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China is the most populated country in the world and tourism is booming with its rapidly expanding economy, but hitchhiking is only practiced sporadically. If you follow the advice in this page you will most likely have a wonderful time hitch hiking in China.
The Thumb gesture used in most countries to indicate you want a lift is not fully understood in China, although it will still work. It's more readily understood as meaning "good" or "OK" so Chinese drivers will probably not think of stopping. The most common signal to ask a vehicle to stop is to outstretch your arm and gently wave the hand up and down.
Safety is an issue as traffic regulation is practiced half-heartedly. Expect people to honk rather than brake, to drive while holding a phone, drive on the hard shoulder, overtake in unsafe places, and more. Buckle up if you can. Some travellers report that the driving in China is way safer than in Russia and neighbouring countries. Chinese usually don't exceed the speed limit much (130km/hr on expressways).
As in many countries, on major roads try to hitchhike from a service station, toll area or some other place where traffic has to stop or slow. Standing on the hard shoulder or the motorway works fine as well though. Use the outstretched arm and hand wave described above, or hold a sign, preferably in Chinese not Pinyin (the Romanised script) showing where you want to go. This latter approach is used locals in some areas (eg Guangzhou). If you don't speak Chinese, a sign can also help avoid misunderstandings as many people will not know what hitchhiking is and won't understand what you are doing.
The hitchhiker's appearance is important: dressing fairly smartly and having a clean appearance will help you greatly. Students in China tend to dress more conservatively and males usually have short hair. It is a good idea not to wear sunglasses as they are not as commonly worn and might make you look sinister.
It is important to note that most drivers will not expect to be paid for a ride, even though they probably do not understand the concept of hitchhiking. However, you will find that some drivers, particularly older male drivers, will ask for payment before you get in. This is no problem as you can make your decision whether or not to get in. However some older drivers may ask for payment once you have reached your destination. If in doubt, try to signal that you do not want to pay before you get in the vehicle. Generally speaking, you will find in China that most people who pick you up are extremely generous, occasionally overly so.
You need to bring a map with you, or buy one at the first opportunity. The Gao su gong lu network is very complex, and you may get lost very quickly, or end up stuck in a city for a day. You should have a map in Chinese, so that other people can understand where you are going. You may be able to pick up some Chinese characters and understand the names. However if you are struggling, consider getting a Pinyin for yourself as well, if you can find one (they are not very common). Maps can easily be found in service stations, supermarkets and book stores, and cost less than 20¥ - if you find a Pinyin one expect it to cost much more - only foreigners would buy them.
It is always a good practice in China to have someone write a polite letter in Chinese about where you want to go. This is certainly true for hitchhiking so that when a car stops, or if you approach a driver you can show the note to explain. You might include what hitchhiking is, that you will point out on the map where you are heading and ask if the driver wants paying and how much. Some hitchhikers have reported this makes a very big difference, others disagree.
When you are standing by the roadside, having a sign indication where you are going can be very useful. Some might suggest you write a destination that is closer than to where you are actually going - perhaps a sign with a city 500 km away is better than one that is 1000 km away. This is complex though. If you have a sign for the closer city, a driver who is going to the further city may pick you up and leave you at the closer one, not understanding your futile attempts to inform them that you want the further city. Obviously using the combination of the letter and sign is more helpful. On the other hand, drivers may refuse to give you a ride, thinking that they must take you all the way - however most will get the idea that you can stand on the road somewhere else too.
The first character of a vehicle's number plate is in Chinese and indicates the home province and then there is a roman letter indicating the city in the province (A is always the capital). If you are in Anhui and see a 川 (chuan, standing for Sichuan) with an A and some numbers, that's from Chengdu. If one is heading in the direction of home you can use it as a criteria to select a car to stop.
If you want to sleep while on the road, you will have no problem pitching a tent. People will usually not bother you. However do make sure your belongings are not on show. You will find there is plenty of traffic at night also. You can try to pick a slow and comfortable truck, you might only make 400 km in 8 hours but if that's at night and avoids an accommodation cost, who cares? The lack of malice (at an individual level at least!) of the Chinese makes most of China easy to hitchhike day and night without fear. There is little fear of being attacked or robbed though of course such activities exist everywhere, and as always girls should take extra care.
You will most likely need public transport to get to the express ways. Fortunately in every city there are express ways running close to the city centre, and often toll areas also, which are excellent for hitching from. If you are lost, try to find a younger Chinese person, and ask them which bus number goes to somewhere near the gao su gong lu. Make sure not to point at the road itself, they will inform you that you cannot take a bus there. Then you can take a bus and walk to the road.
Referring back to the occasionally overly generous Chinese folk, you may encounter an awkward situation in which your driver will take you to a train station and inflict upon you a train ticket to where you are going. This is very counter productive in almost all situations. You will waste many hours waiting for the train. You will then arrive at a city you may not have wanted to visit, perhaps at night when there are no buses, sleep deprived, hungry and lost. Above all this if it's not a fast train, it is likely much slower than by car, so you will be many hundreds of kilometres behind where you would have been on the road. So, if your driver leaves the motorway, you have to insist, sometimes very strongly to leave the car. Some people might not want to let you out because they are totally sure that you will get lost there, but if you really insist they will not force you to stay in the car.
Another option to avoid this situation, have your polite Chinese letter state very clearly that you do not want to go to the train/bus station or the airport, and that you only want to hitch hike in the country, perhaps as a cultural investigation or as a challenge.
There are probably big differences between the different regions in China.
- please add more info if you've hitched in many parts of China
- Hong Kong Special Adm. Region of China
- Macao Special Adm. Region of China
- Tibet Autonomous Region
- Xinjiang Autonomous Region of the Uyghur people
I hitchhiked around several villages in the western Gobi, using Erenhot as a base. Truck drivers do not expect tips - at least, they did not when I offered money to them. However, private drivers will often request inordinate amounts of money for short distances, so it's best to ask "Doh Shao Chian?", which means "how much?" before getting in.
Chinese is the majority language, especially in the cities. As a Mongolian speaker who only knew a few words of Chinese, people were surprised at me, but pretty accommodating - outside of cities, there is usually at least one person in the room who speaks Mongolian.
You should know that, if you leave the cities, the police WILL detain you here at least once, and you should make according time allowances. In such a case, do not panic - they will actually be very helpful and friendly when they realize you're not a criminal. They will take you to the station, ask you questions, and when satisfied, release you. Have your visa ready, and expect to be asked "What are you doing here?". The whole process takes between one and three hours. Be prepared for this situation, as it happened to me three times in as many days. Consequently, anyone considering hitchhiking here MUST be able to speak enough Mongolian or Chinese to get through this situation.
“Highway” doesn't mean the same as in occidental countries but express ways are great for going long distances. As of 2007 a lot of expressways are still under construction, and most traffic consists of trucks that don't go too fast. When you can, try to hitch with normal cars. There are quite a few cops on the expressway, but it doesn't seem to be a problem to walk along them. Cops help you rather than being a problem, they even stop buses for you for free.
The expressways are often new and fast (100-130 km/h), where as the second level roads may be really bad and a fatal error. Stick to highways if you want to travel fast. Most of the entrance to the highways from the cities in China, have a toll. Go there and talk straight to the drivers, pointing the atlas. Show them your notice. Go like: "Nihao! Qing wen, ni qu nali? Wo qu zheli, ni ne? Ni qu zheli ma? Wo shi yi ge ren!" (Hello! Excuse me, where are you going? I go here, and you? Do you go here? I am just one person!), etc. Keep saying "Oh hao hao, xiexie a!" (Oh good good, thanks, ah!) Unlike in Europe, ppl there will typically tell you the truth about where are they going, and once they do so, if you ask them to go with them and they have free space, they will hardly say "no", either because they are just too naive or because they don't want to loose face.
At the tolls, if you talk to the booth girls and the guards and tell them where are you going and what is your purpose, they will often offer you to ask the drivers for you as they keep passing with their cars through the booths to pay the fee, so you can just sit down and wait.
When no tolls around, go to the rest areas where you can talk to people easily, or look for a jiayou zhan, a gas station. Without a big sign, I never got picked up there with the passing cars (of most don't stop); with the sign, it took from a few minutes to seconds.
English in rural or even urban areas are rarely used. Get yourself 1. a phrasebook, easier to acquire when you're outside of China, were not easy to find in bookstores in China, and 2. a pocket dictionary, which generally available in China for 10 RMB in 2007. Here are some helpful phrases.
搭便车 da bian-che: Hitchhhike. That's probably what you want to write on a big card board.
公路 gong-lu: literally public roads, which means either highway or national road
高速公路 gao su gong lu: means expressway (expway)
国道 guo-dao : national road
謝謝 Xie xie : Thank you
这裡 zhe-li: Here
那里/哪里 Na-li : There / Where?
我要去..."wo yao qu ...." ( I/want/go to) means "I need/want to go to . . ."
你要去那里？ "ni qu nali?" (you/ go to / where) means "Where are you going?"
在这里停就行 "zai zheli ting jiu xing" (at/here/stop/okay) means "please stop here"
Chinese, like many Asian languages, is a tonal language which means a change in a pitch will drive to different meanings. Without basic training, most westerners will find it hard to pronounce Chinese well at an decipherable level. But if you print the Chinese characters out and show them to the driver, things will work pretty smooth.
Police will usually not care about you and will more likely try to be helpful than make trouble. However, this can also mean taking you away from the motorway to a bus or train station.
- In the South the police was unaware, or friendly but very confused, to Guaka and amylin. Most of the time the police didn't do anything while walking along the highway or trying to hitch. Once, at the highway entry of Kaili in Guizhou, they started talking, found someone who spoke English, and brought the hitchers to a bus station, where the police paid for a bus ticket! Another time the highway police was very confused again, and it took 2 1/2 hours to find a translator and be left alone at a highway entrance again.
- Fijau hitchhiked through Xinjiang, Gansu, Shaanxi, Henan without being bothered by police. In Xinjiang police even helped him to get a ride. Problems started to occur in Zhejiang (Eastern China, near Shanghai). Several times police didn't let him onto the expressway through the toll gate and took him off the expressway while passing by.
There are not so many maps in English. Do buy a map though, even if it's in Chinese, maps of provinces are cheap (10 yuan) and very useful, you can point to it and people might sometimes understand what you mean. You can buy a map of China with names in English and Chinese, but because of the scale it's not very useful while hitching.
Sometimes the indication used for roads aren't very accurate, so you might be thinking you'll be on a nice highway for a while, when it suddenly becomes a 1 lane road going through villages. This is also goes while hitching, on a highway, sometimes a sign might be indicated for a big city, but if you pursuit this, you can find yourself on a dirt road in no time.
Very good is the Tourist Atlas of China. It is in English and Chinese, a small book with all the provinces. But it's hard to find though, Worldhitch got it in Beijing at one of the biggest bookstores. The province maps in Chinese are pretty good, if you have the tourist atlas, you also have the bigger cities in English as a reference point, and hitch on the small roads with the province map.
Note: Be aware of Chinese maps - sometimes they are developed for the (often quickly changing) future! They show highways which are not yet existing, or they having wrong distances between cities. Its always good to have two or three maps (the province maps as well) and then search for the truth in the middle.
- Some very useful info in CS group thread.
- More info in CS hitchhikers group
- Jojo Z's experiences with hitchhiking in China (Jojo is a Chinese girl)
- Hitching in China, a Russian Website with tons of information. Some of them available in English.
- Website with photocopies of maps of all provinces and some cities as well.
- CS thread: Advanced Manual with Scientifically Proven Methods and Routines to Hitchhike in China by CS Member IwannaGoToTahiti