A story of hitchhiking into the depths of Inner Mongolia.
“Do you want to come too?” Xiao Hai asked as I walked into the hostel. He was hitchhiking from Harbin to Hailaer, in Inner Mongolia. There was no way that I could make the words “no” come to my lips. I went to my room, scooped up my bag, and joined him as he walked out the door.
I went to Harbin without a plan, just to see what would happen. I was going to spend that day interviewing old people about the war/ occupation era in this city, then Xiao Hai happened. I deked the interviews and found myself standing on the side of the highway leading north out of town.
I met Xiao Hai the day before while drinking beer and studying Chinese at a small restaurant near the hostel we were staying at. He’s an environmental studies student in Changchun, in nearby Jilin province.
Influence by Liu Chang and Gu Yue, who almost single-handedly put the idea of hitchhiking long distances into the minds of people across China when they traveled from Beijing to Berlin in 2010, Xiao Hai began taking short trips hitching around the northern provinces of China. I interviewed him about this earlier in the day:
I’ve hitchhiked around China on a variety of occasions, and I have to say that it’s one of the most fruitful countries on the planet for this type of locomotion. In point, people understand what hitchhiking is, they pick you up, generally don’t expect to be paid, and, for the most part, treat you as a guest, a curiosity, and, sometimes, a friend as they transport you from place to place.
While I knew that Chinese people pick up foreigners who have their thumbs sticking out on the side of the road, I’ve often wondered if they would do the same for their fellow countrymen. I can remember when hitchhiking around Japan how I’d meet Japanese youth who said that they tried it but nobody would pick them up — apparently, their lack of exoticism provoked a sense of alarm. Xiao Hai proved that the Chinese do not share this chauvinism.
We had taken a bus to Harbin’s outskirts and were waiting to get on another to take us to the highway. Hitching on the fast moving, packed highways into and out of cities is a fool’s endeavor, it’s always better to get completely out of an urban center before sticking out the thumb. Xiao Hai knew this, and there was no need for me to impart any lessons with him from my 14 years of world travel.
From the start, I was rendered a moot apparatus: Xiao Hai knew his shit, he did everything exactly as I would recommend, he spoke better Chinese and knew his country better than than me (obviously), and I found myself pretty much just tagging along. A strange position for me to be in. I decided to eat my pride, enjoy the novelty, side back and enjoy the ride.
We ended up at the on ramp of the highway to Qiqihar, and walked into a nearby village to get some food.
“I like hitchhiking,” I said, “because it takes us to places we would never go otherwise. There is no other reason that we would ever be here.”
The village — if it could even be called that — was beat. It was a row of shacks, what appeared to be automobile repair shops, and a noodle joint. I would never have even seen this place if I wasn’t hovering out by the side of an interstate highway. Hitchhiking is perhaps the practice of stringing together visits to a continuous succession of such random, beacon-less places.
We went into the restaurant and ordered a couple bowls of noodles.
I asked Xiao Hai if I could see the notes he took for the trip, figuring it best to have some inkling of where I was going. “I have it in my head,” he said, as he produced a single page from his notebook that had about two sentences written on it in chicken scratched characters.
It is amazing how truly simple modern hitchhiking is: you truly don’t need a map, a compass, nothing: just stay on the interstate system, remember a few route numbers, and connect highway to highway across a country. A few notes on a piece of scrap paper will do if you don’t trust yourself to remember, and that’s really all anyone needs to thumb it across China.
A hitchhiking journey doesn’t start until you get your first ride, and I was wondering how well two young men, a Chinese and a heavily tattooed and bearded foreigner, could do hitching together here. Hitchhiking is all about appearance and first impressions — you need to make people want to let you into their car, get to know you, satiate their own curiosity, or extinguish boredom or loneliness. I know that the sight of a foreigner on the roadside is enough to provoke drivers here to stop with amazing frequency, but I was with a local and I had to wonder if the combination was going to work to our disadvantage. I also had a slight insecurity that I could mess up my new friend’s trip: maybe nobody would pick him up while paired with a funny looking me?
These insecurities disintegrated almost the moment we stepped onto that first on ramp. A van stopped and offered us a lift before we even stuck out our thumbs. There was a 30 something year old guy in the driver’s seat and two similarly aged women in the middle seat. I jumped in the back and Xiao Hai took the front passenger’s slot. We had our first ride and we didn’t even start hitchhiking yet.
We were dropped us off at a rest stop around 100 km up the road. Xiao Hai dropped his backpack and me off in a restaurant and went outside to talk with drivers, asking them for rides.
“I think this may be a little difficult,” he spoke when he returned around ten minutes later. But it wasn’t. We left the restaurant and went out to the on ramp, but saw a guy pouring water into the radiator of his car and asked him for a ride. He obliged.
We were nearly taken to Daqing, and Xiao Hai talked the entire way. My job was easy: I had nothing to do, not even entertain the drivers.
Around an hour later were dropped off on the side of a highway interchange. We were getting on the northern route, and stepped onto a massive overpass that spanned across an incredible wetland.
“Why didn’t you talk?” Xiao Hai asked.
“Because you never stopped talking,” I replied with a laugh.
Xiao Hao proved to be an excellent hitchhiker not only because of basic travel competence but because he had a heavy dose of what could only be called the gift of gab. The dude could talk. He chattered ceaselessly with the drivers, talking of his previous travels, his schooling, and asking enough questions to give our host the opportunity to talk about himself. Hitchhiking is a two way exchange: the hitchhiker gets a free ride but should provide something in return. Good conversation, stories, a listening ear, some other essential type of human to human connection are the services a hitchhiker generally provides.
We walked onto a much more desolate highway and stood before the toll booth. We were heading into a relatively more remote region in the far north of China. Traffic would decrease considerably here — relatively few people are prone to going traveling north of Harbin.
Our first two rides were almost too good — we hadn’t even had the opportunity to stick out our thumbs yet. Now we were standing in a virtually uninhabited wetland outside of Daqing, waiting for the cars to come. We watched perhaps six cars pass by us in the span of a half hour. We were being challenged for the first time. Xiao Hai said that the longest he had ever needed to wait for a ride was an hour. The common, though incredibly insecurity of the hitchhiker crept into my consciousness:
What if nobody stops? What if we’re standing in this wetland for two days?
No, somebody will stop. They always stop. I’m not going to spend the night in this soggy, duck filled swamp.
Then someone did stop. Two men in a black car. They scrutinized both of us. The driver kept asking us questions but the passenger had no interest in hearing the answers. He twice rolled his window up in our faces. Eventually they drove off without us.
“The driver wanted to take us but the passenger thought that maybe we are not good,” Xiao Hai said.
We did not have to wait long for the next ride. A middle age guy and his wife pulled up in front of us, and Xiao Hai was sure to make a good argument for them to take us. He also wasn’t up for a night in the wetland with the ducks. He wound up and released a salesman’s pitch. The lady in the passenger’s seat asked for identification.
Xiao Hai pulled out his Chinese national identification along with his student ID. I said, “I’m from America,” and felt sort of dumb for doing so. The lady inspected my companion’s documents, interviewed him a little more, and determined that we were legit enough to offer a lift.
“You are a foreigner and a Chinese together, so you must be good people,” the woman turned to us and said once we were settled in the backseat.
At first, her logic seemed askance, but the more I pondered it the more aligned with sense it seemed:
Xiao Hai as my companion was a vouch that I was “approved” by at least one Chinese person, and me with Xiao Hai was an indication that he was the type of Chinese person to have foreign friends.
I looked around at the nice car that I was riding in, at the high end, mall bought clothing the woman was wearing, at her shitty looking jewelry that clearly costed a bucketful of yuan, at the sunglasses hanging from the driver’s side sun visor that were definitely not bought at a supermarket, at the casual, though obviously high priced clothing the guy driving was wearing, and at the upper class air with which they both carried themselves. I was just thinking about how rich they seemed, then woman stunned me with a question that directly contradicted my own stream of thought:
“America is so rich, why would you leave and come to a place like China?”
Even rich Chinese people have been conditioned to think they are pobre yokels compared to the average American. This in part is Chinese propaganda, America is used as a model of a standard of living and wealth the Chinese could acquire and exceed. If they only knew the truth this bubble would surely burst.
So I wasn’t going to try to convince them that the majority of Americans are far poorer than those in China’s middle class or of the fact that there are more middle class Chinese than people in America. No, I would not say such a thing: it would make me look like a weirdo, and nobody believes a weirdo anyway. So I said something far safer:
“I live in China because it’s a very beautiful country.”
They laughed at me, but only seemed to think that I was naive rather than strange.
“But America is more beautiful!” the woman screeched.
“Chinese people are beautiful!” exclaimed the guy.
Then the car blew up.
Smoke gushed from the vents into the cabin. The driver quickly pulled over and we jumped out of the vapor belching vehicle. The hood was then popped open and the smoke wafted off into the air.
The car had overheated.
We let it cool off and dumped all of our drinking water into the radiator. This got us about 20 more miles down the road. We then went on a hunt for more water, and Xiao Hai came back with a bucket full that he got from some goat herders. This got us about 20 more miles down the road. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
This was how the rest of the ride went to Qiqihar.
The couple lived in this city and they dropped us off on the outskirts of town nearest to the highway, as we would be returning to it the following day.
The couple didn’t seem to want to let Xiao Hai go. They sort of adopted him during the three or four hours of the ride and throughout the smoky ordeal. He seemed to play his role well, and if I didn’t know otherwise I would have considered him their son based on how at ease they seemed with each other.
But the couple soon drove off, leaving Xiao Hai and I to find a place to sleep. We found a rundown hotel that had a group of desperate looking men hanging out in front of it. The place set my warning light off, it gave the appearance of the worst of the worst of the side-of-the-highway-class of accommodation, but my companion didn’t seem to notice anything wrong and asked if it was an OK place to stay at. I suggested that we keep looking. Most Chinese don’t seem to have a sense of fear embedded in them when it comes to evaluating or sizing up people. I looked at that group of sketchy, shirtless men and said no way, Xiao Hai looked at them and just saw a bunch of ordinary dudes. People just aren’t scared of each other here, there is just an innocence that pervades this culture that’s as startling as it is admirable.
The Qiqihar outskirts were rocking. It was early evening and people were everywhere. The streets were clogged with vendors selling all manner of thing off of mobile racks. What was a roadway by day became a market as the sun began its descent. People were strolling with their families, eating barbecue at restaurants that spewed out onto the sidewalk, beer drinkers were assembled at tables everywhere, and everyone was just hanging out — as they probably do every night it’s warm enough.
This is just the way that the working class residential areas of Chinese cities tend to be. The middle and upper classes have other things to be doing, the poor hang out and talk with their neighbors. These communities are tight, social places, and the biggest form of recreation seems to be going out into the streets for an evening stroll.
We were still looking for a hotel, and I found it necessary to explain to Xiao Hai that it’s sometimes difficult for me to find a place to stay. In point, foreigners are still banned from most hotels, inns, and hostels in China. In order to house non-Chinese guests the place of accommodation needs a special permit, and in most places this permit isn’t really very highly sought after. To put it simply, not many foreigners are wandering around the outskirts of Qiqihar, Heilongjiang looking for a room.
Though most Chinese people are not familiar with this restriction, so I wanted to let my companion know before hand to lessen the blow of a potentially awkward situation that could come when he gets welcomed with open arms and I get the boot. He just sort of looked at me funny, as though he didn’t really believe me. I thought, “We’ll see.”
But we didn’t.
We found a cheap hostel down an ally that ran behind a row of shops. We walked in and the people running the place didn’t really seem to know what to do with me, so they took the easy road and, officially speaking, pretended that I wasn’t even there. They registered Xiao Hai. They ignored me. We paid 50 RMB for a room. The room was well worn, there were oily head prints stained on the walls above the pillows, but it was shelter and it was cheap. It sure beat the wetland.
Our plan was to get up as early as possible the following morning and make it to Hailaer by nightfall. All of China is on Beijing time so daylight starts to crack around 3:30 AM here. But this doesn’t mean that people get up any earlier. We stepped out of the hostel around six and took a bus to the highway. We stood there with our thumbs out and nothing happened.
With the help of a friendly trucker we made hitchhiking signs. Mine said Hailaer, Xiao Hai’s said the name of an intermediary city.
We now stood with signs.
“Confidence, confidence, confidence,” Xiao Hai began chanting to himself.
A little after eight we began resorting to more aggressive measures. Whenever a vehicle would pull off the on ramp and into the nearby gas station Xiao Hai would run over and beg the driver for a lift.
It wasn’t happening. Qiqihar was the last stop before what could be called hinterlands. Not many people seemed to be making a habit of crossing this expanse into Inner Mongolia — at least not many looking to pick up a couple of parasites.
“When travel is hard you feel benefit,” Xiao Hai spoke hopefully before running down a tractor trailer and climbing up to its window. I did not even bother following. I was becoming numb to truck drivers, as they very rarely want anything to do with hitchhikers beyond waving at us or mocking our thumbs up hand signal.
Then Xiao Hai began waving excitedly. He’d talked the guy into it.
I ran over and jumped into the cabin, fitting myself into a small open space behind the seats. The driver was around 30 years old, and took to Xiao Hai with the same sort of endearment that everybody else had shown him on this trip. Xiao Hai called him older brother and played the younger brother role to perfection. The two chatted for two hours straight as we chugged along the highway. Again, if I didn’t know that they were complete strangers I wouldn’t have guessed.
I dozed in the back. I eventually awoke to a sight that nobody wants to see in any country: a police officer pointing at you.
We were approaching a toll booth and the traffic cops were getting overzealous. One flagged down the truck we were riding in. The driver smiled nervously, and tried to make light of the situation by telling us to get out of the truck and go take some pictures. There was something in that embarrassed smile though that indicated that he knew he’d been busted.
Xiao Hai and I did as directed, the driver was lead over to a nearby police car that was packed full of cops. After a few minutes Xiao Hai was called over to join them. They had no interest in me. Ten minutes later my companion returned.
“We can’t keep going here, we need to leave.”
He spoke nervously, as though a little afraid. There was a local road on the other side of a field of horses and yurts. We were now in Inner Mongolia. We walked by the cops and the ensnared driver. The police clearly didn’t give a shit about where we were going to go or how we were going to get there. Their only concern was kicking us off the highway and shaking down their fresh catch. We climbed over a barbed wire fence, beat it through the field, and climbed up to the road beyond.
“I feel so bad,” Xiao Hai kept repeating.
We’d tossed that driver to the wolves. The cops saw some reason to bust him — maybe me in the back — and they did so with gusto.
“Now the driver is going to have to pay a lot of money,” Xiao Hai said sadely.
It was clear that this wasn’t the usually sort of traffic stop.
“Was it a corrupt fee?” I asked in awkward Chinese.
“Maybe it was that,” he replied in English.
This means: definitely yes.
My partner was shaken. He would not tell me what the cops said to him and seemed hesitant to go into details. I’m a foreign guest after all, this aspect of China is for Chinese eyes only.
We stood on the local road without a plan, without a map, in the middle of nowhere. Now this wasn’t proverbial middle of nowhere, it was bona fide, fucking Inner Mongolia middle of nowhere.
The few cars that past just sort of gawked at us as though we’d just fallen from the sky or crawled up out of the water table. There was no logical reason for us to be standing where we were other than having some bad shit happen on the highway — which was pretty much the truth.
The worst thing about local roads is that they are full of local traffic: i.e. people going nowhere. As two dudes with rucksacks are obviously in want of a long distance ride nobody seemed to want to intrude upon our intentions. So we stood there. I kicked some bricks off the road for fun, and realized why I don’t hitchhike much anymore:
I don’t like being reliant on other people when traveling. Give me a bicycle, a boat, a good pair of boots and I can go my own way, on my own terms. Standing on the side of a road with a big fake smile and my thumb sticking out is idleness incarnate. Hitchhiking is fun, it takes you to many places you’d probably never go otherwise and puts you into close contact with people you’d probably never meet, but there is just something about this type of travel that just doesn’t tick for me now the way it once did:
I enjoy the illusion of being in control of my own path, hitchhiking is an exercise of being at the expense of others who have something you lack: wheels. Once the initial thrill of hitching wears off you realize that you’re really nothing more than a mobile beggar standing on the side of the highway waiting for a handout.
A car soon pulled up next to us, we got in, and the guy agreed to give us a lift to the next ramp onto the highway. He asked for 10 RMB, we paid. He was pretty much acting like an unofficial taxi, not someone looking to be entertained by a couple of travelers.
It was at this tool booth that this hitchhiking journey came to its end. There was nothing there but a road. We were out in the shrublands of Inner Mongolia — there was a power plant in the distance, a bundle of red brick houses strew together, and a chicken.
We were not yet in the traffic turn-wheel of Hailaer, our destination, and few people who got off the highway at this obscure juncture seemed in any way inclined to delve over the mountains and go somewhere more remote than the nowhere-landia we were standing in. We could count the number of vehicles we saw taking the ramp in the direction we wanted to go on one hand, and we stood at this toll booth with our thumbs sticking out for hours.
A few times drivers stopped to offer rides going back to the city we struggled to get out of earlier that morning. No thanks. We had nothing much else to do but sit on a curb together, talk, and watch the chicken peck the wasteland.
“What is your dream?” Xiao Hai asked.
“This,” I replied, “I’m doing my dream.” I paused for a moment before adding: “Well, it would be more of a dream if someone would give us a ride to Hailaer.”
With that, we got a ride into A Rong Qi, bought two tickets, and got on a bus.
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