19 to 27 November 2011
From Dali it was time start the journey towards the border with Laos, our next destination. We debated and discussed but in the end the backpacker inside us persuaded us that a 15 hour overnight bus journey for £20 was an all-round better option than both a return to Kunming for overnight followed by a full day’s journey or an £80 flight. It was a bad omen when we got on the bus and only two seats were left – the 2 worst seats; it was clear this was not going to be the most comfortable journey in the history of travelling. Train is by far the most comfortable way of travelling long distances in China but a not-yet-built line on this leg meant this wasn’t an option. It was a sleeper bus but the only problem was that at 11 in the morning we weren’t ready to sleep. A Chinese sleeper bus consists of upper and lower flat berths in 3 rows with an aisle between them – one row along the left hand windows front to back, one in the middle and one on the left side. They are pretty much flat save a pillow height head rest which meant that sitting up wasn’t really an option as there was limited head room. Oh, and length-wise they are designed for people who are generally a lot shorter than the average foreigner.
To add to the physical discomfort was the air pollution. For one, the Chinese really haven’t bought into this non smoking thing. Officially smoking is now banned on public transport and whilst this is more commonly adhered to in larger, more developed places it is still largely ignored in many more. After all who is there to enforce the rules when the bus driver and his band of merry men are chain-smoking their way from one hair pin bend to the next? At least most of that smoke went directly out of the driver’s window but further back where there seemed to be hardly any windows that opened it was fairly unpleasant and Mark and I took it in turns to turn and glare at anyone who lit up and shake our heads and point at the no smoking sign until they conceded and put out their cigarette. And then there were the smelly feet. The only rule that did seem to be enforced was the one to remove your shoes on boarding the bus; the aroma of 50 pairs of Chinese feet emerging in nylon socks from plastic faux leather shoes is not a pleasant one. And so the journey went on ……
At 10 o’clock at night we stopped for “dinner”, in a dark one-street town with one “restaurant”, one convenience store and no toilets (toilets in China could be the subject of a blog in their own right so I won’t digress now). An hour and a half later everyone was complaining they were cold and presumably impatient to get going so we were let back on the bus. For a reason that we will never know, we remained on the roadside until 6am. We were supposed to drive through the night and arrive at 3am but what actually happened meant a better night’s sleep and a more sociable arrival time in Jinghong but the reason behind it will remain mystery and speculation.
The town of Jinghong is a transition point between China and South East Asia – not just geographically but climatically, ethnically and philosophically. Signs were in Lao and Burmese as well as Chinese and ….. finally it was getting warm! A transit point for us too, from here we crossed the border into northern Laos.
A fairly smooth process although our bus load was held up slightly on exiting China by slightly over-scrutinising border officials not happy with the fact that several months on the road had turned them from the clean-cut type portrayed on their passport photos to unrecognisable long-haired, bushy bearded drop-outs. And then there was the Lebanese guy who in addition to not looking like his photo and a passport full of Middle Eastern stamps, had over-stayed his visa by 5 days. He got taken off for questioning and we never saw him again (not even over the next few days in Laos where the one street town was so small it was impossible not to see everyone staying there several times a day).
And so we were back in lovely Laos. Another country we are serial visitors to! This time crossing from southern China into northern Laos was the ideal way to see a part of Laos we haven’t previously visited – Luang Namtha province. The changes as you cross from China into Laos are remarkable – from China’s bustling, built up towns and cities where they just don’t seem to be able to stop themselves building roads and houses to dusty Laos, where the roads are red dirt and the houses are wooden stilted structures. There are wide open, empty spaces and banana trees that are also covered in red dust. People are much poorer and have far fewer material possessions but their faces are always open and smiling. It was also nice to get back to a place where we can order tasty food without too much difficulty! On our first evening it was straight to the Night Market for roast duck with sticky rice and chilli sauce washed down with lashing of Beer Lao. Oh, Beer Lao: another reason it was good to be back. We spent a couple of days exploring Luang Namtha by bicycle and on foot before bussing it to the smaller towns of Muang Sing and Muang Long. Again, they were great places from which to explore the countryside. From Muang Sing we took a long walk out from the town, crossed the bridge and followed the river past farmers in their fields with river on one side and mountains on the other. Very pretty. We reached another village where there was a small monastery and an old monk indicated that we could cross the river back to our side a bit further down. We assumed he meant by bridge. No bridge but the water looked shallow enough; then a woman crossed from the opposite side and we could see it was fine so we took our shoes and socks off and waded across. Wet feet are a good excuse to sit on a riverbank and watch the world go by so this is what we did before putting our shoes and socks back on and continuing. No sooner had we got going we came across another river, this time wider and faster but there was a lady crossing just ahead of us, this part of the river looked OK too. We made it to about mid way across before our feet starting screaming at us – walking bare foot across sharp stones and slippery boulders is not something our sensitive western feet are used to! The river was also faster and deeper in parts than we bargained for even though we tried to trace the tracks of the woman in front of us who had already reached the other side. Slowly, slowly and it wouldn’t be a problem but the lady, looking at us from the bank decided we were obviously rubbish as crossing rivers and came wading back to guide us! Cycling out of the town of Muang Long was a safer affair and we managed not to get lost even with a bit of off-roading. The only other mildly eventful thing was a flat tyre on the journey south to Luang Prabang which is not at all eventful really as it happens with reasonable regularity. The difference with this one was that I actually went to look at the state of the tyre being changed ………. I’m no expert but what do you think?? See photo’s!!!!!
PS Unfortunately by this point our camera was mis-functioning to such a point of frustration that we nearly threw it in the river, hence not as many pictures as we’d like 🙁