I joined them, carrying my shoes to the bottom of the bus steps, slipping them on, and following the females to the squat toilets, through the door adorned with the icon of a skirted person.
Chain-smoking men squatted near the bus, desperately inhaling their only cigarette of the night. Smoking had certainly changed in China in the last decade. No one is allowed to smoke on sleeper buses now, or at least not this sleeper bus. Last time I was here people had smoked anywhere and often.
I removed my shoes at the bus door and carried them back to my bunk, slipping them under. The Irish guy had finally woken up and gone in to the facilities, but the Korean traveler was still asleep. I folded myself back up under the Snoopy comforter—the berth wasn't quite long enough for me—and went back to sleep.
The bus stopped again a few hours later. This time some people got off. I ignored them. Most people stayed on. Finally, after a long wait, the bus started again. We didn't drive far before it stopped again. This time, more people got off,. The conductor yelled something out, but it wasn't Kunming.
The Irish guy said, "Where are we?"
"I don't know."
"Oh. This is it."
He looked at his watch, which barely worked after the spill he'd taken on a rented motorcycle in Laos.
"They didn't even ask for my license, which is good because I don't have one. I didn't know how to ride a motorbike, but I figured, same concept as a car, right? "
The spill had been on a mud track. He'd had to pay a lot for the damages to the motorcycle. He had some cuts and bruises too, but the monetary damage had been the worst.
"It's 6:15. That is when they said we'd arrive."
"Hey, we're there." Now I yelled up to our Korean friend.
It was odd—this early morning arrival with no one hassling us to get off the bus. We gathered up our leftover snacks and daypacks, found our shoes, and went do to the luggage hold.
The Irish guy and I claimed our backpacks. The Korean got his wheelie bag. We were in a giant parking lot full of dark buses, a few building outlines just visible on the periphery.
"How do we get to town?" In the bigger cities, China tends to keep bus terminals outside of the center.
The Irish guy asked someone, who pointed us at a bus #71, lit up against the darkness and packed full of dejected passengers all just able to put up with the sardine feeling after getting off all-night bus journeys. When I'd researched the bus to Kunming, the advice had been to take #154 to the end, and then switch. But whatever, #71 it was. We rushed to it, but it was full and the driver wouldn't let us on.
"Where's another bus?" It's good the Irish guy can speak Chinese. He got us directions across the parking lot to a slew of #71 buses. We got on one, standing room only, and couldn't get past all the luggage in the aisles.
"Go in further," yelled the bus driver. I handed my pack to a guy in the aisle, who tossed it up against the door. I found footholds in the pile of bags and stepped over to the back of the bus. And still they came, until the driver considered the bus full.
We drove about 15 minutes and hit the city as the sun rose. When we saw the golden arches, I knew we had to be near the center—in China, KFC is everywhere but McDonald's is not. The train station was around the corner—grand, huge, with an inverse arch for a roof and tall ends, like a post-modern hammock.
The Irish guy led the way to the ticket counters behind the escalators to the gates. At 7 a.m., this place was pretty empty—this wouldn't be the case when I came back. It was normally packed and chaotic.
He was trying to get a ticket to a city near Shanghai and the Korean was looking for a way to find a friend In Kunming.
"This is a student queue," explained the Irish guy.
That wouldn't do for me, so I went to a different line. An old man motioned me over to a separate section behind a metal detector.
"There?" I asked. He nodded.
I walked around and a policeman was guarding the scparate section. "Window two," he said in English, pointing me at an empty line.
The woman at Window #2 must be the designated English speaker, I realized. She spoke nervously, uncertain of her words, but with no mistakes.
"Where would you like to go?" She didn't look at me, bashfully.
"Afternoon or evening."
"There are no sleepers tomorrow. Only seats."
Now she looked at the whole day.
"All sleepers are sold out. Hard sleepers and sofa sleepers."
Okay, not a hundred percent perfect. She was talking about soft sleepers, but she was doing great.
"There is one sofa sleeper today at 5 p.m."
Oh dear. I felt grimy and a little itchy with paranoia from the sleeper bus. I always have half a thought about bedbugs and I wanted to soak my clothes and shower. Now it was just after seven. Maybe I could go to a hostel and shower and come back at 5?
"How much is the sofa sleeper for 5 today?"
"And a seat for tomorrow?"
"I'll take a seat for tomorrow afternoon." I was picturing something like the Amtrak or the trains in Egypt. You can recline comfortably. But it didn't occur to me to ask if there were different classes of seats on different trains. Anyway, I hadn't been to an ATM yet. I didn't *have* 400 yuan on me.
She printed out my ticket and wished me a good trip. I went and found my travel buddies.
"I had to take a seat," said the Irishman.
"I'll raise a fuss when I get on. I've heard if you ask for a sleeper first thing, it's possible to get upgraded."
"I'll try that too then." This was a useful tip.
But I didn't really think I would have to raise a fuss. I had that Amtrak seat in my head. Amtrak seats are totally reasonable for overnight trips.
"Where will you go until it's time for your train?" I asked the Irishman.
"I don't know. A hostel, I guess."
I looked up hostels on my Kindle.
"The Hump is right there on the main square."
"Oh, I went to that one before. It's not very nice. But the location is good. I guess I'll go there. Where will you go?"
"How much are taxis here?"
"Then I'll take a taxi to my hotel."
"Do you have the name of it in Chinese?"
I looked at my Kindle. Thank you, Lonely Planet. The names in Chinese are next to the hotel names in English. I'd show the Kindle to the driver. Unusual, but it would work.
We all parted ways.
And as they walked away and I headed by taxi to the faded lobby of Camellia Hotel to beg for early check-in and an extra day's breakfast, I realized something about my fellow travelers I'd just spent all last night and evening with.
I never even asked their names.