Since I got my own transport – a small 4 strokes Japanese motorbike -, I have not been considering the bus as a proper way of traveling. Instead, a bus line can be a great way to discover and feel a new city. I reconsidered this lost travel art while I was waiting for visa processing in Bangkok: staying for too many days, the sky train and the metro system were increasingly affecting my daily budget.
On the other hand, the bus system in Bangkok is daunting: hundreds of vehicles of different color, shape and form. To make things worse, add up a population who can barely help when asked for directions in English, and a different language system – impossible to decipher for starters – as the only reference for the bus timetables.
Nevrtheless, as I consider vagabonding an interesting everyday cultural challenge, I decided to go for the daunting bus system. And I discovered a few great things: first of all, during peak hours, buses in Bangkok are free of charge to help decongesting the traffic by encouraging people to leave their cars home. Second, some of the routes link places faster than the metro or the sky trains, which are fast but have quite restricted operational areas. Third, the bus is extremely cheap, the few times you pay for it. And fourth, this exercise immensely helped me memorize better the geography of Bangkok, an otherwise burgeoning, controlled chaos.
Fast forward to the present days, and another visa wait – how I love you, wasted travel days spent around concrete cities to get new elaborated tattoos in my passport!! – in Urumqi, extreme Northwestern China. Some people say “the center of Asia” by tracing two diagonal lines across a map of the continent. A city embedded in the sandy, camel trodden imagination of ancient Silk Road’s paths: in reality, just another orderly, neatly steamrolled Chinese Nirvana perched at the edge of a desert and a mountain range. Getting off the train and walking into the station’s main square for the first time, Urumqi’s size looked, again, daunting. The bus stand was just there, luckily. After checking a few times with several people to match the directions in Chinese characters with the right bus line, there I was, again, looking outside the window and enjoying some fresh Xinjiang’s summer air.
At first, the city looked like a colossus of neatly arranged busy streets, crazy intersections full of little shops stacked one against the other like an infinite series of pouty mushrooms, each with a different, colorful hat. It took me a couple days to be able to reconsider Urumqi’s topography from the window of my favorite three bus lines, all connecting the place I was staying with different points of interest around the city. Each time it was like streamlining the city by dropping a long, invisible wire all along the bus routes. The buildings became more familiar: recognizing some of them and forecasting the next turn of the stuttering bus, I felt an instinctive great joy. Urumqi was unwinding before my eyes, and I actually understood where I was going. After two days, I finally realized that the city was only half the size of what I had previously sized stepping off the train for the first time. And for this reason, I can only suggest you to consider intercity bus travel as a great, cheap way to discover a city, indulge in curious people watching, and ultimately getting to know a city’s underbelly almost like a local. Get on a bus and let it ride: after a long while, you will be returned at your original starting point, with a much better knowledge of your new environs.