This is a story about the time me and a friend got lost in Beijing and hitch hiked our way out.
It was a normal Tuesday morning and me and a friend, [let’s call him T for now] decided that we would visit the ancient summer palace. We found out with our local sightseeing maps that the summer palace was actually split between the old summer palace, and the new summer palace. Naturally we decided to go and visit the old summer palace first.
For those who don’t know, the summer palaces are absolutely huge recreational parks initially designed as a gift for the emperor’s son in the 17th century. The old summer palace consisted of 3 separate gardens stretching 3.5 kilometres wide (8 times the size as Vatican City) so is naturally incredibly huge. In our first hour we passed derelict and destroyed monuments and buildings, from when the British and French were ordered to destroy the gardens during the 2nd opium war. After a while we noticed that although it is billed as a tourist destination, we had only come across about 4 people in two hours; and a small hut selling ice-cream and other goods. Something was strange.
We realised that the tourist destination was now the new summer palace and we decided to turn back. However midst the over grown and dense grasses and tall trees we soon found ourselves winding down the exact same routes over and over again.
Normally, this sort of adventure wouldn’t faze me, in fact; when I go abroad I generally like to get lost and totally submerge myself in local culture. However this was different. There was no one about. To make matters worse, the only thing we could see was rivers, lakes and trees.
That’s it. For a good 4-5 hours.
It eventually felt as though we were going round and round in circles, as every 15 minutes or so one of us would comment of a tree which looked oddly familiar. This was not helped by the stories we told ourselves of probable tourists like ourselves who had got lost in the summer palace like us; and had never ever found a way out. Now, the aim of this was to boost morale and keep repeating to ourselves that a seemingly impossible situation was unlikely. However eventually as time went on, we realised that this was actually a big possibility.
We were lost.
After around 2pm, having walked for a good 4 hours we eventually stumbled upon the first sign of life: a small rocky cave which had obviously been pieced together rather hastily. This added to our nerves that we could actually get trapped in the palace and would have to build a similar make shift hut. Not helping was the various man-made utensils found inside, such as the twiggy chopsticks, and the stone bowl.
And then we finally saw life.
A shadowy figure appeared opposite the lake.
Normally we would not have approached a stranger, the likelihood of him understand English, or us explaining we were lost in Mandarin were little to none, especially as we had only had a week or so of Mandarin classes. But we were desperate.
As we quickened our pace towards him, we also saw that he was doing the same; increasing his pace towards us. I joked that perhaps he was lost as we and we should watch out for crazy strangers. T just laughed it off. Once we got to about 100metres to him we could make out his shagged hair and loose fitted dirty clothes, it honestly looked like he had lived in the park. With no park rangers, and very few people this was a very big possibility.
He began jabbering at me, pointing and shouting. T and I looked towards each other and started walking in the other direction.
We turned around every now and then and saw that he was in fact following us, still continuing to shout and point like a mad man. This man could have had anything, a gun? A knife? Who knows.
…And then we saw it, freedom.
A single hut selling cold water and ice-cream – the very same one that I had seen while entering the summer palace.
And then, our of the distance; we heard a rumble…The rumble of an engine. It was coming closer and closer, me and T just went for it. Neither of us had hitch hiked before, so we did what we had seen it in movies and stuck our thumbs out. The truck raced past us…before slowly stopping.
This was it! This was freedom.
T and I ran over to the truck and jumped into the back, it was an old truck, a farmers truck and smelt slightly of manure, probably a manure truck; a small price to pay for freedom.
The farmers stuck out a toothy grin at us as they probably thought it was quite hilarious that a westerner, let alone a Chinese looking guy who couldn’t speak Mandarin was hitch hiking with them.