Through the wilds..
March 10th, Jinghong, Yunnan Province, China
by Mr. D
Richards back wheel situation went from bad to worse. If you've just joined us, Richards back wheel has been gradually breaking up since our expedition to Ta-oy several weeks earlier covered some of the worst roads know to man and bike. Between Vientianne and Louang Phabang cracks in the wheel around several spokes grew larger and larger. Following a spoke blowout a couple of days earlier the wheel was already running out of true, and now all it would take would be an errant pothole to take out another spoke and the wheel could rapidly start to disintegrate.
We'd hoped to find a new wheel in Louang Phabang, but luck being luck and us being unlucky there was not a spare wheel to be found in the whole town that would fit Richards bike. A couple chinese made mountain bikes had the right size rims, but no-one carried any spare rims for them. After a day of hopeless searching, it was looking increasingly likely that Rich would need to backtrack to Vientianne, but more likely all the way to Bangkok to pick up a new rim. It was either that or to risk losing the wheel on the awful and remote roads of Northern Lao.
Later that evening I met Rich, Luciano & Verena by the Mekong for a beer with the sunset. They'd come up with a unique solution... Rich was now the proud owner of an ex-rental Chinese mountain bike. He'd parted with $60 in order to cannabalise the bike for the rim. We all had a good laugh, but considering the circumstances it was a pretty sound idea.
[ Temples in Louang Phabang ]
So we were back to square one, and $30 down after Rich sold the bike back at a loss. Rich was adamant about not going back. So we decided to press on regardless with a couple prayers to the wheel gods, and a call to Richards father to mail a new rim to Kunming in China, over 1000km away.
We said goodbye to Luciano & Verena, and left Louang Phabang contentedly full of pizza & croissants a couple days later. We capitulated to the alure of a day cruise up the Mekong (opposite direction to HK so you don't think we're cheating) to the small town of Pakbeng where we would risk a potholed Route 2 north to Muang Xai, and then on to China.
Sadly our cruise didn't turn out quite as expected - We bought tickets on a cargo/passenger boat heading upstream. We'd heard stories of the great scenery and being able to soak up the sun on the boat roof. But reality warped 'Lao style, as the boat captain, paranoid about foreigners falling off, was adamant that no one was going to sit on the roof.
And so it was that we came to chug up the Mekong sitting on the sharp and uncomfortable struts of the boat, only several feet away from a noisy diesel engine, while being crammed in with 20 locals and a handful of other backpackers. Bad turned to worse when it transpired that the upstream voyage actually took 2 days.
Rich and I snuk out onto the roof several hours into the voyage and did enjoy an hour of the scenery before we were discovered and angrily sheperded back inside.
That night we slept in a small village on the banks of the Mekong. They were clearly used to a trickle of foreigners, and it was quite nice just to watch them all going about their business without them all dropping everything to stare at us.
The next day we managed to negotiate our way onto the bow of the boat and were freed from the agony of the noisy smelly claustrophobic hold. We arrived in Pakbeng around early afternoon amidst low ominous clouds, cool weather and a light drizzle. The trees were bare of foliage, and this, combined with the wet ground left a distinctively wintery feel to the place. Pakbeng had a small plethora of cheap backpacker haunts to choose from and we took it easy in preparation for the next day.
On my evening amble around the local temple I met some novices who showed me their collection of gongs used to call them to prayer. We all had a bit of fun randomly banging them, and then things seemed to fall into a rythmic groove. So as the sun set over the Mekong, Pakbeng was treated to an improptu jam sessions from Jaymz and the 3 buddhist novices. - Totally cool & fun.
We set off early the next morning after negotiating the cold water showers by candelight in the crisp pre-dawn air. Route 2 north turned out to be every bit as difficult as we'd feared. Although surfaced by the Chinese in the 70's in the spirit of Communist camerarderie, China and Lao soon fell out over a difference of opinion on what to do about Cambodia. Lao sided with Vietnam, while China took sides with the Khmer Rouge. The knock on effect for us cyclists was that no-one has done any maintenance on the road since and now it was more pothole than road. - negotiating the potholes, chunks of rocks and muddy puddles required intense and constant concentration. We had less time to enjoy the scenery, and to take our hands of the handlebars to wave at villagers became downright dangerous. Added to this was the nagging worry that over the next bump we'd hear the ping of spokes blowing and Richards back wheel disintegrating.
But the rim made it through the morning and into the afternoon. Before the town of Muang Houn I picked up a strange puncture. Rich did crowd entertainment while I fixed it, and then to our astonishment as we got back on the bikes, Richard cried, "I don't believe it." His front tire was also flat!
We had a yummy feu for lunch and watched colorfully dressed minorities wander too and from the local market.
That evening as the sun dropped lower in the sky we passed a village house with a small crowd outside and thumping music eminating from inside. To Richards dismay I got off the bike and popped my head inside the house. It was a student party, and I instantly replaced the Karaoke system as the new center of attention.
Rich and I then proceeded to suffer/enjoy several rounds of Lao whisky (Lao Lao) some quite yummy local food, and another strained set of conversations. It is my largest regret that all through this country the most interesting conversations I have been able to have with ordinary people extend only as far as what's your name, where do you come from, where are you going, how old are you, are you married, and then a stumbled incomprehension. Next time (?) I'm going to cram a little more Lao before I arrive, and bring a phrasebook with me.
Perhaps I had even done quite well in even getting to this basic level of language sophistication. By the time we left Lao, I could quite happily communicate our common needs and requirements... order food, ask to camp, enquire directions. However many of the longer term travellers we met seem to have given up hope of getting to grips with so many languages and just fuddle about in English. This is perhaps one of the greatest reasons to travel slowly and see just a little bit at a time. When you travel fast, and see much you are never able to get see behind the scenes, too see the detail of the countries you travel through.
We extracated ourselves from the party and camped out that night by a nearby river where the locals went to wash themselves. We entertained a small crowd for 30 minutes, and then they all left us too it. Beautiful full moon, and another yummy curry ala Richard & Jaymz.
The next morning we woke up to thunder claps, but thankfully only the tiniest splattering of rain. However, only 10kms further on, all the potholes had turned to bottomless puddles. Stopping at the party the night before may well have saved us a dousing that morning!
The road got worse, but Richards wheel continued to go round and round to our relief. We stopped for cookies after 30kms of dodging potholes, and noticed to our amazement that the scenery had TOTALLY changed. Instead of being surrounded by wintery looking dead trees, we were now in the middle of a throbbing green jungle. The sun came out and the puddles provided a sweltering humidity and it all began to feel like we'd gone through a wormhole and come out on the same road but in the middle of the summer.
Around 3pm the road joined Rt 1 and we sped along 10km of silky smooth tarmac into the small town of Muang Xai. - Tarmac is bliss - Pave the world!
We stayed the night in Muang Xai, and left the next morning after spending the last of our kip on cookies and other munchies. It took another day and a half of amazing scenery and wonderful people to get to the Chinese border. Both of us felt quite sad to be leaving Lao. With the pace of change, the tranquility we've experienced is likely to get quickly trampled on by hordes of tourism and foreign investment pouring into the country. We felt lucky to have seen it like this before it becomes 'just another Thailand.'
So on we went into a new world. China, the middle kingdom, and also, with me being a Hong Kong resident, my surrogate home. We sped downhill passing tiled houses and rice terraces stretching high up into the hills, modern vehicles, and concrete buildings. Chinese characters and historic stone bridges. It all felt wonderfully strange. - Sadly for Rich he was also feeling strange in another way. The lurgy had returned.
We drifted into Mengla in the afternoon with Rich feeling decidedly weak. We were both in awe and totally unsure of what to do and where to go. The concrete buildings captivated us and intimidated us. The signs confused us and we spent half an hour aimlessly wandering in the afternoon heat looking for somewhere to eat, and another half hour looking for somewhere to sleep. - All this in a town full of restaurants and hotels.
Rich rested all evening, and wasn't able to stomach any dinner. Cycling the next day was called off after he spent the night in close companionship with the toilet. His quick recovery the next day was offset by my slide downhill to the lurgy aswell. The hotel staff began to wonder what we were doing all day lying in bed and so they satisfied their curiosity by peering through our window and barging in unanounced to clean our bathroom.
Another day of foul smelling burps, stomach cramps, sickness, and unfunny toilet stories had us looking at the first aid book, and there were all our symptoms in black and white. - Giardia. - ho ho.
We gained enough courage to venture out and search out a doctor. My garbled attempts at combining my basic Mandarin filled in with Cantonese and Lao interjections eventually led us to a hospital but no further. We sat outside a doctors office for 10 minutes as people pushed past us. But tired and frustrated Richard astutely noted that the doctors looked worse than we did. We gave up and decided to get out of town the next day one way or another to a bigger town further up the road.
In hindsight we made a good call. We later met a lass who caught a fever in Mengla at the same time as us. - She'd persisted enough to get attention from the doctor but was unable to explain her problems. Bu it was no problem; they just gave her a glucose IV and a bunch of unidentified injections, then hospitalized her for the night. - We're glad we gave up when we did.
Being ill sucks. Being ill so often sucks doubly so. It wastes your time and clouds your opinions of the places you're in. It's so frustrating.
The next day, we felt well enough to hitch a bus ride to Jinghong The ride was pleasant and the scenery stunning. By the time we arrived in Jinghong, were both well enough to eat a hearty banana pancake and check out the throbbng boom town we'd entered.
Jinghong is an amazing mass of construction and neon lights. The town, the hub of the well touristed Xishuangbanna region, is undergoing a phenomonal reinvention with fancy hotels and restaurants around every corner. Richard came back from a walk down the main street stunned. "It's just like a modern city down there, shops and everything, it's even got a fake bennetton."
So China is shaping up to be a fascinating and scary place to travel in. We continue to get better, and Richard has now made a quick diversionnary trip to Kunming by plane to pick up his new rim that should be waiting at the GPO for him by now. Meanwhile, I'm getting to enjoy a few days of quiet relaxation in a town with enough backpackers to while away evenings of conversation and banana pancakes. - And of course update this site. - so hope you're enjoying the read.
We'll head out from here in a few days towards the small cities of Baoshan and Tengchong and then towards the next touristed area of Dali some several hundred klicks north of here. It is toted as a 36 hour hellish bus ride over mountain ridges which translates for us as a couple weeks of cool biking!