Welcome to China
June 10th, 2006.
Green Diamond Hotel, Meng La, China.
It’s less than two days since we left Luang Prabang yet already it seems like aeons ago, so much have we seen and experienced since then.
Jo, Ting Tong and I were reluctant to leave the safe confines of Luang Prabang. There’s so much to see there and one day didn’t even tickle the surface. So it was with dragging heels that we left Sayo River Guest house and turned north up Route 13. Next stop Udomxai.
Having conquered the worst stretch of Rte 13 the day before, we set off with increased confidence in our new found mountaineering skills. Udomxai was only 170 km’s away and we had been assured that the road was good. Slightly baffling was the fact that public buses take over 4 hours to cover this relatively short distance. Yet rather than making us suspicious of what lay ahead we just put it down to the spluttering, bronchitic old buses, and not the road conditions.
The first 100 km’s flew by. I lounged in the back and admired the beautiful country slipping by, and Jo skilfully navigated the road north. We’d practically be in Udomxai for lunch at this rate. Then things changed. The corners got sharper, the hills steeper and the potholes more prolific. And the road signs disappeared completely. As we rounded one particularly fearsome bend we were met by huddled groups of people sitting in the road; monks, women, children, old men. Behind them was the bus that was supposed to be taking them to Vientiane, clinging to the edge of the mountain, miraculously held there by a tangle of plants and trees. Only twenty minutes before the driver had lost control on the corner and narrowly escaped killing all. Terrifying. I should think those monks said a special prayer to Buddha last night.
After stopping to see if everyone was OK and if there was anything we could do, we tukked off, driving even more carefully than before. In the end we didn’t tuk into our destination until 4pm, over 5 hours after we had left Luang Prabang. In fact we had covered 215 km’s, and having had no lunch and little water felt totally exhausted.
If you’re ever contemplating a holiday to Udomxai, think again. It really is the armpit of Laos, a strange Chinese / Lao trading post teeming with Chinese construction workers and half-finished buildings. Rain, bedbugs, a plague of mosquitoes, extreme tiredness then insomnia made for a wholly unpleasant night there and in more driving rain we set off for the Chinese border this morning.
And we thought the roads yesterday were bad…as we drove the last 100 km’s to Boten I found myself thinking repeatedly, incredulously, that this was Laos’ main artery, the principle thoroughfare linking it with China and Thailand. Yet a few km’s north of Uxomxai the road almost disappeared altogether. It took us over four hours to reach Boten in conditions that would test the most hardy 4 x 4. Yet once again Ting Tong excelled herself. WE LOVE TING TONG.
So here we are in China, in some random town 60 km north of the border. Jo and I were so flummoxed by the whole place that at supper we just sat and gawped at the otherness of it all. Even the coke cans are weird. Thank goodness we’ve now got our Chinese guide Sam (his English name) with us, otherwise we’d get very confused and probably end up starving and very lost.
Laos...what an amazing place. We spent a mere six dayscutting a hot pink swathe through its middle, but itis definitely somewhere we both want to return to. The
Hmong, whose much talked of "rebels" stalked our imagination up Rte 13, turned out to be one of themost fascinating aspects of the country. Their remote
mountain villages were incredible, and at the risk of sounding occidental and patronizing it was extraordinary to find bare breasted women in tribal
garb wandering down the main road of the country. I was so curious about these people I had heard so many rumours about that I did some research and discovered
that Hmong means 'free' and that for hundreds of years these fiercley independent people have fought to preserve their autonomy. Hence their isolated mountain
dwellings and warlike reputation. Such brave fighters were they that the US enlisted their help in the Vietnam debacle, with the Hmong providing 99% of their ground forces in Laos. In return for their efforts they were promised a homeland. Of course this never materialised and after the fall of Saigon the US abandoned their brave allies to face the revenge of the winning communists. Out of an estimated pre-war
population of 3,000,000 less than 200,000 made it to safety across the Mekong.
The persecution persists today with the Laos Government forcing them from their mountain villages, in order to police them more closely. I recommend
everyone to visit a Hmong village and hang out with some of these
'rebels' before they are assimilated entirely.