China gets thumbs-up from hitchhiker

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MongoliaAntoine Cuesta poses at Lake Baikal in Siberia on December 6, 2015.(Antoine Cuesta)

With a 25-kilogram backpack he calls "home," Frenchman Antoine Cuesta has arrived in Shanghai as part of a globetrotting odyssey done on a shoestring.

Cuesta, 21, has visited 18 countries in the past four months, hitchhiking for transport and relying on the generosity of strangers for food and accommodation along the way. He is driven by wanderlust.

"I want to see the world and meet people from different cultures," he told Shanghai Daily.

Foreign backpackers are not uncommon on the streets of Shanghai, though hitchhiking is not a popular way of traveling around in China's big cities, according to Xing Xiaoyun, front desk manager at the Etour Youth Hostel in Shanghai.

Cuesta sleeps where fate drops him every evening. He has caught 40 winks on hotel lobby sofas, in trucks and in gas stations. For food, he often finds kind-hearted restaurant owners or charity organizations where a meal is free or very cheap.

"I try to avoid hotels or even youth hostels because I want to seize as many opportunities as I can to mingle with locals," he said.

The Chinese seem to take a benign view of backpackers.

"China's policemen are very kind to foreigners and always ready to help," he said. "And people on the streets here walk up to me and offer help. They see me with a big pack and think I must be lost."

Born in Grenoble in the French Alps, Cuesta said the travel bug bit him when he was 12 and traveling with parents in Morocco.

"I saw the hard lives of children my age, who were denied the pleasures of life that I had," he said. "They had no opportunity to travel, so I realized how blessed I was that I could and began dreaming of seeing the world."

Cuesta dropped out of university when he was 20 and started working at several jobs to save up for his trip. Last September, he headed off, with two cameras, an iPad, two T-shirts, two pairs of trousers, two jackets and two sleeping bags. His backpack also carries a tent, small stove, towel, water bottle, two pairs of shoes and a diary.

Cuesta doesn't have detailed travel plans; neither does he use a road map. After arriving in a new country, his itinerary is usually determined by the recommendations of friends he makes along the way.

His journey to date has taken him to the US, Ireland, Spain, Monaco, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Luxemburg, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Poland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Russia and Mongolia.

His favorite stops so far? Lake Baikal in Siberia and China's Great Wall.

Fluent only in French and English, Cuesta often resorts to body language to communicate. He asks friends to help him write self-introductions and requests for accommodation in local languages.

Cuesta said Chinese people, especially in big cities, tend to be a bit cautious about picking up hitchhikers.

"To get a ride from one city to the next in China, I usually stand at a gas station with a sign written in characters about my next destination," he said.

On the trip from Mongolia into China, Cuesta said he was standing on a highway verge with his thumb out when a truck driver stopped and took him to a local police station. Authorities there arranged for him to take a long-distance bus to Beijing at no charge.

From Beijing, he traveled to Xi'an. He was unsuccessful getting a ride from a highway tollbooth, so he walked to a gas station where staff offered him a meal and found a willing driver heading for Shaanxi Province.

The Xi'an-to-Shanghai leg involved two free bus rides to Wuxi in neighboring Jiangsu Province, and then a ride into Shanghai from two music teachers.

Most of those stop to give him lifts in China are men, including a young expat office worker and an English teacher, said Cuesta. Sometimes drivers provide free accommodation.

For his first two nights in Shanghai, Cuesta napped in the lobbies of the Jinjiang Tower Hotel and the Four Seasons Hotel. He also spent one night in a 24-hour McDonald's restaurant before a French girl living in Shanghai contacted him through Facebook and offered him a spare bed in her apartment.

Finding food is easier than finding a bed, Cuesta said. On the first day in Shanghai, he ate in an all-you-can-eat Mexican restaurant on Huaihai Road for 50 yuan ($7.67). He also eats at sidewalk food stalls.

"I stay longer in a place if I like it or if I befriend interesting people," said Cuesta, adding that he plans to remain in Shanghai for a while longer. "The food is cheap and good here. I love Shanghai and its atmosphere."

Cuesta said his journey has been without major setbacks, except when his wallet was stolen in Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia. Luckily, he doesn't carry much money.

The Frenchman said he expects to keep globetrotting for another three to five years, hoping to visit all continents. He said he plans to compile his experiences and photos into a book someday.

For now, he's already thinking about his next destination: Japan.

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