Thursday, 30 June 2011

The Road to Luang Prabang

Cloud Forest. Yunnan

Another Basket Case

An entimologists Desk

We are safer on our bikes

Did they put them in the tree museum?

Huay Xai Docks

Down the Mekong

Look out for Whirlpools buddy!

Our faouurite tree

Luang Prabang

If you have inadvertently stumbled upon this blog looking for useful information about cycling in China, or anywhere else for that matter, I apologise and suggest you immediately look elsewhere. If you are still reading I will give one piece of advice: do it, it’s a great place for a cycle-ride. Oh, and one little tip is learn to pick out the Chinese character meaning guesthouse. In Sichuan and Yunnan a symbol that looks like a B with a hat on and a squiggle a bit like a lightning strike before it means rooms available. It is usually the last of four or five other symbols. Of course, as in any land one can get by with two words; hello and thank you, but the more language you learn the better. In China the numbers are important because the hand signals for these are different to ours. Getting the hang of the hand signals is helpful. What makes it fun is that pretty much everyone is willing to try and communicate and have a laugh in the process.
            I believe the last instalment left us somewhere on the road to Jinghong, the county town of the Xishuangbanna region which though in reality is a large area of densely forested mountains complete with wild elephants and all, on the map is but a pimple on Chinas ample bottom being pinched between the totalitarian thumb of Myanmar and the sued-socialistic forefinger of Laos. Jinghong itself is an unusual town in that it has pretty much no buildings of any architectural merit but is a very attractive and pleasant place to be owing to the proliferation and maturity of the trees lining the roads. In fact it’s hard to see many of the buildings because of all the foliage. If 85% of London could be hidden in the same way it would in my opinion be a vast improvement.
            Jinghong lies on the Mekong and although here it is somewhere around 4000km from the sea, the river is wide with fairly large ferries and boats puffing around trying to give an air of harbour importance to the sleepy town. We rode beside the fast flowing river some 30kms before it turned towards Burma and we headed south to Mengla and the border crossing with Laos. On our map highway G213 looked like a motorway but in reality there were two roads, the old and the new. The newer was a typically Chinese two lane modern highway built largely on stilts over the valleys and through tunnels under the hills. Very impressive with the forest all grown back around it. As we have seen often there was little traffic, not enough to warrant such an expensive construction. I was told these roads in the border areas are commissioned by the military. Perhaps like the Interstate network in the USA. A system was wanted to transport troops and equipment to all corners in case of trouble. We took the old road and saw only occasionally the new one. In maybe 200kms we passed through only 2 or 3 small villages and the traffic consisted of a couple of motorbikes carrying bamboo poles or banana plants. As this twisting and turning forgotten highway saw so little use now, it was being claimed back by the jungle. Leaves lay at the edges and creepers were sending tentative tendrils on probing missions across the tarmac. One morning we went up and up through a wet cloud, finally emerging into sun just before a pass and being rewarded with a spectacular view over a mountainous landscape of cotton-wool and forest canopy.

One morning we crossed the border into The Peoples Democratic Republic of Lao. I cycled through Lao about three years ago and enjoyed it thoroughly. Had things changed? I could not be sure but there seemed to be far less trees on the hills and far more shiny Hilux pick-ups on the roads. Economic growth in evidence I guess.
            The villages along the road were now bamboo huts on stilts and there were far more kids running around than in China. Also Compared to China there was very little food being grown. Yes there was still Jungle but large scoured and burnt tracts lay unused, baking in the sun. Passing through Luang Nam Tha, we arrived, after a 120km schlep, after dark and in torrential rain, once-more on the banks of the Mekong. The wet season here is, as advertised, occasionally a little damp. From Huay Xai we took a 2 day boat trip down river to Luang prabang.
            On boarding we realised we had joined well and truly the backpacker trail.  Mostly kids; the English drinking, the Germans reading guidebooks and the Americans claiming the boat was overloaded and dangerous and demanding a second craft. We met some nice folks though, Marco and Marica from Hawaii and Jason and John, Canadian and American. We would meet them a few times as we wound our way through the North part of this long thin country.
            Luang Prabang is a sleepy temple town on the Mekong the French Colonial centre of which has now surrendered to the backpacker dollar and is all geared to tourism. It had changed a lot in three years. We stayed a few days and rode out to my favourite waterfall then left for the challenging road through the limestone Kharst mountains to the capital, Vientiane. On the first morning out we met Gab, a Hungarian cyclist on his way to Bannock from Bangkok in aid of World Bicycle Relief, a charity helping rural Africans to build and repair bicycles and use them where they would normally have to walk hours to school etc.
            We rode 4 or 5 days with Gab, stopping in Vang Vieng for a day out at the beautiful Blue Lagoon cave. This town has gone a bit crazy and not in an altogether good way. The young tourists here enjoy floating down the river in a tractor tube and drinking a few beers along the way. Fair play. The problem is that they wander shirtless and bikinied through  he town after and stop in a 'bucket bar' to get totally drunk and worse so that they forget to dress, and crawl through the streets puking and swearing and wearing a bucket on their heads. The Buddhist locals don't really appreciate this behaviour. What is a Bucket bar? I hear you say. Get this, you get given a plastic bucket of the bucket and spade variety and it is cheaply filled and refilled with hard liquor and ice. Unsurprisingly everyone gets drunk real quick. I like the occasional snifter myself but was shocked, particularly as the majority and the worst perpetrators were the British. Why don't they just go to Newquay? Dammit, why don’t they stay at home!
            We finally climbed the last mountain and saw a flat plain stretching before us. Having been amongst the Himalayas and its offspring since Christmas and cycling over 3000 steep km we were glad to see a flat road again. Gab left this morning as he is much faster than us really and has a plane to catch, sad to see him go as he was good company. We have just picked up our Thailand visas and will head for Bangkok in the morning.
            Laos is a great place for cycling but somehow we feel a little disappointed. I think it lies in the fact that in this wet season we decided not to follow the network of dirt roads and stick to the tarmac. This left little choice but the tourist trail, in the towns anyway, and the people seem a bit bored of the whole thing. Understandably. They obviously need the money but have to make some large sacrifices and particularly in Vang Vieng I see trouble ahead as the local young men lose patience with the foolish children we keep sending to their town. Infect I was having a few beers with some lads last night, a good bunch, but after I went to bed they carried on till late and ended up getting robbed by a gang armed with Kalashnikovs. The backlash has perhaps begun.
            Possibly after so long on the road I am getting a bit bored being a tourist. I no longer desire to visit the temples we pass and have finally had enough of noodle soup!  I am happiest when pedalling and look forward to picking up the tempo a bit in Thailand and getting a bit closer to Australia.

1 comment:

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