Xinjang (shing-yang) province was the worst introduction to China I could have imagined, but I had made it to Turpan, very near the end of the province, and I was getting ready to head East to the next one which I hoped would be an improvement.
Just two more days of hitchhiking and I would be there – I would be able to hitchhike and camp freely at any time of day or night without police interfering; no longer would I be taken out of perfectly good rides for them to try putting me in a taxi, nor would I have to try to outrun them like in a Grand Theft Auto game.
I had been in Turpan for 4 days, resting after more of the above than I could handle. Hitchhiking in itself is tiring, but with added hassle, it was exhausting.
Just before leaving, a long tear in the rear of my cargo trousers appeared all the way from my bum to my inner knee, making my bright red underwear very visible (don’t ask why it is that colour). It was already too late in the day to stop and repair them, so I headed out, hoping that, at 5pm, the police would not pull me in to the station for another 4 hours’ questioning.
Within the first few minutes, a police man came up to me and ordered me into the station. But this time, I acted very annoyed and impatient, so they let me go after just 5 minutes. Sometimes it works being an asshole.
After leaving the police station, I walked quickly towards the outside of the city. I would not begin hitchhiking tonight, I only wanted to get there and camp to begin early the next day.
All around the streets, children in potty training had a similar tear in their trousers to me. The locals must have thought that I was just a ‘special’ adult – one of those weird foreigners.
The shitting in public was not limited to children. In the service stations, locals were openly doing it over squat toilets. And the worst things was there were lockable doors, they just chose not to use them! I walked in and they all looked up at me. I refused to do it while being stared at by a group of Chinese men. I would hold it in, because the doors were made of translucent glass.
Four nervous kilometers passed in my journey out of Turpan and the police presence was hotter here than anywhere else. Almost every street corner had a police station and on any one small stretch of road, a police car was driving up and down it slowly. To get around this, I cunningly hid in bus stops on the side of the road going towards the city centre until they were out of sight, when I would move to the next one.
I made it to the outskirts after just 3 hours, but there was one final police station ahead of me. Luckily, there was a well-hidden spot in a field adjacent to it. I walked on quickly, but was seen by one of the officers. Swiftly and acting as if I was doing nothing wrong, I continued walking and managed to jump over a hedge before they could send anyone after me. I laid there for about 30 minutes while the red and blue lights flashed by slowly. I felt like an outlaw, out on the run.
I was now in a farmer’s field in the evening and the police had given up. The illusion of safety that a closed tent provides allowed me to sleep that night, a few meters away from the police station.
The next day, the temperature rose to a dangerous level and the 4 liters of water I always carry ran out quickly, like the bottles had holes in them. I was waiting in a terrible spot too, on the expressway, where vehicles were going 100km or more.
But after an hour, I heard a truck driver beep at me from the other side of the road. A few minutes after this, he then pulled up next to me, telling me he had passed me the first time, but had turned around to pick me up. How kind! He even bought me lunch.
Asians often have trouble differentiating between Westerners because our facial features are so different. We all look the same to them, and they to us. I had a small episode with this when my driver disappeared to the toilet. When he came back, I didn’t recognise him. I thought he was a man who worked at the cafe, showing me the menu. But then he sat next to me and two bowls of noodles arrived.
He took me a whole 500km and I felt great. One more short lift and I would be out of this forsaken province. I walked off of the service station he left me at to put my tent up on a roadside with a thin rows of trees leading to a small settlement. Before I got in, I had been seen.
By this point, I was no longer worried about getting murdered while camping – I’ve realised I am probably more scary for them – so I went up to the man and said hello. He asked if I wanted to sleep in his house that night, but I had my tent setup with Peep Show paused, snacks out and a cup of tea. I honestly wanted nothing more.
The next day, I had the longest wait I would have in China. 3 hours passed quickly and after a while the petrol station workers tried to help me find a lift by asking truck drivers who were filling up.
Finally, just as I was thinking of giving up and having lunch, a man took me in, gave me a lot of cigarettes and took me in for the night.
Over my time in China, I would smoke many cigarettes. Every driver automatically hands you one, and then another, and one every 20-30 minutes. It is hard not to smoke them when they are in your mouth and I did begin to enjoy the feeling, but I believe that nicotine is a made-up idea by the tobacco companies to sell more. After fully smoking around 50 cigarettes, I still do not have any cravings to smoke more myself. But they are fecking disgusting.
This man drove me outside of the region and invited me for dinner and to stay in his home. Now out of Xinjang and in Gansu, I was happy to stop in the afternoon.
He and his friends filled me up with barbecued meat, rice and vegetables, all helped down with home-brewed rice wine. Oh, and enough cigarettes to kill a cat.
On the way back to his apartment, a small street dog took me as a threat and bit my left calf. It did not hurt, nor did it bleed beyond a small break in the skin, but I now had to get to a clinic as soon as possible for rabies treatment.
I had had the preexposure vaccination before leaving the UK, so I had more than a day to get to one. Also, I would not have to wait around for a month for the four or five injections, I only had to lose a week waiting for two.
It was a challenge communicating this to the doctors, and it carried a lot more weight than the usual things I need to tell people – Rabies kills, if not treated properly. Would they just give me the first two shots? Did they know what they were doing? It didn’t seem like it.
Dunhuang was 130km away and had been recommended to me by three different people. I hitchhiked there the following morning and got the first injection.
The second injection went less smoothly. Air bubbles in the bloodstream can be fatal and so when the nurse, evidently undertrained, went at me with the syringe with a huge one floating inside it, I asked her what the hell she was doing. It was lucky I had some basic medical training!
Fully cured, I packed my bag and headed East. I was now one third of the way through China.