Riding with Strangers in Yunnan

11 Feb 2006

The image at left of riding in a car at night in the dark, through a shadowy tunnel of trees, brought back such a vivid China memory that I thought I’d share. But first, the disclaimer. The Flash animation at left was not created by me; it is from a webcomic called Bigger than Cheeses. (Be sure to click on the button. Hopefully your browser blocks pop-ups.)

OK, so about that flashback… I used the word “vivid,” but that more describes the feelings than the actual details. I’ll see what I can do.

It was 2003, and I was spending my Chinese New Year vacation in Yunnan. I headed out there with a Chinese friend, but after hanging out in Dali (大理) and Lijiang (丽江) some, we soon found our vacation mindsets quite different, and we went our separate ways. I was more than happy to be wandering wild crazy Yunnan on my own. I headed to Jinghong (景洪), the starting point for most “treks” in the southern Xishuangbanna (西双版纳) area of Yunnan Province.

I won’t go into the details of the trek in this post, but it was a 40 km trek. It was supposed to take two whole days, but since I was doing it alone, I figured I’d start early, walk a little faster (at 6’4″ I have long legs), and do it in one day. The night before the trek I stayed in a pretty miserable little town and slept in a dirty little bed that was overpriced at 40rmb. I was off at dawn.

As the sun was setting, I had made it to the end of the almost 14-hour trek. I found myself walking through some little town, but evidently I was still a ways off from the bus stop that takes you to Jinghong. After walking through that town for about half an hour with blistered feet, I asked and determined that I was still 10km away from the bus station, so I caught a ride. I arrived at the station just in time to see a bus pulling away. Guess which one it was? Yes, it was the last bus to Jinghong.

At that point I had to make a decision. I had already paid for that night at my hotel in Jinghong. It wasn’t really a lot of money, but it seemed stupid to spend the night where I was. Although I really enjoyed the trek, there was no disguising the squalor of the villages. The people there understandably saw foreigners as money-making opportunities, which didn’t allow for many meaningful interactions. I was sort of getting into a “get there, understand, get out” mentality. I really felt I didn’t belong, and I was ready to go. Maybe I was experiencing the onset of travel fatigue.

If I didn’t want to spend the night in that village, though, what options did I have? The last bus was already gone. Seeing a fairly nice car coming down the road the bus had just left on, I did something impulsive. I went over to the car and asked the two men inside if they were going to Jinghong. They were. I asked if I could get a ride with them.

I have to explain here that I’m not the type of person that hitchhikes all the time. I’ve certainly done a fair bit of hitchhiking around Japan, from Tokyo to Fukuoka, but that’s Japan. That’s pretty much the only place I feel hitchhiking is really safe (at least for a big male foreigner like me). Yet that night in Yunnan, a sort of desperation came over me. I felt I just had to get out of there. I imagine it’s the same sort of feeling China as a whole gives some foreigners. We all have our own thresholds. Anyway, catching a ride in Yunnan with two men I didn’t know really didn’t seem like a bad idea at the time. They looked like decent guys.

So I got in their car, and we started chatting. They had driven down for the day on business. They had to collect gambling money for the boss or something like that. It was soon pretty obvious that these guys were some kind of gangsters. I had hitched a ride at night with gangsters in China’s drug capital.

It was really dark. There are a lot of remote roads in Yunnan, and not enough public funding for street lights. I really had no idea where we were going. I just knew that the two guys had said they were going to Jinghong when I asked. I tried not to think about it. It was well into the trip, when we were driving down a desolate tree-lined road that one of the guys turned to me and asked, “do you know where we’re going?”

“Jinghong,” I told him, trying to disguise a rising feeling of alarm.

“Jinghong, huh?” he replied, smiling. He gestured to the road ahead and the spookily lit trees, cradling the dark road like claws. “Does this look like the road to Jinghong?

I don’t even remember how I replied. The two were looking at each other and laughing. I wasn’t sure what to think or what to do. The guy didn’t say much after that.

As more time passed, it became clear that we were almost to Jinghong. The guy had been joking with me. He and his friend’s chatter about drinking, gambling, and whoring hadn’t exactly assuaged my fears that these guys were dangerous, but at least they really did intend to take me all the way to my hotel as they promised. They tried to get me to go drinking and whoring with them, but those invitations were easy enough to deflect. I slept really well that night.

Yeah, I have to say, hitchhiking in China isn’t the best idea. I’m lucky all I got was a scare. I don’t remember what the guys looked like, but I very clearly remember that dark road, and the guy asking me, “Does this look like the road to Jinghong?”

That trip to Yunnan was pretty awesome.


Related Link: Yunnan photo album (2003)

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. Justin (Parasite) Says: February 12, 2006 at 2:06 am

    LMFAO!!! Great story. Really, though, isn’t that why we love it ? A year in China gives your life more stores than 10 elsewhere.

  2. Great story. I think it is much better to put some time between a story before you tell it some times.

  3. I bet you also would have had some good stories if you hadn’t parted ways with your sexy little travel partner. 😉

  4. I had a bit of a scare once when I found myself unwittingly hitchhiking from Shanghai to Nanjing in the middle of the night in what I thought was going to be a legitimate bus ride.

  5. Great yarn.

    I once hitched a lift with guys in Xishuangbanna too. It also involved over ambitous day trip plans, but ours was on bikes (we put them in the back of the truck) and there were three of us. But those roads are way dark!

    I can empathize with the funny vibe in the village though. Our trip was a big search for this place we picked off the map purely because it was marked as “Hill Stockade of the Hanni Women.” We decided to hitch a lift after our 10th kilometer of uncyclable road with the sun long gone, and being chased away from one settlement with a small woman wielding a big knife…

    Ah happy days.

  6. Great story- I’m sure in fifty years you will remember your night with the Chinese gangsters in backwoods Yunnan…

  7. Greg Pasden Says: February 13, 2006 at 11:05 am

    LOL. I happended to be sitting with family and friends while reading this. they all wanted to read your post because of my laughing. Sooooo, maybe you’ll have a few new readers.
    c’ya

  8. Hahaha, pretty hilarious, but kinda scary. You are lucky for getting a ride from nice gangsters.

  9. I hitched a ride on the back of a logging truck in a remote part of Tibetan Sichuan and thought how wonderful it was, until I got robbed by the other three knife wielding Tibetan hitchees. After I recovered from that I stuck my head up to have a look where we were, and got hit by a low hanging tree branch. But it was still safer than the bus from Muli to Xichang.

  10. This story only confirms to me that hitchhiking in China is not scary. Even gangsters bring you straight to your hotel! They could have robbed & killed you, and yet they didn’t — they just joked with you.

  11. […] Be careful that, as you trek in the beautiful mountain scenery, you don’t stumble across one of Yunnan’s many laogai labor camps, responsible for diesel engines, fertilizer, and coal. The police usually don’t look favorably upon westerners uncovering their slave factories. If, however, you do get lost, it’s okay, as hitchhiking with gangsters seems to be a popular sport for clueless white people. […]

  12. Living in strangers is someting like this!

    Just try to stay 5 years in foreign country and see, you’ll get 5 stories/day every time. But still, the story made me laugh.

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