It seems to become a rule, that countries which I have a strange feeling about in advance, turn out to be super awesome and surprisingly positive. So happened in Bolivia. And so happened in China. In case of hitchhiking, China is a very comfortable country. I did my biggest long-distance-hitchhiking tour there, with 15.000 km and went to all four corners of China. Also I fel down the Chinese wall, experienced a lot of hospitality and China became definitely one of my most favourite hitchhiking countries.
Hitchhiked distance: 15.032 kilometer
Number of lifts: 89
Average waiting time: 19 minutes 15 seconds
Waiting time total: 28 hours 33 minutes
Log you can find here.
I started in Hong-Kong, made a short detour through the Yunnan region in the South and stayed three days in Dali. Afterwards I took a route along the Tibetan border to Chengdu and Wuhan. I continued in direction Bejing into Heilongjiang at the Mongolian border.
The last part lead me all the way from the north-east corner to Kaxgar in the far south-west. From here you can enter the highest road in the world, but I had to turn around and continue into Kazachztan. I hitchhiked more than 15.000 km in less than three weeks.
Route nach Kashgar 12.915km
Everyone told me, that the Chinese would be so different. And they are indeed. But I did not experience those differences as drastically as expected. First it should be said, that China is hardly possible to realize, with its 1,35 Billion inhabitants and as the most populated country in the world. The cities are unbelievable big and you will find lots of tower block complexes,, like it should be in a god socialistic country. Also you gather a lot different ethnic groups in one country. The Han Chinese make the biggest group. In the South-West you will find a lot of Tibetans, in the North the people look more like Mongols and in the very west are mostly Uyghurs, which are more Turks/Central Asian than classical Chinese. I definitely learnt that China is not the same like China.
Also I mostly had to do with the new Chinese middle class, because they are the ones who move on the highways and my time in China I spend mostly along highways. I think the different between them and people in Europe is not very big. They also want to consume, drive the newest cars, have smartphones, are interested in travelling and used Google Translate to communicate with me. Not much different than in other countries.
In general the Chinese are very polite, but not like the Japanese who do a bit too much for you. While in Japan some people do a three hour long detour, because they think it is necessarily, this won’t happen in China, which I find very pleasant. But anyway, if you sit in a car during lunch, breakfast or dinner time, you most likely will be invited to eat with the people in your car. Also regularly people bought me food and gave it to me as a present for my upcoming way. Chinese people care about you, what lead to the decision to travel without any money. It was just not necessary here.
A point that I did not like very much was, that sometimes the Chinese people miss to leave yourself some prvacy and they stare at you, as if you would have eight noses. Or they make a video, or foto, or selfie, which happened almost every time, when I was picked up. Sometimes they even gather in groups to look at the stranger. A bit like in a zoo. Maybe as an explanation I think, that China went through a period of incredibly fast changes and foreigners still have a kind of exotic status. People are just very excited about you travelling through their wonderful country. I guess we need to get used to this while hitchhiking. And they don’t want anything bad from you, just miss a little bit of decency. If you don’t like selfies, you better stay out of China.
Btw. Driving is another thing. Chinese can’t drive very well. Unexpected movement, stopping in the middle of the highway without reason, driving slowly on the very left lane or totally ignoring of any road marking are daily observations in the Chinese traffic.
China has a perfect Highway network, which is a main indicator for the raise of this country. Not before 1988 they opened the first 17 km long highway section, which is now part of the ringroad of Shanghai. It took then 23 years till they had 74.000 km highway and overtook the Interstate-Network in the USA to become the worlds biggest highway network. Nowadays (2016) they have 123.000 km highway. 11.000 km of that only build in 2015. I just write this numbers, to make you understand HOW fast China is growing to overcome the development gap. The higway network is the most important project towards this process.
Even more impressing it will be to actually drive on this highways. There are service areas, like in Germany, which provide a perfect infrastructure for hitchhiking. The highways are in a very good shape and even in more rural corner, like on the Russian-Mongolian border in the North, you have consequently paved highways, which make it very comfortable to travel up and forth through China. If you consider how big this country is, this is a respectable achievement.
The highways in China are toll roads, which might cause that they are mostly used by a new, rich Chinese middle-class and you won’t find any wrecked cars there. The toll stations are a good position for hitchhiking, which gives an additional plus point for China. And what I absolutely enjoyed was, that the capacities of the infrastructures are far from being fully in use, which cause that in more rural areas you have a combination of very very little traffic, new roads and huge service areas. I liked that. But I am also a bit nostalgic and have pictures of the empty American and German highways from the 50s in my head. Todays roads are often so full with cars. In China you can smell pioneer atmosphere which is very intriguing in my eyes.
Another point about the traffic infrastructure, which has not directly to do with the highways. China has another impressive way of transportation: trains. It makes totally sense to invest in higspeed-trains, because the country is so big. There is a as well a huge train network, which are mostly build on high-tracks. The Chinese trains remember me on the German Inter-City-Express and they furthermore seem not to be less fast. Another indicator for the catching up process with the western countries.
Before we start talking about hitchhiking, you should understand first: China has a huge highway system with a perfect infrastructure for hitchhiking: the service areas. Signs along the highway are usually with Chinese and Latin sings. Orientation is not as difficult as you might think and you can travel easily throughout the whole country.
The biggest challenge might be the communication problem, but here are some tips, how you can get around that and hitchhike through China like a boss.
Thanks to offline language packages and with offline speech recognition you got a wonderful tool to communicate with the people, even if you don’t have internet. Also if you get out your phone, most Chinese people will follow your example and use their translators as well. I made a couple of conversations like this and it worked really nicely.
Better than translate might be to get yourself a WeChat account. This si something like a chinese WhatsApp and everyone is using that. You will recognize their surprising looks, when you show them your WeChat ID and ask them to scan it with their phone. But why WeChat? Because it has a automatic translator build-in. Only working with internet, but really reliable and the people are so happy about it. Also you can make them sending the selfies they did with you. Very practical.
The precious letter
I got a pre-written letter with me, which I got from a hitchiking buddy before. And honestly, I don’t really know what exactly was written on it. Something like „Hello I am Stefan from Germany, I am here to travel your beautiful country. Usually I move by hitchhiking (explaining hitchhiking) please don’t bring me to a bus or train station. I like to travel that way….etcpp.“ When people were reading that piece of paper I always could observe a big smile getting into their face. Beautiful. My secret weapon. I passed the letter to another friend who is hitchhiking through China. From hitchhiker to hitchhiker. Here is a photo of this letter.
List of Chinese number plates
Chinese number plates are as precise as in Germany. The first sign stands for the province and next comes a letter, which stands for the city/region. The capitals of the provinces often have the letter „A“. For a more precise determination you can download the full list of Chinese number plates from Wikipedia. Very helpful if you want to approach people directly at the gas station or make yourself a sign.
Service areas and overview signs
In almost every bigger city or highway intersection, you will find a service area. The people will usually know where. And if you want to keep control about you movement, there are some overview signs on the highway, where usually the next three service stations are shown. Very helpful if you plan your route. Just keep your eyes open.
Service areas have often a gas station, a restaurant and sometimes even free Wifi. Doors are always open in China and you can sneak on the roofs of the buildings to find a nice sleeping place. Just be careful which door you open, sometimes there might be someone sleeping behind already. Several times I ended up in peoples private rooms.
Hitchhiking in China can be executed in several ways. It works perfectly if you just stand at the end of a service area and stick your thumb out. Signs make sense but with the number plates it might be easier to find a ride by yourself, than making the ride find you.
Another good strategy is as followed. You get on the highway and go to the toilet or drink some water. Usually it will not take long, till someone approaches you and starts talking. You won’t understand anything. Let the person talk for 30 seconds and then then take out your letter. While he is reading a big smile will occure on his face. They might say „Germany!“, if they are at the part of your origin and laugh. After reading the contact person will start to search car for you and include other people in the process, which stand around you meanwhile and watch the scenery. Then everything will go its way and work automatically.
I have to add, that the Chinese culture is very much focussed on the collective. Socialistic. It is somehow the collective responsibility to care about you as a tourist. I had the situation very often, that I wanted to get out of a car and the driver insisted to find the next ride for me. Then we talked across the parking area and when he found a car there was a strange conversation occurring. I did not understood, but it was like „Are you driving to Beijing?“ „Yes.“ „Oh, very good, because this person needs to go to Beijing!“ And then they already put my backpack into the car. I never had the feeling that they would actually „ask“ if they want to take me. This part was kind of self-understanding.
Of course it will not always be that easy to hitchhike through China. But most of the time it will work by itself. Alternatively you got very good options for positioning, like exits of service areas. But also toll stations are good. Police controls make sure that you will meet slow traffic, but you should be careful, that the police is not hitchhiking for you, which might take ages. In the end you can also take position directly on the highway intersections, which is illegal, but since there is a lack of traffic police in China, hardly anyone will molest you there. Also those intersections are perfectly made to get around cities.
China is a great country to hitchhike long distances and life on the highway.
Almost every male Chinese person is smoking. Smoking is part of the Chinese culture, like beer of the German one. If they are lightening themselves a cigarette, they are usually getting two out of the package and offering you one. I had owners of bars, who came to our table and offered cigarettes as a welcoming gesture. Some people smoke tobacco bongs before lunch. I mean, i saw a lot of countries, where they smoke a lot, but China is definitely world champion in this discipline.
Who still thinks China is a development country might have missed the last 15 years of life. This country is blooming and you can see a new player in worlds power game uprising. Not even the perfect highway networks and the new middle class, but also the cities are growing massively. Sky high living blocks shoot out of the ground like mushrooms. Big shopping centres for consumers needs are set, which are far from everything I know in Germany. China is rolling as unstoppable as a mud-avalanche.
In case of food China was the most interesting country I have ever travelled through. I guess I never ate anything twice. Chinese kitchen is so divers and really really good. I tasted some new things, like pork feet, lung, pickled intesticals, duck neck or other things, that sound disgusting but are actually really good! And you should consider, that I just came out of food paradise Japan and it was even harder to impress me. But Chinese kitchen did so, definitely!
The Chinese wall was very beautiful and if you want to be alone, you can just wander in one of the sections that are closed for tourists. Most of the people visit the renovated parts, which does not mean, that the other ones are not accessible. A little bit adventurous to get there but the view pays definitely off!
The Yunnan region in south, near the border to Myanmar is one of the most beautiful areas I have travelled to so far. People are mostly Tibetans and the foot of the Himalayas gives a stunning scenery. People, scenery and food are especially good here and I can recommend to visit there.
Xinjang is the biggest province, which consists mostly of desert. But in the north there is also water and agriculture, which surprised me. There should grow the best peaches of China and also you will find lots of Muslim people in this area. China is not like China here anymore, but more like Central Asia. Completely different to the East of the country.
Internet is not really working well in China, as Google, Facebook and several other services are blocked. You should use a VPN. I by myself had also a Hong-Kong Data package, which made me being able to access all services!