You heard right, no bus, no train and no plane. Through hitchhiking alone, I travelled from Kunming, a city in south-western China, to Barcelona in Spain. In six and a half months, I hitchhiked more than 30,000km and walked thousands more. Have you sometimes seen people stick out their thumbs by the side of the road and wondered how long they have stood there? I had my fair share of hours under the sun, rain and hailstorms but the experience is nonetheless surreal and mind-blowing. This is how my hitchhiking journey began…
I was not planning to hitchhike much in this trip because I thought that the bus or train would be more convenient. I was wrong, totally wrong. On the second day after I landed in Kunming, China, I took a bus for a day-trip close to the city. The 1-hour journey turned out to be a 4-hour journey because the bus refused to leave until it was full. Also, it conveniently stopped five kilometres away from the destination. To my horror, there was a line of minibuses waiting to take you through the last stretch, for a fee of course. Refusing to accept such nonsense, I walked along the wide, dusty road just to save those four bucks.
The hour-long walk was a great time to think about my travel and how I wanted to do it. How exciting would travel be if I were to just take a bus somewhere, explore and be herded out in another bus? For a two-week trip maybe, but for six months? Already I was bored out from my first bus ride. In that four hours, the passenger sitting beside me was more interested in her smartphone than me. One more word from me and she would label me as a creep. As such, at the end of that boring walk, I came to a conclusion: I shall hitchhike instead!
The very first hitchhiking experience in this trip was so much more exciting than the bus ride I had. I walked to the ramp-on to the highway leading out of Kunming city; that would be my spot as there was ample space for cars to pull over. There, an old lady in fatigues was sweeping the road with a huge straw broom. With much excitement, I greeted and waved at her. She grinned back at me, with her golden front teeth sparkling under the sun. We had a conversation about what the heck I was doing. She was amused at how ridiculous my plan was, but nonetheless she wished me luck.
Ten minutes was all I needed before a car pulled over. He saw the sign I made and told me to jump in as he was heading in that direction. The thing I love most about hitchhiking? Conversations. He began introducing the different beautiful spots in the area, the amazing food and the rich ethnic diversity in the region. In the short two hours, I had a crash course on Chinese culture and politics. Not too bad for a start!
A successful ride like this led to another ride, and then another ride. Before I knew it, three months have passed and it was time for me to leave China. Hitchhiking in China was still well within my comfort zone. I could not say so for the next country I wanted to visit: Kazakhstan. I spoke no word of Russian and could merely count one to five in Kazakh. Indeed, language was a huge challenge while hitchhiking in foreign countries. Many drivers were enthusiastic to start conversations, but I just had no clue on how to sustain them apart from “mmhmm”, “yes” and “ahhh”. The good thing about awkward moments like these is that you pick up languages very quickly. After months of travelling in post-Soviet Union countries, I could understand basic conversational Russian, give replies and even ask simple questions!
If I had made hitchhiking sound really simple, I must apologise for misleading you. While I could easily get a ride at times, there were times when I was stuck in the middle of nowhere. I would stand by the side of the road for hours, watching the sun fall from overhead to below the horizon. Once, I stood in the cold rain at night for two hours in a random town in Turkey. My shoes were soaked, my fingers were numb and I was shivering. Eventually I gave up and walked to the nearest building that had lights. It was a warm room and there were a few people sitting by the electric heater. The guys invited me to sit with them, brought me tea and offered me a warm dinner. They kept asking if I had enough tea or if I wanted more food. Eventually, they also cleared a room for me to spend the night. Before I left the next morning, they even prepared a nice breakfast and made sure I was full and happy before I left! Hitchhiking can be demoralising at times, but there are always these experiences that keep me going.
When you hitchhike, you will definitely meet people of all social classes and personalities. I met a middle-aged man in Kazakhstan who was struggling to support his family with his USD100 salary. He teared after listening to my travel story, as he also wanted to see the world, but has never left Kazakhstan in his life. One man who picked me up in China had his own business, car, house and too much spare cash left over. When I found out that he was younger than me and had dropped out of middle school, I was amazed. Not saying that his way of life was more correct (I do find pride in travelling), but his achievements were indeed very admirable. Along the way you would sometimes meet very eccentric people. Some crazy personalities include a Turkish truck driver who was getting horny at every lady walking on the street and making me watch pornography with him in the truck!
Hitchhiking has been so natural for me that I completely stopped thinking about how to get somewhere. If I wanted to visit a place, I would do so without considering a transport option. There was no need to look at routes, schedules and timetables; there are none in the world of hitchhiking! Travelling became really easy. Whenever I felt like going somewhere, I would just do it because I knew that somehow, someone else would be going there too.
Was it hard to get to Spain from China? Of course it was, but I would do it all over again without any reservations. It is not the destination that makes travel so addictive. It is the people and the cultures, the human touches that refuel my passion for travel. 30,000km is merely a number. The 30,000 conversations I had and the 500 friends I made were much more valuable, something that your bus tickets cannot buy.
Stay tuned for more crazy hitchhiking stories!