“If I saw you hitchhiking, I’d smile and return your thumbs up, just for you doing such a great job of being a positive roadside influence.”
― Jarod Kintz
After nearly two glorious weeks adventuring around Yunnan province together, the time came for Ya Ting and I to part ways. I had grand plans of doing more hiking, and, after taking a tumble biking around Lugu Lake, in addition to hiking almost 70km with me that she never planned on, she was tired. I couldn’t argue.
That meant I’d be leaving Lugu Lake with our mutual friend Wen Song, a former Chinese Army lieutenant who had just about every survival gadget in the book and knew how to seriously wield some nunchucks. The only issue is I couldn’t understand a word he said. His strong northern accent coupled with quite a noticeable lisp made it really hard for us to speak.
After about 20 minutes on a roadside with almost no cars passing by, Wen Song started to feel bad that I was hindered by him, and felt him being male made it harder for both of us. I said I’d rather not be alone, so I wasn’t mad at him. At about that moment, a red sedan with a young couple inside pulled over to take us to XiChang. I hadn’t even planned on being in Sichuan province, and had rather blindly followed Ya Ting to Lugu Lake, so just about anywhere within the province was fine with me.
Luckily, the couple also had some English language ability and were able to help Wen Song and I communicate a little more easily, essentially filling Ya Ting’s role. Six hours later, we had arrived.
The adorable employee at the youth hostel that evening, incredibly excited that I could speak Chinese with her, sat down with me and showed me all of the places in Sichuan province she thought I should visit, then hosted me at the employee dinner that evening. I owe her many thanks, because I later visited all of the places she suggested, and all were beautiful.
The next morning I left Wen Song and made it to the outside of the freeway onramp bound for Chengdu, just outside of the toll booth. I stuck my thumb up under the hot sun, casually putting my arm back down when the occasional police car rode by.
This time it was a little nerve-wracking. This time I was going to be hitchhiking alone, and it would be the longest distance yet. I decided to be choosy with who I accepted a ride from.
Five minutes passed before anyone pulled over. I was so used to immediate offers when I was with Ya Ting that I started to feel a bit concerned. Then, one car slowed, I came running, and they changed their minds and drove off just as slowly and cautiously as they had come.
A few more minutes passed before several cars pulled over, but none were headed in my direction. Funny enough, every time one stopped, another would trust it was a good idea and also pull over. Then long stretches of time would go by when they all sped past me, deciding in unison to bypass the strange foreigner.
Eventually a sleek black sedan pulled over and a woman dressed in furs (in 80+ degree weather, mind you) rolled down the window and demanded 200 RMB (about double what a bus would cost) for the ride. I said I couldn’t pay. Her husband asked where I was from and said furiously, “you’re American but you can’t pay?!” I said I wanted to hitch hike but thanked them anyway and swiftly backed away and returned to my post.
After what seemed like an eternity, but was in reality only about 30 minutes, I finally got a ride in a nice white SUV with two men bound for Chengdu. For the first time, I felt a bit stressed because in the past, Ya Ting did the bulk of the talking and I relaxed. This time, I had to summon all of my language skills and try to be a good passenger, conversing as much as possible.
I worried that I wasn’t doing well enough, but they were satisfied, even buying me lunch along the way (it was a 6-hour ride, after all), and predictably refusing when I tried to offer them money for the meal.
They dropped me off at a coffee shop, central in Chengdu, where I entered then used the WiFi to find a hostel. Just two days prior I couldn’t have told you I would end up in Sichuan province, yet there I was, traveling the entire way there on the kindness of strangers.
Of course I’ve seen and been the beneficiary of random acts of kindness before, but openly asking for help and being given so much more than that moved me more than I could have imagined when I took that first ride, thrilled at the sport.
Hitchhiking is, in its purest definition, openly asking for help while fully expecting the majority of the responses to be rejection. I think this is why those who picked me up were particularly generous. They treated me as the highest esteemed guest at the party that was the road, in their China. I never felt worthy. I still don’t.
But I am damn thankful.