So far I thought Turkey was the best country for hitchhiking but after 1 week in China I started to have serious doubts. I wondered why Chinese are so open for picking up a bunch of strangers who cannot even say a word in Chinese. Although they barely travel themselves (or they join a tour…) and don’t really get why we wander around the highways for fun, the reason is the curiosity. China, even though really developed, is still very isolated from the rest of the world. The level of English is poor if not tragic, even the young people can barely communicate in this language. But in my opinion the main thing is the Internet. How can an average Chinese learn anything about the world if the main websites (Google, Facebook,YouTube) are blocked? And even if they had a chance to use them (VPN exists), they wouldn’t because the country provided their good and more efficient Chinese substitutes. The whole thing has been well thought out. The government can stop the information flow but it can’t kill the curiosity. And this Chinese don’t lack at all.
We had almost 1000 km to do, it means 3 full days of hitchhiking in order to get to Leshan. Our drivers made sure we had everything we needed, though, from water to a range of Chinese sweets. Hitchhiking on the mountain road was a disaster because of traffic that made our journey 3 hours longer than we thought. The landscapes rewarded everything, though. We drove through Chinese “ghost towns”- newly build cities where absolutely everything looked artificial, modern and… empty. Apparently there was no willings for leaving their homes and moving to a freshly built metropolis. On the other hand, the mountain views, tiny villages and rice paddies we saw on the way reassured me that I was in one of the most beautiful countries in the world. After stopping for the night in Panzihua the third day went pretty fast, instead of spending money for buses we actually got a delicious lunch for free and an extra £20 (we really opposed but the driver didn’t want to leave us for starvation), which we used for spoiling ourselves after a long journey.
Grace was our first Chinese host. We spent in Leshan only 1 night but it was enough to learn a lot, not only about Chinese mentality but about simple human relations. Although we secretly cursed her when she took us to the park (for a little marathon) 5 minutes after we entered her flat and judged her as potentious and dishonest, in the end she turned out to be a quite nice and sensitive girl. “Breaking the ice”, that’s how you call it. She told us about her love for painting and her plans to move to Canada where she hoped to find happiness and people who would understand her. Her Western mind, developed by travelling, wasn’t clear for the rest of the society that looked at her like a freak. “Why would you live in another country if here you have everything you need, you can get married and work 12h a day for the rest of your life?”, that’s what the typical Chinese mentality is. For a moment I felt sorry for her. I’ve never appreciated how much freedom and possibilities I’ve had, thinking that everyone has a choice. Well, sometimes not. Or if you do, you gotta sacrifice other things which is not easy, either.
Our trip to giant Leshan Buddha was a disaster. My depression had its culmination and although the site was really impressive I don’t know if we both enjoyed it even for 5 minutes. There was no reason to stay in Leshan longer so after a nice breakfast with Grace we left to Chengdu where our German host awaited us. Hoping for some rest, we had to leave soon after we got there as his Russian roommate wasn’t very accommodating to the couchsurfers. We had a time to grab a dinner with Arvid and do some shopping instead. Tania wasn’t that scary at all, or maybe it was only our “Slavic brotherhood” and the wine… Arvid maybe wasn’t my favourite host ever (all the Germans I meet happen to have no sense of humour) but he really took time to show us the city life. He helped me with sending documents for my Australian visa to Poland and the first night he took us to join the “English corner” which was a very interesting experience. That night we were pushed into a crowd of about 100 Chinese students gathering in front of the university, hungry for fresh foreigner’s blood. It didn’t take even 2 minutes until a bunch of girls encircled us and started to ask milions of questions. If I had enough of breath I would probably stay there longer but after 1 hour I started to feel dizzy and had to leave the conversation hell. It’s amazing how hungry for knowledge these people were and it’s even more amazing how much they can actually pay for it. As we learnt, even as an unqualified, not-native English speaker you can earn more money than in England by teaching from home. It’s crazy. Well, if I don’t get the Australian visa there’s always a plan B. After hours of chatting with Chinese the night was still young. After entering a huge building looking more like a bank than a place of entertainment I was amazed how many couchsurfers lived in Chengdu. And like always on cs meetings there was a couple of interesting characters. There was a Brazilian guy with a pure Latino spirit, a girl looking like Penelope Cruz who knew very well that she did, few blond dull Danish girls and Arvid’s American friend with his Chinese girlfriend who would be having an intercourse on the table if they could. Chengdu is often called “Gaydu” and the amount of gays or at least guys that looked like them proved the point. Even a Texas guy (Texas, hellooo?) was more feminine than I’ve ever been. Even though I recently stopped enjoying “1 night stand” friendships and the conversations that always sound the same, there was few people worth talking to. A Polish girl travelling with her boyfriend with a hippie spirit was one of them, as well as a really nice Chinese girl-writer whose face carried a story of a serious fire. When we went upstairs to join a techno party on the top floor, I lost myself in music. I’ve always imagined Chinese or Japanese parties as dark, secret gatherings with a loud electronic music and eccentric people and I wasn’t disappointed. Outside the life was peaceful and organized like usual while there, on the top, skimpy dressed girls with a dark make up and the smell of weed filled the air. Workaholics need to relax and they know how to do it.
It was sure we chose the best weekend to come as it turned out to be a neverending party. I managed to explore the city a bit during the second day and it only proved Callum’s point that there was nothing to see. Wenshu Temple, Tianfu square and Luang Xiang Zi alley had a nice vibe but they were too crowded and commercial (what a surprise). People’s Park, on the other hand, stole my heart. Filled with old Chinese people playing cards, dancing at random squares or watching traditional performances, the park emanated of good energy and joy. After a delicious hot pot with Arvid and his friends we went for a birthday party of an American guy who, no doubt, found the best place to celebrate. The music was amazing, alcohol cheap and the people really had fun. I could probably live there if the internet wasn’t so shit and my Chinese skills werent on a level 0.
The main goal for our visit in Chengdu were the pandas. After the party we woke up a bit too late to see playing bears so we spent the last day visiting perhaps the most boring museum (Sichuan museum) in the world and drinking tea in one of the parks. We left the next morning after breakfast with Arvid who made the most of us cooking for him. Until today I don’t really know if he cared about us at all. Anyway, somehow we managed to get to the Panda Breeding Centre before noon when pandas were the most active. There wasn’t many pandas, though. In the whole park there was only few places where you could observe them in their “almost” natural habitat. The rest of the area contained a bamboo forest and a couple of empty cages. I managed to see only 2 red pandas as they were wandering all around the park. Well, if you really wanna spend time with these lovely creatures you gotta pay for it. Every tourist attraction in China is overpriced but volunteering, at least with animals, is a joke. That’s why we joined Workaway community and even though we didn’t originally plan it, we decided to volunteer for a couple of days on a farm outside of Chengdu. We needed a break from travelling and find “home”, even if it was a temporary one.
The farm was located in a small town called Jiulin and was absolutely massive (over 300 ha). It was a typical pigs farm with environmentaly friendly roots run by a lovely Chinese family. We were welcomed very warmly by Lin (owner’s nephew who dealt with workaway volunteers) and the whole family, joining a birthday dinner prepared for grandma on the first night. We got a bunk bed in a straw hut where we stayed with a French couple (called “Flos”), Kayla from California and Monique from Australia. Although the farm was huge, we had the most boring duties to do, including cleaning the ponds and picking up the trash. It wasn’t my biggest dream so the first days passed very lazy until Callum and I got an idea of our own project- building a shed. The good thing about the farm was that we had lots of freedom- no one expected anything from us, we could be creative and if anyone had any idea, they were totally supported in it. As there was lots of wood and scrap to use, building a workshop seemed to be the most reasonable idea. From the third day me and the girls started to level the ground while Callum tried to get wood and tools which wasn’t as easy as it may seem. Although Lin was very kind, knowledgeable and open for new ideas, he was still Chinese which means he didn’t know much about the life, especially about the carpentry. We still had lots of fun with him, though, as he made sure we had a proper entertainment from time to time. We enjoyed the homemade wine during plenty of family dinners and had a chance to show our knowledge of Britney Spears hits on a karaoke night, stuffed with 2% beer and crunchy chicken feet.
I thought the farm would help me to feel a little better. And maybe it would if “travellers” we lived with didn’t disappoint me once again. Kayla and Monique were quite cool although their shallow “conversations” with Flos made me want to wear ear plugs and go to sleep. Flo and his girlfriend Flo, as proper French, were arrogant and felt better than the rest of the world. They didn’t help us with the shed at all, spending almost 3 days to build a fucking dog house that should normally take 2 hours. They brought their dog from another farm and, without asking anyone, they let him sleep in the hut as “he didn’t have home yet”. I’m a poor pretender so they surely noticed I wasn’t their fan. I didn’t care about them but the attitude of the rest taught me a lot about the human nature. People are weak. So weak that they can do anything in order to stay in a group even if they don’t agree with its members. Most of the people don’t really care about the others and even if they do, they don’t wanna risk supporting “the weaker” as they could be dismissed from their comfy position. That’s what happened when Flos were about to leave. It was their last night and the first day of Ariane’s stay on the farm, everyone gathered with a glass of beer in the corner of the room chatting but no one invited us. Not even a word. I was really disappointed and although after the French left it turned out no one liked them I wouldn’t trust the team again.
Another annoying thing was the internet. VPN barely worked so contacting my family and getting some information about my grandma was a nightmare. In the end I managed to speak to my friends and grandparents, who were fresh after the operation and waited for the results of cancer’s progress. The food in the canteen was good (if you don’t mind pork 3 times a day) but somehow my poo took the weirdest shapes and consistency I’ve ever seen. The Sichuan mosquitoes and lice in our hut made our life miserable as well. Until the last day we didn’t know which of them made Kayla’s legs look like after smallpox. The best thing about the farm were the animals. Tudou brought by Flos, although annoying, was the calmest and the cutest dog in the world and Walden cat, who lived with us, was the best company for my lonely evenings. One time, I accidentally found a bitch with her 4 new born puppies in a shed next to the canteen and from then on I was a frequent visitor. Although I didn’t learn anything about farming, my love for animals definitely grew so I’m gonna look for new opportunities to work with them in the future.
10 days weren’t enough to complete our project. Even though we worked every day, the rain and lack of tools delayed our work so we had to overstay a bit. Lin offered to get us a train ticket to Xi’an so instead of hitching for 2 days we could spend a comfy night in a train and help in the farm instead. We worked until the last day and athough Lin would probably prefer us to finish the details as well and make everything “beautiful”, I think he was quite content. Before we left we joined a dinner with the uncles (including the “ big boss”) who celebrated the family reunion with a glass of baijiu. You know the feeling as you are leaving some place and suddenly it appears like the best place on earth? That’s how I felt. Changes are scary and my fear of coming back to the road made me feel like I didn’t use the time on the farm to the fullest. Maybe I didn’t, but it was too late, I could only learn from it for the future. When Lin brought us to Mianyang train station at 9 pm, telling us about the future projects, I thought I could live there. Such places are scary cuz they make you too comfortable and make you wanna come back. But the world is too big, there’s too much to explore, I can’t spend the rest of my life on the pigs farm, can I? Although I didn’t get from the farm much besides building skills and few mosquito bites, I learnt a lot about Chinese people and their habits, humanity in general and I got a new energy for the coming month of travelling in China.