Even though I set my alarm for six, I stir a few times and then out of pure excitement get up about twenty minutes early. Everything packs away easily in about ten minutes. I walk by my friends’ trucks, but they’re all still resting. I’d sleep in too if I were stuck at a truck station for a few days.
I decide to walk the four kilometers to the boarder check points. Okay, that plan soon changes as I don’t want to waste my energy. I find a good spot to flag people over and the first one I get is a Lao guy. I explain to him that I don’t have much money for the ride and hope I can just go for the short distance with him to the other side. He says I do have money and if I’m not paying them Im not riding. I very politely thank him and wish him luck as he pulls away. Back to walking.
A bit further down the road a guy on a motorcycle picks me up and waves off the idea of me paying. Or maybe he was telling me that my charades skills are awful and I should just stop. Either way I got on. Around that next corner some elephants come out of the bushes with big chains around their necks and each with a man on their neck. What in the hell kind of boarder crossing is this!?
He drops me off at a food place and I decide to stop for a bite before continuing. I try to ask the woman, in Chinese, if I can pay with the Lao money. She doesn’t understand a word I’m saying and just serves me anyway. I’m not technically in China yet, so they’re bound to take the Lao money.
She tells me to go to the cashier inside and I pull out a ten thousand bill, which would be a typical amount to pay for breakfast in Laos. She says something I don’t understand, so I pull out another five thousand. She isn’t taking the money, so I still think it must not be enough. Wow, that was an expensive bowl of soup. Then, some women in line to pay for their things start to chime in. I don’t know what they’re joining in about, but it sounds pretty intense. I pull out a twenty thousand bill to just end the issue and get on with it. The woman takes the ten thousand and says something along the lines of that’s enough for the food. Then they keep talking and one of the women in line walks over and starts going through the money in my wallet while it’s still in my hands. I don’t have much left in there, so I just let her do her thing and laugh at how amazingly inappropriate this would be anywhere else I’ve been. They take another Jill out of my wallet and the extra I gave for the food and hand it to the cashier. Still confused and amused I just watch them and wait for some kind of explanation. The cashier hands me back money, that I guess equates with the Lao money, in the Chinese currency. They tell me that the boarder people won’t take the Lao money.
I leave the food place not having really any idea what just happened, but I think they were trying to help me out. Well, at least I have some Chinese money now, so I continue down the road to the boarder. On the other side of the street there is a duty free shop that is literally the size of a mall. Then there are a few hotels that’s are more like mini skyscrapers. I’m beginning to see some of the Chinese magnificent development I’ve heard so much about and I’m still not even there yet.
I get to the Lao side and the woman, after looking at my visa, shakes her hand and tells me I can’t go to China. Trying not to overreact, give the furrowed brow look of confusion. She was just speaking Chinese to the last people, so I’m not even sure if she’s Lao. She calls her colleague to see if he can speak English, but she does it speaking Lao. I respond that I can speak Lao and ask what’s the problem. She says my visa is expired already. I explain to her that it’s good until 2025 and then she shakes her head yes and starts to laugh. She tells me she can’t read English very well. On the way out I figure out that even though she was speaking Chinese, she probably can’t read it and since the visa is in English and Chinese, she probably just saw the start date and assumed it was the end one.
The Chinese side is a magnificent building. It’s a huge archway that is beautiful and quite a feat of human engineering. The inside is extremely efficient as well. I enter my information in on a computer and use their high quality ball point pens to fill out a few remaining rules. This is a stark contrast from the desks with broke or missing pens I’ve seen in Ghana, Thailand, and Laos. Even the guard at the desk seems more concerned about his job. He’s on point and takes such a long time to compare me with my picture he makes me nervous. He’s beginning to convince me that I have a fake passport. He goes through and verifies what seems like every bit of information on my passport and visa. It’s quite different from the pen and paper track record they keep in Laos. He ushers me through and for the third time I put my bag through an X-ray machine.
The town on the other side is the nicest looking boarder town I’ve ever seen. The ones I’m use to seem more like they’re there for utility and not for lure. This one has brick streets leading to the sides of town and the buildings makes me feel more like I’m in Europe than in China.
I find a money exchanger and then head to the end of town ready to set off on the long road ahead. I have the order of towns I’ll be traveling to, a few key phrases, and the specific directions to the farm.
I get to the end of town and find a perfect place to flag down cars. It’s just at the end of the buildings, right before it turns into highway, I’m in the shade, and I’m placed to give people enough time to consider giving me a ride and then a huge space ahead of me for them to pull over. Just then I start to wonder why I was avoiding private cars and just going for people driving for their job. So, I wave down a few cars and about 5 minutes later a small sedan comes to a very quick stop. I’m thinking they’re either eager to pick me up or get out and yell at me.
A young woman comes out of the passenger seat and opens the door behind her seat and begins to clear out their stuff. I greet her as I come up and she gives me a greeting and a warm smile in return. She tells me to get in the car. As I enter I smile and greet the young man driving and he gives me the same warm reception.
I go through my routine of telling them I’m going down this road to the next big town called Kunming. Then I start to go through my speech of not paying for the ride and the guy cuts me off assuming I’m saying something else. I give him the Chinese lettering and after a quick glance he answers in English with a no problem.
The guy in the front speaks a little English, so he asks me my name and where exactly In going. They also give me some bananas and water. This already seems like a good first hitchhike in China. I have 700 kilometers to go to get to the first big town on my list. They tell me they’re not going all the way there, but they’ll take me to the farthest point before they turn off.
The young guy, named Pang, is driving really fast. Faster than I’ve been in a car for a long time. He averages around 80km per hour and sometimes peaks around 100. He’s also swerving between lanes to pass the much slower cars in our lane of the two lane highway. We stop a few times to use the bathroom and the second time they even buy me a few hot dogs and give me a packaged pie to eat.
Pang asks how I will continue on my way and I tell him I’ll just keep doing the same thing that I did with them. He doesn’t respond, but instead a starts talking back and forth with Ju, his wife. Then he asks if I am interested in taking the train. I hesitate with the answer because his English probably isn’t good enough to understand. I try my best anyway and then again, no response. He tells me that he wants to buy me the train ticket and asks if I will receive his gift. Even though my plan is to hitch, there’s no way I could turn down such a generous offer.
About 200 km outside of the big city in the area, he tells me that the train will take too long and he would prefer to get me a plane to Chengdu, which is right next to my final destination. I’m shocked just that they’re driving me the 700 km to this town, but it’s hard to imagine a complete stranger would then buy me a plane ticket without asking for anything in return. We can’t even have enough of a conversation for him to know who I am. This is the opposite experience I thought I would have hitch hiking through China.
At about 8 we get to the airport and I leave Pang so Ju can take me in and make sure to get the ticket. I thank her a few times and then tell her goodbye. They didn’t get any of my information or ask anything about compensation. I’m still astonished at their overwhelming kindness toward a complete stranger. This is exactly the experience I was looking for with this way of traveling. It’s such a wonderful feeling to find such goodness in humanity, despite the messages being fed to me by all different kinds of media, mostly from the west.
The airport looks like a giant piece of art. The ceiling has a hypnotic white curtain look, which all flows so elegantly to a point down the middle, like I’m in a three dimensional triangle. There are these golden ribbon looking pieces that wind and weave around keeping my next craned and my body bumping into just about everyone I pass. Good thing this culture doesn’t really have a sense of personal space.
At midnight I board the plane and just an hour and a half later I’ve arrived in the Chengdu airport. I get my bag and then ask about the hotel in the airport. It’s about fifty dollars, so my only option will be to go to town. Since I want to get an early start that option also doesn’t make sense since because after the cost hotel and transportation, it won’t be worth it to get just a few hours of sleep. So, I head to the departure section of the airport and go to the benches where there are already about ten Chinese people sprawled out on a whole row prepared to sleep until a more decent time in the morning. I find my spot in the back, take off my shoes, and make sure I set up my stuff so the only way it could be opened is if someone moved me. Despite the not so comfortable position, I fall asleep very quickly and stay that way for the rest of the early morning.