It's a strange place to wake up, this patch of grass beside a truck stop just yards from the traffic streaming toward Interstate 95. But when Kelvin Kong found himself there, rubbing the sleep from his eyes as the sun rose last Saturday morning, he did what any roll-with-the-punches budget traveler does when he has to. He looked on the bright side.
"It's not every day you get to camp out next to a highway," the 17-year-old visitor from New York said, laughing. "I've never been to Baltimore before, and I'll never forget this."
Not every sojourner has what it takes to yuk it up after a night like Kong just had. He and his friends got to the TransAmerica truck stop on O'Donnell Street an hour early for the 7:45 p.m. Apex Bus coach back to the Big Apple. It never showed up. They spent the night under the stars.
Then again, not every traveler has what it takes to ride the "Chinatown bus" - what budget travelers call the dozens of motorcoach companies, many owned by Chinese immigrant families, that offer jaw-dropping fares between cities along the Northeast corridor. Four such carriers - Apex, Double Happiness, Eastern Travel and Dragon Coach - pick up passengers in the vicinity of the Baltimore Travel Plaza east of Canton, linking Baltimore to New York and points beyond.
Maybe it was the game of Twister they brought along that got Kong and his friends through their long night. Maybe it was the late hours of the McDonald's across the street. Or maybe it was just what most Chinatown bus riders know before ever getting on board: When you pay $35 for a round trip between Charm City and the Big Apple - half the cost of Greyhound and roughly a seventh that of Amtrak - you'll get where you're going much more often than not, and nearly always safely in the end. But you'd better be ready for adventure.
The loading zone
At 7:15, William McCollum, a fitness freak, is out for his morning jog. The New York native's mother is in a Baltimore hospital, and McCollum, a Manhattan real estate broker, is in town most weekends to visit.
He's also the sort who can't resist a good brouhaha. Crossing O'Donnell, he spots a small crowd massing against the closed doors of a white motorcoach. "What's going on here?" he asks, pressing in for a better view. "A riot?"
Not quite: It's the Saturday morning loading of the 7:30 Double Happiness to New York. In the shadow of the red, white and blue TransAmerica sign, the bus idles at a curb (there is no ticket counter or terminal), 47 passengers already on board. About 25 more crowd the lone ticket-taker in front of the coach, vying for the final eight spots. "I've been here since six," says a woman pushing a baby stroller.
"Cash only, thank you," says ticket taker Xiang "Jerry" Liu, a Chinese immigrant, who will make the final decisions. "Good bus, good bus, thank you."
Weekend trips to and from New York usually sell out, but today, the Saturday before the Fourth of July, is crazier than most. A Dragon Coach bus was canceled (it broke down en route from Washington), the 7:30 Eastern bus (filled to capacity in D.C.) didn't stop, and in the rising heat, everyone wants to get their holiday started.
Kong and friends, who long ago paid $35 each for their round trips on Apex, lay out $20 more for fresh one-way fares to New York. "It's better just getting there," says Elliott Gajadhar, 17. Even at $55 total, it still beats Greyhound by $15, and they'll worry about reimbursement later. The teens join the 32 who have paid in advance, eight Dragon transfers, and more.
A smiling Liu, 34, jokes with the crowd in his broken English, all the while dispensing the crisp, confidential nods that tell the select eight, "You're in." His criteria are unclear. "Sorry, sorry," he says to no one in particular.
The bus fills. The doors close. The coach takes off.
"I never heard of this bus," McCollum marvels. "Thirty-five bucks, and I've been taking Amtrak? Man, this is fun." He jogs off, shaking his head.
The Chinatown buses originated in New York City in the mid-1990s. According to The Boston Globe, Pei Lin Liang, a deliveryman for a noodle factory in New York, got things rolling when he decided Chinese immigrants with children at Boston colleges needed a cheap transportation option. Within seven years, his Fung Wah line grew from a three-van shuttle service into a 21-motorcoach link between Boston and New York.
More than 40 similar carriers now operate out of New York's Chinatown, mostly plying the Northeast corridor. They keep costs low by sticking mainly to word-of-mouth advertising, eschewing traditional terminals (federal authorities call the companies "curbside carriers") and targeting the most trafficked routes. They've grown popular with students, immigrants and other travelers looking for a good bargain and, in many cases, a good time.