When the waitress crushed the fish’s head open with a spoon, Kristin Addis thought she’d have to politely eat brains. Rather, the Chinese woman dug out a sword-shaped bone, cleaned it, laced it on a string, and boxed it.
Addis was eating a lunch that could have fed six with two men who’d picked her up in a small, rural village in the Tibetan autonomous region of China, Kangding, a few hours prior. Little traffic rolled through the remote roads, but when she raised her thumb, the men offered to drive her eight hours to Chengdu — the capital of the southwestern Sichuan province where she’d intended to go, and where they’d happened to be heading.
Along the way, they stopped in a city called Ya’an, where locals order live fish from a tank.
“At lunch, they kept telling me about this double-edged sword and I wasn’t getting it because my Chinese is conversational, but I’m not fluent,” Addis laughs. But when the waitress presented her with a fishbone necklace, she quickly caught on. “These guys not only bought me lunch, but they also bought me the most lethal piece of jewelry that I own. It was so sweet. They wouldn’t let me [pay for anything]; they never would in China.”
Addis has been backpacking on her own for four-and-a-half years since quitting her investment banking job in Newport Beach, California — a career that was earning her six figures a year.
She bought a one-way ticket to Bangkok, where she says she knew her money would last. Now, she’s a full-time travel blogger at Be My Travel Muse.
“I basically decided to not do the cubicle life anymore in 2012,” she explains. “I thought you kind of had to be really wealthy to travel like I wanted to, but I started reading travel blogs and realized that these people aren’t trust fund babies.”
Flash forward and solo travel’s become her unabated addiction. Because of her success traveling thus far, Be My Travel Muse now sells over $25,000 USD worth of products and services per month via affiliate links. Addis welcomed over one million readers in 2016 and has over 190,000 social media followers — she’s even published a book, Conquering Mountains: How to Solo Travel the World Fearlessly.
Through her growing internet influence, she’s more than doubled her investment banking earnings.
By now, the adventure aficionado has quite the marked-up bucket list.
She’s done it all, from bungee jumping in South Africa and paragliding in Nepal to sandboarding in Namibia and spending a week scuba diving in Indonesia’s Komodo National Park. She’s also spent two months hiking through Patagonia, and just recently returned from trucking through Uganda and Rwanda.
A day she hitches a ride in a stranger’s car is just another day.
The first time Addis tried hitchhiking, she covered over 1,500 miles from the Yunnan province of China along the border of Tibet to the Sichuan province over the course of about two months. China, she says, is where she’s scored the most success.
But she didn’t start out solo.
Her first time was with Ya Ting, a Chinese friend of hers, in a city called LiJiang. The pair were hoping to make it to the Tiger Leaping Gorge, a scenic canyon about two-and-a-half miles from the Jīnshā River. One of the deepest gorges in the world, it measures almost 10 miles long with the snow capped mountains of Hābā Shān to the west and the soaring Yùlóng Xuěshān mountain to the east. It’s a trek for which they were willing to risk their safety.
“Ya Ting was so enthusiastic about it that it made my worries melt away,” Addis reminisces, noting that she mostly stuck to rural roads where she says she could also train for her upcoming hike in Nepal at the time. “It’s really actually not that common to hitchhike in China, but she had done it before and we were both really low on cash — that was really our motivation; we just didn’t have a lot of money. And we found that the combination of the two of us made people pull over almost immediately because they were just like, What is that?”
It took Addis and Ya Ting about 30 minutes before a van pulled over and offered them a ride most of the way. Once the driver dropped them off at the freeway interchange bound toward Shangri-La, however, it took them no more than two minutes to catch a car the rest of their voyage.
After finishing their trek, culminating in the town of Qiaotou and ready to head to Shangri-La, Ya Ting stuck out her thumb and hitched yet another ride almost immediately. Perhaps more shocking, however, was who was already picked up in the car — their friend Lilly, who they’d met at their original hostel back in LiJiang. It seemed as though hitchhiking was quite typical after all.
Addis and Ya Ting continued to hitchhike on the following legs of their journey, up white mountain roads to Dêqên, straddling the border between Sichuan and Tibet in the Yunnan province. From there, they trekked to Yubeng, which is accessible only by foot or mule from Dêqên. It’s a place, their driver told them, that is like heaven on earth. They then returned back to LiJiang before continuing on to Lugu Lake — all by the grace of strangers.
And, at some point, they went their separate ways.
“After we made our way through one province, Ya Ting had other plans, and so did I,” Addis explains. “So she went her way and I went my way, and I was just like, Well, am I going to try to do this by myself?”
“So I decided to try to hitchhike solo, and that’s where my best stories came out of.”
Some who couldn’t take her all the way to her destination would drop her off at a bus station and buy her tickets. Others would drop her off with relatives who’d drive her even farther, and almost all of them would stop to relish in picturesque views or introduce her to traditional towns along the way.
“Sometimes people suggest I see more of the world. They wonder why I can’t bring myself to leave Asia,” she wrote on her blog. “This is why.”
But of course, Asia isn’t the only place Addis has hitchhiked.
Addis has hitchhiked in almost every continent around the world.
“I hitchhiked once in Germany, just because it was too far to walk and there was no other option,” she says. “And I’ve hitchhiked in Mozambique to get from Tofo to Vilankulo.”
“It is actually so terrible taking the mini buses there,” Addis explains, “which are basically the only option for public transportation.” Locals go to a bus depot, where they wait for hours while the buses are filled. If they show up too late, they risk missing their chance of boarding one. Though, while the buses are on the road, the drivers incessantly pull over in attempts to stuff more people aboard.
“There are people sitting on people; it is so overpacked and these buses are so out of shape,” she remembers. “The last time I took one, I was sitting in the front seat next to the driver, which is the best possible seat because then there’s no one sitting on top of you. But he was really swerving a lot and I was thinking, What is going on here? And then I look over and he’s swigging a beer. I was like, OK, I’m never getting in one of these death traps again.”
Boarding those buses was such a nightmare, she says, that hitchhiking was actually safer.
In Patagonia, Addis hitchhiked for two weeks a route called Carreterea — a road that connects tiny villages and some of the least-known parts of Patagonia and South America, in general, she says. Since the road is mostly gravel and buses are “intermittent at best,” hitchhiking was, again, her best bet.
In fact, hitchhiking Carreterea is somewhat of a rite of passage. Young Chilenos will try to get as far as they can before having to return at summer’s end, Addis explains. That’s why it was also the one place where she had the most competition.
“In China, I raised my thumb and people pulled over because it was just so fascinating and weird to them to see this white girl hitchhiking,” she says. “But in Chile, it was hard to get a ride — sometimes I would stand there for hours in the rain just trying to get picked up. Their cars were full and it wasn’t just me standing on the side of the road; it was sometimes 50 other people.”
Addis has also hitchhiked in the States.
Particularly, in Jackson, Wyoming, after her then-boyfriend dropped her off a the Visitor’s Center in town to catch a bus to the Grand Teton National Park while he went snowboarding.
Little did she know that buses don’t run in the winter, so the townspeople suggested she hitchhike. A retired state trooper pulled over for her, took her to the park, and even used his national park pass to get her in. En route back, a group of people picked her up and took her around to see moose in the area.
“They were the coolest people,” she says.
While Addis has been on the receiving end of a number of good deeds, she has certainly paid it forward.
She plans on renting a van to drive through New Zealand in the coming months, where she’ll pick up hitchhikers like she once picked up a group of young guys while driving in Maui, Hawaii.
“I was driving by myself and I questioned if it was a good idea,” she admits. “But I think they were probably like 20, one had a ukulele on his back, and they were smiling. I was just like, These guys look like my brother, so I’ve got to do it.”
She actually passed them before turning back around, pulling over on the other side of the road and rolling down her window.
“I was like, I’ll give you a ride but don’t be creepy about it,” she jokes. “And they were super cool. They seemed really trustworthy, and they were.”
Addis says that it feels great to give people a ride when they need it, simply because it’s nice to give.
“That’s why I love hitchhiking,” she says. “It’s so humbling. It shows you the kindness of people…It’s such a heartwarming experience, and that’s most of the reason I still do it now.”
There is nothing she says she can think of that has submerged her into a culture more, or has made her feel more confident in the good of humankind, than openly asking for help on the side of the road and a perfect stranger making the snap decision to give it to her.
“You’re both kind of making a split-second decision on each other,” she says, confessing that she doesn’t have any specific precautions she takes. “You’re both completely relying on your split-second instincts…If I got a bad vibe, I wouldn’t get in the car, but it’s honestly never been the case.”
She says she’s mostly been picked up by men, which she assumes is because lone female drivers may not feel as safe picking up strangers.
“No one has ever hit on me or been creepy at all, really,” she affirms. “As a girl hitchhiking by yourself, you’ll always have an easy time. As soon as there’s a guy with you, or if there’s two guys, it’ll always be a lot harder. It’s a lot less threatening to pick up a girl by herself than to pick up two dudes.”
Addis advises women who want to give hitchhiking a go, but are perhaps apprehensive, to first try it with a female partner.
“You can probably find someone at your hostel who might be willing to do it with you, like the case with me and Ya Ting,” she says. “She made me confident in trying it and then, once I did it myself for the first time, I realized that it’s not this scary, murderer movie kind of thing I thought it was going to be. The people have been really nice and they’ve taken a chance on me just as much as I have on them.”
Have you ever hitchhiked (whether or not in the same way as Kristin Addis)? We’d love to hear your hitchhiking stories in the comments!
All images courtesy of Kritsin Addis/Be My Travel Muse.