In the entire day of hitchhiking, we had made it perhaps 100 km down the road to a dusty claptrap of a roadstop, thumbs out.
“I don’t think we’re going to make it to Hohhot any time soon…” I said.
That went without saying.
Lucky for us, we got 2 drivers in a row willing to take us to Lindong, a city a little further along our route before the day was done. The first Maeva found as I was trying to wrangle together some willing truck drivers. He didn’t say much aside from “Hohhot? That’s pretty far,” and dropped us off at a ridiculously out-of-our-price-range hotel in Tianshan, a surprisingly nice city in the middle of Inner Mongolia. The next driver was a nice man with lots of shoeboxes in the back who was saddened when I mistook him for a taxi and spent the rest of the drive trying to prove he wasn’t a bad man.
“Have some water!” he said. “See, there is no reason to be nervous.”
We really weren’t. Though, our initial goal of making to Hohhot the following day was looking rather grim.
The man happened to work in a construction company, and so was able to hook us up with a super cheap hotel. He drove us through a stunning sunset among tall hills and striated clouds to a sort of dumpy area of town.
Our beds were 20 yuan each, and we thought it was worth exactly that. There was a metal pipe extending over the head-side of the bed, the pillows were more like sandbags, and there were no showers in this hotel. But hey, cheap!
“We’ll get up early tomorrow,” I suggested. Maeva agreed. At 6:00 AM we rolled out of our musty beds and stuffed our things back into our backpacks, realizing that we either smelled like mosquito repellent or truck driver. There was a knock on our door. It was the man who drove us to the hotel from the previous night.
“I want to treat to tea!” he said. He was far too awake on a Sunday morning to suit me.
“But…not a lot of time,” we mumbled, still sleepy. He wouldn’t hear it. We had plain noodles for breakfast, Mongolian milk tea, and then, because we were so classy, we stole toilet paper on the way out for our day. We didn’t want to lose any time this day.
He dropped us off at the side of the road, and we resumed, turning away when taxis zoomed by, cursing them when they came in clumps with regular cars. Our potential rides. A couple on their way to work pulled over, and drove us to the next town, which was maybe 20 minutes away. The woman took a picture.
“We’re sort of paying our way with pictures,” Maeva mused.
The next car took us only as far as the next toll booth. The following car took us to an intersection.
‘At this rate,’ I thought, ‘We’re never getting to Hohhot.’
Then, a red car pulled over and a man got out to help us put our bags in. We said the name of the next town “Keqi” and he said it was on the way. So we settled into the seats, me next to a pile of what looked to be hotel towels, and got ready for another stint.
“So where are you headed?” Maeva asked him.
“Oh, I’m going to Hohhot.”
“Uh…so are we,” she said. “Could you…could you take us there?”
“Yeah, no problem.”
And we looked at each other, dumbfounded by this stroke of incredible luck. A straight-shot to Hohhot.
We wanted to make it up to him, because, really, it was about 9+ hours in a car that day. But he wouldn’t let us. We stopped for lunch and tried to pay, but he sneakily went into the back and paid first. So, Maeva took out her guitarlele and sang for a while, the cool notes of her folksy voice blending in perfectly with the wave of scenery on the road. He played guitar, too, and when we pulled over, strummed a few chords. We bashed around to Florence and the Machine, to Muse, to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and more as the mountains turned craggy, stony and, well, very Inner-Mongolian. Then, it went back to being more grassland country, except with the pockmarked face of sand etched in-between the blades. Wind turbines swished in the sky. The Inner Mongolian sky that lasts for a long, long time.
It was a long day for us, and probably longer for him. By the time we made it to the city limits, calling the hostel for more specific directions, we wanted nothing more than to be lying down on a bed in a nice place (without metal pipes). It took a long time to find the place, our driver clearly going out of his way, insistent that it was no problem for him. As he drove, I slipped a 100 yuan bill and a thank-you note into the towels.
And then, in a victorious sweep of rainwater flooding the gutters of Hohhot, of people swarming around the muddy waves and trying not to get soaked, we made it.
It was wet, it was dank, it was pretty anticlimactic, but when we at last entered the hostel and said that we were the hitchhikers (no, not the ones taking a taxi, wrong “da che”) I felt as though we were gods. We had people all along the road to inform that we’d made it–truck drivers, tourists, drivers, and families. We thought about taking a shower, but dove right into a cold bottle of Chinese beer.
That’s when another traveler walked in from the rain.
“You would not believe the trip I had to get here!” he said.
Maeva and I sort of looked at each other and said “You have no idea.”