Tale of a hitchhike in China

For me the idea of travelling is all about challenging yourself to leave your comfort zone, to venture into the unknown and learn how to deal with the unexpected. What challenge would be more fitting for a traveller than trying to hitchhike in a totally foreign country and where you don’t speak the local language?

Inspired by the Hitchhiking and traveling stories of Patrick and Gwen, a German couple who we met back in Ulaan Bataar, Ronan and me decided to try it out ourselves. We researched the best road to hitch a ride South, prepared our maps and headed to the suburbs of Beijing.

We had to walk for a while to find a good spot to get on the highway, just after a big junction where cars had to slow down and thus are more likely to stop.

Ronan already had some experience, as he and Gloria hitchhiked from the Mongolian border to Beijing before. I was very hesitant at first but seeing how easy it was for Ronan to hail oncoming traffic, I joined in as well. It didn’t take too long for cars to stop, Ronan ran up to them and pointed on a map of China where we were headed. The first two or three cars weren’t heading the right direction but eventually we found a black sedan that would bring us further south towards Tianjin.

We got on, quickly introducing ourselves in the basic level of Chinese we could muster and were silent for the rest of the trip. It must have been about 70km when we approached a junction that led towards our next waypoint Jinan. We signalled to our driver that we wanted to get off, which he understood although a bit late so that we had to walk a couple of hundred meters on the motorway before we got on the right exit. We tried again but no one seemed ready to stop. “It doesn’t seem to be a safe place to stop” Ronan pointed out. I agreed and looked out for another spot and made out a toll station not too far ahead. “What about the toll station over there?” I pointed towards its direction. “Perfect, well spotted!” Ronan answered.

We made it past the poll booth and officers without a problem and set up our station just 200m down the road. We hailed a couple of cars, and joked about how cool it would be to be picked up by a nice car. “How about that white BMW?” I said to Ronan whilst holding out my hand.

The BMW went past slowly, and behold, it stopped. Ronan took care of talking to the drivers and waived me to come over – we got our second ride.

Once inside we checked if they spoke English, which they didn’t. However we were prepared with translation apps on our phones and it didn’t take too long for us to have a conversation about our trip, where we came from and where we were heading. The told us about their hometown where they were heading and that one of the, was a CEO of a software company making industrial management programs. Pretty cool I thought and remembered my stash of business cards I had in my camera bag and handed them over politely with two hands, the Asian way.

The two of them misunderstood us a little that we didn’t have any money left and offered to buy us train tickets to Shanghai and drop us off at the next train station. We politely declined and explained that we did it not because we didn’t have money but that we wanted to try out hitch hiking in order to get to know locals. We reached the next junction, at which they had to leave they highway. We said goodbye and had to promise them that we were going to keep safe on the road. And there we were again in the middle of nowhere trying to find our next ride.

We didn’t know what was wrong with this stretch of the road as no one seemed to even think about stopping. It was already getting late and we had only about 1.5 hours till sunset so we had to make the tough choice of calling it a day and find the closest town and catch a train from there.

“There is a station 12km from here” said Ronan. ” That’s manageable” I replied, before we left the motorway and walked along a provincial road. We walked a group of people at a crash site and got the occasional stare, but continued on. We tried hailing a couple of cars to hitch a ride to the train station, but none really understood what we wanted, so we continued walking.

20min in a minivan on the opposite side of the road stopped and waved us over. We explained to him that we were looking to the train station. At first he didn’t seem to understand but once we showed him the word for train station on my iPad it clicked. He made some hand gestures and somehow I understood that he was describing a bus. I should be really good at charades, when I think about it. Anyway, it took only a split second for the bus to appear and the minivan driver made the effort of stopping it for us and telling them to drop us off at the train station.

We paid out fare of 5 yuan and off we went to an unknown town and train station, sitting in a bus full of local Chinese people who might have never seen foreigners in real life. I was feeling thrilled of being in this situation and Ronan must have shared the same feeling as he was smiling back. “How cool” we said to each other.

It would have taken us an eternity to walk to the train station, as even with the bus it must have taken us 30min to get to there. I was wrong of thinking we were in the middle of the countryside as the town we thought we were heading towards, turned out to be a large city, with highrises and all.

Once at the train station we managed, with the help of the only other foreigner from Egypt, to buy our night train tickets to Shanghai. The train was scheduled to depart at 2am so we had more than 8h to kill. We started by roaming the the nearby shopping centre before settling for dinner at a hot pot restaurant.

There were only about 6 People in The Restaurant and we did stand out by just being the only non Chinese. It felt a bit uncomfortable at the beginning, but once we ordered our food by randomly picking things off the menu and started eating, the occasional glance from the other guests turned into smiles which we returned. Even without speaking a common language we could still make people laugh and smile by being friendly and sometimes clumsy.

Even after dinner we had 7 more hours till our train’s departure so we decided to give the cinema a go. We looked up the word for cinema on my iPad and started asking people on the streets on how to find it. After about questioning five people we were in front of the cinema, stepped inside and approached the counter. We said hi and pointed to a poster of Interstellar. The woman replied in Chinese and showed us the showtime and the price. “70 yuan?” We both looked at each other. “That’s nearly 10 euros! How can it be so expensive?” I said to Ronan “Let’s try another movie then?” He replied and went back to the counter. We don’t know how but when Ronan explained to them that the ticket for interstellar was too expensive, they actually gave the, to us for half price. “Well, I didn’t expect that to happen? I said before we went to see Interstellar in local cinema in a random town somewhere in China.