While the train network in China is expansive, the bus network is even more so. Trains connect larger cities and of course have stops along the way. But there are hundreds of towns and villages where trains don't go, and these are connected by bus. If you are really hoofing it through the countryside of China, then you'll probably find yourself taking a bus or two.
Bus or Train?
If you have the choice between the bus and the train, then it pays to compare prices and comfort levels. On the train you can get up, move around, and use the restroom. On the bus, you're pretty much stuck in place while also subject to traffic on roads that can become choked with traffic. However, the bus may get you where you need to go where no train connections exist, and, usually, bus routes are less expensive than train routes.
Figuring out Your Ride
Bus connection information is available online, of course, but this information can be unreliable. Local travel agencies should have the most up-to-date information and might even be able to help you purchase tickets in advance. If this isn't an option, ask someone in your hotel to help. If they can't, the most reliable method is to directly call the bus terminal itself. Tickets are usually purchased the day of travel, often on the bus.
Different Types of Buses
Bus models can differ based on the route and proximity to large cities. Generally speaking, buses from large cities, on the Shanghai-Hangzhou route, for example, are new and clean. You might find buses on more remote routes less new and less clean.
Buses on smaller routes might be more like minibuses that don't depart unless they are full. It's best to be patient on these small routes.
On longer routes, there are sleeper buses that travel overnight. Each passenger gets a sleeping berth in order to spend the night in relative comfort on the overnight journey.
Highways and Roads
Roads are being constantly improved and new superhighways are being built all over China. For example, work on the G6, a highway is in progress that will connect Beijing with Lhasa, ending in Xining. But as quickly as roads are improved, people buy cars. Roads can get extremely crowded, especially in high-travel seasons such as October holidays and Chinese New Year. The most horrific of these was a sixty-mile traffic jam into Beijing in 2010 that lasted for weeks.
Hopefully you and your bus will not be caught up in anything quite so dramatic, but don't be surprised if you do hit some traffic along the roads.
On any public bus, especially a long-distance service, there will be scheduled rest stops. As you exit the bus, the driver will probably signal to you how many minutes you have. If not, try to find out yourself.
Don't expect too much from these roadside service stalls besides small shops selling basic supplies like dried snacks and drinks. There will also be bathrooms that are hopefully relatively clean, if not comfortable. Roadside stops usually have only squat-style toilet facilities.
Do take the opportunity to use the facilities and stretch your legs. But make sure you remember where your bus is parked, so you don't miss the rest of the journey!
Preparing for a Journey
If your journey is short, then you probably don't need much besides something to read and a bottle of water. However, if you're on a longer journey, you should bring some snacks. You'll find the locals have an endless supply of snacks and drinks to while the journey away. Mandarin oranges and sunflower seeds seem to be some of the most popular local snacks. Bring along a plastic bag for your garbage as well.
Our trip to Hangzhou was fine, but the return, on a Sunday evening, led into traffic, turning a two-hour journey into a six-hour trip. One can never be certain to avoid traffic jams, but try to avoid rush hour and peak times for better luck.