Table of contents
In January 2014 an idea popped into my head. I had been staying in Bern, Switzerland for the past 3 months, working a retail job that I hated but so desperately needed. I knew I wanted to move on and felt like going back to Asia. Unfortunately I was pretty broke. Then it came to me: why not hitchhike? A plan manifested in my mind and a few days later I was convinced I would go through with it: I’ll hitchhike back to Thailand. Impulsive as I am, I immediately gave notice at work and let my flat mates know I was moving out. They’ve known me since high school, so there were not surprised I was hitting the road again. I got all my visas sorted, which was the only major cost for this adventure. A Russian friend of mine put me in touch with a girl living in Syktyvkar, Russia who hated her job probably as much as I did and couldn’t wait to get out of there. We decided to meet up in Moscow, from where we’d hitchhike to Thailand together – of course just in time to celebrate Songkran, Thai New Year. Embarking on this hitchhiking adventure was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I met tons of new friends, ate lots of yummy vegan Chinese food and learned how to trust complete strangers. If you’re thinking about going on a long-distance hitchhiking trip, my most important advice is: just do it!
We hitchhiked from Moscow all across Russia, through China, through Laos and then across Thailand to Phuket. We hitchhiked a total of 14’322km! It took us 1.5 months to get to Phuket in Thailand. We were quite rushed in China as we wanted to make it to Thailand in time for Songkran (Thai New Year) and also because we only had a one month visa. If I did the same route again, I’d go much, much slower, spending more time in Russia and possibly a bit longer in China (with a better visa/ get a visa extension). Looking back, we also should have spent some time in Laos, rather than just cross it in a day. Please note that the times listed below are hitchhiking days, not actual time spent in a place.
Russia to China:
The first part of our hitchhiking adventure was across Russia. We started in Moscow and headed towards China from there. We had surprisingly few stops as we did quite long distances at once! Hitchhiking here was easy and we got lots of rides with truck drivers. We spent every night either Couchsurfing, staying with my Russian friend’s friends, staying with new friends we made while Couchsurfing or sleeping in a truck. Apart from in Moscow, our Couchsurfing hosts always drove us to the highway from where we could hitch a ride. We stopped in 6 different Russian cities, where we usually stayed for a few days:
- Moscow to Nizhni Novgorod: 417km, 1 day (including getting out of Moscow. We took the metro as far out of Moscow as possible and then walked for app. 30min. It was fairly easy to hitchhike out of Moscow!)
- Nizhni Novgorod to Novosibirsk: 2944km, 5 days (We spent 4 nights sleeping in the same truck which had a few issues along the way.)
- Novosibirsk to Krasnoyarsk: 794km, 1 day
- Krasnoyarsk to Galki (Irkutsk): 1061km, 1 day (we got a ride from a friend of our couchsurfing host!)
- Galki to (Irkutsk) to Chita: 1077km, 1 day and 1 night (truck driver drove ALL NIGHT)
- Chita to Manzhouli (China): 500km, 1 day (we crossed the border that day and continued hitchhiking in China. Would have been smarter to stay 1 night in Manzhouli!)
In China, we got lots of rides in fancy new cars rather than trucks. The highway system in China is amazing which made hitchhiking really easy! We spent our nights either Couchsurfing (Couchsurfing in China is amazing, we had the best hosts EVER!) or sleeping in hotels that were paid for by really, really friendly Chinese people who wouldn’t let us pay for the rooms ourselves. We spent almost no money on food, as we constantly got invited for lunch and dinner, and multiple times we had to refuse taking money from our drivers. Getting out of cities usually involved a fair bit of walking, but was rather easy as we could easily hitch a ride at the toll gates which are located at the entrance of every highway. We only struggled to get out of Chengdu where we got stuck on a highway bridge for 2 hours. I’m not entirely sure about all the places we stopped at, as we sometimes just got dropped off in random places. Here are the stops that I can remember:
- Manzhouli to Hailar: 201km, 1 day (This included hitchhiking from Chita in Russia to the Chinese border and crossing the border. We arrived very late at night and had a few issues actually getting into Hailar)
- Hailar to Changchun: 943km, 2 days (We got invited to KTV on the way so we stayed a night in a weird town in between)
- Changchun to Shenyang: 295km, 1 day
- Shenyang to Beijing: 683km, 1 day
- Beijing to Shijiazhuang: 291km, 1 day
- Shijiazhuang to Xi’an: 809km, 1 day
- Xi’an to Chengdu: 743km, 1 day
- Chengdu to Kunming: 927km, 2 days (We got driven to a weird town and had to escape our creepy drivers, which led to us being stranded somewhere in the middle of the night!)
- Kunming to Xishuangbanna: 521km, 1 day
- Xishuangbanna to Laos Border: 178km, 1 day (we also crossed the whole of Laos in the same day and spent the night at the Thai-Laos border)
- Chinese border to Huay Xai (Thai border): 223km, 1 day (this part was really easy, but lots of windy roads, my friend felt a bit sick at the end!)
- Thai-Laos border to Den Chai: 339km, 1 day
- Den Chai to Bangkok: 532km, 1 day
- Bangkok to Phuket: 844km, 2 days (we took a train to somewhere just out of Bangkok. Bangkok is impossible to hitchhike out of!)
I arrived in Moscow after a 30 hour bus ride from Berlin. I like to think that my life has a sound track. And so while I was sitting on a bench waiting for my new friend, Rammstein’s “Moskau” was playing loudly in my head. And as the music was running through my veins, my heart stopped for a second when I eventually spotted Raya – thoughts were racing through my head, as I tried to gain a first impression of the person I was going to spend most of my time with over the next months.
“Hi!”, I said.
“Hello!”, she said in a strong Russian accent.
Then we both started laughing and that was it. We were friends. Of course we were. There had been no need to worry about this. And so we carried our heavy backpacks to the next supermarket, bought cheap beer and sat on a playground enjoying our first drink together. She had organised for us to stay at her friend’s house, and so that was where we went. We spent two, maybe three days in Moscow before finally escaping the big city.
As we stood at the side of the road, we did what we came here to do: stick out our thumbs and wait for a ride. It was cold, but bearable. Or perhaps the excitement let us forget about the snow falling on our faces. We quickly stopped a car and spent the day hopping from one ride to the next. We didn’t have the best of luck and encountered a few…well, pervy men. Nothing too serious though, and I had already been used to getting strange financial offers in return for my body (try hitchhiking in India) and was experienced in politely turning them down. We spent the night in Nizhni Novgorod. The next day we had better luck and met who we thought to be the best truck driver of Russia: Sasha. He was driving all the way to Novosibirsk and so we spent five days with him; eating and sleeping in his truck, occasionally hiding from the police (Hint: there’s only so many people who can legally sit on the front seat) and helping him out wherever we could. We passed through the most beautiful landscape and spent a night in the Ural mountains, gazing at a billion stars. As I was picking up my first Russian words, I was simultaneously forgetting how to speak English. Raya’s English was very basic and we didn’t understand each other at first. But as I was slowly learning how to speak in broken English, we faced no trouble communicating with each other. Language is a strange thing.
We were a bit sad when we finally left Sasha’s truck – but promised to send him a postcard from Thailand. We dragged our tired, rather smelly bodies across town and made it to our Couchsurfing host in one piece. We spent the next two days laughing, drinking and just generally enjoying ourselves. With our end goal in mind – to celebrate Songkran in Thailand – we knew we couldn’t stay for too long.
It was 5 AM when the alarm went off. It was still dark outside, but we had to make it to the highway if we wanted to get anywhere today. As we walked out into the freezing cold, I immediately landed on my bum; the ground was frozen and I was wearing the wrong kind of shoes for this weather. We carried on walking until we found a suitable spot for hitchhiking, hopped in our first car of the day and were dropped out in the middle of nowhere. It was -30° C (-22° F) and for the first time I understood why people told me not to hitchhike through Russia in winter. I couldn’t feel my feet anymore, despite wearing multiple pairs of socks and the icy wind made my face feel like it was on fire. Nobody seemed to stop for us and the thought that this might have been a dumb idea crossed our mind once or twice. Luckily, we eventually made it onto the warm backseats of a tiny old car and once again restored our faith.
The next week or so we rushed through Russia. There were days when all we wanted was to stay in bed, and there were days when we couldn’t believe how blessed we were for being able to experience all of this. We encountered some not-so-good people and a lot of truly kind and warmhearted people. Every now and then our thoughts returned to Sasha and put a smile on our faces. The days went by and became all blurred together in my mind. We closed our eyes for a second and when we opened them again we could see the Chinese border in the distance.
China was just a few hundred meters away, but was much further from us in reality. In between us and our next country lay the Russian immigration building and all the strange rules than came with it. First, we weren’t allowed to cross it by foot, which meant we had to catch a ride across it – which, believe me, was not the easiest task. Then there was this old lady who kept telling me my passport was the wrong colour and I wasn’t allowed to cross because of it. And of course there were the Russian immigration officers themselves, who seemed to take joy in interrogating me for a good thirty minutes. We did eventually make it to the Chinese side and were welcomed with a smile – and a short story about the immigration officer’s swatch watch which was proudly presented to me after it was discovered that I was Swiss.
Boom. We were in China. It was a strange feeling. We couldn’t read the street signs anymore or understand anything anyone was saying. That didn’t stop us from stopping our first car though and so we safely arrived at our next destination. After a few days, we met Mashingla and Wangyang – two Chinese drivers with whom we spent the next days. We visited a, what we believed to be, horse farm, went to KTV (Chinese KTV) and were fed the most amazing Chinese food. We got to witness them pray at little roadside shrines and had a first glimpse at Chinese culture. They didn’t speak any English and we didn’t speak Chinese, but that didn’t really matter. When we eventually parted, we had added them on WeChat and promised to stay in touch. We spent our nights in hotels our couchsurfed, got rides from truck drivers and police men and were always filled to the top with delicious Chinese food – it was hard to say no to countless offers of inviting us to lunch or dinner, or even for our hotel stays to be paid for. It happened more than once that we had been offered money, which of course we turned down, but which was nevertheless heartwarming. These people didn’t know us at all, they didn’t speak our language – and yet they were willing to share everything with us.
Hitchhiking through China was a completely different experience than hitchhiking through Russia. For once, there was an abundance of vegan food – although I was often laughed at for turning down animal-product-based meals. In Russia we stopped mainly trucks – in China we drove in the backseats of fancy new cars. We spent every night couchsurfing in Russia, while we were occasionally staying in really nice hotels (for free!) in China. Chinese people seemed much more interested in us and used every opportunity to take a selfie with us. We were well-fed by our drivers and our couchsurfing hosts went out of their way to make our stay as comfortable as possible. As in Russia we encountered a few creepy drivers, but the majority of time we had a great time hitchhiking through China. Of course, communication was much more difficult than in Russia, but we quickly figured out a system to make it work in China. We wrote down every city, in Chinese characters, that was on our way and let the drivers point to where they were going. We had a piece of paper that explained in Chinese what we were doing – although we still don’t know what it said on that paper, as it was written by a kind police officer, and eventually got blown away into the polluted air in one of China’s gigantic cities. We also learnt a few essential Chinese phrases, were able to ask for the price of food, say that I was vegan and of course say ‘for free’ in order to ensure we didn’t accidentally hitch a ride with a taxi. (That reminds me, we did actually once get a free ride with a taxi driver)
We made it through China in about a month, crossed Laos in a day and made it to Thailand in time for Songkran. This was probably one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Besides being a huge adventure, it taught me to trust people and to believe in the kindness of strangers. I will never forget the friendly faces of those who helped us get to our destination, who made sure we had a roof over our heads at night and a warm meal in our tummies in those cold winter nights.
Advice and cost breakdown
General long-distance hitchhiking advice
- It’s a good idea to plan about a week ahead, especially if you’re Couchsurfing. Know (kind of) where you’re going to sleep at night.
- It’s not necessary to carry around huge signs. I actually never use them. (I only really use signs if I’m not going far and will only be hitchhiking for a day or two. It seems like too much effort to make a new sign every day)
- It is not necessary to bring a tent. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll struggle finding a (free) place to stay. (This may vary depending on where you’re going.)
- The concept of veganism seems strange to many people around the world. Make sure you are able to explain what exactly you can and can’t eat.
- Learn how to trust strangers, but be smart about it. If a driver seems weird, come up with an excuse and get out at the next petrol station. I like to stay that I’m feeling ill and need to rest for a few hours (and will then find a new driver). Stay polite and friendly anyway.
- Check out hitchwiki.org for a lot of country-specific information. It’s an amazing resource!
- Make sure you check visa regulations before leaving home AND check which borders you can cross (Not all borders are necessarily open/ open for foreigners). It’s also a good idea to check HOW you are allowed to cross a border, e.g. sometimes it isn’t allowed to walk across.
- If you don’t speak the language, write down the names of towns you’re passing through in the local language/ script.
- If you don’t speak the language, have a piece of paper that explains what you’re doing and why in the local language.
- Google Translate doesn’t really work with Chinese (seriously, you get WEIRD and meaningless translations!)
- Learn a few phrases in the local language. Important would be numbers, “How much”, “No money” or “For free”, “Thank you” and “Toilet”. The more you learn the better, locals really appreciate the effort.
- Seriously, learn how to say toilet or write it down. You don’t want to be gesturing that you have to pee, it’s just weird. (Speaking from experience)
Russia hitchhiking advice
- In Russia, hitchhiking works ‘normally’ and people generally understand what you’re doing. This means you can just stick out your thumb.
- You’ll get lots of rides with trucks.
- Trucks might go really long distances. We’ve met drivers that were going all the way from Moscow to Vladivostok! You might be able to stay with the same driver for a few days (we once spent 4 days with one driver).
- There aren’t many vegan options in Russian highway restaurants or petrol stations. Eat well when you’re in a city and bring some canned or dried food with you in case you can’t find anything to eat. Be prepared to eat lots of potatoes and bread! (I love potatoes, so this wasn’t a problem)
- In Russia, I was often asked if I ate fish, as many vegetarians there are actually pescetarians.
China hitchhiking advice
- In China (and Asia in general) the thumb is not understood. Instead, stretch out your arm (as you normally would), but instead of sticking out your thumb, wave your hand up and down.
- Chinese people may try to give you money. I think this might be because they think you’re poor, could also be because they just want to be nice.
- Chinese people will feed you. You’re probably gonna put on weight. I did.
- Make sure your food isn’t cooked in chicken stock!
- Get “WeChat”. This is the Chinese Whatsapp and a great way to stay in touch with drivers and Couchsurfing hosts.
- A lot of the internet is blocked, including most social media websites. Hey, but don’t worry, there’s Chinese equivalents of everything. There’s also VPNs to unblock the forbidden part of the internet.
- It might be a good idea to learn some Chinese!
- Visa for Russia*: USD 75
- Visa for China*: USD 72
- Visa for Laos*: FREE (no visa required)
- Visa for Thailand*: FREE (no visa required)
- Transportation from Switzerland to Moscow: around USD 60 at the time (Combination of blablacar and low-cost bus. Would be easy to hitchhike, but I was in a rush due to a family emergency which meant that I left way too late)
- Hitchhiking: FREE
- 1 Hotel Stay: USD 10 (There was ONE time we couldn’t find a Couchsurfing host)
- Couchsurfing: FREE
- Food: between USD 0-10/day (A lot of days we didn’t spend anything in China, as we were fed by our drivers)
*For a Swiss passport holder applying for a visa in Switzerland. This varies depending on your nationality and the embassy you’re applying from. In general, if you’re British the visa costs will be more than this. Check visa requirements and cost for your nationality!