The #4


Cangshan Mountains, San Yue Road

There’s a rhythm to the #4 buses.

The bus line terminates at the traffic circle of Renmin Street and Cangshan in Xiaguan. There all passengers must disembark while those waiting at the bus stop get on. But they don’t pay anything, not yet.

From there the bus drives about half mile away from Xiaguan to the #4 bus terminal. (Think three buses in a parking lot.) At the terminal all passengers must depart and run around the front of the bus to the other blue #4 that is already waiting.

This bus won’t leave the terminal until every seat on it is filled and more people are standing up than sitting down. So some of the commuters—those eager to claim a seat—decide instead to wait outside the front door of the bus they’ve just exited.

A mob forms around the entry door. The Bus Driver opens it. Passengers start to squeeze their way in, but the Bus Driver yells that the bus is not open for business yet. He goes into the little bus hut. Exits with his tupperware of starch products, returns to the bus, where again he opens the door. The mob tries to squeeze inside once more, but no, the driver yells, another false alarm. He enters the bus and shuts the door and eats his meal.

Another blue #4 bus arrives and its passengers rush around to join the mob. By now there are more people standing outside the bus than can possibly fit inside. But they all will fit inside. They will fight past each other as soon as the driver opens the door with his almighty finger. Because in a world where there isn’t room for everybody, there is always room for oneself.


Three-wheeled cart along Lake Erhai

I’ve taken this bus a hundred times. I find that if I’m the very first person in the mob, there’s a good chance I’ll get a seat. By the time I step onto the bus and dunk my 1.5 rmb into the little money slot, I’m about the twentieth person to grab a seat. I don’t know how. You think of a bus entryway as a narrow strait. But the passengers move, not as rocks, not as discrete solid objects as foreigners do, but as water. A stream of water sliding into the bus. As they pass each other, they don’t bump, they slide past. Always touching, never bouncing. Water doesn’t bounce. That would disrupt the flow. The passengers flow onto the bus.

Experience dictates instead of hopping on the bus at the traffic circle, it’s best to forgo the half-mile ride here altogether and walk to the terminal, arriving between buses. But today for reasons unknown the routine has changed. Bus drivers are not forcing all their passengers off at the terminal. The passengers who boarded on Renmin and Cangshan are allowed to stay on the buses. The result being the buses today are full even before they begin boarding. Anyone at the terminal will find themselves standing, tightly packed, for the thirty or forty-minute ride to Dali.

As usual, by the time we leave the terminal—the very beginning of the route—there isn’t standing room left. But When we get to the first stop, more people crush in. As will more at the following stop, and the next. No one will exit the bus for almost thirty minutes. This is the routine. The flow of the #4 bus. It is, in all these respects, like most every bus in Dali. Every bus in Yunnan. Every bus in China.

The price for a taxi ride was forty rmb when I first arrive in Dali almost a year ago, and now it’s pushing sixty. The city, like the country, is booming. Prices always heading skyward. There is one constant: the price of a bus ride remains a paltry 1.5 rmb. It’s seems absurd to pay forty times more for a taxi ride than for a bus. But in many ways, you get what you pay for.

Except for one thing. High up in the bus, you can look out the windows to the east and see the beauty of blue Erhai Lake stretching out from the lowrises of Xiaguan of the south up to the sleepy shores of Shuanglang to the north.


And to the west, the green Cangshan Mountains look down on the city. Always majestic, mostly under blue skies, with a few clouds gliding over the peaks. At dusk, the last rays of sunlight streak across the range through a mild dusty haze that hugs the slopes.

We pass thousands of traditional Bai houses and apartment complexes. From a distance they appear to follow the rules of Bai architecture that have defined the valley for centuries. Yet few of these houses were here twenty years ago. Civilization extends from the lakeshore to our right up to the foot of the Cangshan Mountains to our left, but there are no houses on the steep slope. Only a solitary temple or two.

The sun has set behind the mountains, yet still shines on Erhai Lake to our right and over the hills beyond. We’re passing Muslim Town. Dali University. The Sinopec gas station and then “Boulder Farm”, where rows of enormous rocks grow from the ground. It is the Chinese equivalent of a Christmas Tree farm. Come, pick out the perfect three-ton boulder for your auspicious Far Eastern corporate landscaping needs. At some point austere words will be etched into these stones and painted in red, words inspiring the reader to lead a meaningful, productive life, or pointing the way to the toilet.


“That’s a good phone number,” my friend told me in February when I got my first sim card in China, “Hardly any fours.”

Four is bad luck in China because the name in Chinese sounds just like the character for “death.” Chinese residents don’t want phone numbers with fours, so vendors tend to unload them on foreigners.

Ironically, death itself does not seem to have the same gloom status as the number “4”. Funerals around Dali are almost festivals, celebrations of the departed’s life. It’s important to keep one’s ancestors happy, at both the funeral and beyond. So they don’t come back to visit.


The character for “death”, made of cigarettes

Superstitions are alive and healthy in China, but I’ve taken the number #4 bus more than any other in Dali and have determined that its numerical designation has not deterred passengers one bit. The #4 does not appear to be hurting for business.

There must be eighty people on the bus. Eighty strangers sharing a ride, each believing he or she has a unique destination. Some have been blessed with a seat. Some must stand. Some talk with their neighbors while others yell into their phones. Some play video games. One reads. Others stare out the window and enjoy the view.

Approaching the Old Town, passengers begin exiting the bus in significant numbers. Finally at the South Gate, a large mass flows off the bus and those standing can inhale and exhale freely. The shops, restaurants, and guesthouses block the view of the lake, but a new sort of nature emerges. Human nature.

Scooters drive the wrong way at the bus on the one-lane one-way street. The bus stops because a taxi ahead drops off a passenger. The taxi doesn’t want to leave. It is afraid it will have to drive all the way back to Xiaguan without a fare. There is no honking. Unlike Los Angeles, where cars honk at a standstill, cars here honk when they’re moving. (What’s the point of honking if you’re stopped?)

And likewise, the bus’s patrons patiently wait.

I’m amazed at the juxtaposition between the madness of getting on the bus and the patience getting off it. One arrives when one arrives. And in this way, the #4 is like life. All this pushing and shoving and screaming to board. Less rush to depart.

The #4 stops at Renmin Lu. I bid a silent farewell to my fellow passengers and begin my journey home.

About sinestor

Originally from Los Angeles/Long Beach, California, I'm currently spending a year exploring the amazing world known as China. My main website is Every Day's a Holiday.


  1. lisanestorwells

    Neither Brian nor I are innately superstitious, but it did alarm us a bit when I was about to depart on a long road trip, just me and Aurora, and the car’s odometer read “44444”. Brian said he was waiting very nervously for my call from our destination that night!

  2. gail

    “All this pushing and shoving and screaming to board. Less rush to depart.” I agree with you. Like life.

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