Currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand (06/12/2013) - 31200km cycled

13 Oct 2013

Trucks, police and toll-booths: Hitch-hiking 1000 miles in China

Posted by Will

I’ve arrived for the second time in Chengdu, this time my passport safely in pocket, a fresh visa extension guaranteeing two weeks further immunity from the authorities. I hitch-hiked to Xi’an and back again covering about 1000 miles in 24 hours, travelling much quicker than I would have managed by train or bus. I picked up six rides on the way there and two on the way back including 10-wheel trucks, a high-end Toyota and two types of police vehicle. As I have come to expect around the world, and in China, I was always treated with kindness, respect and undisguised stares of astonishment.


The idea of hitch-hiking sent a few butterflies fluttering through my stomach despite all the time I’ve spent travelling recently. I’m fairly new to it. So, as I asked the girl on the hostel desk to scribe large signs of city names in Chinese characters I couldn’t quite shake off the stuffy conventional wisdom that hitch-hiking is equivalent to inviting a stranger to have their evil way with you. There’s no doubt hitch-hiking puts a traveller at the mercy of their driver’s good character (and driving ability!). But so does staying in a local’s home, going out for drinks with new friends or even getting into the back of a taxi – and I do all of those. In most situations I trust locals in the blink of an eye. It was time to add hitch-hiking to that list of scenarios. Holding nothing more than a map, four city signs, five laminated picture-sheets of my adventure so far, and my wallet, camera and iPod in my pocket, I set off on public bus no. 7 for the entrance to the motorway.

The first two hours didn’t go to plan. I made it to the start of the motorway, but unfortunately, consistent with the breathtakingly impressive Chinese transport infrastructure, the road ran a good 20m above the smaller city streets below which of course was exactly where the bus had dropped me off. I couldn’t walk up the on-ramps here, nor could I hitch effectively. So, I started walking through the makeshift tents, shacks and markets set up in the shadow of the highway. I had my first view of the urban poor in China. Barely-supported stalls leaned precariously against the enormous concrete pillars holding up the roaring engines above, people gazed of course, grubby-looking children ran around unsupervised and small puddles of filthy water lay in patches from last night’s rain. I kept walking, following the road above and finally found an on-ramp.

Very self-consciously I unfolded my first sign and half-heartedly held it out to the dribble of traffic passing by. I wasn’t allowed to stand on the motorway so I chose a spot under a tree, hiding from the glare of the now mid-afternoon sun, about 100m up the on-ramp. Ten minutes went by, then fifteen, then twenty, cars passing steadily by. I now felt highly embarrassed and retreated further into the shade of my tree, trying stupidly to hide myself from the drivers I was trying to convince. I started having doubts about my appearance. I wore my cleanest t-shirt although it was heavily dotted with noodle-soup stains. My shiny new tracksuit bottoms, donated to me by a student whose dormitory I had slept in a few nights before, were clean but unpresentable. My shoes are black with 30 countries’ dirt and falling apart. I quickly came to the conclusion that I had been naive to think hitch-hiking was as easy as it seemed.


However, necessity pushed me out of my comfort zone and the safety of the shade. I became more animated, hopping up and down in a little dance to attract attention. Abandoning all pretence of looking sophisticated and serious was liberating and fun and to my disbelief a car stopped almost immediately. I don’t know much about cars but this one looked flashy, expensive and completely unlike the kind of ride I had expected. A few words of incomprehensible Chinese later and I had jumped into the leather-seated Toyota next to Mr. Unknown, babbling thank yous in a rush of genuine gratitude. I’m not sure how long I could have kept up my dance for if someone hadn’t stopped soon.

It may sound odd to say, but one of the wonderful things about hitch-hiking in China is that conversation dies out fast. I speak no Chinese and hardly any drivers speak English so very soon, in most cases, we came to the sensible conclusion that it’s easiest not to try. Don’t get me wrong, I like talking to people, but it can be tiring when drawn out over a long period in a confined space with a considerable language barrier and a barrage of familiar questions. On my first ride, I sat very comfortably while he drove very fast. He took me about a quarter of the way to Xi’an.

He dropped me off at the toll-gate when he exited the motorway . I hoped I would be able to get the attention of drivers as they slowed down to pay the toll increasingly the likelihood I’d be picked up. However, now I stood effectively in middle of nowhere at a tiny exit serving a small township with no traffic. I sat idly against the metal barrier for ten minutes without a single car passing. After 30 minutes only 3 cars had passed. Daylight faded and I realized I might have made a poor choice. I should have asked to be let out a few miles back at a larger exit. There’s a knack to hitch-hiking, much like the art of being invited to people’s houses or scoring a free meal. I needed to learn fast.


I clocked the fourth car early, a 4×4, and made myself ready for dance phase number two. I noticed too late the sirens on top of the car, the blue and red paintwork and the large ‘POLICE’ lettering on the front and sides. They caught me mid-flow, hopping up and down with my second city sign bobbing in my hands. There were three police inside, all in full gear – body armour, truncheons, pistols and more. One beckoned me over to the passenger window. Far from telling me to take my moves elsewhere or questioning me, they asked where I wanted to go and opened the back door. They were an exceptionally smiley bunch, looking delighted that they had found such a curiosity by the side of the road. A stack of official-looking police documents covered the free back seat but the driver, clearly in charge, motioned that I should make myself at home on top of them. With that we sped off, 10 miles down the road to a busier exit, during which time they indulged my imitation of the police sirens by sounding them full-blast down an isolated stretch of freeway.

It sounds too far-fetched to be true but my third ride turned out to be the police too. From the outside, it looked like an ordinary minibus, a vehicle I was reluctant to flag down given the high chance the driver would ask for money. Without any provocation, the van stopped and asked where I was headed. It turned out we shared a common destination, Guangyuan, about 100 miles further up the road. I climbed in and saw twenty staring faces, all belonging to men and women about the same age as me. One of them wore a police uniform and I couldn’t believe it when the best English speaker informed me they were all police trainees heading to their provincial headquarters. They were friendly, offering drinks and snacks between the usual quick-fire questions: ‘Where was I from and where was I going?’ ‘Am I married?’ ‘Aren’t my parents worried about me?’ ‘Isn’t it dangerous to travel alone?’. Awkwardly, they asked to see my passport, more out of curiosity than authority, and I struggled to explain to 20 wannabe police officers why I wasn’t carrying any identification. I must have seemed shifty as anything but they were far too all-consumed with meeting a foreigner and posing for photographs with me to worry about boring details like that.

When they left me at the large Guangyuan toll-gate they tried to usher me into the local police station where they explained I should organize a bus or a train. I insisted I would continue hitching but no matter how many times I explained they couldn’t understand why, as an undoubtedly rich foreigner, I would travel in such a way. I was worried they might force me off the motorway and onto paid transport and started to regret getting chummy with the police in the first place. I solved the problem by running away, waving broadly back at them all the way as a fake show of compliance. They didn’t follow me, they just waved back, and I felt a little guilty after all the help they’d been. On the plus side, I can now boast I have run away from the police on my travels!


I picked up a ride almost immediately in an enormous truck bound for a city 200 miles further by standing right in front of the toll gate. By now, night had fallen so asking drivers here was the only realistic option. Any further onto the road and I would have been swallowed by the darkness. The driver soon stopped talking and we chugged along slowly. I plugged myself into my iPod without the trucker noticing and sat back for two blissful hours listening to a Harry Potter audio book. I drifted off to sleep with the sound of Stephen Fry’s posh English accent purring in my ears.

I woke up with a start to the sight of the driver flapping his arms enthusiastically outside the cab. We had stopped at another toll-gate and I quickly worked out that my chauffeur was gesturing towards a small silver car waiting to pay its toll. I approached the car’s dark windows cautiously, realising quickly that hitch-hiking is quite a lot edgier at night when vehicle occupants are hidden. Luckily, the smiling faces of the couple inside erased all my worries and they told me with a smile they were going to Xi’an. I said a big, sign-language led thank you to the trucker who it turned out had tapped on windows to get me a ride while I’d been snoozing, shimmied across the backseats into the car and began speeding towards Xi’an. Halfway through the journey I switched to the second car in their convoy, presumably so I could be shared with other members of the group who were equally interested in what on earth I was doing on the motorway at night. They insisted on buying me noodles which was great because I’d eaten nothing since leaving Chengdu. Several hours sleep and a lengthy dose of Stephen Fry later, I made it to Xi’an, at 2am in the morning.

The return journey played out very smoothly indeed which was important given that I’d decided to hitch-hike at night. My first ride came in a pretty amusing way.

I walked up to the large toll-gate on the outskirts of Xi’an, this time being careful not to get caught out like in Chengdu. One man sitting in his toll-booth looked very happy to see me which on the face of it is pretty surprising given that it looked like I was trying to embark on a hiking trip of the highway. He opened up his toll-booth and beckoned me in, shouting out his window at the same time to alert his toll-booth buddies. Incredibly, all the other toll-booth workers abandoned their posts and came crowding in to take their turn to smile and stare, completely unaware that the heavy traffic was starting to back up considerably with only one lane now open. We chatted together for a few minutes, I told them what I was doing and then they all took up their posts again. What I hadn’t realized was that they had decided together to ask every car and truck going past whether they could take me. It goes without saying that with five toll-booth workers asking every single vehicle passing through whether they’d take me, I got a ride in seconds. I didn’t have to hold up my signs or stick out my thumb, I simply sat in a chair in the booth and everything was taken care of for me.


That truck took me 250 miles towards Chengdu, about half the distance. The driver let me out in the dead of night, a little way from the toll-gate so that I had to walk a mile through an eerily still village to get back to the traffic. I ate the apples and drank the can of Red Bull he had generously given to me on my way out the cab. At the toll-gate a friendly but unhelpful man kept trying to flag down buses that would take me the rest of the way for a fee. I was so close to completing my hitch-hike challenge that I flat-out refused any bus rides, something my new friend couldn’t understand. I didn’t have to wait long though, another beaming trucker heading for Chengdu waved his hand in a motion for me to get in.

It turned out he wouldn’t reach Chengdu that night, he planned to spend a few hours sleeping in one of the enormous motorway rest areas. He nodded his head towards the small top bunk-bed in his cab which suited me fine. I took off my shoes and socks, clambered onto the dashboard and then the rickety bed while he climbed into the bottom bunk. I heard the engine roar into life a few hours later but I remained half-asleep in bed, relaxed and comfortable, as the truck trundled towards the city. Sooner than I could have hoped for, I arrived safe and sound in Chengdu.

I’m glad to report an entirely positive experience. This account is only the latest in a long string of happy interactions I’ve had with other human beings over the past 18 months. I can’t guarantee the safety of hitch-hikers in China but can advise that generally-speaking, in fact in the vast majority of cases, hitch-hiking is a quick, easy, not to mention cheap, way to travel in China.

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6 Comments already on “Trucks, police and toll-booths: Hitch-hiking 1000 miles in China”
  1. 12:45 pmpermalink
    13 Oct 2013

    Rob Gardiner

    The Harry Potter audiobooks really are a traveller’s best friend. I’m completely addicted. Let me know when you get to SE Asia. Yet again it’s looking like our paths will cross.

  2. 1:50 ampermalink
    14 Oct 2013

    Zach Howe

    o my god, will. i have a very, very dear friend who is living in kunming and would LOVE to meet you and host you and hang out with you. i want you guys to meet so much!! send me an email ( and i can put you guys in touch. this really would be very special.

    other than that, just fucking keep it up dude. so proud.

  3. Will

    3:26 ampermalink
    14 Oct 2013


    @rob – Harry is going through a lot of adolescent wrangling at the moment. Cho Chang can’t stop crying, no one understands him (including Dumbledore) and it may be that he’s possessed by Voldemort *gasps at the sound of the name*. Still has time to cut Malfoy apart with his razor-sharp comebacks though. Less importantly … looks like I will get to SE Asia late november … although everything depends on the willingness of the Chinese to give me another extension!
    @zach – will mail you. So great to hear from you! #blunderbuss-brainbox

  4. 12:10 pmpermalink
    15 Oct 2013

    Sarah, Guy, Toby and Edward

    Well done you! You’ve made hitch hiking sound rather fun – well in China anyway. Sounds like Mumsy needs to bring you out a new pair of trainers for Christmas!! Take care. XXXX

  5. 2:01 pmpermalink
    15 Oct 2013

    Rob Gardiner

    @Will For me, it is Ron being all adolescent. He is just realising that girls actually exist… Although it takes him a few more books to actually do anything about it. Equally as unimportantly, I hope to be in SE Asia early November, depending on how my tempestuous relationship with India goes during the next few weeks.

  6. Will

    9:25 ampermalink
    20 Oct 2013


    *spoilers included * @Rob. I am smashing through the HPs now. Ron’s into girls a lot, Lavender Brown especially, although there are not-so-subtle hints that he has one eye on Hermione. Meanwhile Harry’s annoying everyone, as usual, with his interferences and Dumbledore is somehow managing to put up with him.
    ps. is it just me, or are the house-elf scenes incredibly boring
    pps. in case anyone hasn’t noticed – i’m a bit too into harry potter at the moment.
    ppps. will know about SE Asia v. soon. Heading to the visa extension office tomorrow morning *gulp*
    @Sarah, Guy, Toby and Ed. Can’t wait for new shoes: I have wet feet after every puddle. Lots of love