Category Archives: China

Day 59: When we nearly died – Kazakhstan border

The minibus journey that Alexei the Giant had arranged for us from Urumqi was the 61st hitchhike so far. It was long and difficult, through the dark and icy cold, over bumpy roads. Our hosts didn’t seem keen on talking to each other, let alone us, so after several attempts at communication we decided it wasn’t worth it. Michael took the opportunity to have one of the sleeping tablets that a friend had given to us in Bangkok so he was out of it for most of the time.

We were only crawling along up an steep icy hill with a bollard seperating us from the cliff to our left. The minibus was clearly strugging, judging my the screams of the engine and the swearing of the driver. Once one the crest of the hill we were on flatter ground.

There was a clunk from the bowls of our vehicle and I could hear the driver frantically pushing pedals, but nothing was happening. Whilst Michael was sound asleep, the rest of us held our breath as the mini bus started sliding, quite slowly, but totally out of control. We slid towards the bollard separating us from the cliff, and I as I contemplated how strong the barrier was I also wondered if I should have woken Michael, just in case.

As we approached the barrier, no faster than 7 km p/h, the two woman started shrieking and screaming, difficult sounds to take in such a confined space. We bounced off the bollard, and started sliding back towards the otherside, like a bowling ball. We bounced twice more between the barriers until the mini bus lost momentum and we stopped. The women had stopped screaming, and the men got out to inspect the problem.

I thought about getting out as well but seeing as my knowledge of cars amounts to a snake’s of stilts, I stayed put. Besides, it was well below freezing outside and snow looked sharp on the eyes.

Michael awoke for a few moments, lifted his head, chewing, and mumbled something like, “dam seal… thinks he’s so smart”

Day 57 – 58: “Alexei the Giant…” – Urumqi

When we first planned our journey we had decided to try and get a bus from Urumqi into Kazakhstan. We told ourselves, it would be the only time we paid for transport. Now that we’d arrived in Urumqi, having hitchhiked 9’163 km, it felt strange contemplating a bus journey. I won’t lie, the idea of relaxing for 12 hours and eating up 1000 km felt pretty good compared to hitting the road and braving the elements but there was something about it that just didn’t sit well in the stomach.

We went for a few drinks at the excellent Fubar, a buzzing expat bar, next to People’s Park, and discussed the matter. As we were drinking and talking I spotted a heavy set bloke out of the corner of my eye with ‘Kazakhstan’ emblazoned across the back of his top. I got a glimpse of his face as he turned around slightly: he had a prominent, stubbled chin and a pair of blue eyes, deeply set in his large skull. A huge silver chain was hung around his neck and dangled over his jumper.


We flipped a coin to decide who would go over to speak to him and, as I lost, I downed the remainder of my beer, took a deep breath and went on over. I tapped him on the shoulder and asked him if he spoke English. He shook his head. Through a sheer stroke of luck, the waiter we’d been talking to earlier, Azi, from Tajikistan, who spoke flawless English, just happened to be clearing away the drinks from his table. I asked Azi to translate our story to him. As he told our tale, the Kazakhstani listened, giving nothing away. If anything he just looked like his was bored and wanted to get back to his drink. Once the story was finished he stood up, pressed his lips into his mouth and then crushed my hand like a bear. As I’d been so used to Chinese handshakes, it was a shock to get such an iron grip.

“Alexei,” he rumbled, with his thumb, as thick as one of my legs, pressed into his chest.

“Richard,” I murmured, with my thumb, as thick as one of his chin hairs, pressed into my chest. The giant bought me a drink and, with the help of Azi, I asked him if he was going back to Kazakhstan anytime soon.

“No, he is sorry to say that he is not,” replied Azi. I was gutted! I invited Alexei back to our table for a drink nonetheless, but he declined because he was waiting for some friends. I walked back to our table to see Michael’s eager face trying to judge what had transpired.

“I thought we were on there, mate” I said. “Bloody good bloke he was. Look at the state of my hand!”

We drank a few Boddingtons for a massive £4.50 each and forgot about Alexei as we chatted away to a Chinese pair called Sonic and Chun Lee. They spoke great English and told us about the racial tensions between the Chinese Han and the Uigher populations that escalated into the riots a couple of years ago.


“Everyone was using bricks, sticks, knives and anything as weapons. They would ask ‘are you a Uighur?’ If they kept silent or couldn’t answer in the Uighur language, they would get beaten or killed”

Late on in the night I got a tap on shoulder from Azi.

“The Kazak has found you a ride if you want it. He’s been trying all night calling everyone he knows. A friend’s sister’s friend is going to Almaty in two days time”

Michael and I looked at each other. It had been a while since I’d experienced it, but the impact was the same. A euphoric sense of exhilaration, relief and excitement surged through my veins.

“We’re going to Kazakhstan”, we said, with a clink of our glasses.

The Rich-Mike Hitchhike Insight: Hitchhiking in China

China is such a diverse country it’s difficult to consider it as a whole. South China is a hitchhiker’s dream. It was easy to secure rides and the people were always hospitable and friendly, especially Ryan, in Huize, who took such characteristics to new heights.


After Xian, as we followed the Silk Road west, it grew more difficult. People were less likely to stop and if they did a large sum of money was expected. This said, there was never a single day where we failed. For this reason, combined with the fact that pristine new highways have been built to connect the numerous mega-cities, we regard China as an excellent place to hitchhike in.

China Hitchhiking Rating:  af2e834c1e23ab30f1d672579d61c25a_15af2e834c1e23ab30f1d672579d61c25a_15af2e834c1e23ab30f1d672579d61c25a_15af2e834c1e23ab30f1d672579d61c25a_15af2e834c1e23ab30f1d672579d61c25a_15af2e834c1e23ab30f1d672579d61c25a_15af2e834c1e23ab30f1d672579d61c25a_15af2e834c1e23ab30f1d672579d61c25a_15     (8/10)



Day 55: “Lamb?…” – Turpan

“I think I fancy some lamb tonight,” said Michael, as we sat down to eat in celebration of the time we’d made up.


The waitress came over and handed us each a Chinese menu and the usual game ensued where we pointed at random symbols and the waitress acted out the dominant animal in the dish. Up until this night I was very confident that Michael and I were going to clean up at charades this Christmas. Our opponents, you see, are the Campians, a drama family, so they always win. “Not this year though!” I’d been telling myself, “Not with our daily acting experience”. My confidence, however, was somewhat dented by the following debacle…

I went first and picked an option on the menu. The waitress pointed her fingers from her head, to indicate horns, and went “mooooooooo”.

“Oh Lamb?” said Michael, nodding confidently.

“No Mike, I’m pretty sure that’s beef,” I said; then, turning to the waitress, “Yes please, Zhege, xiexie, thank you”.

Michael then pointed at another option on the menu and the waitress kind of pawed her hand and made an indiscriminate noise, something like “Meeowwwww”

We looked at each other in silence.

 “Lamb?” asked Michael.

Michael’s travel tip of the week: If you’re ever in Turpan, avoid the lamb.


Day 50: Deserted in the Gobi – to Yongdeng


Wo jiao Michael,” said Michael, sitting in the middle of the back seat,  introducing himself to our new hosts. I rolled my eyes in anticipation of what was inevitably to follow. “Like Michael Jackson!” he said grasping a chunk of his mangy, long hair. “Ah!” our hosts yelped in excited recognition. “Mi’kel Jak’son!!”

This was the 55th car to pick us up and the 55th time I’d heard this comparison.

“Richard”, I said, leaning forward, “Wo jiao Richard. Like Richard Gere?”

The three youngsters looked at each other scratching their heads. No one ever knew Richard Gere.

Hitchhike number 55 had started like every other: the surge of elation that followed being picked up was a welcome respite from the tedium of waiting. The feeling of satisfaction that we were about to chip another tiny chuck out of the 20’000 km of road that separated us from the green pastures of Shropshire had made us eager to get to know our new hosts.

We were in the car with a trio of teenagers: a couple in the front and another boy in the back. Both the boys had a feathery adolescent moustache and the girl had her long black hair tied in a pony-tail plat. Michael and I took turns to fire questions at them from our Lonely Planet phrasebook. Every one of them was met with cries of glee from our hosts –a kind of innocent enthusiasm that never failed to affect us.

Between the questions, I took the time, as I often did, to gaze at our surroundings; consciously attempting to commit as many of the different landscapes as I could to memory. It’s perhaps a strange, circumscribed way to experience the world, speeding past you from behind a car window. It was as if a great Bayeux Tapestry was unravelling at 90 km p/h as we leapfrogged our way through the continent, from car to lorry to car.

We had been picked up in a remote town called Jiayuguan, about 628 km from the next site of discernible civilization, . If you look at the shape of China as a chicken, we were deep in the tail feathers. The lush tropics of the South Pacific were a distant memory and the further we headed north and west the colder and emptier the landscape had become.

After The Sandy Desert, in Australia, I’d say The Gobi is the second most aptly named desert in existence. Its name meanswaterless place” and, indeed, it is a notoriously greedy desert with an insatiable thirst for fertile land.  It is expanding south, year after year, devouring as much as 3,600 km2 of grassland each time. We’d also noticed that the further we’d headed north and west, the more the people seemed to absorb the characteristics of their environment. Up until Xian, the local people had been, at times, overwhelmingly generous, friendly and open. Since then, however, the inhabitants of colder, miserly more ruthless lands had become just that. It was with increasing frequency that drivers would demand exorbitant amounts of money to give us a ride.

We’d been in the car for about two hours and we seemed to be exactly smack bang in the middle of nowhere. One of the dubious joys of hitchhiking is that you’re at the mercy of the whims of your host. Usually these whims pertain to generosity, friendliness or benevolence but not always. Hitchhiking sometimes manifests the darker sides of human nature as well, as we were to soon find out.

The boy in the back had been studying the phrasebook for a while, mesmerised. Michael was similarly engaged, listening to his iPod. His hair had grown wild and unwashed, his beard like a nest of dry, ginger straw. He looks like a caveman, I thought, which in hindsight proved to be an ominous reflection.

I suddenly realised that all three of our hosts were starting at me, even the driver.  Looks of curiosity/bewilderment were ingrained into their youthful faces. We were probably the first westerners they’d ever seen in the flesh. They considered us for a few moments more, before a debate broke out between them. The couple in the front were discussing something of importance – or perhaps they were arguing – it was difficult to tell. The only thing I could count on was that the subject was us; it was obvious from the intermittent glances in the rear-view mirror.

The boy next to Michael passed him the phrasebook and Michael duly pulled out his earphones.

“Huh?” he said, as the boy pointed to a phrase. Michael read aloud the phrase, which was apparently in the shopping section of the book.

“How – much –does –it –cost?”

My attention flittered for a spit second to the other side of the highway –I thought I’d seen a car but it was merely the sun, now low in the sky ahead of us, reflecting momentarily from a sign.

“What?” said Michael, “What does what cost? My iPod?”

He’d been asked this question a few times before. The boy looked at the iPod but shook his head. He pointed to the phrase again and then gestured at the space all around us to indicate the car. I could see the driver’s face in the mirror break into a grin.

“How much is the car?” asked Michael, with a knitted brow. It dawned on me what was about to happen.

“He means the ride,” I said. “He means how much for the ride… the lift.”

We didn’t mind paying drivers for our rides sometimes. If we were in a country where it was customary to do so, the “when in Rome” motto seemed a reasonable course of action. If a fee was requested, it was usually negotiated before we got into the vehicle. We always armed ourselves with the knowledge of the price of a bus ticket between the places we were travelling and, as a general rule, if we were charged anything over that price, we rejected the offer and if it was anything below, we jumped aboard. Up until this point, 8’388 km into our journey, we’d paid for 6 out of 55 rides, from £2.50 to £5.dsc00333-fotor

This time I had an uneasy feeling creeping into my stomach. It seemed like these kids had purposely waited until we were at our most vulnerable, the furthest point between where we’d started and where were going. The boy handed Michael a notepad and gestured for him to offer a price. Michael wrote the price of a bus ticket and returned it back. The boy’s eyes widened, squinted and then his eyebrows fell low. He reported the figure to the two in front. The driver snorted in disbelief. They were clearly expecting more. The girl with the long pony tail plat looked out of her window, seemingly disinterested in the proceedings.

“The air felt cold in our lungs and loud on our breath as we walked towards the sun.”

The driver caught my attention in the rear-view mirror and rubbed his thumb and forefinger together –the one gesture we’ve found to be truly international. Michael returned the notepad again and gestured for him to write a price. The boy said a few words to the driver, who muttered a reply. The girl’s heard jerked back around and she spat a sharp word or two at the driver. Michael and I looked at each other as the girl continued to express her anger in rapid Chinese.

The boy in the back wrote a figure, crossed it out, thought for a few seconds, wrote another figure and passed it to Michael. Michael took a look at the number, sighed with a smile and cast his eyes to the heavens.

“What is it?” I dared to ask.

“You don’t want to know,” he replied earnestly. I took the notepad. The price was one hundred times what we’d initially offered to pay, the equivalent of a week of our budget in China. It looked more like an international phone number. I made eye contact with the girl; she looked again out of the window, not that there was much to see. We’d entered a shallow ravine, with some small, white chalky hills on either side of us. A few heavy moments of silence passed.

The driver was the first to break, clearing his throat. He made the familiar money gesture with the hand he wasn’t steering with and then pointed outside into the desert. As if the ultimatum wasn’t clear enough, he slowed right down then pulled over. The girl started complaining again, but the driver silenced her with an aggressive bang of his hand onto the dashboard.

I’m not sure what they expected us to do. Perhaps they were only trying to scare us into paying up. We certainly didn’t have that kind of money on us – we’d have been fools to do so. Looking back, perhaps we could have given them assurances that we’d pay up in the next town or perhaps we should have attempted to negotiate a more reasonable price. These things didn’t occur to us at the time. I watched the boy in the back’s jaw fall open in astonishment as I opened the car door and stepped outside. Michael shook each person’s hand and thanked them with more sincerity than I could have managed had I attempted it. As they drove off, with a spin of their wheels on the dusty road, I could hear the girl screeching in high irate tones at what had just occurred. The boy in the back watched us from the rear window until the car disappeared into the horizon.

“What did you thank them for?” I asked Michael.

“They drove us 328 km. That’s 128 km more than our daily target.”

I couldn’t resist smiling. Here we were, without any food or water, stranded in one of the most unforgiving environments on earth. Whilst we’d been driving, deeper and deeper into this barren wasteland of a place, we hadn’t seen a single vehicle on either side of the road. We only had a few hours of sunlight left and the temperatures were reputed to drop to as low as -40C. I couldn’t help but admire and envy Michael’s positivity.

The air felt cold in our lungs and loud on our breath as we walked towards the sun which was perhaps a couple of hours away from settling down for the night behind the horizon. We’d left the plateau and had now dropped with the road into a mini valley, with low, chalky hills on either side of us. Despite being barren and largely featureless, our surroundings, cast perfectly in the silent winter sunset, possessed a stark, extra-terrestrial kind of beauty.

A few hours later the feelings of hunger were gnawing at our stomachs, the cold was seeping into our bones and tiredness whittling away at our morale.

“Well, on the plus side,” said Michael, surveying the valley with a somewhat studious look on his face. “I’ve started to see quite a few caves around.”

We continued walking for about 30 seconds as his words hung in the air.

“Yes,” he continued, “from time to time I’ve often thought about what we should do if we ever find ourselves in a situation like this. We should sleep back-to-back, to keep our backs warm, while our arms keep our fronts warm.”

“Good thinking Michael,” I agreed, pretending that I hadn’t just had a somewhat startling vision of me killing him, eating his flesh, burning his corpse for warmth and then dancing around the cave with the charred remains of his skeleton for a laugh.

“What are you grinning at Rich?”

“Oh errr… nothing,” I chuckled. “Hey, do you hear something?”

We heard the faintest of rumblings behind us and turned around. In any other landscape on earth such a distant sound would have been absorbed into the scenery or ignored by the occupants, but here even our hearts sounded like drums in our chests. Squinting into the distance, with the sun behind us, we saw a sparkle of reflected light.

“A car! A car! A car!” we whimpered, skipping about. The excitement quickly turned to anxiety, however, at the thought that nothing was guaranteed. This was the first car we’d seen since the trio of teenagers that had picked us up – 4 hours and 300 km ago. Surely, I thought to myself, two random westerners in the desert, 328 km from civilization, would be a compelling enough sight to stop?!

Perhaps with the image of my malevolent, cannibalistic grin still fresh in his mind, Michael cast aside any feelings of inhibition and he stepped out of the hard shoulder and onto the highway. With the brazen pride of a showgirl at a boxing match, he held the sign for our next destination, “Hami”, high above his head. I joined him by his side and I summoned from within the depths of my soul the most pitiful look of pleading sorrow that I could muster – my lip quivered, my eyes bulged and swelled with water, my knees shivered and my hands were clasped together in prayer. It was no show. I wanted to leave.

The closer and closer our saviour approached, the more and more our excitement grew, and the more we shuffled out onto the highway.

“Is he slowing down?” I asked Michael.

“I think so!”

And sure enough, the car was slowing down.

There is nothing in this world that intensifies the feelings of hunger, tiredness, boredom, isolation and loneliness more than giving someone the opportunity of respite and then taking it away again. To misquote a man a lot more intelligent than me: “Hope is as good a breakfast as false hope is a bad supper.”

And true these words proved to be. The car slowed down as it passed, stared at us as if we were animals in a zoo, before speeding off again, roaring like thunder, into the horizon

“Damn!” Michael shouted, throwing the sign into the dust.

“That was it”, I said, kicking a stone, “That was our chance.”

“Well, do you want the good news or the bad news?” he asked me.

“The good news.”

“I can see a good cave.”

“The bad news?”

“It’s a cave.”

As we turned from the road, dejected and tired, the thought of the night to come sent a small chill down my spine and the first real thoughts of concern wandered into my mind.

How long will it be before we see another car? How long will it be before another car stops? How long will it be before we can eat again? How cold will it be when the sun falls behind the horizon? Will Michael notice if I steal his scarf?  

Not for the first time on our journey I was thankful not to be alone and my thoughts turned to comfort.

Which dusty rock would make a good pillow? Which dusty rock would make a good blanket? Which dusty rock could I brush my teeth with the morning?

 “I don’t believe it,” said Michael, breaking my train of thought.

“Huh?” I replied.

“Another car is coming.”

I turned around and, sure enough, he was right. No yelps of excitement or skipping around this time, however. The bitter taste of disappointment was still too fresh in our mouths. This time it was serious; now or never. We walked right out into the middle of the road and for the first time on our hitchhiking adventure, I think the driver had to stop out of necessity rather than choice. The car slowed down, manoeuvred around us, and then stopped in the hard shoulder ahead of his. We jogged up to the window and, as it opened, a thick plume of cigarette smoke oozed from within. Two pairs of masculine eyes were just about visible, peering at us through the sauna-like haze. Michael pointed at his sign. They shared a few words together then gestured for us to join them.     

I let the familiar wave of elation wash over me as I slide into the backseat alongside my friend. Whereas usually, however, the feeling was a euphoric affirmation that the highs of hitchhiking round the world outweigh the lows, this time it was more like relief.

Ni hao!” said Michael, leaning forward. “Wo jiao Michael. Like Michael Jackson!”

The driver looked at his friend and they both giggled in mutual recognition.

“Ah ha ha! Mik-el Jak-son!”

“The hair!” Michael said, grasping a chunk, and they all laughed some more.

Ni hao” I said, leaning forward. “Wo jiao Richard. Like Richard Gere”

They stopped laughing and scratched their heads. No one ever knew Richard Gere.

Day 46: “No Panda?…” – Chengdu, China

As we were eating breakfast we picked up a newspaper report of the destruction the floods had caused in Thailand. Over 500 people had died and 2.5 million people’s lives had been disrupted. It was amazing to think we’d only missed it by a day or two.


As usual we had to walk many miles out of the city centre. A couple of teenage lads pulled up on a scooter and asked us something we didn’t understand in Chinese. We showed them the translation of our hitchhiking mission and they spluttered more Chinese before pointing in the opposite direction. They then scooted off 100 meters ahead of us and started talking to a man in a car. When we caught up with them they ushered us into the man’s car and we drove off. We pulled up outside an ATM and one of the boys got out, withdrew some cash, and then handed it to the driver.

It turned out, we realised, that the boys had paid the driver to take us to the tollgate on the highway. We were gobsmacked. Despite the boys’ benevolence, however, the driver they’d paid obviously didn’t understand what we wanted to do. He drove us around in circles before pulled up next to a police car outside the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.

“Uh oh. I don’t like the looks of this,” I said to Michael. “Why is he talking to the police?”

The policemen opened our doors and ushered us to follow them. We walked through the gates, where everyone was queuing to pay, and into a tourist office.

“Ah I see. They’ve taken us to someone who can speak English”

We walked inside and were greeted by an enthusiastic tourist guide. He was quite tall, about 20 years old, with thick glasses and a wide grin. Every time he said “panda,” which was roughly every third word, he over emphasized the “pa,” as if he was a child shooting an imaginary gun.


“Hello! You interested to see panda?!”

“Er no. Not today we just-“

“Here in Chengdu we have soooo many Panda! So many panda for you to see!”

“Yes, congratulations, it’s just that-”



“The Chengdu Panda Base was founded in 1987!”

“Ooookay. Well, be that as it may-“

“Six giant pandas from the jungle! Today is 83 panda! Ha ha ha ha ha”


“Six panda to 83 panda!” he said, nodding with enthusiasm “Happy panda! Yes, ok? Ha ha ha ha ha ha!”

I looked at him for a couple of seconds. He smiled back at me. I took a deep breath and I tried again.

“We would like you to-“

“Sell tickets for panda? Very good! Best in China!”


“No Panda?”

“No! We want you to-“

“Why no panda? Why you here?”

“I’m trying to tell you!”

He nodded and looked at me, smiling. I scratched my head harder than was necessary and then went to speak but I just couldn’t…

“Michael, you’re going to have to tag in on this one, mate,” I said and I sat down.

“Hello, my name is Michael, what is your name?”

“Name is a Jason. I here for you buy two tickets for panda education”

“No pandas today”

“Oh! No panda!?” he said, sounding hurt.

“No panda”, Michael repeated

“Panda in England?”

“No panda”

“Plenty panda in Chengdu!”

“Yes, plenty panda in Chengdu”

“Yes panda?”

“Yes panda”

“Two tickets for Panda education show?”

“Ok, what are the prices?”

“MICHAEL!” I shouted.

“Oh right, yeah. No panda”, said Michael.

“No panda? Why are you here?”

 “Listen. We are trying to hitchhike. Do you know hitchhike?”

Jason nodded.

“Good. We are trying to hitchhike from Indonesia to England. 20’000 km, through 20 countries, in 100 days. For charity”

“Aaaaahhhhhh. England, yes, very good,” he said, sticking his thumbs up. “Aaaaaaahhhh Charity yes very good”

“We would like you to explain to this man that we would like him to drive us to the tollgate, on the highway, so we can hitchhike towards….where is it,” he asked, turning to me

“Guangyuan,” I said.

“Guangyuan. We want to drive to the tollgate,” Michael repeated, slowly, “so we can hitchhike to Guangyuan. Can you do that Jason? Can you explain that to our driver?”

 “Ah, yes yes yes”

Michael gave me a confident nod, as if to say ‘job done’, and Jason started talking hurriedly to our driver.

“Finally, we’re getting somewhere,” I said to Michael.

Jason stopped talking to our driver and looked back at us.

“Well?” I said, “Did you explain to him?”

“Explain what?”

“About hitchhiking”

“What is hitchhiking?”

I stood up again.

“Hitchhiking is da bianche” I said, pointing to the word in our dictionary.

“Da bianche?”

“Da bianche”

“No panda?”

“Jason! I waste enough time standing around watching a fat, sexless slob with big black bags under his eyes when I brush my teeth in the morning. Don’t make me feed you to the bears!”

“Pandas only eat bamboo”

“He’s got you there Rich” said Michael in my ear.

I couldn’t argue with that. I marched out of the tourist office, where I sat down and started rocking, with my knees hitched up to my chest, on a bench. To calm myself down, I jammed my fingers in my ears and tried to think of happy thoughts:

“Making cupcakes with Funshine Bear, making cupcakes with Funshine Bear”

About ten minutes later, Michael came outside. He’d finally managed to get Jason to understand what we wanted him to do. I went back inside and apologised for losing my temper but he didn’t seem to even notice that I had. We thanked him for his help and went on our way.

We waited for about 30 minutes at the tollgate before we were picked up. As our new driver wasn’t interested in talking, and in fact appeared unfriendly and slightly scary, I busied myself with a bit of reading. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted Michael practicing a card trick we’d been shown in Chengdu: one where you flick it from the front of your hand to the back of your hand, making it look like it’s disappeared. I thought about telling him “to pack it in,” but didn’t want to sound like my Dad; so, despite the opportunity for a bad pun, I didn’t say anything.

It was at this point that Michael fired the card, like Gambit from X-Men, from the back seat into the windscreen. The driver turned around and growled.

Day 45: “Funshine bear…” – Chengdu, China


Chengdu is a huge city of over 13 million people making it nearly double the population of London. It was strange for Michael and I, humble folk of the Shire, to have gone through so many mega-cities and it was hard to distinguish between them. Chengdu, though, seemed different.  Judging by the advertising boards that are dotted around the outskirts of the city, you’d think that Chengdu was running riot with cartoon panda bears, skipping, dancing, singing and spreading love all around the city.

“Wow, just like Care-a-lot” I accidently said aloud.

“What the hell is ‘Care-a-lot’?” asked Michael.

“Oh err nothing,” I said, panicking, “just from a film I watched when I was young”

“What’s that then?”

“Errrrm, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe?

“There’s no ‘Care-a-lot’ in He-Man and the Masters of the Universe!

“Fine. It’s from The Care Bears Movie. Are you happy now?!”


We spent my 27th birthday drinking at the bar in our hostel, Sim’s Cozy Guesthouse, with a Frenchman, Sam, who was working as a personal body guard. Sam was a good looking bloke and you could see that he was very happy with himself. He was only a little guy, but he’d been training in martial arts since he was very young. As part of his training he’d spent some years living as a monk and he once, for a holiday, spent three months trekking through Mongolia with a horse.

“It’s weird the kind of conversations you can have when you’re travelling with such a simple creature,” said Sam.

“I can’t possibly imagine,” I replied, smiling at Michael

“Sorry, which one was your favourite Care Bear again?” he retorted, smiling right back at me. “Funshine Bear” I replied, with a sigh, hanging my head in shame.


Day 41: “Fresh Prince of Huizé…” – Huizé, China

Thankfully the ride in the death car only lasted about 30 minutes. I’ve never been so terrified in a car before or since and at one point I genuinely prepared my body for the crash that seemed inevitable.

The maniac skidded his car to a halt at a junction off the highway and we both stepped out with ashen faces, our limbs visibly shaking. I probably would have kissed the tarmac if I’d had time, but no sooner had we retrieved our bags from the boot when another car pulled over and the 30th hitchhike of our journey thus far was secured.

“Ah hello, hello, hello! We can talk and be friends! You are my friends!” the young man said, as he helped us put our bags into his car.

“My name is Ryan. I learn a lit’ English from teacher many year ago. Sorry please!”

Ryan was undoubtedly one of the nicest, most welcoming and generous people we’d met (and that’s saying something). He was short and ever so slightly chubby. His face was a Chinese version of Carlton Banks from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. He also had a strange habit of sniffling all the time as if he had a steady stream of dust flowing into his nostrils.

“Will you come with me to my home town, Huizé?” Ryan asked us, between sniffs.

“Yeah sure,” I said, looking at the map. “Huizé is between Kunming and Zhaotong, it won’t put us too far behind schedule”, I said to Michael.

Huize China

That night Ryan took us out to his favourite restaurant with his friends. We walked upstairs and were seated in our own room at a large circular table. To picture the scene that unfolded before my eyes and ears, just imagine the board game Hungry, Hungry Hippos. Now replace the hippos with Tasmanian devils and you get the idea.

Barely had the food settled on the table, when all of a sudden there was a whirlwind of frenzied activity: chopsticks, mouthfuls of food, spit and whatever else spewing in all directions.

Whole new ballgame … Hasbro's Hungry Hungry Hippos is to be made into a film

Eventually it all got too much for me so I had to nudge Michael on the arm and whisper, “Michael, slow down mate, no one else has started eating yet”.


Once eating had commenced for real, Ryan asked us if we would like some “white wine”.

“Yes please,” I replied enthusiastically, rubbing my hands together.

But to my surprise, instead of wine glasses, it was shot glasses that were handed out among the ten or so guests around the table and a clear liquid was poured into each.

“These don’t look like wine glasses”, said Michael.

“Cheers!” said Ryan, much to the delight of his Chinese friends.

“Gambe!” I said, and we downed the drink. I shuddered it down my gullet and washed it down with a torrent of saliva that had surged into my mouth.

“Doesn’t taste a lot like white wine does it?” Michael said to me through his clenched teeth.

What we were drinking, we later discovered, was baijiu, a 40-60% AVB Chinese liquor that is usually distilled from sorghum, a species of grass. The taste is very distinctive and is apparently highly valued in Chinese culinary culture. Tourists, however, usually compare the flavour to paint thinner, rubbing alcohol, or diesel fuel.

“That’s bad,” rasped Michael, “I don’t think I can manage another one. My throat is on fire”.

One second later someone yelled “gambe!” and our glasses were filled again.

“That’s it,” said Michael, breaking out in a light sweat, “No more, I’ll be sick.

Exactly one second passed.

“Oh screw it,” he said, before roaring “GAMBE!” and we had another.

“Was that necessary?” I spluttered, after an ominous baijiu burp.

“Sorry mate, it’s contagious. Give it go”

“No. I’m trying to enjoy my fo- oh okay, screw it, GAAAMBEEEE!”

Everyone cheered and we continued in this manner until all the food started to taste like paint thinner, rubbing alcohol, or diesel fuel.

“Stop spinning the table Richard!” slurred Michael.

“No one is spinning the table, Michael,” I replied. “And that’s a plate of egg noodles you’re talking to. I’m over here mate”

No matter how much we ate and drank, the food and drink just kept on coming. Just as I was considering a tactical chunder to make some room in my stomach, the desserts were served and the banquet ended. Ryan insisted on paying the bill, in spite of our pleas, and all rolled down the stairs, down the street and into a Karaoke bar to have a few beers.

We walked in amid yelps of excitement from the locals and the whole place started buzzing at the prospect of performing their songs in front of westerners. As soon as the bravest one of them, apparently, so Ryan told us “the toughest man in Huize”, came over to us with a couple of beers, our table was soon surrounded by everyone in there.

Beers, shots and cigarettes were offered to us from all directions and the now familiar war-cry, “GAMBE!”, rang long into the night.

I think by the early hours of the morning Ryan had grown slightly jealous that we weren’t giving him our full attention and he suggested heading back to his flat to chill out.

“Fair enough,” Michael said to me, “He picked us up. We’re his westerners”.

Just when Michael and I were settling down for a night on the couch, thinking that Ryan was the most generous man we’d ever met, he told us to get up and he ushered outside and into his car.

“Another bar?” we wondered.

Huize China

No. Ryan evidently hadn’t finished yet. He drove us to the best hotel in town and paid for our rooms for the night.

Once inside, we both collapsed onto our beds and fell into a drunken stupor. Our brains were overwhelmed by the Baijiu, our stomachs were overwhelmed by the banquet and our hearts were overwhelmed by the extent of Ryan’s hospitality. Legend.

Day 40: “The gooch scraper…” – Kunming


As we’d managed to knock off 543 km in one go, we allowed ourselves an extra night in Kunming, a large city of 5 million people with historical origins dating back 2’400 years. For most of the day we wandered around trying to find somewhere to wash our clothes but, because everyone charged per item, the prices were extortionate. So we gave up and decided to try and find a spa to relax in instead. If we couldn’t get clean clothes, we reasoned, we may as well get clean bodies.


We asked our receptionist where we could find a ‘clean spa’, meaning not a brothel. She gave us some vague directions to the part of town she thought it was. We followed them and eventually found a spa-like place. It was ridiculously cheap, and even though I doubted it was the one the receptionist had in mind, we went in anyway. After getting very naked, we walked in and were instructed to have a shower.

Once showered, we were ushered into a large Jacuzzi where, being the only ones in there, we started to relax. It was at this exact point that my memory was ripped out of my head and irrevocably scarred for life. Just 20 meters ahead of me, at eye level, was one of the most horrific sights I’ve ever seen. At the side of the Jacuzzi was a middle-aged, fat Chinese man, getting exfoliated by a small, prepubescent Chinese boy, perhaps 12 or 13 years old. What was particularly gruesome was the fact that the man was lying on his back, with the soles of his feet facing me, legs shoulder width apart, while the boy was exfoliating his perineum.

“Are you okay, Richard?” asked Michael in response to my look of open-mouth horror.

“No. I’m not okay. I don’t want to play anymore. I want to go home”.

The contorted look of determination on the boy’s face, while he scoured away at that man’s crotch, as if he was a squire scraping the rust from a suit of armour’s cod-piece, will haunt my dreams for many years to come. Just as I was gulping down a mouthful of vomit, a member of staff came over to us and asked if we wanted a ‘beautiful girl massage’, for five times the price of a normal one.

After such a vision, though, it was highly unlikely that I was about to be lured into soliciting any sexual services that may have been on offer. If it was my joint, I would certainly have moved the gooch scraping kid into a back room somewhere, out of sight of the other customers. It seemed to ruin any kind of erotic vibe, which would have been difficult to establish anyway, considering I was sitting in a Jacuzzi opposite a naked, lanky version of Willow.

Reading my thoughts, Michael explained that we were only after a ‘normal massage’, not a ‘beautiful girl’ massage. Eventually the man led us upstairs and my spirits were brightened somewhat when they forced Michael to wear a strange pair of see-through plastic underwear, whereas I wasn’t required to do so. His look of indignation was priceless.

While he was putting on his little plastic pants, one of the little kids started drying Michael’s back with a towel.

“Cheers Rich,” said Michael, thinking it was me

“That’s not me Michael. That’s the gooch scraper.”

“I thought it was a bit weird that you were drying my back.”

“Yeah well, to be fair, there’s very little chance that I’d be dabbing your back dry while you’re slipping into a see-through plastic thong”

“Why is the gooch scraping kid still drying my back? He’s been doing it for five minutes now. It’s been dry for ages”

“Yeah, it looks pretty red. Plus he’s using the same towel as the one he used to dry that bloke’s rotten crotch. That’s blatantly his gooch towel. I can tell because it looks and smells like he’s just rubbed a wet skunk with it”

“I want to go home now”

Day 38: “Cock blocked…” – Jinghong”


“Are you alright?” Michael asked me


“Why are you walking like that?”

“Like what?”

“Like you’ve shit yourself”

“Heat rash. Too much heat, sweat and walking. Need to find some baby powder”

“That’s nasty”

Despite the considerable discomfort of my heat rash, we were really happy to be entering China. It was a country we’d both been excited about seeing since day one. This said, we approached the Chinese border with trepidation. While researching the journey, I’d read many accounts of the fastidious nature of Chinese immigration officials. Our first impressions, however, were great and it turned out to be a very easy and friendly crossing. The border patrol guards chitchatted with us using the little English they knew.

“Ahhh England?” said one.

“Manchester United!” said another.

We then had a 10 minute conversation which mostly revolved around naming football players. It was when they greeted the name Marvin Morgan, a Shrewsbury Town player, with the same reverence as David Beckham, that I started to suspect they were perhaps humouring us.


We made it to a nice, tropical looking town, called Jinghong, in three short hitches, including a few kilometres in the back of a painter and decorator’s van with 30 or so Chinese workers.

Jinghong is known in China as ‘Green Treasury’ and ‘Gene Pool of Species’ due to the large area of tropical rainforest. There are oil palms, coconut palms and mango trees, as well as various other tropical plants, displayed in the parks, on the sides of the streets, in front of or behind the houses. This scenery, combined with the relaxed and affable attitude of the local people, made Jinghong one of our favourite places in China.


We were walking down one of the many palm tree lined streets when we saw a sign for tourist information in a European style cafe called the Mekong Cafe. The owner, a lady called Lee-Jeung, spoke perfect English and was able to translate for us our hitchhiking mission. I cannot overemphasise how essential this translation became for us on our journey through China.


That night, at the hostel recommended to us by Lee-Jeung, the Dodo Hotel, we met a nice American couple called Hill-Billy, or ‘Hillary and William’, as they perhaps prefer to be known. Hillary had a bit of a Gwyneth Paltrow look about her and William looked like Steve the bar tender, from Sex and the City.

We were walking along the promenade, next to the river, sharing travelling stories, when we stumbled across some live rock music being pumped out of a buzzing venue.

“It must be a wedding!” said Hillary, as we were ushered to sit down by a few people in tuxedos. We were sat at a bench to the left of the stage while the wedding congregation were all revelling in front it. The band that was playing seemed as drunk as everyone else and a few members of the party went up on stage to have a go at singing.

“We did exactly this the other day,” chuckled William, “We were walked past a wedding party and the bride and groom invited us to join them”

“We were the guests of honour! Everyone is so friendly here,” added Hilary.

Once we’d sat down and the beers were ordered, a young man approached us with a camera.

“Hello!” he said. “My name is Du Yao, I’m the photographer. The bride wants to know if she can have some photo with you. Is okay?”

“Sure sure!”

“No problem”

“Bring her over”

Soon a large crowd had gathered around us and, after one of them had heaved a crate of beer onto our table, complements of the house, they all had their photos taken with us, some of them in groups and some individually. It would always end the same: once the camera had flashed, the person would yelp, “Gambe!” which basically means ‘down it!’ –the method of drinking favoured by the Chinese, especially when with foreigners.

Once ‘gambe’ had been called, our excited companion would start glugging down their drink as fast as they could without so much as a glace to confirm that we’d accepted the contest. The fact that in China we felt like we were representing the entire western hemisphere made it very difficult to reject such challenges. The trouble was, as soon as the first ‘gambe’ domino had been tipped, this set off a chain reaction, and just as we’d squeezed that last drop of warm, frothy Chinese beer, another guest with a cheeky smile would be at our side yelling “GAMBE!”

It didn’t take long before we’d had to ‘gambe’ with every single guest at the bar and very soon we were all as wrapped up in the happiness of the occasion as the guests were themselves.

Towards the end of the evening, after more ‘gambes’ of beer then my mind will allow me to remember, I was busy trying to impress a pretty Chinese girl that Michael and I had decided looked like a glasses wearing version of Chun Li, from the computer game Street Fighter II (1991). I’m sure you can imagine the scene: there I was, oozing charm from every conceivable orifice, when I spotted Michael, across the table, giving me envious glances because he was stuck in a conversation with a girl that we had decided looked a bit like E. Honda, from the computer game Street Fighter II (1991).chun-li-e-honda-1

Mwah ha ha, I thought, with a smug look of self-satisfaction. Spinning bird kick for Richard, 100 hand slap for Michael. Perfect. Just when I thought my prospects couldn’t get any better:

“So, Chun Li, would you like another drink?”

“I really shouldn’t, I feel drunk already,” she tittered.

“Double gin and tonic it is. I’ll be right back.”

Upon my return with a triple gin and tonic, to my dismay, that snake Egan had somehow managed to slip out of his chair and, in Grinch-like fashion, had slithered up next to Chun Li, who he was now smoozing with his despicably potent charisma.

I sat back down on the other side of her and just when I was about to regain her attention with a stunningly witty anecdote, Michael leaned across her and “whispered”,

“Hey mate, don’t forget I’ve got your crotch power in my bag if your heat rash is flaring up again”

The whole table seemed to stop for a few seconds and turned to me. My jaw fell open and I turned a crimson red, half from embarrassment, half from rage. I aimed a series of vicious kicks at Michael under the table and, just as I was about to administer my finishing move, a lethal toe-punt to his left testicle, Chun Li turned to me and, no word of a lie, said, “Richard, why are you kicking me?”

 “Sorry, Chun Li, I don’t know what came over me”.

“For the last time my name is not Chun Li!”

I sighed in resignation.

“Michael, pass me my dam baby power”

I snatched the baby powder and trudged off dejectedly to the toilets under the glow of Michael’s beaming ‘Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland’ smile.