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China Muse

Beijing Bus
Paul Haire

I check the word in my dictionary nervously one last time as I wait at the bus stop - a hundred Chinese bodies squashed together look down at me. The characters on the timetable are useless to me, so I am left feeling vulnerable, hoping that the bus conductor will understand my bad Chinese. I clamber onto the first step and speak to him as well as I can, asking if this bus goes to the zoo, he screeches a reply, which I think is in the affirmative so I climb on only to reach the second step though, the bus is so crammed full. Also it's the hottest day of the year so far.

I've no idea where to get off, or even if I'm going in the right direction. My record of travel is not great, I once transferred trains in Italy and headed straight back where I'd come from. I had to spend the night in Florence with just enough money to cover the fare for a youth hostel.

I stand with my back to the exit, a young woman is pressed up against me, our bottoms touching, in front a middle-aged man in a leather coat is up against my chest, he looks relaxed, it seems he's been in this situation many times. The heat and bodies squashed together makes me feel trapped and claustrophobic. I look to the front of the bus, and all I can see is a mass of black hair and arms stretched upwards, grasping for something to hold.

We reach the first stop and there is a momentary flurry of activity as people force their way through the mass of bodies to the exit where they are squeezed out onto the kerb like lemon pips, whilst more black heads try to fight their way on.

This bus route is evidently popular, but the bus is old and small, no recorded commentary indicates your location on this bus, only a wiry conductor who hops on and off the bus barking orders at people in fast Beijing dialect.

I reluctantly move up to the higher level of the bus and further away from the door as more people come on. I can only see the pavement now as I look out the window and it gives me no clues as to where we are. I try to bend down so I can get a better view but the buildings are unfamiliar. I have visions of ending up in the suburbs and having to phone my friend whilst hailing a taxi. As more and more people get on I am forced to move even further up the bus, now getting to the door will be difficult.

Then all of a sudden the conductor gets my attention and shouts that this is the stop for the zoo, he laughs as he says something about the 'laowei', I don't mind this time, I'm grateful to him. I try to barge my way through, though only succeed in going about two feet before the man in front of me humphs and refuses to move as I try to push through, there's no room anyway. I just have to wait. Thankfully lots of people get off at the stop.I still have to push and barge my way through though. I am ejected from the bus onto the pavement, initially bewildered by the space and bright light, then I feel great relief.

I turn back to look at the bus as it heads off, contemplating taking a photo as a sort of trophy, proof of having survived, but it goes too fast for me to take out my camera and is soon gone. I head off to find my friend, having arrived early. It may have been crowded, but it was punctual.
© Paul Haire May 2007
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