All posts by citiesatsea

Sleeper bus to Hong Kong

The Yangshou bus station attendant was an middle aged lady with a black bob haircut and a motherly smile. That smile was enough to trust that she would put me on the right bus once it arrived in town from Guilin. Either way, it was all I had. I was drifting in a translation-less current with no paddles to steer with and no fabric to rig up a sail.  

My ticket was a sticky note that she had just scribbled some numbers and Chinese characters on. She handed it to me in exchange for a punk leaflet, as thin as rice paper and as feeble as tissue paper, that I was given at the hostel after I paid 230 yuan for the trip.

I got to the bus. It was facing the wrong way on the wrong side of the street at the bus station. The station was no more than a corrugated metal roof over a gap in between two buildings as the road turned from town into countryside.

After I dropped my backpack off in the storage hold, I waited outside the bus and listened to an argument ensue in the main compartment. Besides hearing the hostility, I had no idea what the conversation what about. I assumed it was about the validity of a ticket or rights to be on board. Whatever it was, it caused confusion and a hold up at the door.

I climbed aboard and the driver signaled at me to remove my flip flops and put them in a plastic bag. I got a glimpse of the ‘sleeper’: two floors of three rows of 8 bunks. The front above the driver was a larger surface area. It was covered with a thin mat that could otherwise be used to cover a wood floor in a gym or to cover lawn furniture. The thin rows of berths were like baby’s cribs that were tucked into each other like puzzle pieces. The legs rested underneath the back rest of the man in front. The bus ended up looking like a transport for uncovered Egyptian mummies.

I was the last one on the bus. Every single berth was taken and people had even started piling blankets into the 2 foot wide aisle to accommodate the overflow. The driver’s assistant signaled broadly towards the back of the bus but it made no sense. I started working my way into the depths of the bus stepping over people making nests in the aisles. My shoulders were too broad to fit between the bunks so I had to kneel down beneath the top bunk. The experience induced claustrophobia. Everyone was staring me down as if I was a zoo animal, and my crab-like gait only added to it.

I thought I was going to have to hunker down onto the wooden aisle before a Minnesotan accent from the very back gym mat called out, “You back ‘ere?” Turned out my berth was in the back, next to the motor wedged with two people on either side of me. On my right were two westerners who were teaching in Shenzhen, one from Minneapolis the other from Manchester. On my right were two miniature Chinese girls. I fit in with no room to spare. Shoulder to Shoulder. Hip to Hip. Foot to Foot. 

They told me the argument was in fact about space on the bus. The bus’s manager was trying to kick some people off who had bought a ticket “too late”. But they claimed that they had a ticket and were let on the bus and now they won’t leave it. So the bus was overcrowded. But by more than just a few people. Even in individual berths, children slept alongside their parents.

That was the closest I’ve ever been to traveling in a chicken coup. As a chicken. 

Last night, I got a sense of how the majority of the people in the world sleep every night. Not in private bedrooms but packed in next to friends, families, strangers. Without air-conditioning but sweating next to hot slimy bodies.  Not on comfortable and well engineered mattresses but on hard floors. 

Needless to say, I didn’t sleep well. I dozed off for a couple minutes at a time and the ride from 9pm until the first stop at 2:30 felt like over 8 hours.

But I enjoyed the experience for the sake of experience. I knew I wasn’t committing myself to sleepless nights for the rest of my days so hunkered down, read some NYTs op-eds on my iPhone and thought about the hilarity of bumming through the Chinese countryside in a sardine can.

I eventually started to knock off, but every sweaty touch with the Minnesotan next to me woke me up again. He was sprawling out, taking up an unfair share of the finite space. The Chinese girls on my right were rigid and I feared getting any closer–from the inch boundary that was already between us–due to cultural and social unknowns and my terror of crossing any lines and being, lost in translation, accused of something I never attended.  Perhaps it was the NYTs editors in my head but they way the westerners  on my left and the Chinese on my right slept, were symbols of their cultural attitudes and how their disregard effected their environments.

After 4am the bus stopped every 30 minutes or so and it began to empty out. A bunk on the second level opened up and I climbed up into my own space (just as constricted, but against walls and gates rather than strangers).

I was told that the bus would drop me right off at the border with Hong Kong. It didn’t. 

I had looked up the name of the Shenzhen metro station that crossed into Hong Kong so I knew what to look for. But I was ushered off the bus into an unknown Chinese mega-city (over 8 million). No english. No idea where to go. It’s probably the closest feeling I’ll ever get to exile, or to relate to climate refugees when they are forced out of their homeland, packed into vehicles and dropped off in unknown places. I walked around in the morning heat for a bit until I noticed a bus station of the same name and trudged up to it to find immigration into Hong Kong.

I crossed the border, walked onto the Hong Kong metro, transferred to four different trains and knocked on the door at yet another hostel. The tally of the number of ‘beds’ I’ve slept in this year is getting big.

I can’t say all of these cities are blending together yet but I will say this: Hong Kong has London’s street painting and traffic lights. The taxis are like Shanghai’s. The metro is like Singapore’s. It is a city-state in east Asia that was once colonized by the British so the pieces make sense.

I’ve got more to say about Shanghai and Yangshou. To follow.

David gets picked up

I was sitting at People Square drawing this.


I always attract a bit of attention when I sit down to draw in a public place. Crowds stand around for a moment or two. People sometimes sit next to me and watch. In India, men often tried to leaf through my other pages while I was still drawing. That wasn’t appreciated.

These two girls came and sat down next to me today.


Awesome picture right. Fulfilling stereotypes.

The girl in the middle introduced herself as a primary school art teacher. She ruffled in my bag (maybe she asked first I wouldn’t know, but it was very abrupt) and found a pencil. She then asked for a piece of paper and started drawing the same scene I was for the next 15 minutes. I could tell she was a primary school art teacher. Her drawing looked like a kid did it. She then left her name and phone number on the back of the paper.

I’m not sure we have a future together; it was sort of a one way street of interest but I was flattered by the effort of exchanging contact info.

Putin is in town tomorrow. The police presence is out of control. I’m probably going to take a day trip out of the city just in case somebody decides to drop a bomb or something nasty like that.

I had a bad experience at a restaurant in China

In terms of ‘around the block’ bottom-tier restaurants, there are two options–the street food vendors that most likely make quality food but have incomprehensible menus that look like toddlers tried to tic-tak-toe 50 times over on them OR there are the food joints with picture menus and everyone knows its best to avoid those. Unless you want to have some idea of what you’re ordering.

Or so I thought.

I thought I ordered chicken wings. I got chicken feet.

I thought I ordered a soup with vegetables in broth. I got a rice dish with some sort of shellfish in it. The shellfish was mostly hard pieces that were like eating cartilage and small chicken bones.

I also got dumplings and got dumplings. But that was a lay-up.

Perhaps it was the oddity of my dinner order but I had the attention of the mostly empty and overstaffed restaurant that I tripped into out of the pouring rain.

Dumplings are slippery.

I picked the 3rd of 4 in the box and made it 90% of the way to my mouth, but it slipped out of my chopsticks and fell back hurtling into my soy sauce with meteoric force. The was a horrified gasp, amplified by the dozen on-lookers reacting in unison.

The wait-staff frantically looked through every single drawer, nook and cranny until they found a fork. It was dusty so the owner washed it off and handed it in my direction.

I declined thankfully and mimed practicing using chopsticks.

After the dumplings, the meal went completely downhill. I ate way more chicken feet than I wanted to and made it through most of the crunchy rice dish in fear of being rude.

At one point, the manager got into my business and laughed–either at my attempt to eat rice with chopsticks or at my effort to mangle but not actually eat the chicken feet.

I asked for the bill and got the hell outta dodge.

I wandered around in the pouring rain to find something else to eat and found a fried pork cutlet from a street vendor. It was good, but probably not worth getting drenched.

Walking home defeated, a guy armored up in a poncho stopped on his electric bicycle and signaled to space underneath his tarp. I thought he was offering me a ride, which I was pumped about, but then below his tarp I saw a tub of umbrellas that he was selling to people like me who got caught in the downpour.

I was already soaked through so there was no use in retreating below a shield of plastic. I declined by waving my hand. He got really mad at me and yelled angry Chinese words as he rode off into the fog.

My other adventure of the day was paying rent for the guys I’m house-sitting for. There was a machine–all in Chinese so I started button mashing until the machine told me I was an idiot and let me switch to english–where I had to deposit 12,000 yuan. Thats a lot of money to be responsible for while messing around with a cash-eating machine. An awfully nerve-wracking experience. So was walking around Shanghai with drug-dealer amounts of cash.

I got it all sorted, except the machine wouldn’t accept one of the 100 yuan notes. How could I do this job and come up 11,900/12,000? A nice old Chinese man who was watching this transaction as nervously as I was carrying it out offered up a clean 100 yuan note to complete it.

What a nice guy. Be nice–a gift that carries on!!!

I just wish the guys at that restaurant had been nice and given me fair warning of what I was getting into. A cut-throat signal or a wide-eyed shake of the head would have sufficed.

But by Chinese standards, what I was served at that restaurant wasn’t nearly as weird as it gets here. I purposely avoided the meal of the baby bird, head intact, splayed out on a plate. People line up mouths-foaming around food vendors that emit the most god-awful smells. In some smaller food streets crabs, turtles, and whole fish bob around in their tanks before their scooped out, scorched and slopped on customers’ plates. There’s a video of a group of high society Chinese men sipping monkey brains that I can send to those who privately request it. It’s too awful to post publicly.

The Chinese eat some gross stuff.

Shanghai Apt

I arrived in Shanghai on Sunday night. I meandered through the flocks of touts to the MagLev train. The touts were trying to hustle me to ride in their taxi into town. They approached competitively in groups of 3-5 almost demanding to take my bag and lead me towards a taxi. They wore differently designed badges that all claimed they were all Pudong Intl Airpot staff.

The MagLev is the only train of its kind. It floats above the tracks and glides along at speeds of up to 430km/hr. My ride only hit 300km/hr but I felt the thrill. Tellingly, there are no seat belts on the train. I assume that belts would just make the post-crash clean up even messier, by multiplying the body parts that would need to be picked up by 3 or more. 

The MagLev didn’t go all the way into the city center, but it dropped me off right above a metro station. Shanghai is incredibly well connected and its metro system is easy enough to use for someone who doesn’t speak mandarin. It has been my main way of getting around until it shuts down at 10:30pm. 

As the year has gone on, I’ve gotten more and more relaxed (or lazy) about locking down a place to live. When I left the US for Rotterdam, I arranged a whole month’s sublease of an apartment. Leaving Singapore for Shanghai. I only had two nights booked into a youth hostel. 

 I looked around the city at different places. Although three and a half weeks is an awkward period, not quite long enough for a month long lease and too long for paying a nightly rate, even at cheap hostels. I completely underestimated the trouble I would have with the language barrier. I tried, but failed miserably at finding anything promising. 

I found some good options on AirBnB, but they were expensive, much more expensive than apartments in Shanghai need to be. The housing market is extremely liquid here because ex-pats are constantly shuffling in and out. 

Social media turned out to be my best real estate agent. My first night here I posted a picture on Instagram of the Shanghai sky-line. I quickly got a response from LidaBeau, a Bowdoin classmate who posted, “Bruuuuceee! My brother lives in Shanghai you guys should hang.” A couple nights later we met up for burgers and beer. It turns out he is leaving Shanghai for the next two weeks on a family vacation to Florence. I got a post house-sitting in his apartment. Its a fully furnished place with a kitchen, laundry, a spectacular view of the Shanghai skyline, and an overly talkative house-maid. 

The housemaid was yapping away at me this morning. The three occupants of the apartment—who are all away for the next two weeks—all speak conversational mandarin. LidaBeau’s brother, Sam, said she probably wont even recognize that I wasn’t one of the regulars. She might not have, but she took a good look at me when I returned her chattiness with silence. I just sitting on the couch with my tail between my legs, giving universal signs of un-comfort. Eventually I figured I’d type an introduction into google translate.

Screenshot 2014-05-16 13.08.29

That wasn’t my first struggle-filled interaction with a native speaker.

I’ve been lucky to hit the ground running with some nice friends and good company. They invited me out to dinner and told me it would be best to take a cab from where I was to the restaurant. Usually to get around, you can find the contact card of the establishment or print out the address to hand to the cab driver. Sam told me to just tell the cab driver the cross streets and he’d know where to go. Shanghai is built on a grid. 

I knew a few things about pronunciation—X is ‘Sh’ Zh is ‘J’ etc. As I was walking to find a cab, I mentally prepared myself to speak the cross-streets: Shaanxi and Huaihai. I knew Lu is the word for road. I practiced, practiced, practiced. Then hailed a cab. He rolled down the window and all of a sudden an invisible giant kicked me in the gut. I couldn’t get the words out. I stuttered and spat them out. Luckily the cab driver was a team player and helped me out, taking his best guess at what I was saying. We ironed out the quirks in my speech and signaled comprehension to each other by repeating the street names back and forth to each other three or four times over.

I got in the cab. Then the driver started laughing hysterically. I joined in but only adding only a bashful chuckle to his cacophony. Then he gave me a lesson in pronunciating different words as he signaled with his hands to suggest pitch and what not. When he was bored with that, he turned up the opera music on the radio and sang along until he dropped me off and we parted. 

It’s the little things. 


The first photo is the view outside of the apartment. You can see blocks of old style Chinese houses being torn down and replaced by large scale apartment complexes. Below is a close up of a demolished house. The new tallest building in Shanghai is rising up in the distance. I asked Sam, who has watched Shanghai build itself for the past two years, how long it would be until all the remaining old style neighborhoods would be replaced by high-rises. Five years he responded without hesitation.

The crazy thing is that cities the size of Shanghai develop every year in China.

To repeat:

Cities of over 20 million people develop every year in China.

Today I did a Huangpu River tour. It was cool to see the city from the water and get a better sense of the city’s layout. However, the boat was pumped full of elderly people from coach-bus style ship and show tour groups. The boat trip made me feel like I’ve been at it for a very long time and I’m feeling a little bit worn.

In terms of livability, though. Shanghais got it going on. It’s easy and fun and theres lots going on to see, hear, smell. Theres a big ex-pat community, too. It’s a fresh change from India, but still has plenty of exotic weirdness.

Over and out.