In July, 22-year-old Zhang Yuanhang and two of his friends graduated from college in Deyang, Sichuan. Like many new graduates, they decided to take a trip to celebrate. But unlike many of their classmates, they decided they would see over half of the country, and they would make their trip without spending anything on transportation. They would hitchhike.
"When we came up with the plan, none of our classmates believed us. They said we must be crazy," said Zhang.
Zhang says he's loved traveling from a young age. His travel companions, Zeng Jirui, 20, from the Aba grasslands, and Zhang Tao, were inspired to make the trip as well.
Before they left Zhang Yuanhang posted to his Weibo microblogging account: "I'm seeking personal development; on the eve of graduation we will face even greater challenges, and I hope I will grow on this journey."
The trio set off from Tianfu Square on July 15 with a few changes of clothes, a first-aid kit, some simple camping gear, and a few hundred yuan in emergency funds.
After arriving at onramp for the Chengdu-Mianyang Highway, they stood around by the side of the road waving their thumbs around in the air in vain. Zhang, the most experienced hitchhiker of the three, said that females are more likely to be successful hitchhikers than males. The odds of three male hitchhikers successfully getting a ride, he reckons, are pretty slim.
But just as their hopes were dwindling, a car stopped for them, and at 1:19 p.m. they were traveling down the Chengdu-Mianyang Highway as official hitchhikers. The first driver was happy to help after hearing their story and dropped them off in Mianyang.
After the first success they were in good spirits.
A Maserati driver insisted on giving them 500 yuan, but they politely refused. "There are many good-hearted people out there. We'll keep waiting for a car to Guangyuan," Zhang Weibo-ed (yeah, we just invented that word).
Vans, trucks, mini-vans ... by 7:30 the next morning they had reached Xi'an and completed the first leg of their journey. Zhang Weibo-ed: "My head is getting a little bit big, but I can't get too arrogant. Our journey is not even one-tenth done."
At dusk on July 17, they stood next to the tollbooth waiting for a car to take them to Lanzhou. They waited nearly two hours, until the sky was completely dark, and finally a vehicle stopped. But the driver agreed to take only one of them. After discussion, they decided Zeng Jirui should be the one. Zhang Yuanhang and Zhang Tao continued waiting and waiting by the tollbooth. At night, no drivers wanted to pick up two strangers. They felt hopeless.
And then they heard thunder, and it started to pour.
But not too long after, a truck pulled up and the driver leaned over and called out to them to hurry up and get into the cab. The two Zhangs were touched to tears.
Eleven days later, the trip was half over. They had traveled 4,500km. "The longest we went without eating was three meals; the longest we waited for a ride was eight hours. We faced fierce winds and rough storms," wrote Zhang Yuanhang on his Weibo.
Zhang Tao departed from the group on July 25 after they reached Urumqi in order to fulfill obligations in Beijing.
"We benefited so much. This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and more importantly, on the road we met so many good people, which moved us greatly," said Zhang Yuanhang.
Overall, the trio rode in 70 vehicles and traveled 11,000 kilometers, visiting 12 provinces and regions. Cities they visited included Xi'an, Lanzhou, Xining, Urumqi, Yinchuan, Hohhot, Beijing, Shenyang, Changchun, Ha'erbin, and finally arrived in Hulunbei'er in Inner Mongolia without having spent one fen on transportation. They took a train from Beijing back to Chengdu.
Hitchhiking, while still something of a novelty in China, is becoming more popular among urban youth.
In 2009, two men in their 30s hitchhiked from Beijing to Berlin and made a documentary, To Berlin by Thumb, along the way. You can see a clip here.
Late last year, inspired by the film, Nanjing Normal University student Hu Beilei made the 13-day, 3,700-km trek to his hometown Urumqi solely by hitching rides.
Closer to home, three fresh graduates from Chengdu hitchhiked to over 10 cities last March. (Chinese only.)