I’m woken up a few times during the night to some popping like fireworks off in the distance, but I’m close to a city, so don’t think much of it. I had set my alarm for half past six, thinking I’ll have plenty of time to get my stuff together before it gets too late, just like when I got up yesterday morning. I don’t make it to my alarm as I’m startled awake to a man screaming near my tent, but far enough away that I’m not too worried. I sit there for a few minutes to try to orient myself and then I hear someone else in another direction scream much louder than the last.
Okay, now I’m worried. Especially since the sun is already illuminating my tent and it’s not much past six. I hop up, stick my feet out the front of my tent and put on my shoes. I always set up the little triangle of extra cover in the front of my tent for my shoes to stay outside, but protected from view. As my shoes are almost on I hear two more people screaming. What in the hell is going on around me and where did I set up in the middle of last night!? I slowly emerge from my tent to see two people walking down a path, not far from my tent, through the very slight cover from the trees. To the right of them I can see some other people stretching. Like land mines exploding, I can hear more people screaming in new directions. No one around is directly paying attention to me, so I quickly start to wrap things up. In a few minutes my tent is away and I’m crouched down brushing my teeth. It probably looks more like I’m answering nature’s call in a very natural way, which might actually be more normal to see in a park than someone brushing their teeth.
With both my bags I cut through the trees to get away from that section of path and sit at a bus stop seat facing the toll parking lot. Over an apple and some of that oat bar stuff the policeman gave me I try to figure things out. Some people pass by me in more workout clothes, so I guess either this is a special day or this is the only green space in this city and screaming is a Chinese version of a cup of coffee in the morning.
I walk over to the toll station and try to read the highway signs. None of them mention Beijing, but one does say a town that I recognize is sort of in that direction. I sit down and pull out my China map to check things out. The highway goes either up and way left of Beijing or just under it. I pick the one just under and try to start flagging cars down on the highway side of the toll gate. No police come this time to talk to me. A man does stop on his scooter and says something about not being able to have a car pick me up here. I laugh and ask if he’s really about to get onto the 140km/h highway with a scooter, but there is something lost there as he nods and drives off. I get off that part of the road quickly and then go over to the winding on-ramp where I will stand to flag down cars. The on-ramp is ridiculously over-sized for some reason, so I feel this will be a good place (that seven semis could all pull over at the same time) to consider picking me up. A car pulls over with some young men and they tell me none of these roads will go to the city I picked from the map. I’m pretty sure the sign was right and I matched the Chinese pinyin romanization to the English on the map to make sure. They point to their nice GPS in the car and explain to me why it will go around where I want to go.
I take that as a sign and go back down to the toll station where I stop at the police box to ask which way to go. They confirm the sign is right, but say this toll station isn’t good to get a car. The woman tells me that her friend will come pick me up and drop me off at hdshluiebx. I missed the last part, but the dropping me off part sounds good, so I agree to wait.
Some traffic police pull up and one with good English steps forward to talk to me. He says that the next toll station is much bigger and will be a better place to find a car to Beijing or the city that I picked just below. On the ride, that same cop shows me some pictures of his German friend like he’s showing me a prized possession. I switch the subject to the hitchhiking and it being okay to find a car to the next nearest city and he finished my sentence of them piecing the rides together to get to Beijing. I’m feeling good to have him on my side to explain this to the next group of toll people.
At the new toll booth they drop me off, quickly talk to one of the traffic cops, and then take off. This new guy is a little slow, it seems, to catch on to anything. When I don’t understand him, he repeats what he’s saying much louder and faster. He’s not angry and I think he’s honestly trying to help, but he just doesn’t get what I’m doing at all. I go past him to start flagging cars down.
This is about ten times bigger than any other toll stations I’ve been to, and cars are coming from every direction, all crisscrossing each other. This is total mayhem. I pick the section to the left by the big trucks. I’m getting no luck and those who do talk to me are going in the wrong direction. I really don’t like the toll hitchhiking. Unless it’s just a continuation on the same road, it’s too hard to determine where everyone’s going and since this is an odds game, adding a bunch of other entrances and destinations isn’t helping my cause.
I go up to the toll booths to be met and stopped by two women. They’re no fun and aren’t interested in helping me at all. They are equally as bad as the police booth guy at communicating with someone that doesn’t have the same slurred native language. Looks like I’m going to have to just find any ride possible to get away from this crazy situation.
A few more hours go by and I’ve tried everything. I moved spots and approached people in everyday I could imagine. Nearing the afternoon, I feel totally defeated. I’m so close to Beijing I can taste it and it’s driving me crazy! I also don’t see anyway out of this situation, so I’m giving up and getting a train the rest of the way. This just isn’t worth it anymore.
I go over to the yelling guy and ask him for the train station and point around, trying to lead him to give me some body action to help my understanding. Again, he responds with something that doesn’t involve any sign of directions and he makes no body motions.
Before I totally lose it, I just cross the toll station and take the pedestrian path toward anywhere but this station. The path is so long I can’t even see where it ends. I start to think of the path like this hitchhiking journey and then totally reverse my thinking. I’m so close to Beijing, there’s no way I’m giving up now. I’ve got to follow this through. I look over at the on ramp and see that it curls to the right around a grassy and lightly wooded area. I back up a few steps and see that there’s one entrance there from this side of the toll gate and it’s exactly half way between the toll people and the police box. I’m going for it.
I walk back the way I came trying to make it seem like I just peed, whatever that would actually look like. Maybe I’ll check my zipper half way over. On the other side, I walk down a path to an unused old police box and then turn around the fence and I’m in the field. I’m not going to look back and make sure I turn corners in the trees to make sure those lazy people wouldn’t even think of following me. I pass by some workers, but don’t make eye contact. I’m on a mission here. Que the Rocky music. Okay, it’s no where near that dramatic, I just broke through some frustration.
At the road I find a wide open section where the on ramp lanes connect to the rest and begin my flagging. I’m in a bit of a rush here in case any of those guys decide to peek their heads out of the station road to see if I’m out here. Within minutes someone pulls over and I already know where they’re going because it’s all down one road. I just have to tell them the city name and ask to take me as far as they can. If only I had just learned from yesterday and just started this way today. Either way it’s a lesson I won’t soon forget.
They drop me off only about ten kilometers down the road, but at a perfect spot to flag cars. The road is very wide, with plenty of room for me to stand far away from the cars, in the shade, but still in sight. There’s also plenty of room behind me for them to pull over.
Even though this spot seems perfect, it’s taking awhile to get anyone to react. I look at one as it passes to make sure it doesn’t stop and as I do I catch a car out of the corner of my eye that’s already stopped, with a guy behind it waving at me. Wait, aren’t I supposed to wave them down?
Since I’m so far away and so happy for the ride I lift my duffle, tuck it into my chest, and run down the road toward them. The guy goes back to the car and actually opens the trunk for me to store my bags. I get in and realize I’m in a SUV Mercedes. Jackpot.
I can’t quite get the city name out as the guy finishes my sentence, saying that they’re going to the same place. In the car I go through the hitchhiking not paying for the ride routine and the man driving waves me off. The woman in the passenger seat asks me some questions and then we soon reach the end of my Chinese ability and resort to laughing.
The woman uses her phone to translate some more complicated stuff, but everything else is wrestled with through their bad English and my bad Chinese. I also can really notice a difference in their accent from even the town we just left. They have a much deeper “r” sound, probably closest to what pirates say in the movies “arrr matey”. The woman tells me that they live in this next city and also have a farm there. They give me some water, Pringles knockoffs, and the best apple I’ve had in a very long time. She said they got it from a mountain orchard they visited. Wow, they’re already giving me so much and so kind with the way they communicate and show interest in my story.
Outside of the town, the woman shows me a translated message that says they want to buy me a train ticket to Beijing from their town. This is seeming really familiar to that first couple who picked me up by the Laos boarder. It’s amazing how kind some of these young wealthy Chinese couples are. Then she shows me a message that they also offer to have me go to dinner with them and spend the night there and then go with them to Beijing the next day. They are continuing from that town to Beijing and then Mongolia for business. I couldn’t imagine missing the opportunity to get to know their family and possibly open up another option for my farming network.
We get into town and it’s the same crazy traffic as the town from yesterday. The traffic doesn’t move for awhile and then when it finally does inch forward everyone is cutting each other off and zipping through anywhere they can fit. We stop at a place for what the woman says to be a snack. They order a maybe five different dishes including assorted meats, two kinds of soups, some gelatinous thing with no translation, vegetables, and a beer for me. Everyone is full and half of the food is still there, but we’re on the move anyway. It feels so strange to me to leave so much food there, but they seemed fine with doing that.
Back in the car, the woman’s phone reads that they’ll leave me at my hotel to rest and then pick me up at six for a Beijing Duck dinner (it’s not pronounced Peking duck. It’s named after the city, which used to be romanticized as Peking and then later updated to the more accurate spelling of Beijing.)
We get to one hotel, but they don’t have the ability to take foreigners, so we head across town to a giant building with International Hotel written on the front. The front door is a giant revolving door that leads to at least four well dressed people waiting to greet us. Everything is shiny and looks like it’s lined with gold. There are all different kinds of display cases with expensive things and large art pieces on the walls. Maybe they try very hard on the entrance for the foreigners and then it’s just a normal hotel the rest of the way. The pit of my stomach is feeling guilty that it might not change. The woman takes the lead and talks to the people at the counter before pulling out her credit card and getting me all set for the night. We walk over to the elevator and it doesn’t work for half a second, so a woman pops up out of nowhere to help us. Up to the eight floor and I was right, the floor layout is just as magnificent as the lobby. She leaves me at my room with instructions to be ready at six for dinner.
I open the door to a huge room with two beds and every amenity you might be given in any five star hotel. I’m in total disbelief that I go from the last two nights in my tent to spending the last one in such luxury.
I spend most of the time messing with little gadgets and features in the room and make sure to shower and shave before dinner. Even the shower is all fancy with multiple shower heads and more kinds of soap then I knew existed.
I go back down at six to meet the couple. We enter the traffic jam that is Chinese rush hour and in about thirty minutes make it the two blocks to dinner. I follow the woman while the man runs next door. We go past the open seating, up stairs, and into a private room where a few of her friends are waiting. We sit at a large white cloth table with a giant revolving glass table in the middle of the cloth table part. Some servers come in and bring a few different kind of dishes. The husband who was driving come in with two bottles of “Buy Joe” (that’s my best phonetic spelling of the name in Chinese) or Chinese wine. I think there’s something lost in translation there because its strength and taste is more like vodka. Then, a chef comes in to cut the duck there and serve the table. Whoa, this is fancy! Throughout the dinner the men all cheers someone else directly and then those two people take a swig. I take it easy not knowing the strength of the finer hard alcohol here. Then, I’m not even kidding you, we’re served … orange chicken! So all those people who say orange chicken is a bad imitation of Chinese food, haven’t really been to China. The taste is pretty close as well, but even at home the taste varies from place to place. With that said, there’s no doubt orange chicken is real Chinese dish. Toward the end they serve these wonderful steamed meat buns and some yams that are claimed to be medicinal. I’m sitting next to the wife who checked me into the hotel and she keeps typing things in her phone to fill me in on what’s going on, such a wonderful gesture, even though I’m mostly used to being totally lost by now.
We finish dinner and they take me back to the hotel where I fall fast asleep in the bed made of cloud-like material. I can’t believe how lucky I’ve been so far on this journey. It doesn’t even seem real when I think about how all of it came about. China is completely different than I ever expected it to be in regards to the generosity of the people and their passion to show that to the rest of the world.