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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 and don't expect speaking English to solve your problems. Despite a relatively low crime rate compared with many western countries, local people tend to believe that picking up a stranger on the road is unsafe especially on the highway.
The Thumb gesture used in most countries to indicate you want a lift not understood in China. 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, overtake in unsafe places, or worse. Buckle up if you can. Some travellers report that the driving in China is way safer than in Russia and neighboring countries. Chinese usually don't exceed the speed limit much.
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. Otherwise use the outstretched arm and hand wave described above, or hold a card, preferably in Chinese not Pinyin (the Romanised script) showing where you ant to go. This latter approach is used locals in some areas (eg Guangzhou).
The hitchhiker's appearance is important: the Chinese are less used to the extreme casual style of many westerners so long hair should be made tidy and clothes should appear clean and tidy. 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. There is some prejudice against people who look what the Chinese consider as hippyish or like a beggar.
The Western concept of hitchhiking, as suggested above, doesn't exist in China. When you do get a ride be prepared to pay as locals will often pay for a ride. It might seem odd but drivers of plush cars might seek payment whereas drivers of commercial vehicles don't. This is because some chauffeurs (and many businessmen have them) try to make extra income using their boss's car as a part time taxi!
Do take a map with you: ideally it should be in both Chinese and Pinyin. You need Pinyin for yourself and the Chinese for pointing out where you want to go, for asking directions, and for you to compare with road signs where there is no Pinyin. These can be bought in service stations and in major bookstores (usually the Xinhua chain), but they will not always have pinyin. One consideration is not to say you are heading to a far distant city as the driver might refuse you rather than offer a lift part of the way. So unless you can speak some Mandarin and can explain, simply ask for the next city, and if you are successful try to see if the driver is going further.
It is always a good practice in China to have someone write in Chinese where you want to go, or what you ant to do. 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.
An issue in many countries is getting out of a city or into the correct part of the city you are travelling to. Many cities are in excess of 5 million people and in the large conurbations of megacities there are hundreds of intersecting highways and freeways. Finding the right bus or metro stop is not easy.
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 成 (Chengdu's "Cheng") with some numbers and an A, 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, try to pick a slow and confortable truck, you might only make 400km 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 24h 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.
Even if you successfully hitchhike, it is often slow, especially off the main highways. Buses and trains are very cheap by western standards and most foreign travellers choose to use them rather than hitchhike.
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
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 (100-160Km/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 (ofc most dont stop); with the sign, it took from a few minutes to seconds.
English in rural or even urban areas are rarely used. Get yourself a phrasebook (beforehand) and a pocket dictionary. 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.
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 online or offline 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