Inspired partly by Kerouac’s On the Road, Chinese student hitchhikes 2,300 miles home
From China Newsweek
13 days, 3,700 kilometers (about 2,300 miles), 25 free rides. A senior college student at Nanjing Normal University finished Spring Festival Rush of excitement and warmth without spending a penny on transportation.
Hu Beilei only brought a sleeping bag, some clothes, a camera, cookies, a map, a few postcards and some cash with him. He said that the worst scenario he could expect was robbery. In that case he would abandon everything and flee to stay safe. He folded a one hundred yuan bill twice and tucked it into his sock. If robbed, this would be his life-saving straw.
Hu Beilei holding a piece paper which reads “URUMQI,” his destination.
Hu Beilei on the road.
Hu Beilei’s itinerary (The right end is Nanjing, where he set off; the left end is Urumqi, his destination.)
Hu Beilei (right) with a man from Zhejiang who gave him a ride.
His idea came from a documentary titled “To Berlin by Thumb” in which two Chinese-Americans set off from Beijing for Berlin. The pair caught 88 rides in 13 countries and depended entirely on strangers. After Hu watched it in September, he was deeply impressed by one line, “Some things if you don’t do it now, you will probably never do them in the rest of your life.”
“If I can hitchhike home, it would be an extraordinary life experience.” Hu Beilei believed that Traveling thousands of miles is better than reading thousands of books. Many of his classmates asked him to think twice. His girlfriend was also at a loss, “You are not an adventurer.”
Indeed, it is almost 3,700 kilometers between Nanjing, Jiangsu in China’s southeast, where he goes to collage, and his hometown Urumqi, Xinjiang in China’s northwest. Traveling only by hitchhiking must be a piece of work.
In a certain sense, before he watched To Berlin by Thumb, Hu Beilei had already developed a “devil-may-care” personality. The film was just an catalyst for his action.
He set out on December 25, 2010, the Christmas Day.
On the first day, he walked along a highway while continually signaling to passing cars. After more than half an hour, he walked into a gas station. He thought it would be an ideal place for hitchhiking. He told shuttle bus drivers the idea of getting free rides to Urumqi. They were all in disbelief and reluctant to give him a ride. One driver ever tried to talk him into buying a train ticket at the student price and forgetting about the tiring plan.
Hu Beilei kept moving westward while carrying his backpack. Two hours later, he stumbled into another gas station in vain again.
While keeping trekking, he was waving his hand all along, and no one seemed to care his existence. “Is it really so hard to hitchhike in China?” Three hours later, Hu Beilei was worn out. His backpack stuffed with clothes, food, tent and a pair of shoes weighed about 50 pounds. He was afraid that if his shoe might not stand up to the wear and tear of too much walking.
He also had Kerouac’s On the Road in his backpack. The book bears the symbolic weight of his aspirations. He looked forward to the hitchhiking experience, getting to know interesting people and listening to weird stories. The experiences described in the book sound that relaxing. How come it seems impossible in China? “I began to doubt myself,” Hu Beilei recalled.
At that moment, he saw a truck under repair parked ahead of him. He went over and told the driver his story. The driver let him into the truck with a grain of salt. He told Hu Beilei later that Hu was with a student look and sweat all over his face, which seemed unlikely to be a bad person. Along the way, the driver treated him like a friend and got the annoyance off his chest: His son does poorly at school and doesn’t seem to have a good future. Hu Beilei didn’t relate to the worries of the driver. What was left in him was all joy, “Finally someone is willing to bring me along.”
Hu Beilei soon found that it is much easier to hitch a ride in a rest area than at a gas station.
At a rest area near Hefei, Anhui Province, he saw an Audi sedan. With his trademark smile, Hu Beilei went over to strike up a conversation. To his surprise, after a moment of hesitation, the car owner inspected his student I.D. and then let him in.
This becomes the happiest memory of his 13-day journey. The Audi owner told Hu Beilei that the reason why he had scruples is he was duped at another rest area before.
A narrow space coupled with boring driving enables people to lay down their guard and seek exchange of minds. The Audi owner who is well-established in his career unburdened to Hu Beilei. Despite his success, he feels he is in want of friends. He couldn’t refrain himself from telling Hu Beilei about his growth from childhood to manhood, how he’s become successful, how he can drive an Audi and live in a luxurious mansion.
Soon after he learned Hu Beilei is an electrical engineering student, he called his friend in the same field to recommend Hu Beilei. On departure, he left a business card and a shot, “Men should arm themselves with enterprise.”
The Audi owner named Sun Honggang recalled, “I felt the kid has some macho. Now there are very few college students who have ideals and actions.”
An adventure on impulse was turned into an opportunity for Hu Beilei to understand the society.
In a rest area in Xinyang, Henan Province, he jumped onto a heavy duty truck, and soon got to know the two men who took turn driving. One of them denounced ferociously their boss who is a downright jerk. The other kept butting in with additional information as proof.
Hu Beilei had a taste of bumpy roads of truck drivers. On the 600-kilometer trip from Xinyang to Xi’an, Shaanxi, he only had one break during the 10 hours’ drive, and was so wearied by traveling. But truck drivers are the most accessible and nice kind. Especially in remote and desolate areas, most truck drivers would pull over on seeing a gesture.
One driver told Hu Beilei, their biggest concerns over offering free rides are their safety and accountability in case of an accident.
These seem to be the crux of the difficulty of hitchhiking in China. Besides, sometimes offering free rides is considered illegal transportation and business operation. In 2009, Zhang Hui, a white-collar worker in Shanghai, gave a ride out of good intention to one who claimed to be having stomachache, and was fined 10,000 yuan (US$1,500) by the traffic police.
In foreign countries, hitchhiking is much easier. It is only a matter of a thumb up in the U.S. and UK, or an index finger up in some Latin American countries. But there is no such culture or custom in China. Keeping waving hands can signify hitchhiking, crying for help, or sometimes, an ulterior motive.
Before setting off, he assumed it should be easier to hitch a ride in China’s west than in the east, as the people in the west are known to be simple, honest and unspoiled. On the contrary, Hu Beilei found that people in economically developed regions understood his behavior better in spite of their incredulity. People in the hinterlands found him unreasonable, and most of them asked for pay.
What Hu Beilei said most in the three hours he stayed at a toll station in Qinghai Province is “I am a student, I have no money.”
But in the end, after the 1.80 meters (5’11’’) tall boy who only weighs 60 kg (135 lbs) stood in the strong wind for a long while, a driver stopped his car. Hu Beilei said later that squeak of the brake was the nicest tune he’d ever heard.
The lengthy journey taught Hu Beilei four tips of hitchhiking, “Don’t be shy and be daring; be psychologically tough and not afraid of rejection; be willing to strike up conversations with drivers; bring a few postcards as gifts for drivers.”
He wrote in his blog, “25 cars and countless nice people have made me believe that I can fly higher and farther in the sky. If you truly want to achieve something, the entire world would help you. Don’t let your idea be only an idea.”