There is one vitally important thing to do before you leave your hotel room in most of Asia. In Laos, it is even more important that you do this, and yet now you are absolutely worn out and want to go and find something to eat. So you will forget to find the light switches first. Do not, for one minute think that you can guess where they are. There is no logic to it here, and Laos takes it to extremes.
I have moaned before about ‘ up for on ‘ not being logical. You have that to face too, once you find the lights to the bathroom. Try looking first behind the curtain on the wall diagonally opposite the bathroom. It is just as likely to be there as anywhere else. The one place you need not bother yourself to look, is anywhere near the bathroom.
38% of the population of France have never tasted wine, BBC online informs me. We had a bit of time to spare before riding to immigration and the ferry, and I had turned on the computer for a bit of general surfing of the WWW. That sound a bit of an overestimate. I ask Esther, and her Germanic background cuts through the BBC’s stats, ” Rubbish “. She spends the next 40 minutes trying to prove the BBC wrong.
Crossing the border from Chiang Khong into Laos is a Dollar transaction only. We have no idea that there are half a dozen places at the ferry to get currency and so are trawling the banks. The third bank has Dollars, but only hundred Dollar bills. They will have to do, but most places in the US would throw up hands in horror at a 100.
On to the ferry and all things visa. Huay Xai on the far bank, is a bit of a backpacker honey pot and there are the usual mix of passports and blonde hair. Here, for the first time for us is China on holiday. They are as anxious and confused as us but a lot more vocal.
It is all straight forward. The bikes get lifted into the long-tail boats and a few minutes later, we are back in Laos. The president of the National Assembly of Laos was here the day before and there had been fireworks in huge quantities. The flag of Laos and the communist hammer and sickle fly from every logical place to fly a flag and many that are not.
A horrid night of sleep, and we are on the road. A pig runs across the road in front of us. Within the first few K’s we pass the 5,000Km on the road in Asia and pause for a photo. There are ducks, dogs and children running across the road with the pigs and bikes and mopeds. In the shadows of wooden houses, old women are down on their haunches with long tobacco pipes clenched tight in mahogany coloured teeth. Their skin looks as brown and lined as an OS map of the peaks of highland Scotland.
I had forgotten how many times we are greeted here in Laos and the profile was something I was vague about. There is a very big hill and lots of children shouting ‘ hello ‘, or the local variation ‘ goodby ‘, which they enjoy immensely. 400m climbing, but for the first time since I caught a stinking cold on the flight to Malaysia, I manage to keep my hearing. Brilliant. I will not miss the sound of my heart pounding, and laboured breathing one little bit.
The novelty is soon over. One big hill after another and in each flat area a village of wooden huts in the dust. We are the highlight of the day, the week and possibly the month if a truck does not crash nearby. We sit, and a can of coke is found. Children are bought to watch the falang drink. They make themselves comfortable for the show and half a dozen dogs turn up to see if there is any food to be had.
750m climbed by midday, and it is 40’c. We have done more walking and pushing than I can remember for months and possibly since New Zealand. The landscape makes up for it and the villages, when they come along are fascinating. It is green and lush here in the north, and the patches of vegetables around the villages look happy enough.
Life here is basic but sustainable at the moment. The soil is fertile enough for the same subsistence lives that have been lived here for centuries. There is a fast profit to be made though from the Diamonds buried in the hills and the hardwoods growing on them. The road is now good, and China is just a half a day away in a truck.
Every village we go through has shady porches, with National-Geographically photogenic people sitting and watching the world go by. The jungle around the them is being logged and burned at an alarming rate. Smoke spirals up from the canopy or from blackened clear-fell areas. Another truck and another executive car goes down the road to China. Ash falls on the road like a brief flurry of April snow.
Another agonizingly big hill. The lorries are bought almost to a halt, and certainly slow enough for us to see the tyres rotate next to our panniers. We used to call these ‘ Kojak Tyres ‘. With everything else I guess that tread depth is the last thing on their mind.
This is going to have to be split into two today. We sit by a stall and drink bottle after bottle of sugary water. We have done 60Km and the same again is ahead. It is not the best prospect and we are going to have to wait for it to cool down a bit and we will try again.
On we go. The road goes up and then we are hurtling down, throwing away all that elevation in a few seconds. It kicks three times, and at each summit the altimeter gets close to 1040m, which Google has guessed will be the final climb. You hope it is wrong, but in your heart you know that is very unlikely. And so it is that the final climb is just as late in the day as you had thought it might.
Now it is a race against the sun and horizon to do the last 30Km before there is no light. We have done 1800m of climbing and have little left in our legs. We drop from 1050m and the speed goes up. The town at the end of the purple trace on the gps fails to get any closer.
We make it. Of course we do, but you do not know that at the time and you do not know that there is room at the third place you try. It has been a hard day and not to be repeated too often. 1955m of climbing and 122Km, and we end the day with muesli and banana with a bottle of ‘ Lao beer ‘ to make it feel a bit more like an occasion.
The hut is made from wood, except from the bits where there is no wood and I can see straight out. It is basic, made from material that elsewhere would be used for kindling. It is comfortable enough, and there is a mosquito net of sorts. It looks far enough away from the main road to be quiet, but is a great place for the local youth to move unseen and to race around on their mopeds to impress girls. Another bad nights sleep in Laos. I would hate to be a librarian here, they have no concept of quiet please.
Next morning the village PA is turned up to 11, and trying to drown out the chant of the monks. Lao F.M. or whatever the party is broadcasting is going to make quite sure you do not sleep late. We are on the road to China.
It is a fertile valley with deep dark coloured soil. Lorries are being packed with cardboard boxes of water melons bound for China. The road squeezes between rock plugs and we climb and descend all day. Luckily, today the ups are more constrained and we make the 60Km before the full sun hits.
Today is a ‘ once in a lifetime ‘ experience for the keen entomologist in the family. Butterflies are everywhere, from flocks of small blue ones to flamboyant singles ( collective noun butterflies kaleidoscope, rabble, swarm). Of course there will always be one more big hill. Up and over, and then down into the town of Luang Namtha and the promise of a quiet night and good food. The Chinese border is just a few kilometres further on, a new country for us and this one is huge.