#13 Hitchhiking across China

Although I tend to avoid flying as much as I can, I must say the flight from Kathmandu to Chengdu is absolutely breath-taking. The aircraft takes to the skies and soon Kathmandu is nothing more than a small dot in the distance, and my time in Nepal is abruptly reduced to a delightful yet mere memory. Lucky as I am, I got a window seat and I can watch the heavenly landscapes unfold from the sky.

As we reach our cruising speed, I can catch a glimpse of the snowy Himalayas that loom in the distance with unrivalled majesty above the soft white clouds. What a scenery! We fly over the highest mountains in the world that slowly give way to the vast, ochre plateaux of Tibet. The sky has cleared up now and I can make out some dwellings on the ground. The views are undeniably incredible from this altitude, but deep down I regret couldn’t cross those very villages by hitchhiking or by foot, at human level. As the plane begins its descent, the metropolis that will serve as an introduction to my journey through China is already materialising on the ground.

I made it to Chengdu, and despite relative geographical proximity, the change of scenery is striking. Chengdu might be ten to fifteen times larger than frantic Kathmandu, yet the city feels a lot more peaceful and organised. The roads are wide and smooth, the infrastructure surprisingly well developed. I sit gaping on the bus to the city centre and watch the gigantic towers and other modernist buildings that make up the urban landscape.

 

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My first stroll around the capital of Sichuan province takes me through wealthy business districts. Nothing too pleasant in itself, but minimalistic architecture, huge posters and ubiquitous strong lines lend themselves very well to street photography. Later on, I take a walk around People’s Park and I am surprised to be greeted with a very festive atmosphere. Several choirs and bands are performing in the open, dozens of couples are graciously dancing to traditional Chinese music, etc. It must be a special occasion or a festival of some sort… Actually no, something similar is going on in most parks I will go to throughout the country. No need to have a particular reason to enjoy music and dance after all. I have a feeling China will be full of surprises.

As far as food is concerned, I am already missing India and Nepal. I have never been a fan of the Chinese dishes I tried abroad and I don’t think it will get better here. I don’t eat much meat and the Chinese are crazy about it. Here, fried chicken feet and other unidentified organs are sold as snacks on the street. In restaurants, menus are solely in Chinese and nobody speaks a word of English… I am not too adventurous in that field and I end up ordering just rice and vegetables most of the time.

For my last night in Chengdu, an Australian guy and a German girl from my hostel who know the city well take me to a cool venue called Jah Bar. A musician owns the place and jam sessions are frequently organised. The guitar I have been carrying since Istanbul is slowly falling to pieces by now. Needless to say I am delighted to be playing on good gear with skilled musicians, and the audience seems to enjoy!

During my few days in Chengdu, I am also trying to plan a rough itinerary for my trip across the country. Luckily, I have been able to cancel all the hotel bookings I had made when applying for the visa. I am free as a bird. Looking at the map, however, can be quite daunting. The country is huge, the possibilities endless. Only one thing is for sure, I have to be in Beijing in about three weeks for my train to Mongolia. I am opting first for a detour northwest of Chengdu that should allow me to explore a few Tibetan villages accessible without a special permit.

Goal of the day: Songpan, a small town about 320 kilometres away. For my first day hitchhiking in China, I should definitely start early. But that’s simply impossible with the hangover following last night at Jah Bar. What’s more, Chengdu is enormous and it takes me ages to find a decent hitchhiking spot in the outskirts of the city. After a long metro ride among a crowd of zombies staring blankly at their precious phones, I take a bus to Shuimo near the west exit.

The bus drops me off in the small town but I have to make it back to the main road. By chance, I get my first ride in China after only ten minutes. My drivers are students on the way to Chengdu and – an extremely rare occurrence – one of them speaks decent English. Only one other driver will jabber some during my whole trip through China.

They drop me off at the right crossroads and I start holding up my cardboard sign in the search of another vehicle. I also got a short letter in mandarin introducing myself and explaining the concept of hitchhiking. A version in Farsi had been very useful in Iran where few people speak English outside large cities and hitchhiking is little known.

 

 

A luxury black car soon pulls over and I understand the driver can take me to Wuechuan, about 50 kilometres further. Hitchhiking in China is starting well! Since I left Chengdu, I am surrounded by lush green hills and I love watching new landscapes go by.

My driver obviously doesn’t speak a word of English… I am in his country, I am the one who should learn his language after all. Thanks to an English/Mandarin phrasebook I got in Kathmandu, I try making myself understood, with mixed results. As I can’t read Chinese characters, I have to rely on pinyin, the script that uses Latin letters. Yet, at least every other time, my driver is grimacing and evidently doesn’t have a clue of what I am trying to say. Mandarin is a tonal language with four different tones, five including the neutral one, that have a direct semantic impact (on the meaning of words). Thus means “mother”, “hemp”, “horse”, and  “scorn”. Pretty confusing. More crucially for me, the closest translation of “hitchhiking” is something like da-bian-che. However, if pronounced incorrectly (which I most probably do), the word might be understood as “eating shit”… I do not intend to cause a diplomatic incident, I shall stick to my letter.

 

 

I get dropped off at the entrance of Wuechuan in front of a random statue and I start looking for a car again. Great gusts of wind are blowing on the small town and I struggle to make eye contact with the drivers. At some point, the wind is so strong that my guitar is carried away on a dozen meters while I desperately run after it!

After over an hour, two pretty Chinese girls offer to help me out and drop me off at the exit of the town on the right road. Within minutes, I get another ride to Maoxien, halfway through to my destination. It is getting dark now and I am knackered, I decide to stop here for the night. After swallowing a bowl of rice in the first small restaurant that I come across, I start looking for a place to sleep. My phone sucks and I can’t even use the GPS to find a cheap guest house. The locals must not see foreigners often judging by their astonished looks. Four friendly teenagers take me to a shabby hotel, thus perfectly within my shrinking budget. I collapse on the bed and sleep for thirteen hours straight.

 

 

Little stroll around the market of Maoxien on the following morning. I am delighted to be in the countryside, people are not in a constant rush and prove more welcoming here. I don’t linger too much however, I really want to make it to my destination today. At the exit of the small town, two men smoking a cigarette outside their car see my sign and gesture I can jump in. Wow that was easy today! I make the most of the ride reading On the road by Jack Kerouac, a great book that I now want to finish so I can start something about China to understand this complex country better.

Once again, locals prove both welcoming and helpful. While struggling to find my hostel in Songpan, I meet a bunch of high school students who seem delighted to show me the way. The hostel is empty; Songpan is not attracting masses to say the least. Yet the owners are very kind. They bring me free food a couple of times, what a pity I am not a fan of Chinese cuisine… In the late afternoon, I climb a nearby hill and enjoy a vast panorama on the valley. I also meet a shepherd and his son who both look very destitute. China has been growing and developing extremely fast over the past decades, but not everyone was able to reap the benefits.

 

 

On the following day, I take a break from hitchhiking to explore the town. Songpan matches the way I had imagined a small traditional Chinese city. Remains of an old defensive wall surround some of the houses. A large gate with a curvy roof leads to the main alley full of small shops and vegetable sellers. On the way back from a modest hike in surrounding mountains, I come across two Tibetan women who invite me to visit their temple in the heights of the town. We share a nice moment despite limited communication. I am happy to be staying away from touristic regions, interactions with locals always more genuine.

It starts pouring down and I seek shelter in a small shop. To my great surprise, the owner addresses me in flawless English. I am delighted to have a real conversation with a local and start flooding her with questions. Her name is Kate, well that doesn’t sound very Chinese… In fact, numerous young Chinese people pick an English-sounding name of their liking for interactions with foreigners, their real names being often simply impossible to pronounce… She tells me that several different ethnic groups live peacefully together in the small town. Han Chinese of course, the major ethnicity with over 90% in the country, but also Hai Muslims and Tibetans.

 

 

After a short calligraphy session working on my cardboard sign, I hit the road again towards Langmusi, a five-hour drive away. Two friendly Chinese men take me all the way in their lorry. We gradually gain altitude and vegetation becomes more and more scarce. The trees have given way to grasslands with different shades of green. Further afield, on either side of the road, black mountains with snowy tops are looming out of the mist. The climate is very humid and we drive at least two hours through heavy downpours. I thank my drivers again, I wouldn’t want to be stranded in the rain right now! About half way through to Langmusi, a sign says we have reached 3800 meters above sea level! Not expecting to go so high again, I sent all my warm clothes back to France after my trek in Nepal and I don’t even have long pants anymore.

Whenever we approach a town or a toll station, my driver hands me an anti-pollution mask to conceal my exotic features. Is the region forbidden to foreigners in the end? I sink in the seat every time we drive past police officers but luckily we won’t get stopped. They drop me off at a crossroads near Langmusi and a last car takes me to the city centre. The driver is a man with unmistakable Tibetan features who whispers endlessly the Buddhist mantra “Om mani padme um…” while passing the beads of his prayer necklace one by one with his thumb.

To hell with the autonomous region and the restrictions imposed by the Chinese government, when I make it to Langmusi, it feels like I really made it to Tibet! The town and its numerous golden temples is located at 3300 meters above sea level and is surrounded with mighty mountains. Ochres tones are predominant, shop signs are now both in Chinese and in Tibetan alphabet.

 

 

The hostel where I stay for a couple of days is almost empty, and the two only other guests are not regular tourists. Rob and Vicky have both studied Tibetan language and culture for two years in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet! Vicky speaks good Tibetan and Rob is fluent in Mandarin, he has been living in Shanghai for several years. We spend the evening together and go for dinner in a small Tibetan restaurant. We are having momos (dumplings) and fried bread filled with yak meat. Unusual but not unpleasant! On the other hand, I wonder why Tibetans eat so much yak meat. According to Buddhist doctrine, it is immoral to take a life, be it human or animal. Someone will explain later to me that given the high altitude, it is hard to grow crops and meat consumption is considered a necessity. They believe, however, that every life has equal value and try to reduce the amount of killings. Thus, they eat almost exclusively yak meat and no poultry for instance, as the meat of a single animal is enough to feed a family for an entire year.

 

 

On the following day, I am off to explore the town, its temples, its monastic school… I stop for lunch in a small restaurant owned by a friendly English-speaking Tibetan man. Even though it not as much the case as in Lhasa, he tells me that the Chinese steamroller is also wreaking havoc here. The influx of Han settlers in the area has been steadily increasing due to government subsidies aiming at further imposing Chinese hegemony at the expense of Tibetan culture and identity. The architecture is also testifying to this state of affairs, with greyish buildings multiplying among the traditional houses. Xiahe, my next stop, will be another prime example of this seemingly unstoppable phenomenon.

 

 

I wish I could have stayed longer in Langmusi, but there is still a long way to go until Beijing and time is in short supply. Two rides take me back to the main road and from there I get picked up by a rickety truck without a roof that makes tremendous noise. We drive in the open, breathing freedom in the fresh air. After several rides and a long day of hitchhiking, Dugar, the owner of my hostel, gives me a warm greeting. We spend the evening together along with two other guests. Rita seems to have been travelling her entire life, she has anecdotes to tell about every continent. I am almost jealous when she tells she hitchhiked across Tibet about fifteen years ago, when travelling with a guide was not compulsory. I was born a generation too late!

Dugar’s story is moving. When he was 16 years old, he longed to travel to Dharamsala in India to get a blessing from the Dalaï Lama in person and learn English. Like numerous Tibetans, he didn’t have a passport, but that was not enough to deter him. He crossed the border illegally, after several days of walking through the mountains with limited food and water supplies, in constant fear of being caught by armed border patrols.

Xiahe is famous for its immense Buddhist monastery called Labrang. I follow the believers in their morning peregrinations around the temple turning the countless prayer wheels. In Tibetan Buddhism, everything always seems to be turning clockwise: prayer wheels, believers around temples, mani kolo (prayer objects made of wood with a small metal ball attached to the upper part), etc.

 

 

Tim, an Australian freelance journalist, arrived today at the hostel. He is well travelled and has published pieces about Tibet, North Korea, Eastern Africa, Palestine, etc. Tim reminds me of the extent of self-immolations in Tibet. Since the invasion of the country in 1950, about 160 monks have set themselves on fire as a sign of protestation against Chinese colonialist policy. And quite a few have done it right here in Labrang monastery.

My next stop: Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province about four hours away. The second car driving past pulls over at the sight of my cardboard sign. Four friendly people take me all the way to my Couchsurfing host’s place in Lanzhou. “That’s hitchhiking done right!”

Wenyu is putting me up for a couple of days. She lives on the 25th floor of one of the countless gloomy towers scattered all over the industrial city. Lanzhou looks huge to me, but Wenyu insists it is a “small city”. In a way she is right, the city has three million inhabitants, nothing for the country’s standards. Chengdu where I started my trip is home to over fifteen million people for instance.

 

 

Over the next few days, she shows me around the city and introduces me to her friends. One day we go for a hot pot. For this convivial dish very popular in China, a wok is set in the middle of the table with different sauces or soups constantly boiling. You can then cook as you wish vegetables, seafood or meat inside. Very tasty but also extremely spicy. Chinese food turns out to be ever spicier than in India! Later on, we are having a barbecue with some of her friends and I notice once again how much the Chinese like to drink. Beers have a low alcohol content, but they are downed at the rapid pace of people shouting “ganbei!” (a mix of “cheers!” and “bottoms up!” in Mandarin; the word implies you have to finish your glass in one go). They are probably also the biggest smokers I have seen during my travels. Cigarette in mouth under any circumstances.

Lanzhou doesn’t have that much to offer but I get on well with Wenyu and her friends and I end up staying for almost a week. I shouldn’t linger too much however, I now have only ten days left to make it to Beijing! I leave Lanzhou quite early and start hitchhiking at a toll station in the outskirts of the city. I did understand that the businessman who gives me a first ride wouldn’t cover much distance, but we haven’t even passed a first gas station and he already gets out of the highway… More of a curse than blessing. I am now stranded at a highway entrance in the middle of nowhere and the few cars that drive by all go back to Lanzhou.

 

 

After struggling for two hours in the blazing sun, a man finally takes pity on me. He first tries to force a note of 100 yuan in my hands for a bus ticket. No way! I am a hitchhiker, not a beggar. He insists on giving me a hand and I ask him to take me to the first gas station on the highway a few kilometres away. Once there, my benefactor is not keen on leaving me alone and maintains I should take the bus or the train. I appreciate his concern, but I am also getting a little fed up. There are still 600 kilometres to go until Xi’an, the clock is ticking and I am now wasting precious time. I thank him for the umpteenth time and he finally goes away. I start asking every single driver in sight and to my great surprise, I am systematically turned down. It was so easy until now! Slightly reluctantly, I turn to the lorry drivers and one of them finally agrees to take me all the way to Xi’an.

It is already 4PM when we eventually set off, I am tired of the tremendous heat and my tedious efforts to find a ride. My driver is very friendly even though we can’t communicate much beyond my twenty words of Mandarin. His truck weighs 47 tonnes and is incredibly slow. After an endless drive of maybe eight or nine hours, I get dropped off at a gas station on the ring road of Xi’an. I still have to find John’s flat, the next host I met on Couchsurfing. Xi’an is a metropolis of nine million inhabitants; it is quite a distance from here to the city-centre. Exhausted, I walk for about one hour until I come across a first sign of life, a small restaurant about to close. The owner calls a taxi for me and at 2AM I am finally in front of John’s building. What a day!

 

 

Xi’an used to be the capital of the country during the Zhou dynasty. I was expecting, somewhat naïvely without doubt, that Xi’an would be an ancient city. There is indeed a historical centre, but it is bright buildings towering in the sky, banks, shopping malls and a very modern underground network that shape my first impression of the city. After a stroll around the Muslim neighbourhood, its narrow streets and numerous shops, I start looking for a bookshop. I would like to find an introduction to modern Chinese history, but it turns out to be impossible to find anything decent in English. Even in Beijing, the choice will be very limited. John shows me around his city and we undertake sort of a tour of the country’s religions: we visit an old mosque, a Taoist temple, a Catholic church, a Buddhist temple… My host tells me he once bought a guitar he has never used and gives it to me in exchange of some help for learning French via Skype. Great!

It is tremendously hot as I struggle to find a ride out of Xi’an. Hundreds of cars go by but nobody is stopping… I start thinking that no one has ever heard of “Pingyao”, the name of the small town halfway between here and Beijing that I wrote on my sign. I quickly write another sign for Beijing, but it is already 2PM and I doubt anyone will drive one thousand kilometres to the capital now… As expected, events are not taking a fortunate turn and my motivation and energy are fading. At least the employees of the toll station are kind and offer me a cigarette every so often. Using the translator of one of their phones, I end up asking if they can help me finding a ride. At this point anywhere on the way to Beijing will do.

 

 

Ten minutes later, one of the employees points at an old blue truck that has just pulled over after the toll station. I grab my bags and my new guitar and swiftly jump in the truck. My driver tells me he is going to Linfen. I check on the map, it is about 400 kilometres in the right direction, not bad. Out of curiosity, I look up the city on Wikipedia. It turns out that instead of the small historic town of Pingyao, I am on my way to the third most polluted city in the world! The hazards of hitchhiking… The truck is remarkably slow and to top it off, we have to get out of the highway for two hours to deliver goods on a construction site… When we finally make it to Linfen, it is about 1AM and my driver stops in an industrial estate about twenty kilometres away from the centre. He won’t go any further tonight. As it is impossible to find a guesthouse nearby, my driver tells me I can sleep in his truck and carry on tomorrow morning. After such an exhausting day and a restless night, I am seriously losing motivation and I end up hopping on the train for the last few hundred kilometres leading up to the capital city.

For my last few days in China, I am Couchsurfing at a young couple’s flat in the northern suburbs of Beijing. Upon request from my hosts, I happen to be filmed for a Chinese reality TV show… I should have done it at the start of my trip, I bet I wouldn’t have struggled so much to find rides! Beijing is huge and I only get to see a tiny bit. The longer I travel, the less I feel attracted to major touristic attractions and I don’t visit the Great Wall or the Forbidden City… I prefer to stroll around random neighbourhoods, shoot street photography and have a chat with locals. One place I really enjoy, however, is the Art District 798, an old industrial complex reorganised into art galleries and cafés.

 

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All in all China was both a surprising and interesting chapter of my journey. A country that is so vast, culturally so rich and diverse would take a lifetime to “understand”, if such a venture is even possible. The month I spent here was more of a taster, and that’s enough for now. After nearly 11 months since I set off (how time flies!), making it to Beijing also meant I reached the furthest point of my trip. It is slowly time to go home now. But no flights of course! I will take the train all the way to St Petersburg, Russia. The trip back to Europe promises to be fascinating and a hitchhiking break is more than welcome. Next stop: Mongolia.

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