Using public buses in China can be extremely time consuming and frustrating. I recently caught a public bus from the main Shanghai Bus terminal to 1000 Island Lake.
The first issue is buying a ticket. In the main cities of Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong and Guangzhou, there are often english speaking counters, but it is highly unlikely you will find them anywhere else. If you are lucky enough to find one, then getting the right ticket should work fine, otherwise trying to explain when and where you want to go can be very difficult. Buying a ticket days or weeks in advance is not possible, so you need to get to the station in time to get a ticket at the time you want before it books out – and many do.
Once you have your ticket, you then need to go through security and find your waiting area and gate. There are very few english signs even in the main city terminals, so ensuring you at the right area is always in the back of your mind. There are normally a few small shops to buy drinks or snacks for your trip while you wait. The whole process of getting to the station, buying your ticket, then finding your gate can easily take an hour or more if you are new to the system, so give yourself plenty of time. Once your bus is ready to depart, your gate will open and everyone rushes forward to get on. There are no early boarding, and everyone boards at once, even though your bus may be sitting just outside the window for the 45 minutes you have been in the waiting room.
While waiting, you may have the urge to use the toilet before you leave. My advice – DON'T. Go at the hostel before you leave, or find a McDonalds near the station. Toilets at the large terminals should be avoided unless you dont have any other options because that “chicken-burger-looking-thing” you bought from the street vendor on the way home at 3am last night isn't agreeing with you. Many of these stations only have open line squat toilets, and the smell can be unbearable. So unless you dont mind doing your business with 10 other people watching, avoid them or be willing to pay the consequences!!
The quality of buses can vary greatly from run down dirty vehicles with torn seats to very reasonable long distance coaches that you find in western countries. None of the long distance buses have toilets, but some have hot and cold water stations onboard. This is a bit of a problems now, as if you fill up, you then have nowhere to go, particularly when you have no idea if or when there will be a stop along the way!!
The buses will generally leave on time, but this then begins a time-consuming exercise. Many buses will make a series of stops at other places or stations before “hitting the highway”. On one trip I took recently, we drove through Shanghai for 50 minutes to make 3 additional pickups before heading out. This again adds to the delays and time it takes to get to your destination.
Written and contributed by Dragon Bus China