Freewheeling in China
No one goes to Wuhan. It’s one of those phenomena the traveler finds in every part of the world, a super mega uber metropolis filled with 10 million people that no one outside the country knows exists.
I went because it looked like a big enough dot on the map to merit a stop at on my way inland from the coast of China. My first two days there were interesting enough: taking a tour of Chinese Muslim noodly delicacies with an Argentinian backpacker; falling into the city’s main river, cutting open my hand (permanent scar!) and subsequently having Chinese men in speedos save the lives of my dripping electronics; and dining with a nerdy Chinese student as he told me I should be killed in an alley for my thoughts on Tibet and Xianjiang.
But it was the third day that I’ll always remember. I was in the hostel’s garden continuing my streak of demonstrating my embarrassingly poor billiards skills in as many countries as possible. My new friend Victor emerged from inside the hostel. I say “Victor” because all Chinese have an alter-ego name left over from junior high English class that they can tell foreigners for whom Zhaoguo Xin is unpronounceable. The best self-chosen name I’ve heard is definitely Butterfly. Anyways, Victor, whom I shall call Xi Guoqiang for the remainder of this blog post because it may for all I know be his real name and at the very least is more fun to write, was a businessman on business travel — apparently they spend the big bucks and stay in hostels in China — and was the one guy around who spoke English. He burst into my pool game with news for me. These two Chinese guys behind him are also going to Yichang! Now I don’t have to go to the train station to find a ticket, because they have a free ride to Yichang! Free ride to Yichang! Leave now!
I rushed upstairs, grabbed my backpack and was off with the two strangers on foot.
The conversation, admittedly, was less than thrilling. We could each say “Hello how are you?” and count to 20 in the other language, but this provided for an unsurprisingly brief and less than profound cultural exchange. So we moved on to hand movements and saying words super slowly in hopes that the other party would spontaneously begin to understand our language. This didn’t work either, but is loads of fun and better than charades.
We hopped onto a municipal bus. Wait, what’s going on? Where’s you car?, I thought. This ‘free ride’ is already proving less than free (20 cents!). But I’ll see where it takes us.
Take my word for it: do not accept offers from old Chinese men to have your palm read in the backs of buses without first arranging for a translator. I still wonder what that grinning toothless bastard said about me while he traced my hand wrinkles and my Chinese friends chuckled. The bus trip did however inaugurate a method of communication that lasted the rest of my trip with the guys. The dictionary-lookup-and-point. I point to a word in my phrasebook or they point to a word on their mobile phone dictionary program, and piece by piece we start to have some understanding. This ride, I began to gather, was just one small leg of their long cross-country trek from Shanghai to Tibet.
Suddenly, a thought hit me, a giant leap forward even. Oh fuck.
I frantically flipped through the pages of the phrasebook. Oh shit oh shit. I found the word “car”, and pointed to the 汽车 beside it. “Yes,” was the reply. “Now we car.” Ok. Fine enough. But I kept looking for the word I was really looking for.
I pointed to 搭脚儿. “Yes!” the smaller one yelled. He looked at the English column and sounded it out. “Hitch. Hike!”
Ten minutes later I was on the side of the freeway with my thumb out. “Free ride.” The words danced in my brain.
I felt for the first time what it must feel like to be a big-breasted blonde. I was being used. I was being dangled out there like bait. Perhaps my Chinese isn’t exactly fluent but I’m positive they were saying Look how weird this dude looks! Pick us up and you can practice your English the whole way to Yichang!
It took a long time to find a sucker. My friends would run up to a passenger side window and explain where we were going and point to me and flaunt my finer qualities, and then continuously get rejected and rejected. I half thought we’d have to give up and go back to the hostel. Then, at last, we found a sucker. A professional dog-breeding couple from northern China.
Holy shit, I thought, squished between two chinese asses in the backseat. I’m hitchhiking through China!
It’s one of those postmodern situations where I inevitably overanalyze the moment. Am I doing this just for the story later? For the ability to post a Facebook status update and get fourteen thumbs up and a few witty comments? Or is this even more fun in the moment than it will sound later? Am I excited for the sheer act of doing something so strange and adventurous, or for the memory that will endure? After years of well-planned world travel, is this the freewheeling spirit I’ve always been craving? The pure random joy? The unadulterated contact with real local people instead of the guy who tries to sell you fake Adidas shoes on the street corner in shitty English?
I still don’t have answers to these questions.
The couple could only take us a third of the way there, where they left us at an enormous truckstop. After sticking out our thumbs a few more times, hopping in a few more cars, and struggling through a few more broken English conversations, we finally made it to Yichang and got dumped in a park downtown as the sun was disappearing behind the smog. The next few days sped by. We ran from a police officer who kicked us off a grass field and then begged for a bribe. We slept on blanket-covered wooden planks in a stuffy mosquito-infested college dormitory room. We went out for beers and Chinese-style bbq with university students, and I took advantage of one girl’s English skills to finally figure out what my hitchhiking buddies were like. We beheld the infamous energy-producing village-destroying Three Gorges Dam, hiked between limestone cliffs (see video at top), and swam in the winding river below. It was an incredible week, to say the least.
But it was first part of the journey that I’ll remember most. The journey, the not-knowing, the not-planning, and just allowing the world to spin and then spin you around. And closing your eyes and knowing that no matter what happens, you’ll find a way to land on your feet.