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Hitchhiking from Shanghai to Beijing

One final dispatch from our intern Zita. Everything you need to know about how to thumb it all the way from SH to The Big Smoke.
2013-09-05 18:09:31

Seems like hitchhiking has recently become some kind of trend in China, what with Vice magazine having a whole “Thumbs Up” series about it, as well as several well-known Chinese travelers like Gu Yue publishing sentimental, Polaroid-hued diaries about their experiences thumbing lifts around Europe.

Most foreigners living in Shanghai may not find train or plane fares to Beijing beyond their budget. But hitchhiking isn't just about saving money — it’s a whole different traveling experience, on the road, into the wild, with freedom, random people, fertilizer trucks and 3am moments at deserted truck stops. Here's an account of my experience hitching from Shanghai to Beijing in 19 hours and seven rides.


More experienced hitchhiking friends advised me to start with for some general tips on catching a ride. They say the way to start is to find the entrance to the correct highway. In this case, it’s the Jing Hu Highway, the one that goes straight from Shanghai to Beijing. There are a couple of entrances, but we took the one out in Hongqiao. Since taking a taxi to the highway would have been a bit of a hypocritical move for a hitchhiker, we took Metro Line 2 to Zhongshan Park and then bus number 947 to Jing Hu Gaosu Gonglu (Jing Hu Highway).

If it’s your first time hitchhiking, as it was mine, here’s a bit of warning: starting out is hard. You're still in Shanghai and most cars are not going to leave the city. If they are heading out of town it's probably only as far as some neighboring suburb or to Suzhou. But at the start that's pretty much the best you can hope for. You have all these questions and doubts, like: how do I do this? Go to the gas station and chat up random people? Do I do it in Chinese or English? Or shall I just stand next to the road and stick my thumb out like I've seen in the movies?

However, I was in the lucky position of traveling with a Chinese girl who was also an experienced hitchhiker, so I just followed her lead. First we walked up to a deserted gas station and, after we realized no car there would take us anywhere further than the next vegetable market, we went directly to the entrance of the highway.

Picture this: A curly-haired blonde girl with a Chinese girl (suitcase in hand), standing at the entrance of the highway. That was us. Even for Shanghai, it was a rather strange scene, especially for the Chinese motorists driving by. So it didn’t take too long until the first car stopped. In fact, the first few just stopped out of curiosity, or to check us girls out, but we soon got one going in the direction of Suzhou who was willing to take us along.

Now, a good tip is to be familiar with the map so you can make sure the ride actually does go in your direction. Otherwise, and this is what happened to us, you realize after 10 minutes that the car's in fact just going to the next village or, even worse, somewhere completely out of your way. Then you have to get off again and head back to the spot where you found your first ride…

But things got easier after that. In general, the further you get into your journey, the easier it is to catch a longer ride, and the chances of catching one going directly to Beijing also increase dramatically. In our case, every ride we got carried us a little while longer. The first was only a few kilometers, then it took several rides to get us to Suzhou, and from there we just asked each car to drop us off at one of the gas/service stations on the highway, where we looked for the next ride.

Every service station on the highway has a shop and restaurant where cars park and people stand around eating and smoking. This is a prime spot to get a ride. We found it was best to approach drivers directly, in a friendly way, either in Chinese or English. The concept of hitchhiking is still almost unknown in China, so it can be rather exhausting trying to explain that, yes, you want to get in their car for free. Even in our case, speaking in Chinese, our requests only served to confuse the majority of people we asked. So don't try to explain what you're doing, just ask flat out for a ride. If the driver says yes, then ask where they're going, and then tell them you're headed for Beijing and work out how far they can take you.

All service stations are open 24 hours, so hitching through the night is definitely possible, though during the early hours cars are quite rare and finding a ride becomes much harder.

But overall the experience was great. It was fun. We went looking for freedom and found it on the road. All in, we caught seven different rides. There were some businessmen in nice cars who wanted to chat and giving us food and water, two very confused young workers who managed to take the wrong road a couple of times and ended up taking us a much longer way than they wanted to. We hitched a truck, a family van and the last car that took us all the way to downtown Beijing was a shabby, half-broken construction car.

Except for one couple, it was, perhaps unsurprisingly, only men who gave us rides and I have to highlight at this point how genuinely nice all of them were. And by that I mean nice in a very un-creepy, un-sexual way. Some of them were caring and fatherly, others indifferently friendly. But all through the trip, even cramped into a tiny cubicle with two smelly truckers, I felt surprisingly safe and the closest we got to an uncomfortable situation was one guy shyly asking for a picture with the foreigner (me).
Since most Chinese people still consider the whole concept of hitchhiking really odd, most of our in-car conversations were rather repetitive. “Why don't you just take a flight? That's so much faster!” That was a common one. And nearly every guy who gave us a ride offered to take us directly to the train station, where trains, as they desperately tried to assure us, would whisk us speedily to the capital.

Even though I'm not usually scared of Chinese men (I’ve got a height advantage over them, and more muscle, most of the time) there was one point when I felt the task was too great for us. My friend and I, in one of those desperate 3am situations, were stranded at a gas station, and drawing a lot of stares from grumpy looking ayis and shop girls, who all gathered outside to stare at us and very pointedly talk about the foreigner before them, as we walked up to all the parked trucks and asked them for a ride.

My experience with Chinese truckers is very limited, but the hugeness of the trucks compared to my tiny friend, who was walking around in the dark, standing on her toes to knock on the drivers’ doors… that was intimidating.

It took her a long time to convince one of them to take us, mainly because most of them already have a woman with them in the cab, in addition to the two drivers. As it turned out, though, we found passage with two tiny guys in a fertilizer truck who were just adorable, and except for the horrendous smell coming off both of them and from the truck itself, it was doubtless the nicest of all our rides and the best of our stories.

So, hitchhiking… try it. Be safe.