My two months in China were anchored in Beijing, where I stayed with Brett, a former classmate in my study abroad program who now works at the embassy as a Commercial Policy Officer. This was my opportunity to dive into the 3000-year old city, which ripples outward from the Forbidden City in concentric ring roads. The Shanghai-Beijing debate rages among all who have spent time in this country, and for good reason: both cities make strong cases in different ways. China’s capitol is filled with a swirling air of history, politics, and culture that emanates from the ancient landmarks and narrow hutongs, where traditional residences and hip nightlife venues stand side by side in harmony that would make Confucius proud. This air also numbed my mouth on bad pollution days while I darted around the sprawling metropolis on Brett’s 150 CC moped.
You could spend a lifetime in Beijing and would die of lung cancer before you had the chance to explore every nook and cranny of this formidable city. But then you would miss out on the rest of China, in which adventure lurks around every corner, no matter where you turn. So after a few weeks I set off hitchhiking southwest towards Chongqing, where Brett and I agreed to meet a couple weeks later for the National Holiday. I began my trip at the periphery of the city, which took an hour to reach by subway. From the station, I walked several kilometers to a highway on-ramp that a fellow traveler had marked with a green dot on the hitchwiki map. The toll booth operator pretended not to notice as I took a seat on a nearby guardrail and waited.
As with many aspects of life in the Middle Kingdom, I figured hitchhiking would involve a unique set of obstacles, especially in light of the fact that this is not a common practice in the country, where hostility to strangers is an unfortunate social norm. The universal gesture, a protruded thumb, was meaningless out here unless I felt like communicating to random drivers that everything was going swell. Hitchwiki’s China posting listed several alternative methods, one of which was to just wave people down. So I tried it, and sure enough, the first car stopped. In it sat a middle-aged guy driving to his home 30 kilometers down the road—not the distance I was hoping for, but I was down to see where this went. He was talkative during the ride, laughing occasionally when he could sense that I was unable to follow his rapid delivery. We carried on for about 20 minutes, then parted ways at his off-ramp.
Stepping out of a car without a proper hitchhiking location in sight always causes my stomach to drop for a few seconds, during which the rational mind rushes to restore order in the wake of the abrupt realization that I am completely alone in the middle of nowhere in a foreign land. I liken the feeling to jumping into a cold body of water—you know it’s coming, but can do nothing avoid the shock that prefaces the gradual adjustment to your circumstances. These types of experiences undoubtedly make me a stronger person, but as I learned that day, there can sometimes be too much of a good thing. Chinese highways are very much unlike the European highways I encountered this past summer, in ways that I found exceedingly unhelpful as a hitchhiker. Whereas on-ramps and off-ramps often come in pairs on European roadways, entry-exit points are separated by vast distances in China, requiring me travel on foot for up to five kilometers at a time until I arrived at an appropriate location to hitch (usually a rest stop or toll station). The lack of parallel roads next to the highway also left me with no choice but to walk on the shoulder, which is dangerous anywhere, but especially in a country that manages to rack up over 200,000 deaths annually in traffic accidents.
The view was nothing to write home about either. Gone were the lavender farms and rolling hills of Europe, replaced by infertile farmland struggling to sustain the life around it. And I was smack dab in the middle of Hebei, the most polluted province in one of the most polluted countries in the world, a place remarkable only for the sheer number of environmentally unfriendly factories powering an economy that grows at a staggering seven percent per year. A hellish gray smog hangs over everything, like Mordor. Only instead of Orcs there are people, who go about their daily business as if the sky is supposed to look like that, because IT ALWAYS DOES.
My drivers were cool, though—genuinely nice people who didn’t think twice about stopping for a guy with a smile and a wave. I secured all of my four rides that day within a few minutes of posting up at each location. My travel companions included an architect or construction engineer; a manufacturer of children’s backpacks; a group of four young men heading somewhere to do something; and a guy in the window business. Needless to say, my Mandarin could use some work. But we all vibed, and by the end of the evening I arrived at the city of Shijiazhuang, about 300 km from my starting point. My last driver, Window Guy, could not keep from smiling during our entire 100 km ride. He spoke about his wife and kids, all the while sucking down cigarettes and exhaling a plume that blended into the sky around us. The pollution was pretty bad, he admitted.
A few kilometers from the city center, we agreed that he would drive me to a guesthouse run by somebody he knew. But a few seconds later a light bulb flashed in his head, and he dialed a number on his phone. “I will be back later tonight,” he said politely but firmly. “I am gonna have a drink.” Window Guy made one more call, then turned to me and smiled.
15 minutes later, we pulled up to what looked like a shipping container sitting in an abandoned lot. A gleaming Mercedes stood out among several cars parked out front, but no sign indicated what was happening inside. Upon entering the box, we encountered a couple groups of drunk blue collar workers drinking beer and letting loose. A pudgy, affable-looking man wearing a Santa Monica Track Club t-shirt rose to greet us from a nearby table. This was Friend of Window Guy, also in the window business, and owner of the Mercedes. Chinese all pretty much dress the same and eat at the same establishments, regardless of their economic situation, but a nice car is the status symbol of choice, something that can be proudly displayed wherever you go, including a dumpy looking restaurant under a highway in Shijiazhuang. I asked for directions to the facilities, and Friend of Window Guy walked me outside and pointed to a cluster of weeds.
We eventually sat down and were joined some time later by Friend of Window Guy’s wife and another associate. I hadn’t eaten all day and was starving. But this gathering was not about the food, which, incidentally, was delicious—a fusion of Sichuan and generic Chinese cuisines. No, this was about the baijiu, or rice liquor, that we would toast with to celebrate this serendipitous occasion. Clear in color and high in alcohol content, it is the centerpiece of every banquet, a liquid tool for forging business and personal relationships. Hosts offer it to their guests to give face, guests pour it for their hosts to give face, young people serve it to their elders to give face, and everyone shoots it to give face. There is always more face to give, and any number of ways to give it. It is a game that no one loses. The bad stuff tastes like kerosene mixed with cheap perfume. Ours, brewed in Inner Mongolia, was smooth with fruity textures.
So we drank, and kept drinking, exchanging energy while discussing the subtle differences between 干杯 (gan bei: drink the entire glass), 喝一口 (he yi kou: drink a mouthful), and 随便喝 (sui bian he: drink as much as you wish), short phrases announced by anyone, at any time, as an invitation to partake. We called it a night several hours later when Friend of Window Guy’s wife carried him out of the restaurant, rendered unable to give or receive any more face, much less speak. Window Guy—still smiling—paid for everything and drove me to a small hotel, where he negotiated a rate of about 7 USD for the night then drove off into the haze, but not before cautioning that house rules forbade me from bringing a prostitute to my room.
The following morning, I checked the map on my phone and found myself on the east side of the city, a couple blocks from a highway interchange. I guzzled a two-liter bottle of water then walked to the on-ramp as large trucks rumbled past, kicking up thick clouds of soot into the air. Last night’s high quickly turned to uneasiness as I looked around at gloomy Shijiazhuang—what I could see of it, anyway: visibility in every direction was limited to only a couple hundred yards. There is something deeply unsettling about the all-enveloping aura generated by an unnaturally grey sky. A couple hours rolled by, but no one slowed or even seemed to notice my presence except for a large group of construction workers ambling over to the next job site. The sparse traffic did little to improve my deteriorating mood.
At noon I walked over to a taxi driver parked nearby and presented my problem. After a quick strategy session, he drove me to a toll booth at the entrance of a highway heading south in the direction of Henan province. Vehicles were plentiful there, and came to a standstill near the ticket collection points—an ideal scenario for finding a ride. I walked past the gates to the back side of the toll station and set my bag down on the shoulder where the lanes bottlenecked to form the start of the highway. To clarify my intentions, I pulled out my notebook, wrote 河南 in bold characters on a blank sheet, and assumed the position. A few inquisitive drivers pulled over over the course of an hour, but all were either staying within the city limits or joining another highway at an interchange up ahead. I eventually drew the attention of some cops, who drove up and explained that I couldn’t stand behind the gates. It seemed reasonable enough; I was just glad they didn’t kick me out of the area altogether.
Near the front side of the booth, I wedged myself between a couple lanes of traffic and smiled at every car that passed, attempting to make eye contact with the individuals in the cars. Some smiled out of curiosity, while others scowled at a sight they most assuredly had never seen before. Hours passed, perspiration built, and my will slowly crumbled as car after car unsympathetically rolled past in the stewing heat. Late afternoon rolled around, and when I found myself able to stare directly at the sun without shades, I decided it was time to escape. There was too much beauty out there for me to spend another minute in this wretched city, or anywhere wretched for that matter.
There are a couple things I did not know about Shijiazhuang before landing there. The first is that it is the second most polluted city in China. The second is that it is home to a large railway junction, allowing for easy exit once the first fact makes remaining there untenable. At the train station, easily the largest I ever encountered, I scanned the departure board and found a train leaving for Xian in an hour. I purchased a ticket from a clerk and slumped against a nearby wall, taking a seat for the first time all day. While boarding a short time later, I discovered that she had slipped me a first class ticket, my consolation prize for all the trouble.
Six hours later I was in Xian, home to the Terracotta warriors and a sizable Muslim population whose history traces back to the the city’s Silk Road roots. I visited this place in college, and wasn’t overly enthused about coming back for round two, but its central location in China made it an ideal location to map out my next moves. I mulled over my options the following day while roaming around the bustling Muslim quarter, where residents carry out their daily lives amongst throngs of tourists eating skewered lamb and shopping for the kinds of things you gift friends after traveling.
In the evening I found refuge from the crowds in the Great Mosque, the oldest of its kind of China, and chilled on its grounds while members filed in for evening prayer. A serene energy hung in the air. Even the cats living in the compound exuded a quiet spirituality as they sauntered about. A lot had happened, and a lot more was around the corner, but first decisions would have to be made. With long-term travel, or any travel for that matter, there are no rules; no best things to see or experience; no right way to do things. You really can do whatever the fuck you want, which, though nominally liberating, leads down the philosophical rabbit hole to fundamental questions about self and purpose.
What was the ultimate goal: Happiness? I have grown to distrust that amorphous word, which is tossed around so casually these days. What is happiness in a world where pain and discomfort will always be present? Recently, I have begun asking myself a more practical question: Is what I am doing authentic? Because the more authentic I become, the better I feel, and the better I connect with the world around me. Sitting on a bench in this mosque, my Chinese hitchhiking adventures behind me, no bosses in sight and travel partners to consider, I leaned inward to hear an intuition that speaks without words.
After some reflection it was decided that I would head to the mountains, where I have always found my inner strength, since a childhood spent at the base of the West Maui Mountains. Huashan, one of China’s Five Great Mountains, rises a short train ride to the east of Xian, and seemed like an appropriate venue to host my return to nature. I checked out of my hostel the following morning alongside Flip, a Dutch national wearing a pair of hiking boots and a look of adventure on his face. A quick chat confirmed my suspicions that he was heading in the same direction. We agreed to make the ascent together, selecting the traditional six-kilometer route that runs from Huashan village to the North Peak. It was a grueling climb, made even more difficult by heavy rain that pelted us for the first half of the hike. We occassionally took breaks in shelters that dotted the path, but it was impossible to avoid getting soaked.
We reached the North Peak in the late afternoon, and after sundown arrived at the West Peak, on which perches a temple that now operates as a lodge for those wishing to spend a night on the mountain. I was cold, wet, and exhausted from seven hours of climbing. But we had made it to the top, and were rewarded the next morning by a majestic view of all that was scaled the day before.
We spent the next day hiking the other peaks, then traveled back to Xian for the night. Flip made his way to Shanghai the following morning, while I boarded a plane bound for Hunan province. I had heard that Hunanese are less polished than their countrymen from other regions, a stereotype reinforced shortly after arrival when I encountered two guys sharing a urinal in an airport bathroom. But I wasn’t there to cross swords. The mountains of Zhangjiajie (technically: Wulingyuan Scenic Area) were calling. I saw pictures a few days earlier while researching my options in Xian, and immediately knew I had to go.
I spent my first night in the capital, Changsha, then took a five-hour bus ride the next morning to a small city about an hour from the park. From there, I jumped on a small commuter bus used primarily by locals to ride to and from their homes scattered throughout the countryside. There were no designated stops; passengers simply yelled out to the driver when they wanted to disembark, and he pulled over to the side of the road. It seemed like an efficient enough system. I hopped off at the last stop with plans to find a reasonably priced guesthouse in the area, but was immediately approached by a persistent woman offering to rent out a room in her home. This is a common practice in rural China, a preferable alternative to labor-intensive income streams. She seemed aight, so I agreed to her proposition after bargaining down the price a couple bucks (rates were negotiable because this was China, and because I arrived right before the National Holiday). Her daughter picked us up in the family car, and the three of us traveled back to their house in a nearby village. The place was essentially run like a B&B, with individual rooms upstairs, and a common area downstairs that functioned as the family’s living room and guest dining room. The woman’s husband cooked all my meals, usually involving some form of pork, the meat of choice in the countryside.
The creators of Avatar supposedly looked to Zhangjiajie for inspiration, and it is easy to see why. This part of the planet feels otherworldly, mysterious. Throughout the region, thousands of rock pillars climb into a sky perpetually shrouded in fog, while exotic birds and monkeys clamber around in the forest below. Inside the park, I found little used trails, away from the cable cars and major pathways, and pushed to my physical limits, seeing how far I could go. Often, I was completely alone, climbing through valleys and up mountains for up to eight hours a day.
On day two, I rode a bus to the west end of the park and followed a trail leading back into a narrow valley. I continued along until I crossed paths with an old farmer cutting wood. His bowsaw consisted of a long blade attached to both ends of a curved branch, leading to me to believe that this guy had been living here for awhile, and was probably here to stay. We were the only two people around. Through a thick Hunan accent, he suggested I keep going: “It is beautiful that way.”
I soon entered a lush forest, which was silent save for an occasional monkey swinging through the branches. As the valley narrowed, the path turned up the side of a mountain, which I climbed for an hour until I reached a plateau overlooking a city of sandstone skyscrapers scattered across the horizon. As with Huashan, and all the major mountains in China, the trail was either paved or built with stone, making it easy to move through the perpetually damp landscape, and allowing me to feel gratitude for a life in which I wasn’t one of the laborers thrown on this backbreaking project. Farther down the path I ran into my second OG of the day, a guy in his 80s slinging snacks from a simple wooden shack that he appeared to live behind. I purchased a bowl of instant noodles and sat down for a quick chill. Decked out in a Mao suit, he smiled at me while rolling a fat cigarette. We got each other, although his accent was too thick for me to understand most of what he was saying. I imagine he spoke about the mountains, what lay up ahead.
After a couple hours spent roaming the plateau, evening approached, and the skies began to darken. I walked to a bus stop, but none was heading in the direction of the park entrance closest to my place, a two-hour hike from where I stood. Some older local ladies sitting nearby figured out my problem and started pestering me to stay in their mountain shacks for the night. It was too late to make it back to Senlingongyuan before nightfall, they claimed. I declined their offers, stuffed my shirt in my backpack, and started running down the mountain.
Initial concerns that I overestimated myself slipped away as I fell into a rhythm on the trail. I felt comfortable in the shadows, alone with nothing but my thoughts and a dark undercurrent of energy that inhabits this surreal world. For all three of my days here, without conscious planning, I found myself roaming the park long after most visitors had left for the day. This was not a search, but a journey into that which lay beyond the fog, on the other side. It was always right there, that ancient wisdom, waiting for me to connect. I reached the bottom of the ridge, where the trail joined a major path about five kilometers from the entrance, and kept running.