I've been trying to leave Beijing for a week. I'm squinting and chain smoking in the afternoon sun and smog on the the Jing Shi Expressway. Someone always pulls over as soon as I light a cigarette (Rule No. 1), but I know this is a joke; everyone says it's impossible to hitchhike in China.
Passers-by gawk and laugh at me as I trudge up to the expressway. A colony of migrant workers with Mao caps and rice bags bursting with possessions is standing a few hundred meters back, looking like they fully expect to wait weeks for someone to spirit them out to Hebei in exchange for a large chunk of their savings.
They don't wave or otherwise signal the oncoming traffic—they just wait. The magic-marker sign I'm waving baffles them, just as I'm perplexed by their apparent resignation. I've probably seen thousands of these guys on roadsides all over the country, but not once have I witnessed one getting a lift.
My previous attempts at hitchhiking in Yunnan and Shandong met with miserable failure; it seemed that people had never heard of asking for a free lift, as they invariably tried to escort me to the bus station or volunteered their services as rather expensive impromptu taxis.
I discover that no one will tell me where the road out of town is if they know why I'm asking, so I later resort to asking English-speaking staff at four-star hotels which way to drive my imaginary rental car, and a second party which city bus goes there (repeat step two liberally). Rule No. 2: Never, ever try walking straight out of a Chinese metropolis and hope you'll find a good spot to hitch from in half an hour. You could walk for days.
I'm ready to give up when I'm stunned by the sight of a car pulling over in front of me. Its driver takes me all the way to Shijiazhuang—after a lunch break, which teaches me Rule No. 3: I'm not allowed to pay for my food, or abstain if others are eating—or, in fact, do most things independent travelers do to fend for themselves, like say "goodbye" and go merrily on my way.
The driver is horrified when I insist on getting out of the car at the junction for the expressway to Taiyuan. He finally gives in and stops—all the traffic, in both lanes. Waving his arms wildly until I'm on my way, he creates a traffic jam that evidently guilts three young men into cramming my bags in their already-overstuffed truck. This is not at all what I had envisioned, or intended.
Gratitude and Guilt
Fundamentally, hitchhiking is a voluntary symbiosis: I reduce my ecological and economic footprint by riding in a car that's already going to my destination, and my rides decide for themselves whether to let me come along, out of kindness, boredom, curiosity, or, most often here, what appears to me like sympathy and a sense of duty to rescue the hapless and confused foreigner who's somehow stranded herself at an entrance ramp or rest-stop on the expressway. And the fact that it's elective (I'd never force myself on someone, though I will find myself begging on occasion by the time I reach rural Sichuan) engenders the camaraderie that's made hitchhiking my primary, and most fulfilling source, of contact with the culture I'm traveling in.
And while my new ride's reluctance to have me is apparent, I find that I haven't finished learning about the extremes of Chinese hospitality. I'm cared for far more than I'd ever expect if I were hitchhiking in Europe. My gratitude develops into guilt as I realize that I may be unwittingly taking advantage of this generosity. I remember the migrant workers in Beijing, who surely never get free rides or meals.
There seem to be no established norms or boundaries for westerners traveling in this manner, and I can't communicate that a ride is all I asked for—and indeed, all I wanted—without risking that I'll offend by seeming ungrateful. Honestly, it's cramping my style as well: While I'm thrilled to interact with people beyond exchange students and English teachers, I'm starting to feel like my lifts are tantamount to tour buses, given all the hand-holding that can come along with them.
Pausing to reflect for a few days in Shaanxi province, I realize that some of my ways of showing kindness and consideration for others—among other things, by giving them space and respecting their freedom—are vastly different from what I'm now experiencing. I resolve to relax my Western preconceptions about what hospitality and friendship entail so I can learn how to receive and reciprocate appropriately.
The Far West
Once I leave Chengdu—relatively easily, with the bus-stop maps—I quickly reach the end of the expressways and the beginning of the Sichuan-Tibet highway.
From here on, it's a different story. This is where I start asking whether I'm expected to pay: Anything that's not a newish Land Cruiser, a lorry, or a police van is effectively a taxi, though there are still copious free rides to be had, and they're often much more relaxed (though no less charmingly hospitable) than their counterparts in the East.
Away from the big cities and expressways, I even see some locals trying to hitch rides too. The people who turn up to "rescue" me seem more likely than their city-counterparts to understand what I'm trying to do (on one amusing occasion, a policeman who sees me walking towards the edge of a town picks me up, unsolicited, and does my hitchhiking for me with his loudspeaker and siren).
By this time I've accumulated a stack of business cards, made promises to visit distant hometowns and learned more Mandarin in days than in my previous two months in China. I manage to discuss politics and religion with a Tibetan trucker; I sing national anthems and the Kangding Love Song with a Chinese policeman and sleep at truck stops and friends-of-friends' hotels. I give small gifts from my backpack, carry snacks so I have something to offer, and toil through tedious but rewarding translations using my pocket dictionary. I hope I'm beginning to understand what a waiguo keren can do to repay the hospitality I'm receiving. I do my best to imitate what I observe, and it starts to feel natural.
Sometimes I have to wait hours for a ride, but I'm always rewarded—and the more I receive, the more I find myself wanting to give. The good mood I'm in suddenly seems inexhaustible. In Yushu I buy bread for children on the street and teach free English lessons with a local monk for a few days before trekking off to the highway again.
This article by Catherine Hall was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 2 ("travel").