8.1.17 JingHong, China to Luang Namtha, Laos

After four months on the road, today we head to Laos in South East Asia, where we plan to spend the winter months. This morning we realised we could meet gap year travellers born in the year we last visited Laos, eighteen years ago. Ouch!

Our seven hour journey starts at JingHong southern bus station on the 11 o’clock.  The bus looks tired with broken seats, curtains and cobwebs which we don’t mind but a group of young Laos tourists don’t like at all and they hold their noses as they board.

We drive through the delightful JingHong set on the Mekong and begin the steep ascent out of the city. After about 15 minutes a car drives past and shouts at our driver who pulls over. The car stops too and a man gets out and shouts at us before driving off. A commotion starts on the bus. The drivers mate darts out of the door followed by one of the Laos lads and I follow to see them closing the boot. The drivers mate runs off down the hill and we get back on the bus which turns around and heads back down the hill. The other passengers are stood scanning the road and I can only assume the boot was open and our luggage is strewn over the road. We catch up with the drivers mate who gets back on and we continue down the steep hill. Everyone is shouting and looking out of the windows. We have a conversation about what we would miss the most and secretly, I think Al dreams of a new wardrobe. After 10 minutes we turn around, head back up the hill and pull over at the place where we first stopped. We all pile out and check the boot and there is only one sad gap in the middle of the luggage, where a suitcase belonging to one of the Laos lads used to sit. I feel really sorry for him but he doesn’t seem bothered at all. The girls in his party do all of the negotiations with the drivers mate.

We carry on through pretty valleys on a road so new its still being built. Concrete works scar the landscape and aggregate and tarmac trucks slow our progress on hills. We go through many tunnels, one that is four kilometres long and so thick with dust that fog lights just make the dust storm seem pretty. In this tunnel, on a bend, we overtake a truck. We get diverted through thick mud, follow a truck that is emitting plumes of smoke from his engine, stop in the middle of nowhere to pick up passengers and nearly slam into a truck stopped for repairs on a hairpin bend.

At about 3pm we stop for food at Mengla. The drivers mate tells us we can’t wait on the bus but we have to go into the bus terminal, through security and wait in the departure lounge for 20 minutes. We go through and see the bus drive away. Forty minutes later the bus returns and all our bags are on the back seats. There are bunches of vegetables in the overhead compartments, under the seats and presumably in the boot.

A form is passed around and we have to complete name, nationality, gender and passport number. There are twelve of us on the bus and we are the only westerners. The drivers mate isn’t happy and we have to fill it in again as some people had done it incorrectly.

We arrive at Mohan, the Chinese border town where feral dogs with broken paws run across the road. We stop and are immediately boarded by about five money changers. We get offered a poor rate but haggle and are happy with the outcome. We walk with our hand luggage into Chinese immigration where we complete a departure card and get our exit stamp. We walk through no mans land to the Laos/China border marker for the obligatory photo then onto Laos immigration.

At the Visa on arrival desk we pick up two forms to complete and hand them back with a passport photo and $70 and our visa is quickly printed into our passport. We queue at the desk for our stamp for 30 days entry and we only take slightly longer than our Laos bus mates who are waiting by the bus outside the immigration building. It has taken no time at all though, as we have gained an hour. The whole enormity of China uses one time zone and so Laos is an hour behind.

At 4.30 we drive into Laos!

At 4.40 we stop at the customs building where the driver and his mate get off but only 10 minutes later we’re through! At no point have our rucksacks left the bus or been checked.

The roads on the  Laos side are not as complete and progress is slower. We wait at one point for a giant roller to compact dirt before we drive over it. The bumpy road twists through low green hills and the sun drops adding an orange tinge. We pass small villages of wooden huts where kids chase after chickens in scenes very different from those we saw on the other side of the border. There is a sign for a golden triangle checkpoint which tourists were discouraged from visiting eighteen years ago. 

At 7pm we arrive in Luang Namtha, only 2 hours late and we’re dropped at our hostel. Our rucksacks are passed through the bus window.

The hostel recommend a place to eat and although we are both tired and ill, we have to toast our return to a country we loved so much.


7.1.17 JingHong

The suncream is required today! I fetch Boazi from round the corner, pork again but also shitake mushroom. On the way back I shake hands with a toddler whose tentative steps are halted when he sees me. He stares at me and holds out his hand, his dad motions for me to shake it which I do and he seems more confused than happy. We have noticed people staring at us here more than other places we’ve been to in China.

We sit outside the room in the sunshine and after finishing breakfast, catch up with emails and news.

Tomorrow, we finally aim to leave for Laos so we go to the southern bus station and buy tickets. The sun is out and we are heading to Laos. There is a very happy team Roberts.

We walk to a Buddhist temple which seems very Thai in its architecture. Theravada rather tha Mahayana Buddhism ? Our knowledge of South East Asian design is limited so you’ll have to bear with me but it definitely looks right framed by palm trees and under a blue sky.

We wander through some back street housing areas and see the recycling truck taking away Alison’s empties from last night.

Al needs a siesta, so for lunch I indulge in a fast food Chinese chicken outlet which I have not researched yet. My conclusion was efficient staff, probably not free range chicken but tasty.

After a bit of yoga and TaiChi its time for a cold one on the terrace. You all know the drill. The temperature fades as the sun falls and you think,  its well past the yardarm and a cold refreshing drink would be perfect now. It is.

Its Saturday night in JingHong and the sociable locals are out in there hoardes. Many restaurants have huge areas of tables where large groups gather, sharing a hotpot and a few beers. We haven’t seen this elsewhere in China, but maybe the warm weather allowing street side dining means its more noticeable here.

We have a noodle dish that we think is called Zhajiangmian for one last time. Its delicious. An Asian spag bol.

Back in the hostel we see Milena, the lovely Italian lady we met on the bus and chat for hours putting the world to rights.

6.1.17 Jinghong

Even after 2 and a half months in China (that is if you are including Taiwan as part of the One China policy!) we are still not able to sleep through the cocaphany of noise in this country.  The numerous scooter alarms, rats running around, cockerels crowing, locals hacking up and piano practice all keep us awake at some time or another. The hard chinese beds are also taking its toll on our bodies, it is like being on a plank of wood with a thin sheet on top.  I know it might be good for your back if you sleep on your back, but as I get accused of snoring like a warthog every time I attempt back sleeping I am resigned to lying on my side. 

Anyway, the hostel we are staying in is really friendly so I thought I would go along with the mood and chat to our fellow travellers.  The conversation started up on the usual, where you from, where you been…..I said we had overlanded it all the way from UK and had a slight smug feeling about that. On asking Hans, the young German whom I was speaking to, where he was from and how he got here, he responded with ‘I cycled from Germany’. I had been well and truly top trumped. He is a lovely guy though, he had cycled through Turkey, Iran (‘You English can’t go there can you?’ he said with a cheeky grin!), a few Stans then China. When Guy appeared he also was impressed and had some bike chat going on…

Boazi were recommended by another fellow traveller, and who are we to turn down a dumpling recommendation? Guy bought 2 pork and one meat rice. He raved about the pork one so much I had to try it, it was the tastiest pork we have had so far.

Botanical gardens were on the agenda, so we set off walking with the sun out through the bustling, photogenic streets of Jinghong. We are in need of some beauty essentials as well, so stop at Watsons for toothpaste a day face creams. I have sadly run out of my fancy, forever youthful, western serum cream so may look haggard and old from hence forth. The creams on offer here are staggering in their names, Horse Hair, Dragon Cream, and price, no 3 for 2 offers here! I choose the cheapest and hope it has nothing too harmful in there.

We carry on to the gardens, past the amazingly shiny mobile phone shops, one of which had to be Geordie owned, Huawei! The shops are pristine, white, glossy and totally out of character with all other shops. They must be doing well.

As we we get to the gardens the clouds dispurse and the blue skies appear. Guy gets the camera ready. We walk around the gardens, stumble upon an area with loads of magnolia trees, which when not in bloom look prehistoric and eerie. When in bloom they must be beautiful. 

There is a lake so Guy can take his obligatory carp fighting for food photo.

We stop for some tropical fruit, a pomelo, which is like a less bitter grapefruit. 

We see a few cocoa beans hanging from a tree.

Out of season and with the chinese ruining the views all around by building concrete towers it isn’t the best gardens ever.

We head towards the food court Guy went to yesterday and I order a noodle soup, which is bland and full of veg, just what I need.  Guy orders a Burmese fermented tea salad, full of flavour and action! We both have coconut drink in the hope to revive me and calm Guy’s chilli stomach. 

We have tea with our new hostel mates which consisted of a sour fish dish, aubergine and green spinach dishes. It is quite bland but fills the stomachs. 

5.1.17 JingHong

Al was still bad so she rested in bed and I set out to fetch oranges and paracetamol. I was also supposed to buy two bus tickets to Laos for tomorrow as we are now only a seven hour bus journey away!

As I walked around Jinghong, I could see a huge south east Asian influence. Some building, temple and gate roofs reminded me of Thailand rather than China. Street lamps and statues were S.E. Asian in design and palm trees and banyan trees lined the streets. I passed a Dai (local people) temple which wouldn’t look out of place in Bangkok. People sat crouched on stools by food stalls where the fragrant aromas of lemongrass, corriander and chilli filled the air, new smells for us in Chinese cuisine. Jinghong is less than 100 km away from Myanmar and Laos and you can tell. Towns near borders are always a fascinating mix of the cultures from either side of the line on the map that seperate them. 

I bought the paracetamol and oranges but not the bus tickets. There was no need to rush away from such an interesting, attractive, relaxed city and a few days rest would definitely help the patient. I told Al there was a botanical garden here and she agreed to stay.

I headed back out for a meal for one. A lonely planet recommendation of a food court where local food was available as well as Myanmar cuisine. I had a delicious spicy, pickled pork dish with rice and a side of a chilli and garlic sour sauce and a bowl of savoury stock with lemon. The pork had fiery small chillis and smoky dried chillis for flavour. My bald patch leaked and my eyes watered it was so spicy but as I write this my mouth is watering at the memory. It was so delicious to have S.E.Asian fragrant, spicy food again. The lemony savoury stock was unusual but really good.

Back at the hostel Al had showered and dressed but was still resting so I shouted at my phone which was better at chess than me. I paid for another night here and did the washing, then hung it to dry on the roof. The sun came out and you could feel the warmth.

We went to another LP recommendation for tea so Al could have plain fried rice and avoid the spice. I had Bu Lan, a local spicy salad of chilli, garlic, mint, lime, tomatoes, red onion and soy with shredded chicken. Oh yes. I don’t need to tell you.

I then tried some local liquor. The 38% tasted ok but the 50% and 53% were harder work. 

4.1.17 JianShui to JingHong

The roof drumming continues from yesterday as rain batters the plastic roof and drips through cracks onto concrete, two floors below. The warter torture has a casualty and team Roberts is a woman down. Al has a bad head cold or bird flu as we know it. She’s so bad she doesn’t want food.

 The Horror……..The Horror……..

I use my excellent mandarin skills to order two pork boazi, which are steamed dough dumplings. Both are full of vegetables. Tasty.

We pack, checkout and paddle a coracle down the road to the only coffee shop in Jianshui where we aim to while away four hours until our 4pm bus. We manage one. We catch the number 13 and head out of Jianshui to the bus station. It’s a shame to leave as it’s a fascinating place. The province of Yunnan is the most ethnically diverse in China and there are many people here in tribal clothing. Babies are carried in decorated slings on women’s backs, old ladies wear charms and bells in colourful headbands. Poverty is also on show though, in the tanned faces and durable army fatigue clothing of the rural labourers. 

We arrive at the bus station at 2.00pm and decide not to go through the security check to the buses but wait outside where there are toilets and photo displays of people killed in traffic accidents. Al is suffering and cold so eventually we decide to go through but before we do, I nip to the gents. I’m used to amonia burning my middle aged nasal hair by now but I stand momentarily frozen, confused by the toilet. I’m faced with a set of small dividing walls raised about half a metre off the ground by two long rows of tiled blocks. Between the long rows is a trough. I notice a head at the far end, floating above a dividing wall and realise he is crouching over the trough. I can’t see any flushing mechanism. I look around. No water anywhere. Do I really need the loo? Is the bus journey really 12 hours? Someone walks in and climbs onto the long block and aims into the trough. I do the same between a different dividing wall. I still can’t see a flushing mechanism. It is easily the worst toilet I have used so far on this trip.

We go through security and put our bags through the x-ray machine which someone is watching. Wow! We wait and notice people wandering in and out of security and no-one is bothered. We watch buses come and go but they are all small and our seat numbers are 32 and 33 so we reckon we must be on the back seats which can be bouncy on an overnight trip.

A man shouts Jinghong and we get up. He checks the tickets and points to the road outside the station where a coach is parked. We go back through security and the suprised coach driver moves two young girls from their seats, cleans their food debris away and sits us down. The bus is full of adolescents, mainly boys. Seat numbers are irrelevant here.

We snake through mountain passes looking at clouds in the valley below until the light is gone. A couple of hours later we stop at a building for food. Its dark now and we don’t fancy food on an overnight bus but a toilet break is welcome. I enter the gents and am faced by two blokes crouching next to each other over the trough, confirming its use. They both stare at me. One is smoking. I have never been in this situation before so don’t know whether to smile or say hello, so I do neither.

We chat to the other westerner on the bus, a lovely Italian lady who teaches English in Sichuan. We seem to be making excellent progress toward Jinghong and maps.me indicates we aren’t far. At 11pm we arrive, 5 hours early! We have no room booked so cab it to the hostel we had booked for tomorrow night and thankfully they are still up and have a room available.