A bus from Kunming to the border with Laos takes 24 hours I am told. That’s okay. It is a sleeper bus. Bunks, not seats. Not cheap, but then transport in China never does quite seem to be. And not expensive.
The first 15 hours go wonderfully well. Sure, we stop for reasons that are poorly explained a few times (we seem to be buying spare parts, and that is not really a good sign, but still we have hope), and, as usual, it is impossible to tell where we are or to know when we might arrive anywhere along the way. But the bunks are comfortable, I get to know the two other foreigners on the bus, the scenery is interesting, and it is nice to know that I am on my way to somewhere that everyone seems to like.
But it is not to be so simple. At 4:30 in the morning I wake up to find the bus has stopped. Fifteen minutes later everyone gets out of the bus and sits on the side of the road. Humid and warm, but not unpleasant. The noises of the jungle behind us are entertaining. Our bus is broken down, it seems. Another is coming. At least we had some sleep.
Another bus. Twenty minutes to a town and then three hours more perched somewhat precariously on a little round stool (there are no seats free) with my legs in the door well. Then another bus, a little smaller. Four more hours. Then another bus, still smaller, for the ninety minutes to the border.
Simple border formalities (no customs, it seems). Take your temperature. Farewell from the Middle Kingdom.
The interesting thing is that we arrive only an hour after our bus from Kunming was due. So breaking down cost us no time. But it did cost us quite a lot of money (keep it in perspective: about NZ$15). Because the fact that our bus broke down did not seem to entitle us to any kind of refund. So we had to buy three more bus tickets to get to where we wanted to be.
Our original bus ticket was more like the purchase of an opportunity. It gave us the chance to get to Mohan – if the bus made it. On the other hand, had the bus broken down two hours outside Kunming, well, they would have been an expensive two hours.
Very inefficient, says the economist in me. Because the passengers are not easily able to make sure that the bus is in running order. So giving them the responsibility to pay again if the bus is not gets the incentives all the wrong way around. Making the bus company responsible to repay passengers who don’t get to where they are going (which is normal in New Zealand) makes the bus company much more concerned about bus maintenance.
Not that it would have affected my behaviour in the first place here, because there was nothing I could do about it, even had I known up front that the bus probably wouldn’t make it I would have gone anyway. Part of me laughs at another travelling experience, and part of me frowns at the manifest stupidity evident in it all.
Lah lah (read: what can you do?). Things are not like this at home. But then, that is whole point really, isn’t it?