Phenomenology (I apologize for oversimplifying) describes things in a way they appear to us, ignoring the possible true nature of the things themselves. In philosophy classes, I always struggled to understand this concept. China finally illustrated it for me. (Yay.) As we are hitchhiking through this country as Europeans, without knowing anything about it and without speaking the language, many of the things we come across just appear. And we don’t have the slightest idea what the heck they are actually supposed to mean.
China feels more distant and different to me than all the countries we crossed before. It’s not just because we are unable to learn any Mandarin and because we meet no people who would speak any western language. Everything seems different: food, roads, cars, towns, the way people communicate, their gestures... But we are not traveling across a third of the planet for things to be always the same, are we? Eventually, we just accept that things happen and we are not even surprised we don’t understand them. Everything becomes a part of endless exploration. And it’s fun.
An easy guide to missing the Chinese Wall
Our two truck drivers make 1300 km in 1 day, taking turns in sleeping and driving. They just stop twice for bathroom and food. (They invite us for the meal and it is delicious). We communicate with them a bit through Google Translate (VPN is needed) and their WeChat. They are very polite and compliment us, and it is not creepy. They also beat my personal record for the longest ride I’ve ever hitched. I am almost wondering if they have any human needs at all. They seem like robots with superhuman abilities.
They leave us in Ningxia province, not far from Mongolia, and continue their hell ride to Beijing. In one day, we crossed a distance we expected to cross in a week. Suddenly, we have plenty of time to hang around.
In our Chinese map, there is a line of squares near us: the Chinese Wall. So we decide to hitchhike to it. It’s still scorching hot even though we are not in the desert anymore. Fortunately, the flower patches with water sprinklers are still all around so we can use them as showers to cool a bit. And people still don’t understand us, don’t speak any language we speak and don’t use gestures while they talk. When a car stops and we show our hitchhiking letter to the crew, they talk in fast Chinese at us. When we point at the sentence saying ‟sorry, we don’t speak Chinese“, they reply by talking in fast Chinese as well. The only way to find out if they want to give us a ride or not is to start getting into their cars and see if they protest. They usually don’t. So we hope it means they agreed to give us the ride.
|A view from the hill above the monastery|
Somehow, we manage to get to the spot where the wall is in our map. In the real world, there is none.
Even though the thing is visible from the space, we managed to miss it from the Earth. Great job, congratulations to us. Instead of the wall, there is a monastery. Some young kids seem to have some kind of a holiday bootcamp in there. A young boy speaks fluent English and helps us communicate with the monks. (I will remember him very well because it is the 5th time in China we can speak in a language we understand with someone. There will be 4 more occasions in the weeks to come). The monks let us take some water and enter the sanctuary.
Even though I don’t understand the meaning of any symbols, the place is calm and peaceful and the peace spreads on to me as well. We also climb the hill behind the sanctuary. There are trees but it doesn’t make the air any less sweltering. The countryside all around us is covered in fields and an endless labyrinth of brown irrigation channels. It seems to be gleaming with heat. The fields are green, though, and I can’t imagine how that is possible.
At night, the temperature stays almost the same and mosquitoes come. We put up the tent in a lemon orchard, on parched ground, and don’t even try to hide much.
A VIP delegation from Outer Space
The next day, we are woken up by farmers. We hang around in a nearby town and manage to buy internet card for the rest of the month. Even the cheapest plan available in the shop has unlimited data. The further east we get, the more we realize how bad and overpriced all data plans in Czechia are compared to almost all countries we’ve been to.
|Somewhere in Ningxia|
Since we finally have internet, we can contact people. We remember Faker. It is a young guy we met on the very first day of our trip. He had just finished his studies in the UK and was on his way home to China, unsuccessfully trying to hitchhike out of Prague for 2 days already. After getting stuck as well, we invited him to my place in Prague. The following morning, all of us managed to get a lift and we parted for good. Now, Faker has been home for several months, having crossed Pakistan and Afghanistan. We find out he lives in a totally different part of China, so no chance to meet up. Pretty much everybody lives in a totally different part of China, it seems. Except for Dan.
Dan is Faker’s friend, she is a Hospitality student, speaks English, lives in a nearby province and will be happy to meet us. So we go to the motorway and start hitchhiking to the city of Xi’an.
The crew at the toll gate seem very confused by our presence. They seem convinced we must need something, and they zealously try to find out what that is. They are unwilling to believe we just came here to hitch a ride. Gradually, almost 10 people surround us. They greet us as if we were an official delegation of a distant land, and as we are showing them our hitchhiking letters and pictures and telling them through the translation app that China is an exciting country, they call their boss and then the boss’ boss. Each boss greats us almost ceremoniously. Then the manager of the toll gate shows up. He eventually understands what we are up to – and decides to help us.
He orders his employees to bring us drinking water, and writes a sign on a cardboard for us. Some of the staff then start waving at cars and show us the ones with the license plates of our destination. Thanks to – or despite of – their help, a car stops pretty soon, and the show is over.
Insane heat, insane hospitality and an endless option to do inappropriate things
The next city, Guyuan, is in higher altitude, so the temperature becomes almost nice. We camp in a cozy park with pine trees, and I feel absolutely blissful. If you were wondering what is the key to ultimate happiness in human life, it’s temperature under 25°C. You’re welcome. I was glad to help.
In the morning we get some food in a restaurant for free again even though we were just asking for water. It seems that in China, not only Uyghur people are ready to feed illiterate aliens just because. I’m still wondering, though, whether it’s maybe some kind of tarof we abuse by not refusing enough. But how can I protest genuinely against being offered food! Is one minute of refusing not enough?
We cross mountains. The terrible heat suddenly turns into a terrible downpour, and then it is scorching hot again.
|Old town of Xi'an|
Before arriving to Xi’an, we find out that Dan paid subway tickets and a hotel for us. Just like that. She just announced it as a fait accompli, there is no chance of protesting. All we can do is to thank her thousand times and go to the address she gave us, and we meet there. She is a very young student of Hospitality and seems to be excited about her major – and pretty much about everything, actually. She did a part of her studies in the UK, she speaks some English and is extremely polite. She is so polite that it is hard to even trying to keep up with her in politeness. The next day, she goes to classes, so we explore the city on our own.
Xi’an is the first big Chinese city we ended up in. It is also important and historical, which I didn’t know before. The weather is still swelteringly hot. I melt in liters of sweat whereas other people carry cute umbrellas and look fresh. In the subway, a young, elegant woman starts a small-talk with us in English. Apart for breaking the stereotype that Chinese people don’t talk to strangers, she also is so far the seventh person in China (including a customs officer) who speaks a western language with us, so I would love to talk with her for hours. She gets off soon, though.
Vojta wants to go to a museum, but there is a waiting line several dozens of meters long, so he gives up and we spend the day in the old town. Even though Xi’an is not the most touristy city in China, the ancient lanes are stuffed with stands selling fried octopuses and tons of souvenirs such as mugs with Mao Zedong, books of quotes by Mao Zedong, purses with wrongly translated slogans by Mao Zedong and T-shirts with Mao Zedong or Obama or both combined which is probably meant to be a joke. By far the most bizarre souvenir are play cards with Osama Bin Laden.
We then turn up at a ceremony in a Buddhist temple. We do things wrong but a young student shows us where to stand correctly. After the ceremony, we end up getting a piece of watermelon from the monks. Even though there is a plenty of Chinese tourists, the watermelon is only given to us and some homeless people on the street. We don’t even have our backpacks with us so we have just no idea how this happened. The watermelon is tasty, though.
Eventually, we go to dinner with Dan. The food is delicious even though in the menu there was a meal translated as ‟High-quality smell of urine sub-surface“ that we didn’t dare to buy. At one point, I stick my chopsticks into the meal and the waitress comes almost running, tries to confiscate the chopsticks from me and force a spoon on me instead. For some reason, sticking sticks in the meal probably is very inappropriate.
Dan invites us to go with her to her parents’ village the next day, which is an offer we can’t refuse – we can’t wait to see her family and spend more time with some people again.
The village looks more like a part of an endless tapestry of family houses. Dan’s mum, dad and young brother are already waiting for us and pick us up from the train station by car. After stepping out of the air-conditioned station, the wave of heat almost knocks me down. The weather is so deadly hot that nobody spends more time than necessary in a place that is not air-conditioned. It is almost noon, all windows are shuttered and the streets are completely deserted as if nobody was living here.
|Our friend and her family|
Dan’s parents are both physicians: her mother specializes in traditional Chinese medicine, and her father in the western one. They share one cabinet: on one of the walls, there are shelves with mysteriously looking jars, and on the opposite side of the room, western-style medicines we are used to. In contrast to the European controversy and discussion whether the Chinese medicine is scientific enough, for Dan’s parents, both approaches seem to be in harmony.
|Western and traditional medicines|
Dan’s parents are very warmhearted and even more extremely polite than Dan. It almost seems like a contest in politeness that we are inevitably losing. They keep telling us how brave we are because we travel, and we thank them thousand times for their generosity. They even give us a present, and we have nothing but a postcard for them. We soon run out of compliments to return, so we repeat the old ones over and over. The family invites us for a delicious home-made meal, the most delicious one we’ve had in China. Dan also takes us to visit her aunt, who is also very warmhearted and polite. Even though we probably are very bad at politeness and other cultural conventions we ignore, Dan and her relatives are some of the first people in China (except Xinjiang) we manage to have a real conversation with. We are trying to pronounce some Chinese words and each other’s names, we show each other photos and we relate.
|The best meal in China|
Dan also takes us to an old fortress with a museum. In the cellars, the temperature drops to 31°C and it seems almost fresh. Were it not for the fierce heat, the place would be pleasant. We actually are in the valley of Huang He, the Yellow River – the place where Chinese civilization started. In this heat it doesn’t feel like a place for living whatsoever, let alone starting a civilization.
|Valley of the Yellow River|
|Trees on a drip feed. Is it too hot for them to survive?|
In the evening, the politeness contest continues and we lose spectacularly – Dan’s family insists on bringing us to a fancy hotel. We try to persuade them we would gladly camp on their floor, but we have no chance. After a pretty long negotiation, they tell us the hotel has actually been already paid for. (We eventually find out that was not the case, but it’s too late and they don’t let us pay anyway.)
I can’t believe all this started by hosting the young hitchhiker half a year ago back in Prague. We offered him a spot on the floor for camping and some pasta with tomatos. In return, we are treated like kings. It just doesn’t feel fair. Also, I am wondering how many social customs we violated and how many expectations we failed to meet. However, I am so excited we finally talked and spent some time with people here in China. This country still seems so unfamiliar and unfathomable, but I am so grateful to Dan and her family for letting us into their lives a bit. This is why we travel, after all.
|View from the fancy hotel|