Wander Woman, Marie Javins, hits an obstacle crossing from Laos into China. But discovers that with a little local help anything is possible
I was leaving Thailand, continuing my round-the-world tour, on the day my second Thai visa expired.
There was just enough time in the morning to shove my possessions into my rucksack, eat one last breakfast at Chiang Mai’s Nice Kitchen, and drop off my spare pair of shoes for a woman named Julia that I’d met last night. She'd approached my expat friend Toby in a coffee shop because he was studying a book on Chinese vocabulary. She'd just returned from teaching English in China.
And Julia had foreign-sized feet, just like me. She’d be happy to give a home to the new sandals I’d bought in Bangkok.
I enjoyed offering a new pair of shoes to a stranger, and especially relished dropping them off first thing in the morning at a restaurant she frequented.
“I’m leaving these for a woman named Julia.”
“Ah, Julia.” That was enough identification. Julia, Chiang Mai. The waiter took the bag of shoes and put them behind the bar.
The shoes hadn’t worked out for me, but they’d serve Julia well.
I hurried back to the hotel, where I waited out front for the shuttle to the Laos border. I was picked up last, a little bit late. The full van headed north.
Our toilet stop was at Chiang Rai at the White Temple, which I'd just gone out of my way to see a few days ago. No matter – the White Temple, with its detailed sculptures of Predator and grasping hands, bears repeating.
I wandered in again, and noticed two more characters in the pop-culture mural that I'd missed the first time around. Darth Vader and the Incredible Hulk adorned the wall inside the temple.
The van pulled into the border town of Chiang Khong at two after a tedious several hours of driving. The shuttle dropped off some people who were staying overnight, but took the rest of us to the border. Most passengers were headed to Luang Prabang by either VIP overnight bus or morning Mekong boat via Pak Beng. I was the only person who was heading up the new road across Laos to China. I’d taken the slow boat to Luang Prabang via Pak Beng back in the year 2000. The bus hadn’t even been an option then.
The shuttle driver pulled the van over at the top of a hill, and pointed us all towards Thailand Immigration.
"There," he said.
I picked up my luggage and headed down the hill to get stamped out of Thailand. Just in time too, at four o'clock on the last day I was allowed to be in the country.
I walked a hundred or so more feet past trucks – which cross the Mekong on ferries – down to the concrete ramp into the river, where I paid my fare and was ushered onto a long wooden motorboat for the five-minute journey to Laos.
"May I sit here?" I joined an eight-year-old Dutch girl whose parents occupied the seat in front of us.
We crossed the brown river, then navigated clambering up the bank into Laos.
I walked up the hill into Huay Xai, Laos, to passport control, where I had to pay an extra dollar on top of my visa fee because it was after four. According to my guidebook, if I'd arrived before four, the extra dollar would have been charged for something else anyway.
The last time I’d been in Huay Xai, there hadn’t been anywhere suitable to stay as far as I’d known. I’d been there only long enough to get stamped in and board the boat. This time, I was staying overnight. I followed some instructions I'd found on a TripAdvisor forum.
"Walk up the hill to the main street. Turn right. Walk a few blocks. Kaup Jai Guesthouse is a decent guesthouse in Huay Xai and is across from the school."
Indeed it was, a family-run guesthouse with toilet seats, hot water, an open wifi signal nearby (though I could still pick up my Thai unlimited data plan on my iPhone here), and an owner who set up my ride to the bus station in the morning.
I went out onto the balcony in the warm Laotian afternoon. I could see the concrete ramp of Chiang Khong right across the river, where the trucks drove onto the river barges. I was out of Thailand on time, but not very far out of Thailand.
I'd head across Laos on the bus to Jinghong, China in the morning.
I woke up early the next day, anxious about getting everything done before the taxi showed up.
I checked and double-checked my web-access back-up plans for my next few weeks in China.
China doesn't like Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, or, as it turned out, the various servers I needed to get onto to do my paying jobs. I'm pretty well-schooled in circumventing IT systems, having lived and worked in the Middle East, but those are small fry compared to China. You can use the best-known web proxies in the Gulf and wham, you're online.
Those don't work in China.
I didn't know that China's internet policies would inhibit my ability to do my job when I was in Laos, downloading wifi hotspot VPNs and paying for paid web proxies, but I figured I'd need them for Twitter and Facebook, and I do my year-long MariesWorldTour.com projects as interactive events. Readers come with me virtually. Live updates were important to me. I wasn’t altogether sure what was so wrong with Facebook and Twitter anyway, and there was definitely nothing wrong with the servers I use for work.
I was ready at 8am as instructed by the owner of the guesthouse. He had a taxi driver take me to the bus terminal, where a surprise awaited us.
The morning bus to China had been cancelled due to slow ticket sales.
"Are you going with me today?" A jolly bus driver asked me this from the door of his half-sized bus.
"No, I'm going to China."
He shrugged and smiled. He knew better.
My taxi driver considered the posted schedule for a while, asked the ticket sellers a few questions, then called the guesthouse owner and handed me the phone.
"The bus isn't running today. Wrong season. You will take the Boten bus but you will change after Luang Namtha to get to China."
This made slightly more sense to me than trying to grasp what a meowing cat was trying to tell me, but I agreed to it. Anyway, I didn't care. The jolly bus driver clearly knew what was going on and the fact that the bus I now boarded wasn't going to China, yet somehow I was, didn't matter much. It would all work out.
"Na Toy," said the taxi driver as he waved to me from the bus park.
"Na Toy," said the bus driver.
"Na Toy," I agreed, smiling.
Whatever that means. Now was one of those moments that I regretted having a Kindle guidebook instead of a paper one. Have you ever tried to work out where you are on a map on a Kindle? You have to page back and forth, zoom in, zoom out – it's not too effective.
But after six months on the road, I wasn't the least bit worried. I could speak the local language, and may not have known what was going on but every single other individual on the bus did. I'd be fine.
We wound around well-paved tarmac, picking up and dropping off passengers en route. At noon, we pulled into a dirt lot with a shaded central area. This was Luang Namtha. And I really had to find a loo.
I tried to disembark, but the driver waved me back on and started the bus again.
A half-hour later, we pulled into Nam Thuy, a small village at a crossroads between Luang Namtha and Boten. Everyone got off the bus, so I did as well. The driver gave me new instructions.
Okay, I'd rest. I went to find the toilet while everyone else sat down to have some lunch.
When I returned, I noticed my rucksack had been taken off the bus. I sat down, ordered a Coke, and contemplated the rucksack and the lunch. Perhaps it was time to ask a few questions. I approached the driver.
"You know how to go now?" He beat me to it.
He walked me to the road and pointed to the T-intersection we'd turned at.
"One of them will take you to the border." He went back to his lunch.
I thanked him, waved good-bye to my pals all eating their lunches, and headed to the intersection, which turned out to have taxis parked nearby. The drivers looked bored when I approached, but one of them put me into his van and started up the winding road to China. I still wasn't sure I had this right, but then we passed a road marker.
"China border 9 km."
We approached the border a few minutes later, and the driver pointed me to a low building, where a man behind a window took my passport and stamped me out of Laos.
I started to walk to the massive golden pagoda that marked the end of Laos. And then a small golf cart pulled up. A Chinese woman motioned me in and drove me to China.
We whizzed up to a grand, brand-new entrance hall. This looked like an airport. Aside from two border officials, I was the only one there.
I was in China moments later, where I was directed into the back of a little shared-taxi that was sort of like a songthaew in Thailand, except it was just a three-wheeled one.
Ten minutes later, the driver dropped me off in front of the Mohan, China bus office. It wasn't really a station, as it was just a single office located near a large parking lot. The town, though, was glamorous and new. I thought about rumours I'd heard that China had spiffed up its border towns. This had worked – I was impressed. Weirdly, not many people seemed to live there.
Now it was time to choose. In one hour, I could go five to six hours by bus to Jinghong, find a hotel, seek out an onward bus ticket, get food and sleep, then wake up to get a bus to Kunming, where I could switch from buses to trains.
Or I could take the 5pm overnight sleeper bus to Kunming.
I'd seen sleeper buses on the first MariesWorldTour.com, in 2001. They looked like Hell. Crowded, uncomfortable, smoke-filled, with loud movies. Hell. But then... China had been on a modernisation campaign. Maybe they were better now?
I bought the sleeper bus ticket, then tracked down some Oreos and a few slices of bread for my later-dinner. I lasted about 20 minutes in the Internet cafe before the ancient, monitored version of Internet Explorer threw me off my web-proxy and Facebook, then shut down.
I headed to the bus. This was risky, I knew. I could handle loud action movies playing, if that was my fate for the evening. But if there were smokers on-board, this was going to be a long night.
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