© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

500 Mile Free Ride Beats Crowded Train Over China's New Year


During the recent Chinese New Year's celebration, hundreds of millions of people headed home from the bustling coastal cities of China to the countryside as part of the world's largest annual mass migration. Among them was my colleague NPR's Shanghai correspondent Frank Langfitt. He drove several Chinese citizens back home to their farming villages for the holiday and also to attend their weddings. This is part of a series that we like to call Streets of Shanghai, where Frank sort of acts like a cabdriver and offers free rides, usually around town, to learn more about the fast-changing lives of ordinary Chinese. And Frank is back from his road trip. He's on the line. Hey, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: Good morning to you. So how exactly did you get the idea to expand from your normal city driving and actually drive people back home for the Chinese New Year's holiday?

LANGFITT: Well, I actually did this trip with migrant workers back in 1998. It was grueling. It was sleepless. Twenty-four hours we were on a train and a couple of buses. And so 17 years later, I kind of wanted to see how the trip had changed and also how traditions were changing.

GREENE: I look forward to hearing all about it, but I want to know about these guys you traveled with first. Who are they, and how did you find them?

LANGFITT: Well, our assistant here in the office, Yang, he put an ad out on Weibo, that's the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, offering a free ride home. We got about 20 applications, and we decided on a couple of guys who, by coincidence, they were going back to the same province to marry their sweethearts. They're in their late 20s, early 30s. Charles is a salesman and Rocky's a lawyer.

GREENE: Charles and Rocky?

LANGFITT: Charles and Rocky, yeah. Many educated Chinese actually choose their own English names. They got up before dawn because they had more than 500 miles of driving ahead.

Ni hao.

XIA PIAO: Ni hao.

LANGFITT: So I meet Rocky and his fiancee, Xia Piao, outside my apartment.

ROCKY: (Speaking Chinese).

LANGFITT: Next we pick up Charles and head west on the Shanghai-Chongqing Expressway. It's a smooth four-lane highway. It was only finished about five years ago. And I rented a Buick van, and I got to say this is infinitely more comfortable than traveling in the '90s. I mean, back then most people didn't own cars, mostly went by train, which were slow and incredibly crowded. People would sleep on the floors, luggage racks. Charles remembers they even slept in bathrooms, which often ran out of water and really stank.

CHARLES: If you want to get in the toilet, use it, you have to ask the - someone sitting in there to get out. You beg them because most of the time you went there, they were sleeping.

LANGFITT: So today's really different. I mean, now we have bullet trains; they've cut the travel times. So, for instance, from Beijing to Shanghai used to be 12 hours. Now it's down to five. There's a network of modern expressways that didn't really exist. Here's Charles again.

CHARLES: (Through interpreter) Renting a car to go home for Chinese New Year is pretty common now. The first goal is convenience. The second, you can show off a bit at home because no one knows whether it's your car or not.

LANGFITT: So as we drive deeper into China, Rocky cues up a song on his iPhone.


JOHN DENVER: (Singing) Country roads, take me home to the place I belong.

LANGFITT: I know this sounds strange, but in China it actually isn't. John Denver was one of the first Western acts to tour here. People like Rocky and Charles grew up with his music, and Charles says he even helped educate young Chinese.

CHARLES: (Through interpreter) We started learning English in middle school. These were basically the songs we listen to and also The Carpenters.

LANGFITT: Now, any Chinese road trip is going to have bizarre moments, and we ran into one at this tollbooth.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Chinese).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Chinese).

LANGFITT: She's moving like a robot. That's so weird. Did you notice?

So the toll taker swivels in her chair at these precise 90 degree angles. She's got a fake smile. Everybody finds it pretty creepy. Later we found out the toll station boss requires this kind of mechanized cheerfulness. It's well-meaning. He's trying to improve the service. But you sometimes find this in China, that people try to make things better, but they don't necessarily always know how to do it. And as far as Charles is concerned, this actually beats the alternative.

CHARLES: (Through interpreter) If you go to government agencies and you see an official, they'll give you a stinky face. This fake smile is a lot better.



LANGFITT: Suddenly everybody's tapping on their smartphones in a frenzy. At Chinese New Year, people traditionally give red envelopes filled with cash as presents. Everybody in the car just got dozens of virtual red envelopes on their phones in the form of a videogame. It's a promotion by Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant, which launched the world's biggest IPO last fall on Wall Street. Everybody's trying to win pocket change from the game. In the end, nobody makes a cent.


LANGFITT: Several hundred miles into the drive, traffic is thinning out, but the road's still good quality, as good as highways back in the states. Both Rocky and Charles's farming villages got paved roads in the last few years, but Charles says his road is deteriorating because officials used cheap material and skimmed money. In Chinese, they're called dofu zha gongcheng, which means projects made from tofu dregs. Even one of Charles's family members got in on the scam.

CHARLES: (Through interpreter) My uncle was a village chief. My mother said that my uncle siphoned off some money from an engineering project. When I heard about it, I wasn't very happy.

LANGFITT: Rocky says many rural folks just accept corruption. After decades of poverty and isolation, they're happy for anything the government throws their way.

ROCKY: (Through interpreter) Chinese farmers are the simplest farmers in the world with very, very low demands. When the government does just a little bit for them, they feel it's a huge blessing. They thank the government and the Communist Party. Actually, it's nonsense.

LANGFITT: The conversation naturally turns now towards the need for government accountability, and Charles stops himself.

CHARLES: (Speaking Chinese).

LANGFITT: "This interview's become too sensitive," he says. "Let's change the topic." Then, he adds this in English.

CHARLES: It's common in China, self-censorship.

LANGFITT: When you use a microphone in China, this happens a lot. So after about 10 hours of driving, we're deep in the mountains of Hubei province in central China, and we're closing in on Rocky and Charles's villages - sun's beginning to set, and it feels like time for sing-along.

ROCKY AND CHARLES: (Singing) Country roads, take me home to the place where I belong. West Virginia...

GREENE: Frank, those are wonderful voices. That is the sound of a road trip in every way, huh?

LANGFITT: Yeah. The Chinese love to sing, David.

GREENE: We're talking to NPR's Frank Langfitt, who gave two Chinese men a ride home for the Chinese New Year's holiday - home to their villages as part of a project we're calling Streets of Shanghai. And, Frank, how long was this trip you took?

LANGFITT: It was really long; it was 14 hours. I actually didn't make it to Rocky's village. It got too dark, and the road was too dangerous. I actually ended up sleeping in a hotel.

GREENE: You slept in a hotel, meaning you stayed in this part of China. And you're going to tell us more about the trip tomorrow. What are we going to hear tomorrow?

LANGFITT: Well, tomorrow we're going to go to Rocky's village wedding. It's really raucous, and what's going to be interesting is we're going to find out how Rocky rose from the son of poor farmers to actually become a lawyer in Shanghai.

GREENE: The kinds of stories that you're learning from people as you pick them up and give them rides. Well, Frank, look forward to your reporting tomorrow. Thanks a lot.

LANGFITT: Thanks a lot, David.


DENVER: (Singing) Country roads, take me home to the place I belong. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.