Thursday 20 September 2012

Days 536-538 & 543-544: Chengdu

The new 'old' street and high rises in the background.  The high rises aren't hazy because it's a bad photo - this is really how everything looks.
  Our plan was to use Chengdu for rest and recovery between some excursions.  It would be a very pleasant city if it were not for it's perpetual pea-souper and air in which the smell of cement powder is all too detectable.  It doesn't help that it's rather humid as well.  Apart from that, it has nice temples, a new 'old-style' district and a huge pedestrian street.  Now that it's been a while since I arrived in China, I've forgotten how wonderful it felt to have pedestrianised streets again.  It's been the first time in over a year.  We have figured out by now that Chinese people use the temple precincts as parks, quiet and beautiful places to relax, chat or study.  It's a bit hard to tell what part the religious activity that still exists plays in all this. Anyway, we decided to make like the Chinese people and go and hang out in the temple near our hostel and take photographs.

More old and new.
What people do at temples: the old guys under the bandstand are listening to an orchestra of birds hanging in cages from the trees.  Mike is photographing the bird cages to remind himself they're for real. I'm photographing the lot of them.  Antonia is commenting adversely on the level of kindness to animals involved in this activity.

Having discovered temple restaurants in Kunming, we were a bit disappointed to find that the famous restaurant at this temple was closed for renovation.  Not to be deterred, we looked up vegetarian restaurants in Chengdu and discovered a Taiwanese chain called Vegetarian Lifestyle within walking distance of our hostel.  After that we went there for dinner every day, timing our arrival for the late afternoon when they were in the middle of their team building exercise!!  The food was very, very good, and although everyone says it's a bit expensive, that's expensive by normal Chengdu standards. After dinner, we went back to the hostel and drank cheap beer in the common room, while wondering if our laundry would ever dry and trying to learn Chinese characters.

Antonia picks out her next book in Chinese in Chengdu's pedestrian shopping centre (ahem!)
We also bought two trips from the hostel, one to the Sichuan Opera performance.  This is really a varied selection of snippets from operas rather than a full opera, but that surely makes it more suitable for a short performance to tourists.  Much later, in Guilin, we saw people performing real opera around the lakes at night which of course involves a lot of talking you need to understand to follow the plot. We weren't supposed to take pictures at the Sichuan Opera but I guess someone did anyway. This is the only one that came out.

Our other tour, of course was to see the pandas.  I was feeling seriously tired of being herded around in tour groups by now (see the Jiuzhaigou post, when it turns up), and would have gone independently but they make it hard, so off we went.  Sure enough our guide got us in front of all the panda enclosures at the most photogenic moments, offered us the opportunity to have our photos taken with a baby panda for several thousand yuan (I'm not kidding!) and led us through the museum at a jogging pace.  As usual, I felt we could have done with another couple of hours and Antonia got really into drawing the pandas but kept getting interrupted half way through a drawing, but there you go.

Pandas eat like Romans

The red panda is wondering why it's sharing a path with us.

What pandas mostly do.

Sunday 16 September 2012

Day 534: Dragon Gate, Kunming, China

We're in Kunming China.  I must say it's a relief to be in a modern city after much of SE Asia.  I had no idea what to expect from China.  Kunming is modern, clean, just like a European city.  There's lots of night life.  Great public transportation.  The air is definitely polluted as is the lake but they're actively working on cleaning things up.  Amazingly enough, virtually every single motor scooter in the city is electric.  They are working on converting the busses to electric and maybe eventually the cars.  The people here know there's a problem and they are actively working on it, politics aside.

Today we took the public bus (which cost 1 yuan or about 17¢) out to the nearby mountains and walked (from 1840m) up to the Dragon Gate temple at the top (2175m).  It's roughly like walking up the Bastille in Grenoble but prettier in a way.  There's all these little temples along the way.  The route is completely paved with lots of steps.  Very easy walking.

Initially a man on the bus told us to follow him.  He spoke just a few words of English.  It was quite hard communicating but he was genuinely very friendly.  Eventually we met a group of foreigners, 2 Canadians, a Swede and a local named Ming. They took us in and we spent the read of the day with them.  We ate lunch with Ming's family at a tiny Buddhist vegetarian restaurant half way up this mountain in a temple, it was amazing.  We then continued to the top, then walked down and took a bus to the bottom the rest of the way.  We then went to dinner with them in a typical Chinese noodle place.  Wow, people are really friendly here, we were amazed.

I'm also impressed with how easy it is to get around here.  The language does pose some problems but we have managed to find someone to speak some english when needed.  The buses and trains are very well connected and the hotels we're staying in are about $30 a night.  I really thought we'd need some sort of package tour here but so far, it's not necessary. 

Tomorrow we take the night train to Chengdu. 

Saturday 15 September 2012

Day 533: First day in China: Kunming

Kunming railway station

Our first move after having breakfast was to wander over to the station (actually just over a km away) to try to buy train tickets for Chengdu.  On the way we found more lovely pedestrian district, then some big avenues that are pretty easy to walk along and cross over (compared with other places we've been recently).  In fact, nothing is hard to do here at all.  Even buying a train ticket would have been easy, were it not for a few stubborn attempts to buy them with a foreign credit card which were firmly rebuffed by the train station staff. Having got our tickets we decided to take the bus back and discovered that was also easy.  Mike took us for lunch in a hole in the wall very Chinese restaurant which he chose and discovered belatedly that the characters for basic foodstuffs are not among the ones I've mastered.  He was hard-pressed to order something that didn't contain pork and beef and wasn't sure if he succeeded in the end.  Antonia and I went for the basic 'point at a picture with the end of a broomstick' approach to communication which worked for us.

Demonstration over some dispute with the Japanese about ownership of some island or waters around it or something
After this, we went for a stroll on Jinmafang, the central pedestrian district, and discovered to our surprise that we had arrived on the day of a demonstration.  I honestly hadn't expected that in China and of course, at first we had no idea what the demonstration was about.  There were lots of police officers about, but they were behaving just as they do in France: generally facilitating the passage of the demonstrators through traffic and other pedestrians and hanging around looking visible in case things got rough.  We eventually discovered that the demonstration is over an island in the South China Sea or the waters around it.  We don't really know much more than that but we eventually found a demonstration stage right in the centre of the pedestrian area with Japanese flags crossed out and stuff like that.  We had a nice time wandering around the very expensive malls and department stores here, looking at models of incredibly expensive out-of-town real estate and 120USD pairs of trainers.  We did eventually find a shop that sold kid's trousers at no more than US prices and we were able to stock up on winter trousers for Antonia (who has done nothing but grow, since the last time we were in cool climates).  It's only going to get colder from now on.  We're already digging out our warmest jumpers, and perhaps that's why we seem to have colds.  We went back to our hostel, where I for one, slept from 5pm to 9pm.  At that point I woke up and requested aspirins, then went back to sleep until 5.30am.  I woke up feeling fine, so lots of sleep seemed to work.

Friday 14 September 2012

Day 532: Border crossing from Vietnam to China

From here....

... to here!
We woke up at 5.15 am to make the Vietnam-China border as soon as possible after it opened.  I was regarding the crossing with some trepidation, even though everyone who's done it recently says it's not a problem. And it wasn't, thanks in part to this great information from the people who went across just a bit before us.  We took a private car right up to the Vietnamese emigration building. It's a more expensive option than the shuttle buses but still reasonable for 3 people with lots of luggage and a time schedule to keep. We really wanted to get the 10.50 bus to Kunming, knowing it would still arrive pretty late, and we were going to lose an hour as we crossed the border into China.  There is really nothing to say about the emigration and immigration procedures at all.  We were ushered through efficiently by people on both sides who spoke English well enough for the purpose and a lot better than we spoke their languages.

Then we arrived in Hekou where everything is completely different. There is a barrage of Chinese characters of which I understand about 200. This is really interesting because it means the signs here are more intelligible than in Vietnam where I only understand about a dozen words. The down side is, I can only recognise those city and street names that I've memorised - so far Hekou and Kunming. Apart from that, it is much more like a European town here.  There is a pedestrianised high street, the first I've been on in over a year.  I felt so happy sauntering down it.  It is lined with boutiquey shops just like at home, that would be interesting to potter in.  The other thing I noticed when we crossed the border is how the whole ambiance changes.  This is generally true for borders in Asia, just as it is in Europe, but this was very marked.  I just spent six weeks in Vietnam and although the people are very pleasant I haven't heard people laughing and joking loudly in all that time.  As soon as I got to Yunnan, people in general are much more laid back, laughing and talking loudly and generally being laid back.

Armed with the map from our fellow travellers' site (immigration didn't give us one), it was easy to find the ATM and the shuttle bus to the out-of-town bus station.  Buying a ticket to Kunming was easy.  Finding our bus and getting on it was easy.  Even communicating wth the driver to find out if there would be a lunch stop was not too hard.  We hit on two solutions: the first was that the driver lent Mike his cellphone to talk to an English speaking friend.  We have noticed Chinese people do this very readily.  While he was doing that, I was drawing a steaming bowl with chopsticks.  Both drew the same response - we would be stopping for lunch at 3pm.

We took the day bus through Yunnan because we wanted to enjoy the scenery and generally avoid being exhausted.  Sure enough it was wonderful, first the mountains, then as we got lower down, a kind of rolling farm country which reminded me a lot of the south of France.  We started off on a smart smooth highway on which I thought the bus drove frighteningly fast (I'm not used to smooth roads anymore), then we got onto what seemed like muddy country lanes lined with plane trees.  The lunch stop was a stand at one end of a walled car park.  We bought a red ticket from a lady at one end of the stand and three ladies at the other end filled up our plates with a mixture of various things.  Fortunately it was all good. This is where we got our first taste of Yunnan toilet facilities.  Note for Americans: hole in the floor toilets don't phase us, lack of doors is a new one.  At least in this one had the stalls all in a row with partitions.  The next one had this cozy circle arrangement so you can see the people you're chatting with as you go. Hmmm... and no toilet paper, that goes without saying.  

Anyway, we arrived in Kunming about 9pm, negotiated a taxi ride with a tout who only ripped us off by about 1 USD, so that was fine and staggered into our very nice hostel (The Hump) right in the middle of Kunming's large and beautiful pedestrian district.  I love pedestrian districts!!!!

Thursday 13 September 2012

Days 529 - 531: Sapa

Waiting for the night train in Hanoi station
Sapa towm

It almost looks like someone sneaked a picture of the Chartreuse in here!
With the rice fields it looks a little different
 Sapa is a very pretty place high up in the mountains at about 1400m altitude. We arrived on the night train at about 5am and we spent most of the first day sorting out our trekking for the next two days.  We went on the standard village group trek for about 10km and a private trek of 15km which cut through slightly wilder mountains before heading down into the same valley.  We also went to Catcat which is a little village area very close to Sapa tourists are encouraged to visit by themselves.  You can of course just wander around the mountains on your own but there are no real hiking maps so it's taking pot-luck and running the risk of getting lost.  We had the same guide on both of our trekking days, a girl called Sam from one of the minority groups from this area.

Curly landscape

Antonia, Penny and Sam with umbrellas/parasols depending on need

Evening and autumn descend on the mountains

Sunday 9 September 2012

Day 527: Hanoi digest

I spent over a week in Hanoi waiting for Mike and Antonia to arrive from Bali. Apart from the last horrible night of wondering what had happened to them, I had a really nice, chilled out time, and honestly didn''t do much except wander around a bit and become a regular at a few local restaurants. After they arrived, I wandered around again with them. I still didn't see all the sights, but it's mostly because I was happy just mooching.

The Old Quarter - The Old Quarter of Hanoi is an amazing place to go clothes shopping if you're a woman who happens to fit Vietnamese clothes sizes.  I normally hate clothes shopping, but here I found lots of styles I liked, which suited me and cost very little money.  On a long trip like ours, clothes wear out and I was short of warm weather things to wear but it was very tempting to buy more than I needed.  I had to remind myself that the usefulness value of super light summer shirts is limited in the UK.  Yes... that's a reminder that we'll be getting back to Europe soon! I'm on the smallish size and many tourists may find off the shelf clothing in Vietnam doesn't come in their size.  In that case, the main entertainment value of the Old Quarter will be looking around while not getting run over by a motorcycle. If this is your first stop in Vietnam, you will no doubt find crossing the street a challenge. I'm used to it by now, though I sometimes make a dash through a gap.  This is not a cool thing to do in Hanoi - the locals saunter across, if necessary with one arm extended in a stop sign towards the traffic.  The locals are usually right by definition and I have noticed that might irrepressible urge to either hover or dash puts motorcylists off in their judgement of how they should get around me, but I haven't managed to overcome it yet.

West Lake and Hoan Kiem Lake - West Lake is a fun, traffic free place to go for a walk, for the very small price of 4,000 dong, though my hotel's location 5 minutes from the smaller but free Hoan Kiem Lake took some of the edge off it. In the evening, lots of Hanoians gather at West Lake to exercise or hang out. We also went there on Sunday when all the children's rides and swan boats were functioning which was good for us since we have a child (albeit nearly too big for such things). Hoan Kiem is much more accessible from most parts of the Old Quarter and has a temple on an island at one end which you can visit for 20,000 dong. That's not an awful lot of money, so I'd say it was worth it, though it's nothing compared to the Temple of Literature.


The Temple of Literature - Wow!  This is well worth visiting, and everyone in Hanoi does visit it of course.  The temple of literature has a series of five courtyards of which the first two are basically gardens and the third contains stelae recording the names of graduates of Vietnam's ancient imperial university. The fourth couryard contains the temple to Confucius and four of his disciples.  Together these men were taken to be the authors of pretty much the entirety of the university's curriculum (though historian's quibble about what Confucius really wrote and who wrote the rest of what's attributed to him). Behind the temple, in the 5th courtyard was the university, but it now contains a modern building in traditonal style with a variety of exhibits about university life and some other atars.  The temple is interesting, peaceful and has some amazing artwork, especially bronze dragons and birds, the like of which I had never seen.

Fine Arts Museum - The Fine Arts Museum is more or less opposite the Temple of Literature so you may find it worth a look.  It certainly has some nice pieces though the themes of war and destruction in anything from about the 1940s onwards was quite depressing.

Saturday 8 September 2012

Day 526: Vientiane to Hanoi part 4

From mechanical breakdown to communications breakdown.

At this point, I realized we were very late.  I thought I had better try and contact Penny.  

I had the number of the hotel but it was with my passports which I was couldn't find so I thought I had shoved them into my backpack which was in the baggage hold directly in front of me.  I asked one of the orange shirts as best as I could pointing at the baggage hold to let me get at my bag.  He curtly and strongly told me "no..nyet!" and waved me off!  Damn.  I couldn't remember the name of the hotel Penny was in.  Penny had a mobile phone but I was sure she didn't have a working sim in it.

I tried to ask around about internet and they just shook their heads.  No, there was no internet here.  People seemed to be using their 3G phones but apparently there wasn't internet.  People seemed to be texting their friends.

Ok I thought, I could send a text message to someone.  I whipped out my phone and turned it on.  I had the Indonesian sim I was using in Bali.  After a few minutes, it seemed to register in roaming mode.  Great!  However, it wouldn't make a call, nor would it send an sms.  Either it was barred or the sim had run out of credit.  I tried with all the other sims I had to my name: the AT&T one from the US, the Orange sim from the UK, the French sim, nothing.  Not a single one worked here.  

I motioned to one of the orange shirts if I could use his iPhone.  He reluctantly late me play with it.  Drat, it was all in Vietnamese!  I couldn't understand a thing!  Ok, this can't be too hard, it's got to be all icon based.  But unfortunately for me, I rarely use an iPhone.  I couldn't figure out what the text messaging application was!  I tried to ask him.  He eventually brought up an english-vietnamese translator app he had installed.  I tried several things but this word just doesn't appear in it's dictionary!  Eventually he got frustrated with me, yanked his phone back and basically motioned for me to go away.  Several other people were standing around, no one could understand what I wanted to do.

Nearly giving up, I wandered around trying to think of a way to get Penny a message.  If I could get a text message to someone like my dad, he could email her.

Then I spotted something white on the ground.  Like a miracle, it was a sim!

Would it work?  Well, it registered and came up in roaming mode.  I then subsequently received 2 messages in English.  It was a Thai sim that someone probably discarded.  

First I tried calling my dad, but the call didn't go through.  I can only suppose that there wasn't enough money on the sim.  I then tried to send a text message.  It seemed to go out!  At least, I didn't see any error message like the other times!  I asked my dad to email Penny.  I waited and waited but got no response.  I guess he either didn't get it or didn't notice it.  

At this point, I consoled myself thinking that Penny would do the logical thing if we didn't show up and she would have called the bus company to find out about our bus.  I bet if she asked the guy at the desk of the hotel she might even have been able to get someone to give her the driver's mobile number and call the bus directly.

I would say it took 4 or 5 hours to get the bus back together.  After a couple trial and false starts, they finally manged to make the bus move forward and backward when he put it in gear.  Without cheer, we all piled back on to the bus.  It was about here that Antonia realized she couldn't find her laptop.

It's a really good thing Antonia took our stuff out of the cubby hole we were in because they had nearly completely disassembled the seats back there to work on the motor.  There were tools everywhere.  There were several seats tossed aside onto other seats.  I thought maybe they would reassemble this before heading out but nope, off we went and we jumped into some other now unoccupied seats.  I guess some of the other people found their way home another way because there were now at least 4 or 5 empty seats.  Antonia took a top row "bed" and instantly curled up and fell asleep.  I took one in the middle aisle next to her.  

I think I finally got to sleep for a while but it was quite uncomfortable. The bus was swaying incredibly.  The roadway we were traveling over was some sort of dirt road with an immense amount of traffic and it's the middle of the night, about 2:30am in fact.  There's honking as trucks pass one another.  It's raining hard.  And we're in stop and go traffic which when it moved we were crawling along at a snails pace.  

Eventually noticed outside the front window that it appeared the road was pretty wet.  I went up front and not only was it wet but it was flooded!  The driver kindly motioned me to sit in the jumpseat where I took some photos (and to his amusement showed him).  I got these while were stopped which was more often than not.

I have never seen anyone drive through so much water.  The water was about 50cm deep at some points.  We passed cars inundated with the drivers out of the car in knee deep water trying to push their car off to the side. 

I was in the jumpseat for about an hour.  It was now nearly 4am.  At some point we found the end of the flooded section and found ourselves on a paved road.  He mumbled "en fin!" which I can only imagine means the same thing in french as it does in vietnamese: at last!

He drove on a bit and then opened the door for someone and he hushed me away back into the back.  I'm not sure who the guy was but he seemed to get on the bus.  It seemed like just some random person waiting on a street corner.  Maybe he was a friend or a relief driver, I didn't find out.

I retired to one of the lower bunks and did manage to get some sleep.  When I woke up, it was about 5:30am and we were rolling through city which was the outskirts of Hanoi.  We arrived about a half hour later at the bus station in Hanoi.

There was a cheer of relief in Vietnamese from the passengers!  We clambered off the bus to be greeted by a crowd of taxi drivers trying to wisk us into their cabs like bees attracted to a pot of honey!  Our bags were as usual dumped off the bus and into the mud.

I started searching frantically my backpack for my passports and the address of the hotel.  It was at this point that we lost site of Tako.  We had meant to get his contact details but he apparently got into one of these cabs and disappeared into the morning.

Finally, after several frantic minutes searching, I found them buried under the camera!  Whew!  That nearly gave me a heart attack!  I was sure with everything else that went wrong these last few days that this would surely be the icing on the cake, but no, apparently our luck had finally bottomed out!

Our interpreter friend from yesterday, Thanh, had urgently told me not to take one of these cabs flocking around the bus.  She firmly instructed me to take a green cab marked Mai Linh, and to make sure that they driver had a green tie on because there were impersonators.  She said we would have to wander outside the gates to find one of these honest metered cabs and that's what we did.

We exited the parking lot following our British friends who I relayed the info about the cab company to.  After a harrowing crossing of a busy street crowed by cabs all vying for our business, we managed to flag down one of these green cabs.  The guy very professionally got us into the cab and off we went.  The Brits managed to hail down one too I noticed as we drove off.

I showed the driver the address.  He spoke no english at all.  At first, he seemed to know where he was going, then all of a sudden, he seemed to be following someone and he pointed at the cab in front of us.  It was the Brits!  He was following the Brits!

I tried to motion to him to follow the address in my hand but he really wanted to follow the other cab.  He even ran several red lights trying to keep up with the guy!  Eventually the other cab stopped and he tried to yell out to him but the other guy wasn't interested and drove off.  Finally, I kept tapping the address and he seemed to give up the notion of following the other cab and we lost site of them...but not for long!

He continued to drive into the old town of Hanoi.  We passed a lake with an amazing little island in the middle.

He drove around a bit and flagged down another green cab and asked for directions.  Onward we drive into the smaller streets and then, there were the Brits!  The green cab had just let them off.  I waved by to them and they were surprised to see me, I'm sure!  The driver at this point managed to talk to their driver and got rough directions to our hotel.  

After a couple more tries of asking directions, he did manage to deposit us in front of a small alley way that led to our hotel.  Bags out of the car and this time, I don't even want to tell you what they landed in.  Antonia and I strolled off into an ally way in the daylight filled with people eating their breakfast.

10 minutes later, we were in the hotel room with Penny.  Boy was she glad to see us.  No, she hadn't gotten an email from my dad.  No, she hadn't called the bus company.  She had noticed on the website that the bus was scheduled to arrive at 7pm.  Well, in fact, we were only 11 hours late.  Whew what a trip!  That made it about 33 hours on this bus but more like 36 hours total from when the shuttle tuktuk picked us up.  I am sure I stank.  I hadn't brushed my teeth in two days.  I had slept 2 nights in the same cloths.  I hadn't even been able to wash my hands with soap for 2 days.  The first thing I did was take a shower.

Next we went looking for the laptop.  Nope, it seems to be gone.  I'm pretty certain someone lifted it out of her backpack when it we left it at the hotel with the luggage.  That's about the only place she didn't have sight of it.  Well, the good news is the laptop was on it's last legs.  Many of the keys on the keyboard had stopped working.  So perhaps whoever took it was doing us a favor in that I didn't physically have to put it in the bin myself!  It's a shame that Antonia lost some of her work though that we didn't have backed up.  

After a short rest, we wandered around Hanoi a bit and I worried about what else they might have taken but we haven't discovered anything missing (yet).

Penny and Antonia walking back to the hotel.  Our hotel is the dark one with yellow sign just above and to the right of Penny's head.

Well, we spent a relaxing day after our walk around the lake recovering in the hotel room.  Now we're off to a well deserved sit down dinner in a Spanish restaurant owned by a Frenchman!

Day 525: Vientiane to Hanoi part 3

The bus wound down through the mountain range the scene changed from cloudy mountains to fields dotted with small houses then villages.

We stopped at another restaurant for lunch.  Here we stayed for about an hour.  I wasn't hungry.  Antonia wanted to charge her Nintendo DS.  I walked around and took a few photos keeping her within eye-shot.  

This kid who must have been about 17 or 18 approached me and said "Hallow!  Where you from?" and offered me his hand.  I smiled and shook his hand but instead of letting go, he tightened his grip and asked me where I was from again.  I answered "France", and again he asked the same question, this repeated several times, it was no longer funny.  Then he held up my hand and said "Give me money!" with a big smile on his face.  I could see his two front teeth were black as if painted with a marker.  Then I noticed a friend of his seemed to be lurking around.  This is crazy I thought.  It's broad daylight.  I'm standing in front of shops with people all around.  This kid can't be serious.  I tried to wriggle the guy free but his grip was pretty tight.  Then I just turned around and pulled away from him very quickly and broke free.  He followed me as I made a bee-line back to Antonia.  He mulled around for a few minutes, then he boarded one of the other buses but seemed to be told to get lost.  He then came back towards me and tried to insert himself in between Antonia and myself and went to take her hand in the same way saying "Hallow!".  But before he could touch her, I started screaming at him.  The whole restaurant got kind of quiet and started staring at us.  Again he tried to approach and demanded money!  Again, I told him to go away quite sternly, not that I'm sure he understood exactly what I said but it seemed to have the desired effect.  Antonia, a bit frazzled by this, asked to go back on the bus which we did.  Whether he was just joking around or not, I didn't care.  I think if I hadn't been carrying the camera I might have physically pushed the guy when he got so close to Antonia.  I was quite glad it didn't come to that.  I must say that this is one town I would not care to visit again.  It wasn't that pretty, just one of those towns with lots of shops along the main road in the middle of nowhere.

As we drove out of this town, I spotted these two having a go at one another.  It wasn't clear to me whether they were just having fun or if they were having it out.  I must say it looked a bit serious.  I didn't see the outcome as we were driving by.

We continued on for what seemed like 3 or 4 hours.  It was about 5pm now.  I figured we must be getting close to Hanoi.  We'd been on the bus all night and all day now.  The bus was originally scheduled to arrive at 3pm but because of the delay, they upped that to 5pm and I was expecting now that we'd arrive at about 7pm.  Nothing could be father from reality.  

Our friend Thanh explained to us that we were running late and that we'd get there this evening.  We sat back and enjoyed the ride.

A little while later, we stopped along the side of the road and some officers in green uniforms approached us.  I think they must have been customs officers.  They opened the luggage holds and there was some discussion.  Thanh was called outside.  After about 15 minutes, we departed.

About a half hour later, both Antonia and I needed to use the toilet.  I went looking for Thanh but to my surprise, she wasn't on the bus!  I guess she left with the customs people.  I have no explanation.  I could not get any explanation from the bus people.  They spoke no english nor were very interested in trying to answer my questions.  I did, however, get across the point that we needed a toilet (fortunately this is a common word between Vietnamese and English!)  After a little while, they pulled over to the side of the road and most of the bus got off and started peeing on the side of the road.  Meanwhile, the bus crew started looking at something behind and underneath the bus.  It was here that I realized something wasn't quite right with the bus.

Eventually tools came out and parts were removed.  I later learned that it had something to do with the clutch.  They started trying to modify things to get it working again.  After a bit, we climbed on the bus, he threw it into gear and we rolled off... for about 5 meters and he pulled over again.  

Now the sun was setting.  These guys were frantic on their mobile phones.  They seemed to be discussing a part with a ball joint on one end and a push rod on the other end.  Eventually they got out a chisel and started to modify it.  After several tries it was in the bus and we set off.  Whew, I thought, well, ,we'll be in Hanoi soon and they can fix it.  

Well, about a half hour later, the sun had definitely set, they pulled into what I thought might be another restaurant but Antonia spotted that it was actually more like a garage (with some food).  There were these cement things you could drive a car up on and get under it.  After some discussion, the driver got back in the bus and we did a U turn and started heading back the way we came.  Now this couldn't be good I was thinking.

Well, a good 45min to an hour later we came to a sort of industrial city.  We drove around a bit and pulled into a dark ally-way and then drove into what we thought might be a bus station but what turned out to be a bus repair depot.  There were many buses around in various states of decay and someone welding something on one side of the yard.  He backed the bus into a somewhat covered area on the other side of the gray courtyard.  

Everyone got off the bus.  People started off in the direction of the dark alley.  One of the passengers motioned to me "food" by putting his hand towards his mouth.  Antonia and I started talking to the Japanese guy named Tako and decided to go with them.  Antonia went back on the bus and retrieved my laptop and her bag, I didn't feel save leaving these things around and it turned out to be an excellent idea.

By the time we had laptop, camera, and Antonia's backpack in hand, the other folks had disappeared into the darkness.  We set out to try and find them.  We wandered back down the dark alley and managed to find the main street.  There was precious little open.  There was quite a lot of traffic though.  It was not easy crossing the street.  We wandered up and down the street in both directions several hundred meters to the points where we didn't feel comfortable getting so far from the bus.  We had no idea how long it might take to fix but I figured we were ok for about an hour.  

After a long while and walking up 3 separate streets, we finally found where there were some little "restaurants" on the side of the road literally in a hole in a wall.  We sized up a couple of them before settling on one run by 3 women who were making some sort of soup which I think is called phở.  It was being served with noodles that actually looked more like pancakes than noodles.  Thanh at lunch had tough me the word for Chicken which is "gà".  I asked if it was gà and they nodded no, it wasn't, but it sure looked like chicken.  It turned out to be duck!  We ordered two bowls of the stuff.  It was pretty good but it had a LOT of coriander in it which is not my favorite.  Tako couldn't get past the coriander and didn't finish his, Antonia and I ate our fill.  Tako took some photos of this but unfortunately I didn't get his contact details, so unless he emails me, I can't show you what we ate!

We decided it was time to head back to the bus.  After another longish walk through dark streets and a very dark alley-way we managed to find our way back to the bus.  I knew something was serious when I saw the bus jacked up and the engine was sitting on the ground.

Technically this is the transmission.  They were replacing the clutch plate.  They spent quite a while under the bus and often there were three of them under there hurling loud remarks at one another.  They had an assortment of clutch plates on hand which they seemed to be trying to find a proper fit.  I took this opportunity to explain to Antonia how the clutch peddle in a car works by separating this spinning plate from the spinning motor so the wheels are temporarily disconnected from the motor.  She seems to have understood my explanation.  I don't think there's too many 10 year old girls (let alone 10 year olds in general!) who understand this, I know I sure didn't understand this until long after I knew how to drive a stick-shift car!

Meanwhile, we sat around.  This guy offered me a cigarette, clearly he had chilled out enough to decide to be friendly towards me!  Politely I declined.  They were also drinking beer which I did gladly accept.  The Vietnamese drink beer over ice.  It wasn't bad!  And in the heat, even at night it was muggy and hot, it was good!

We sat around for what seemed like an eternity.  Antonia was falling asleep on my knee.  It was about 10pm, I had no idea how far we were from Hanoi.  Little did we know what lie ahead...

Day 524: Vientiane to Hanoi part 2

We arrived at the bus station.  It was raining.  This is a 180° panorama of the station (the building on the left is the same building on the right behind me):

It was raining, pretty hard at times.  The place is very muddy, not paved.  We were dropped near the bus.  I had hoped to be able to pull my toiletries bag out before putting them in the hold but this guy in an orange shirt grabbed my bag and put it in the hold.  I tried to tell him I wanted something from it first but he curtly waved me off and pointed me towards the bus holding my hiking boots which I had wanted to also put in the hold but failed to make him understand that.

Antonia and I tried to board the bus.  I knew I had to take off my shoes but someone else ushered me off the bus when I saw it was still empty.  He took us briskly to the waiting area in the station.

About an hour later, we were allowed on the bus.  It's not quite like a bus I've ever been on before.  It has these sort of recliner chairs where your feet stick straight out.  There are two levels and 3 rows (with 2 aisles).  A guy in an orange shirt directed us to our chairs.  He put all the foreigners in the way back, we got this neat little cubby right next to the engine.  It actually wan't too bad except for the noise and cockroaches (or whatever they were).  Pictured is Charlie and Antonia playing cards.

There were 5 other english speakers on board (well, one was Japanese named Takeo from Okinawa).

Night time hit as we headed north through Lao.  I tried to find out if we were going to stop somewhere for dinner.  It was absolutely impossible to communicate with these folks.  Finally we stopped for petrol where we used the toilet.  All the faucets in the sinks were wired so they wouldn't turn on.  A little while later we stopped at a road side restaurant.

We sat down with the other foreigners and waited to get served.  Eventually, someone came along but spoke no english.  One of us pointed at what they had at the next table that looked like chicken with a sauce over rice and some veggies, it looked quite edible.  Someone managed to tell us it was chicken, so we ordered one each.  Eventually 2 orders showed up but it did not look like what was at the next table.  It was plain rice, no sauce and par-boiled (mostly raw) chicken on top.  Antonia and I had a couple bites of the rice and that was it.  It was more or less inedible.  It was almost like a joke they played on foreigners.

We boarded the bus and settled down for the night.  At about 1am we arrived at the border and the bus parked for the night.  The road up to this point was relatively good.  Not great but fairly straight with a modicum of bumps.

At 6am we were roused as we headed for the Lao passport exit control.  They sent us off the bus up to this building which I unfortunately don't have a photo of.  Luckily I took my umbrella.  It didn't take too long, maybe about 10 minutes for them to stamp our passports and we headed back to the bus.

However, at the bus, the guy in the orange shirt directed us to the Vietnam passport control and sternly motioned me away to walk to some building.  We walked up to a little guards house which was in site of the bus and the guard checked our passport and motioned us to walk onwards towards some other little house which we supposed had to be the Vietnam passport control but little did we realize what was going on.  At this point, we were now out of site of the Lao passport office and the bus and separated from that area by guard post who almost certainly wouldn't let us go back.  We found a person who motioned us to go on, into the nothingness.

 Over hill over dale through mud and rain.  And meanwhile, other buses were passing us.  It was now clear.  These guys made the foreigners walk through this crap while the locals who knew better got to ride the bus.  This was really not a nice thing to do to a kid.  She put up with it pretty well though.

Finally after about a 2km walk we arrived at the Vietnam boarder crossing just minutes before our bus showed up and the guy in the orange shirt handed over a bag of passports to the officer.

Antonia's feet were pretty messy.  I fared a bit better by trying to find a path around the deepest of the mud but in doing so, I narrowly escape impaling myself on some rusty wire!

When we were waiting for our passports to come back, I discovered that there was a woman on the bus named Thanh who did speak passable english.  I asked her to ask the driver why we had to walk.  The driver replied (to her) that we just didn't understand.  This was pure bullshit.  He clearly did not want us back on the bus and made us walk.  These people were clearly not being kind to the foreigners.  I definitely got the feeling that these folks did not appreciate our business and that perhaps we were taking up space that a local might otherwise have occupied.

At this point, all the bags were unloaded from the bus, in the rain.  My pack and bags were dumped in the mod.  I managed to rescue my pack from the worst of it, the bags got a bit wet.  We then walked them through customs (the awning you see above with the bus).

Here, we waited until the customs people x-rayed some random selection of bags.  Some other bags remained on the bus.  The custom's officer went right up to them and sliced them open with a knife!  Wow, I'm so glad they dumped my bags in the mud now, it was an odd sort of favor these folks did us!

Thanh came up to us and explained to us that because of the rain, part of the roadway had washed out and we would be having lunch at the cafe across from the customs station.  Here is a photo of the cafe.  Thanh is there wearing green and white.

Thanh helped us order and I must say this time the food was excellent.  I had fish over rice while Antonia had a sort of noodle soup.  I also had my first Vietnamese coffee which was very strong indeed.

We stayed at this cafe for a couple hours.  Here are a couple photos of our drivers:

After this, the drivers seemed to loosen up (a little bit).  We set off from the customs place over the mountain pass.  The views were pretty spectacular:

We very quickly however came to a traffic jam.  This is where the road had been washed out by mud slide.

Here we waited for what seemed like an hour or two while they used heavy machinery to remove mud from the road.  Finally we were allowed to pass and I can tell you as the bus drove through this area, I was definitely a little nervous.  At one point, the bus seemed to get caught in the mud.  As we passed this area, you could look down a long way and it was very muddy.  I wouldn't have wanted to be on this road when this slide happened.

We finally were driving down a very windy road through the mountains.  It wasn't a bad road but people kept passing us and honking their horns incessantly.  But nothing would prepare us for what happened next.