Honestly, I do not understand what’s with this prejudice some people have against China. Even telling people that I’m off to innocent Shenzhen for a weekend of cavorting with foot-masseurs and having clothes tailor-made, always elicits the reaction: Be careful!
Not only people who have never been across the border, but an astonishing number of fairly season travelers in this most intriguing of countries seem to harbor an under worry that the great red dark Communist landmass of China is actually nothing to be if not entirely avoided, at least treated with the greatest trepidation, like some unexploded landmine.
“China is dangerous!” They wail. “It’s dirty! Everybody is a crook! You’ll get robbed! Or worse!”
Hong Kong people both of the local and beige persuasion, I feel, are strange in that they’re rather spend hours getting to the airport and go through is more and more grueling security checks only to sit shaking in an awful plane for hours to go To the accepted holiday destinations Phuket, Kotakinabalu and Bali.
So, when I announced just before Chinese New Year that I would go hitch-hiking in China, I expected many a rueful warning about darkly hinted at calamities that would befall me. But it seemed that at that stage my friends had already written me off as lost. A couple of weak quackings of “be careful” was all I got. I was almost disappointed.
As it turned out, and as I fully expected: Hitch-hiking in China beats every other means of transport, including the sacred train, hands down.
It was not the first time I and my trusty fellow China-lover Lee had hitch-hiked in our beloved motherland. Only the year before we had stuck our thumbs out to great success in Inner Mongolia, stuck on the grasslands somewhere outside Hohhot and freezing our arses off waiting for a bus that never came.
We got picked up by the second car passing that day, that of a kind doctor, and driven all the way to our hotel with much increasing of telephone numbers.
This time we wanted to see the innermost regions of Guangdong province, a province criminally overlooked by the Hong Kong tourist industry. Surely Guangdong is one of the most wondrous provinces of China and without doubt the one with the friendliest and most accommodating people. And believe me, after 18 years of intensive travel in China, that says a lot.
Because we were hitch-hiking, which is in itself a fate-inviting undertaking, we decided to leave everything up to fate. So when the bus to our intended first stop Siu Heng (Zhaoxing) in the west of Guangdong, known as “Little Guilin” due to its scraggy crags and many lakes would only leave the station in Shenzhen two hours later, we decided to get on The first bus that was taking off. It was the bus to Sei wui. (Sihui.)
After a three hour quite harrowing journey (anyone who has ever perused the “bus crashes in China-pages of the SCMP is bound to be a little wary of bus travel in China) we got off in a charming town which, despite its propensity for Huge Arc De Triomphe-like structures and a screaming CNY atmosphere, turned out to be the perfect starting point for an adventure that was a room in our hotel was the bar and finding ourselves gate crashing a rather large party, we were soon part and parcel of that town’s party scene and were duly invited to celebrate new year with an accommodating young man’s family the next evening.
After forcing down some wine steeped in the bosom of several snakes for a number of years we fell in with the general merry-making of the family, most of which members were glued to the television screen through. As in every country at new year, China’s national and regional TV channels offer up various kinds of extravaganza during the celebrations, and we were privileged to view the spectacle of the Tibetan people welcoming the influx of Han Chinese carried into the “province” by train After endless train, giving their thanks to the government of China and to the ever protective PLA through the medium of mass dance in their festive national costume.
The next day our adventure started in earnest, in light drizzle and under a huge poster proclaiming in text and pictures that the PLA and the people of China were as one. We stuck our thumbs and chests out, and soon a car with three young guys stopped, wondering what we were doing. Did not we know the bus stop was on the other side of town? By this time we had learned the term “hitch-hiking” in Cantonese, and after much discussion between them that they suddenly drve off. But to us even a driving off car, having stopped, was a victory. And when the three guys came back to pick us up after having been gone for twenty minutes, we were away.
Far into the inner hinterland they took us, to meet the driver’s father for breakfast in the guys’ home village, a road with the inevitable tailed monster homes signifying that someone had come into money by foul means or fair. They had been on an adventure / whoring trip to Seiwui to celebrate the new year, and were reasonably sated. With many admonitions from the father (a communist party bigwig) about calling him at government offices at the first sign of trouble, we then bought an umbrella and hitch-hiked on. Children came running out of their homes inviting us for tea, but we had bigger fish to stir-fry.
The further away we got from big towns, the more frequently cars stopped to pick us up. Past the last frontier of Guangling and its hinter-lying charming bamboo forest and dreamy lakes, it was all systems go. We barely had time to get out of one car, forget about sticking out any digits or organs, before another car, sometimes two, stopped.
The road, meanwhile, started to give up all pretense of ever having been covered in tarmac. Only my underwired bra saved me from serious hopping injury as I was thrown about in the steering cabin of the truck. We quickly learnt that saying “Oh, anywhere!” was not the right answer to the question of where we were going, and always picked the closest destination to where we were picked up, as our answer.
So when on the last stretch to Siu Heng, where we were planning to spend the last night and take a leisurely but scary bus back to Shenzhen on the last day, two guys in the smallest car I’ve ever seen Picked us up just as we were getting out of the car of a family of three traveling around Guangdong province of a New Year, I wisely said we were going 20 kilometers down the road.
Neither Lee nor I are particularly small people and with his rucksack and my wheelie bag we had problems fitting into their car. The driver took it in his stride though but with scratched teeth I could not help but notice.
We wanted to get to Siu Heng, one of the greatest party towns of China, the same day, and I was there before Happy to glean from the guys’ conversation that they were also going there. Siuheng! That’s where we’re going too! A decidedly morbid atmosphere descended upon the car and its inhabitants. After much prodding I got it out of the driver: Yes they were going to Siu heng but with the additional weight of us on board they would not be able to drive fast enough to get there in time for work.
Oh, the Chinese penchant for hospitality! We had to beg him to let us off at the next stop so that he could get to his destination on time. They drive off, hesitantly at first and then at great speed, skipping over the many bumps and holes in the road now that 200 kilo of foreigner was got rid of.
Back in Hong Kong many people I know expressed great surprise at seeing me alive. Honestly, what are these people like? I used to swear by train travel in China but from now on, only hitch-hiking will do for me. Everything else is too slow.