Chinese public holidays are the worst time to travel in China. Why? Because it’s when everyone travels in China. Bus stations pack, train tickets become unavailable and plane tickets skyrocket. And while this is worst and most prevalent during the Spring Festival/Chinese New Year holiday, it happens during every small holiday as well.
On the Tomb Sweeping Day holiday, we had a 3-day weekend to get out of Chongqing. Our first choice was Wulong, an area nearby famous for its geological features. As I’ve mentioned before, Chongqing is (by some definitions) one of the biggest cities in the world. That means there are multiple bus and train stations in the city, each going to different and overlapping destinations.
And the airport is a topic for another time. Short version is that I’ve never seen such a pathetically small “INTERNATIONAL” airport for such a large city.
We arrived at the northern bus station, one of the newest in the city, and therefore the one with the most convenient set of destinations, or so we hoped. Turns out we couldn’t get to Wulong from this station. Our 2nd and 3rd choices got shot down too.
Finally Ida walked out of the line in frustration, very uncharacteristic of her. Her one desire this weekend was to go somewhere. I suggested Hechuan, a nearby city to the north that had and old town nearby and a few other attractions. She agreed and we actually managed to get tickets.
Fast-forward to an hour later.
We are on the bus, dealing with the usual chaos of a Chinese bus ride. Children are running around and screaming. People are trying to discreetly take pictures of me like I don’t notice. And one man is clearing all his bodily fluids onto the bus’ floor.
And then we stopped.
The bus shut off and then it got hot. People started walking outside even though we were on a major highway.
We could have waited around inside, but when the annoying unrestrained kid kept kicking my seat and attempting to look over to see me, I decided to get off.
In front of the bus, imperceptible to us inside was a line of cars at a dead stop. It stretched around a mountain bend in the far distance. We could even see the people near the bend walking around outside their cars.
I had been in bad traffic before but nothing quite like this. Ida then told an anecdote of a friend being stuck for the better part of a day, nailing home just how long these sorts of traffic jams can last. Taking that into mind, we stood with the crowd outside the bus, looked at the traffic in front of us and began to think of other options.
Traffic in the direction of Chongqing was amazing. But even with the deadstop traffic on our side, it’s unlikely we could’ve gotten a ride back home.
And so Google Maps. . . I mean not Google Maps in China . . . came to the rescue. Ida and I were not even halfway to Hechuan yet. And the Chongqing subway runs to Beibei, a town about halfway to Hechuan. We were fairly close to one station. In fact, the train ran over a bridge almost directly over our heads.
Not seeing an exit from this harsh ultimatum of traffic tailgating or bus sauna, we opted to take our chances trailing the open road looking for an exit.
At first, we only desired to walk to the cross-street we saw on the map to see if we could access the regular road and get to the subway station. If we failed, we could still go back to the bus. That option was quickly taken off the table.
As we walked a short distance away from the deadstopped bus, the driver came roaring after us. Had I been alone, I simply would’ve ignored him and continued on. However, Ida turned to acknowledge his rage. She tried to explain that with the bus stopped, we were looking at a way to get back home.
He wouldn’t have it and demanded our tickets back, telling Ida he would take no responsibility for us if we left.
Now, with no other options, we continued south on the Chinese expressway. The fact the driver had made such a demand when we had already paid for the tickets bothered me, but Ida was relieved we were trying a different solution. She told me the story of her friend, who had been in a similar traffic jam for the better part of a 24-hour period.
That put things in perspective a bit.
When we got to the highway crossing with the road we needed, there was no exit. There was only a slope heading down to the road covered in questionable shrubbery and some sort of drainage pond at the bottom. But, it also led to the road.
Ida’s immediate insistence that we scale down surprised me. Balancing myself on the teetering fallen tree, I slid through some muddy grass in the gaze of some amused locals. Ida followed after. We made a quick crossing of the drainage pit, smiled to our spectators, and made our way to the solid ground of the road.
Neither of us had any real context as to where we were. Around us were an uninhabited apartment building, a bus stop, and not much else. We discussed hopping the bus to skip the 15 or so minute walk, but only saw a couple public buses going in the opposite direction.
The walk took us through what is probably one of the least notable areas of Chongqing. The scent of fertilizer on a corn farm and a local food quality office. After 3 decently-sized blocks, we reached the Xiangjiagang station, complete with its fleet of motorbikes parked outside.
Relieved to finally see our way back into the city, Ida and I stood in the underground station next to a mother encouraging her toddler to defecate on the floor despite there being a public restroom being 5 meters away.