Taking the Long Way Home: An Unexpected Adventure from Shanghai to Hangzhou

By Tracy Zhang / Nov 09 • Categorized as Living OverseasDownload Article in PDF Download Print Friendly PDF

Boating in Hangzhou

Boating in Hangzhou

On a self-planned or guided tour of the People’s Republic of China, one will run up against the need to visit Hangzhou.  Read any guidebook.  Ask any Chinese person.  Undisputedly, Hangzhou, known for its extravagant natural beauty and thousands of years of development of its tea and silk culture, is simply the most traditionally elegant city in China.  Its scenery and natural delights have been praised by the greatest Chinese poets and its landscape lovingly cared for through multiple dynasties, empires and governments.  While everyone will tell you that Hangzhou is a “must see” among the cities of China, few will warn against the troubles that can plague you in getting there.

For those wealthy enough to have their trip planned wholly for them by a foreign or domestic travel service, no difficulties should arise with transportation issues to or from airports anywhere in China.  In fact, a well-planned trip into China will never hint at any of the daily life issues that may be faced by regular Chinese people.  However, for the budget traveler who wants to go it alone, certain transportation issues, the same ones faced most often by common Chinese, will burst forth front and center.

While a seasoned traveler in the People’s Republic of China must be ready for any and all contingencies, must keep a flexible mind and attitude about literally everything, there is always a new wrinkle, a small twist that results in a mental pause of such starkness that it takes a while to get one’s mind wrapped around the changed circumstances.   However, a recent experience I encountered in bus travel was so unbelievable that it seemed prudent to write it down so travelers less familiar with the PRC could prepare themselves for a potential travel surprise (at best) or hazard (at worst).  For, while these events occurred in my experience in only a certain part of southeast China, it is highly likely that such a bus experience is not an isolated practice.

Trading Places

Recently, my elder brother brought two of his friends from the U.S. to visit our home in Hangzhou.  Neither of his friends had ever left the U.S., one previously having gotten so far only as Arizona.  Traveling to China, for them, was the trip of a lifetime.  Although my brother had tried to prepare them for the need to keep an open mind, neither my brother nor I had anticipated we would be “sold off” on our bus trip from Shanghai Pudong Airport to Hangzhou’s Wulimen Market, setting a tone for the trip that incited fears and required explanations later of almost every form of transportation we planned to take.

Since tickets to fly from Cleveland to Chicago to Shanghai were far less expensive than those that added an extra leg on to Hangzhou, my brother selected the Shanghai arrival site of Pudong International Airport.  Being well-schooled in Chinese cultural norms, the courtesy of meeting my brother and his friends at the site of arrival and escorting them to our home in Hangzhou was de rigueur.  I even made an advance recon trip to Shanghai to pre-plan the itinerary we would follow there at the end of their trip prior to the departure at Pudong.  My advance planning included identifying a long-distance bus service that would pick us up at Pudong International in Shanghai and take us directly to Hangzhou’s Wulimen Market, from where we could catch a taxi on to the house.

Their plane arrived on time and everyone was pleased with the large and lovely tour bus that picked us up on the upper arrival level at Pudong’s very modern and well-appointed Terminal 2.  I had been assured we would go directly from Pudong to Hangzhou, but was surprised there were only 5 people on an 80 seat bus.  Nevertheless, we stowed my guests’ eight suitcases and carry-ons into the luggage compartments below the bus and boarded.  The bus driver told me there was no need to buy a ticket until we reached our destination, which I assumed was Hangzhou.

The bus pulled out to leave Pudong and drove off the airport property, taking the A20 highway toward the direction of Hangzhou.  For those not familiar with it, this is about an eight to twelve lane highway in most places full of large container trucks, flat beds, passenger vehicles, small vans, taxis, and large tour buses.  The maximum speed is 100 km/hr, but most vehicles are traveling faster.  Vehicles not moving at those speeds either are already broken down on the side of the road or on their way to being crushed by the other drivers.  The lane markers are a benevolent set of suggestions painted there by authorities, who probably have noticed with no small sense of frustration that no driver in China feels bound by any straight line.

My guests seated themselves comfortably at the back of the big empty bus and chatted with me as they watched the countryside fly by full of sights that seemed to amuse and amaze them.  I talked of China and the development of the land and the country, the magnificent beauty of Hangzhou, and the delights that awaited them on their trip.  I failed to mention what needed to be mentioned most:  the absolute requirement of a sense of humor and commitment to flexibility as one traveled around the area.  The congenial atmosphere lasted for about forty minutes, and then …

Our bus lurched to the right and stopped behind another bus on the right shoulder of the A20’s enormous stretch of highway.  The one additional passenger at the front jumped up and followed the driver as he exited the bus.  I thought she had made arrangements for some unannounced stop peculiar to her own needs and that we would proceed apace soon.  My guests and I did not move.  Then, quite suddenly, my brother saw our luggage being pulled out of the tour bus and flung on the side of the shoulder of the highway by the bus driver who had climbed down from the bus in front of us.  My brother jumped up just as our bus driver leaped back into the tour bus and yelled at us rudely “get off the bus, get off the bus.”

Despite my shock and fearing that our luggage was about to be separated from us, I ran to the front of the bus and down the steps to the road.  Large trucks and buses flew by.  The dirty rickety old blue bus sitting in front of us had, under its multiple layers of mud,  distinct markings of having twenty years ago been a long distance passenger bus.  It was packed with passengers none of whom looked pleased to see me questioning my bus driver by the side of the road.  After much very loud and angry inquiry, all I could actually get out of our driver was “You have to change buses to get to Hangzhou.  If you want to go there, buy a ticket now.  Eighty-five yuan each.”

I told my brother and his guests to grab all their luggage and move it to the smaller blue bus in front of us.  As I wasn’t even sure of what really was happening, and since I had just paid for the tickets, moving the luggage seemed the prudent thing to do.  Recovery of my common sense came just in time as the driver of our new bus gestured that he would leave without us if we didn’t hurry.  As the blue bus was full of passengers and their luggage was stowed underneath the bus, we had no choice but to drag all our luggage into the already crowded bus.  The seven empty seats on this new bus were full of passenger carry-ons and coats.  No one seemed inclined to let us sit, so I had to demand people move their own carry-ons elsewhere so we could take advantage of the empty seats.  Four obliged and we climbed over our own luggage that now crowded the aisles and the front stairwell to take those seats.  I was the last one to sit, an act that occurred less because I willed it and more because the driver merged suddenly into traffic from the shoulder at about 80 km/hr throwing me into my seat.

My anger at all this was palpable.  After calming my brother’s friends, I conferred via cell phone with friends and learned that we had just been “sold” from one nice bus to a “trader” bus, an act not only uncomfortable and unsafe, but totally illegal.  For the first few minutes my righteous indignation knew no bounds, but now that I was committed to the ride home, I called my sister-in-law and told her what happened.  She immediately called the tour bus company at Pudong to complain.  Oddly enough, her complaints met with a response that made me laugh aloud and restored me to complete faith that I would never grasp how business is done in China.

When my sister-in-law called back, she informed me that the bus company representative couldn’t figure out why I was so angry.  She said, “We were doing them a favor!  Rather than driving them into Hongqiao Airport (Shanghai’s domestic airport in the city limits) and letting them wait an hour for the next bus to Hangzhou, we switched them into a bus en route to save them time.”  It was customer service at its finest!  “En route” apparently was the code word for “while risking live and limb at the side of the road.”  I couldn’t stop laughing even though my brother’s friends were now traumatized beyond belief!

On the bus, I spoke with some of the other passengers, who assured me that they themselves had never experienced anything so absurd in their lives.  They were as shocked as we, but their side of the story was a bit different.  They had purchased their tickets at Hongqiao Airport for a straight shot bus ride to Hangzhou.  Angry that they were sitting at the side of the road for more than fifteen minutes, they began to shout at their bus driver, demanding to know what was going on.  The driver’s response was as minimalist as the one I got.  He told them, “I just work here.”

The next morning, settled comfortably in our living room after coffee and breakfast, I attempted to soothe my guests that we would not have any more events of this type.  In fact, I called upon a Chinese saying to help them put new perspective on the situation:


“When little things go wrong, big things will go right”

Although the traffic in general, taxi rides that veered into oncoming traffic, and pedestrian crossings terrorized them throughout the trip, everything else did go smoothly during their next ten days in Hangzhou.  However, as time grew near for them to return to Shanghai they had to be reassured repeatedly that we would not be “sold” again on any buses.  Luckily, my husband needed to go to Shanghai on business anyway, so he agreed to drive my brother and all the luggage to our hotel, while the rest of us took the train.  Luckily, the new trains in China, at least between Hangzhou and Shanghai, are clean, efficient, and not over-crowded.  Second class (hard seat or ??) is just as comfortable as first class (soft seat or ??).

Pudong International Airport

Pudong International Airport

One More Time for Old Time’s Sake

Our trip around Shanghai was successful, but when time came to see my brother and his guests off at Pudong International I decided, out of curiosity and practical considerations, I would take the tour bus to Hangzhou once more.  First, I wanted to see for myself, with a more critical and prepared eye, if this buying and selling of passengers was endemic or if the bus company was serious when it said it was helping us out.  Second, my only other choice to get back to Hangzhou was to take the train from one of Shanghai’s train stations.  That would have involved a trip from the Pudong airport back to one of the train stations and the distinct possibility that a train ticket would be unavailable.  Besides that, no matter what happened, it was cheaper to take the bus.

After my guests had entered the airport’s security procedure, I phoned the bus company to notify them I would need a ride.  They said they would pick me up at the #28 departures entrance at Terminal 2.  By 3:15 pm I was on my way, this time on a clean, large, and even more well-appointed bus carrying only one other passenger.  Our route did not vary and, sure enough, 40 minutes later we were nearing Hongqiao Airport.  Instead of stopping in the middle of the road to unceremoniously demand my sale, this time the bus exited and headed for the bus parking area at Hongqiao.  There I was asked very politely to exit the bus, purchase a ticket from a roaming ticket seller, and board a rickety old bus for Hangzhou, which was full except for about 15 seats.

Slowly, the bus filled almost to capacity and by 4:40 pm we were on the road, again, headed for home.  The additional wait at Hongqiao had added more than an hour to our travel time and I began to think the bus company may have been in earnest about wanting to save us time on that first trip.  My illusion was short-lived.

Within thirty minutes of leaving the Hongqiao Airport, we had stopped twice to both buy and sell passengers on the side of the highway.  During one stop, the shoulder was so thick with buses engaged in buying and selling passengers that they had leaked out into the right hand lane of the superhighway, causing further back ups and confusion.  To make matters worse, our driver had clipped the right hand mirror of a petroleum truck, resulting in a case of severe road rage by the truck driver.  For almost thirty minutes the two vehicles sped down the highway veering back and forth as the truck driver attempted to force our bus off the road first from the left lanes and then from the right.  To describe this high speed chase as dangerous would be an understatement.  It was fully worthy of Hollywood’s filming for a new version of “Speed” without Sandra Bullock.  The last we saw of the truck driver was his face contorted with fury as he attempted to fling a metal pipe through the side window of our bus.

Luckily, we arrived safely back in Hangzhou.  But my curiosity was still not satisfied.

Guozhuang Park

Guozhuang Park

Tour Bus Travel Between Shanghai and Hangzhou

Although I know that tour bus travel is big business in any Sino-culture (China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong), I also know that owning the rights to “lines” comes via the agreement of municipalities and their licensing bureaus.  After discreet inquiries, I learned there was only one venture allowed to run the line from Pudong International to Hangzhou.  This is a wholly owned government entity run by the Hangzhou Municipality.  Those who know more about such matters explained to me that the lines from Pudong and Hongqiao are so busy, lucrative, and important to the tourist trade in Hangzhou that it would be unlikely the city would lease such tour bus lines to a private company, which could prove even more unreliable or unsafe.

I also learned that the reason this bus line doesn’t sell tickets when one boards the large plush tour buses at Pudong is because they would be accused of “bait and switch” should they sell tickets at the point of origin.  Instead, they provide a free ride from Pudong to the “hub terminal” at Hongqiao, waiting until a passenger’s “presentation” at the actual physical long-distance bus either at Hongqiao or on the highway to sell the tickets to the traveler.  In that way, the passenger then has a choice whether or not to buy the ticket and board the bus.  Of course, when standing on the side of an eight lane highway with nowhere to go, the concept of “choice” or “free will” is an abstract one only.  Oddly enough, this practice has become known as the “sale” of the passenger rather than adopting the more accurate identifier as the “point of sale of the ticket.”

Is such activity illegal?  Knowledgeable sources here say “yes, absolutely.”  But they temper their certainty with a concept anyone in any society can readily recognize.  They call these “shallow rules.”  Everyone, it seems, knows the rule.  Everyone agrees it is wrong to break it.  A “shallow rule” simply defines the illegality of a “defacto reality.”  And, beyond that, no one much bothers about the rule if they want to get from one place to another.  One contact suggested if I was so outraged by being inconvenienced by my “sale” to another bus, that I dial 110 on my cell phone and report my “emergency.”  “See what happens,” he suggested if I wanted to know the meaning of a “shallow rule.”  Another friend literally laughed in my face, saying “do you really think you are the first person this has ever happened to?”  Apparently, the practice is not new.

Can You Game the System?

If one is a seasoned traveler in China and suitably forewarned of this type of activity, weathering a bus ride of this sort will rank low on the list of indignities just waiting to be suffered.  In fact, one might even view the tour bus waiting at Pudong as an opportunity to reduce costs.

Unlike Pudong, which is 48 kilometers (29 miles) from downtown Shanghai, Hongqiao International Airport is situated in the western outskirts of Shanghai, about 13 kilometers (8 miles) from downtown area.  Taking the free ride on the tour bus from Pudong International Airport to Hongqiao Airport positions one for a cheap and easy taxi ride to Shanghai’s main train station.  Or, from Hongqiao, you can take the No. 941 bus to the Shanghai South Train station (about 17 stops).  Once at the train station, with luck, one can pick up a ticket to Hangzhou.  Or, once at Hongqiao, one can grab a cab into Shanghai’s center city for a visit to China’s shopping and financial capital.

An even easier way into Shanghai’s center city, of course, is to take the shuttle (currently costing RMB22 or USD 3.25) from Pudong’s International Airport to Jing’an Temple downtown and move on from there to a train station or to your Shanghai location.

Is it all worth it?

No matter the difficulty with travel from Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport, don’t let anything put you off from visiting Hangzhou.  This former capital of China during the Southern Song Dynasty has much to recommend it.  Both historically and culturally, Hangzhou truly is a “must see” on any China travel itinerary.

About the Author:  Tracy Zhang recently retired and now spends her time with friends and family in China and around the U.S.  She’s also busy downsizing and helping others do the same.  Visit her shop at charliebear.etsy.com to check out her patterns, e-books, and vintage items.