last hole, whipped down my pants, squatted and watched as three other women joined me. Oddly enough I wasn’t as freaked out as I thought I would be. When I had finished doing what I needed to do, I decided to get back on the bus and shimmy my way to my seat before everyone else came back. Once I found my bed, I once again crashed and found a comfortable position to sleep in. That is until…

2:00 a.m. Crap, is that my bladder again? Oh, there is no way I can pee now. We are in the middle of nowhere. There are other vehicles on the road! No, I have to wait; there should be a rest stop soon.

2:40 a.m. I think I should have tried to get out of the bus when the driver stopped for gas. Damn, that was probably my only chance.

3:00 a.m. Okay, bladder in real pain now, and I’ve stared down the aisle I don’t know how many times trying to weigh my options. Maybe I should ask the driver to pull over, but what about all the cars?

3:15 a.m. Okay, I’m going to put my boots on and shove a tampon and some toilet paper in my pocket “Ugh, having my girlie time while traveling has seriously sucked!”

3:30 a.m. Screw it, I can’t keep starring down the aisle anymore.

Once I had braced myself and had somewhat steady footing, I made my way down an aisle in complete darkness. At one point I think Laverne and Shirley grazed a man’s head. His stare was not a nice one. Mind you, would you want some random white girl looming over your bed at 3:30 a.m.? I’m not a creepy person, but he certainly seemed to think I was.

When I finally reached the driver he looked at me with confusion. That’s when I have him the international sign for I have to pee, I showed him my fist full of toilet paper. He didn’t look too happy, but he slowed the bus down and pulled over. We were in the middle of nowhere; there was snow on the ground and a sky full of stars. If I weren’t in such a rush to get the whole peeing thing done and out of the way, I would have taken time to admire my surroundings.

I ran for the back of the bus so the driver and other passengers wouldn’t be able to see me, whipped down my pants and took care of business while gazing up and then looking behind me to make sure there were no cars coming. It was on oddly liberating experience, out there, in the buff -well sort of. When I was done, I ran back inside and did the shimmy back to my pod. I was eager to get some solid sleep in before we arrived in Erlien and I made the trek across the border into Mongolia. Unfortunately the cool brisk air outside woke me up and when we arrived in Erlien at 5 a.m., I was fully awake.

I still have an aversion to public toilets in Asia. They are often uber smelly and the conditions can be enough to make a person sick to their stomach. However, I am happy to say that when I was in a bind I decided to suck it up and just do it, rather than find a way to pee in a pop bottle while still laying in my sleeper pod- yes, I actually contemplated doing this!


  • November 15, 2010

    Been in a similar situation and it was a painful experience so I feel for ya. My driver required some time and even some threats of what I would do on his bus before he was convinced to pull over.

  • TravelMaus

    November 15, 2010

    You are my new hero! I know, from reading the above, I could never do what you are doing ! I am in awe ;o) and can’t wait for the next posting!

  • November 15, 2010

    It’s amazing what we will step and do when it’s necessary!! Sometimes I would have almost rather have just gone in the bush than enter those dark, danky toilet rooms. Cheers!

  • November 15, 2010

    HA. I love this story. Well, I’m glad it wasn’t me anyway 🙂

  • November 16, 2010

    Can’t tell you how many times I was THAT girl that held everyone up or made the bus stop because I had to pee. I think I have the world’s smallest bladder. When you gotta go, you gotta go!

  • November 16, 2010

    I love the 2am breakdown and the photo is fantastic!
    I’ve had a horrible experience on an overnight train in China where I also tried to hold off going as it was pretty much a hole in the ground that NOONE seemed to be able to aim into .. I think you get my point. Ewww

  • Amber DeGrace

    November 16, 2010

    I love your honesty, openness, and ability to see humor in situations. You are going with the flow (ahem) and taking each experience as they come. Loved this post and am proud of you for doing what you had to do to take care of business. 🙂

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