Back in South Korea, we paid a visit to Tongyeong, a southern port city famous for its chong mun gim bap: fermented octopus mixed with a variety of local spices, held together by a delicate seaweed wrap. While it was pretty good, we ended up ordering roughly two pounds of the stuff, stuffing it into my backpack, and bringing it along on a 6k island hike – because picnics are fun! It’s been nearly two months, and I’ve still yet to rid my bag of that foul, hot octopus stench.
But I digress. This is a story about buses.
Tongyeong is located at the southernmost tip of the Korean Peninsula. To get there from Seoul required a four-hour bus ride, essentially the length of the entire country. Accompanying Zibby and I on the journey was our good friend Dave. He was living in New Delhi at the time and decided to come and visit us while we were in Korea. Our bus to Tongyeong was your average coach; not exactly a luxury tour bus, but definitely a step up from – and decidedly less sad than – your average Greyhound charter.
What made this bus ride remotely noteworthy was the driver. He drove like a bat out of hell, constantly hurdling our large, top-heavy bus past smaller, faster-looking vehicles that were clearly going well above the speed limit themselves. Every time I would be about to mercifully nod off, I’d be suddenly jolted awake by an ear-piercing honk, as our sadistic driver yet again wheeled around the car ahead of us to gain another precious 10 feet of highway real estate.
When we finally reached our destination, it was like nothing had happened, that I alone was conscious of the death-defying ride we’d just completed. Our bus driver stood by the door, smiling, as gracious passengers thanked him upon disembarking. When my turn came, it was all I could do to refrain from grabbing him by either collar and screaming, You bastard! There were children on this bus! Once we were clear of the bus and had our luggage, I turned to Dave, who was by then a grizzled veteran of similarly crazy Indian buses:
“Crazy bus ride, huh? I was on the edge of my seat the whole time.”
“Ehh, not really. If you thought that was bad, you’re going to have a rude awakening in China and beyond.”
As painful as this is for me to admit, Dave was right (those that know Dave and I will especially appreciate this one).
What was truly prophetic about his words, though, was the cryptic allusion to China and beyond, where the supposed “rules of the road” – and often times, paved roads in general – are completely non-existent.
Roads in China – specifically, southern, rural China; we generally stuck to trains in the north – can truly be the stuff of which nightmares are made. When traveling from Lijiang to Tiger Leaping Gorge in northwestern Yunnan province, we took a narrow, sometimes-paved road that brought us over a steep series of mountain passes that eschewed traditional guard rails for occasional strings of Tibetan prayer flags that fluttered maybe a foot from the edge of the road, the only barrier between our rickety microbus and the terrifying thousand foot drop off that lurked just behind them — all as the driver maniacally passed any and every vehicle/livestock/pile of gravel that stood in his way as incoming traffic approached, of course. Rides like these were a dime a dozen in China (and Vietnam, to a lesser extent).
And yet, I haven’t found any of these trips to be nearly as unnerving as that rather uneventful bus ride in South Korea. I guess that, on the one hand, it’s simply a survival mechanism; either I could get used to these long bus rides, of which we’ve had many, or I could continue to cringe at every bump and give myself an ulcer or three in the process. Rediscovering my Kindle has helped as well.
I’ve also grown extremely fond of watching whatever movie/show/music video plays on a given bus. It’s been interesting to note the varying entertainment mediums favored in a given country. China, for instance, will generally feature a martial arts film that is generally slapstick comedy, but which may also include a grotesquely violent death that gives you slight pause (They killed the baby? Huh?). These films generally center on a protagonist and his goofy foil of a sidekick (like this guy below), overcoming great odds to defeat the corrupt Americans or Japanese, usually:
Cambodian buses take an entirely different tack. More often than not, you’ll get these bizarre karaoke videos that come off like some kind of bizarro 1950s do-wop party, where a bunch of Khmer people are dancing some strange anachronistic dance in front of a crooner-du-jour:
It’s a bit odd at first, but it grows on you.
I’m going to wrap up, as this is probably far more than you ever cared to read about Asian buses. So again, painful as it is for me to say it, you were right, Dave. Also, I’m writing the last part of this post from a bus in Cambodia (the karaoke just ended, so I was finally able to focus).