Last China pictures and first Laos impressions

Now online: the second part of our China pictures, cycling from Chengdu to the Lao border.

Landing in Laos

Five days we are in Laos. We cycled for two days and took a day off in Oudomxai to settle into the Lao rhythm. China is only 100km and at the same time already very far away. Cyril explained it well: it’s like going from the USA to Colombia. Having spent two and a half months in rapidly developing China it’s a pleasure to arrive in chilled out Laos.

Chilled Beerlao
Chilled Beerlao

We both have good memories of a previous visit so we are looking forward to rediscovering this sweet little country by bicycle. This is a land where the pace of life slows right down to a leisurely stroll. The border formalities are laid back and uncomplicated and we are on our way into our 15th country of this trip well before noon.

Crossing the border at Boten
Crossing the border at Boten

The first day is a bit depressing, despite the bright sunlight. We pass dusty villages where the only job opportunities seem to consist of offering cheap food, beer and women to the Chinese truck drivers passing through. We spend the first night in a guesthouse that is also a restaurant and a brothel, but luckily there are no customers for the ‘waitresses’ so we have a peaceful night. We must be strange guests for them as well; if only they knew of the things that bicycle tourers get up to in hotel rooms. Hanging the tent out to dry, hogging the wifi with film downloads, making coffee and cooking breakfast on our stove, cleaning panniers in the shower, doing our laundry and the dishes in the sink, exploding half of our stuff out of the bags and around the room in about zero seconds after arrival.

Cyclists taking over a hotel room

The N13

What was a small road in China is one of the highways of Laos: The N13. There is little traffic apart from Chinese trucks and pick-ups and local mopeds. We plan to follow the N13 all the way from the border to the capital Vientiane, from where we will cross the Friendship Bridge into Thailand.

The N13

The road becomes more beautiful and friendly as we head further away from the border. It is hilly but the gradients are fine, the tarmac is perfect and the mornings are foggy and cool. Before noon it gets hot: from now on it’s shorts and t-shirts weather all the way.

Venturing into Laos
Venturing into Laos

Families are sitting outside their bamboo huts in the small villages we ride through. The women mostly wear the sinh, the traditional Lao sarong, and are often weaving or embroidering. The kids wave and yell sabaideeeee at the top of their voice when we roll by. Lovely traditional molam music wafts from small shops and restaurants, adding to the relaxed tropical vibe. We don’t see large banana and rubber plantations anymore, mostly small-scale subsistence farming.

There is plenty of small wildlife around: we see snakes and lizards on the road, we hear rustling sounds in the foliage by the roadside and there are huge spiders in the trees. One lady carries a bunch of big fat rats by their tails to a small roadside market. Later on we see all kinds of small bushmeat being sold by the side of the road; rats, squirrels, something that looks like a sloth. Sometimes only one or two little animals, still alive, being sold by a lady who dangles them temptingly in front of approaching cars. Speaking of food, this is also immediately and decidedly different from China. We have our first taste of Lao laab salad and sticky rice. Gone is the Sichuan spice, enter the fresh and tangy tastes of lime and coriander.

Misty mornings
Misty mornings

Oudomxai

Laos: the people greet eachother with a wai, we take our shoes off before we enter a house. Little things that are different from the last two and half months in China. It is only a mild culture shock but still, we decide to take a day off in Oudomxai to gather our bearings and get into the Lao vibe. Oudomxai is nothing special, a sleepy town with a nice wat.

Wat Phu That in Oudomxai

There are a few guesthouses and some tourists. We even meet four other bike travelers, from Quebec and New Zealand. On our first night in Oudomxai we climb up to the wat to take in the sunset. The sun sinks beautifully behind the hazy mountains in the distance, throwing its last rays of the day around a tall gilded statue of a standing Buddha. Slowly it is dawning on us: we are now in South East Asia.

Oudomxai buddha

On our rest day in Oudomxai we get into a cleaning frenzy. It is Christmas but this mostly passes us by, as Laos is too tropical, too communist and too Buddhist to get any kind of Christmas vibe going. Still, nearing the end of this special year and entering a whole new region tells us we should do something to mark this. We rinse the thick red mud from Chinese road works off our Ortliebs. The bikes get cleaned thoroughly by the side of the road outside our guesthouse. We do some laundry. After rinsing and scrubbing all of our stuff it is our turn to get clean, and we head to the local sauna. Laos has a great bathing culture, with herbal steam rooms in a lot of villages, and a massage practice that is similar to the well-known Thai massage. The sauna of Oudomxai is run by the Red Cross which aims to provide locals with a steady job by teaching them massage. We both get a thorough massage by two expert lady masseurs. We are never uncomfortable on the bicycle but still, little tensions and pains that we didn’t even know we had disappear under their strong hands. Then it’s time for the sauna. Some locals are in the cabins and we zone out to the quiet sing song of their Lao chit chat. The herbal steam is delicious and we cool down with a tea on the verandah. Just like the bicycles we are as good as new and ready to start a new year on the bicycle.

From a million elephants to a million tourists

A few more days of cycling get us to Luang Prabang, one of the old capitals of Lan Xang Hom Khao. The Kingdom of a Million Elephants Under a White Parasol, as Laos was once known. We discover what is meant by the white parasol as we climb above the clouds. Every morning we start in a thick fog. The sun eventually evaporates the clouds from the steaming jungle, a beautiful sight. We are eagerly scouting the jungle for one of the million elephants. We do a lot of climbing and spend one night in a Hmong village guesthouse at 1300m.

Approaching Pak Ou
Approaching Pak Ou

When we reach the Mekong river after a long 120km day on the bicycle we spend the night camping on the sandy bank, by the village of Pak Ou. Early in the morning we cross the river with a narrow boat, to visit the buddha caves on the opposite bank.

Tham Ting cave at Pak Ou
Tham Ting cave at Pak Ou
Buddha cave at Pak Ou
Buddha cave at Pak Ou

I turn around to look at our camping spot on the other side and see three elephants bathing in the river. The night before we heard guitar music and singing close by until 2am, turns out it was the mahouts from the local elephant training camp. When we visit the elephants the mahouts are still red eyed and very hungover. If we hadn’t been so tired from the cycling we would have joined them at their party.

Load bearing animals
Load bearing animals

From Pak Ou it’s a short ride into Luang Prabang, and this is where another culture shock hits us. We ride into town and all of a sudden we are surrounded by tourists. We see white people everywhere. They are shuffling along the main drag, which has been completely taken over by businesses catering to foreigners. We both remember this town as a beautiful sleepy town with historical highlights on every corner. Now busloads of tourists have discovered this too, and the place is overrun with guesthouses, restaurants, massage places, bars and souvenir shops. We haven’t seen a place this touristy since Amsterdam. It is a bit much after weeks and weeks of quiet countryside and we miss the small but spontaneous interactions with the people we meet on the road. In Luang Prabang we feel like our only job is to spend money. We know Laos is very  poor. But, even understanding this does not mean that we like being regarded as a money spending machine instead of a human being.

Laos then and now

Laos was the most powerful kingdom of South East Asia between the 14th and 18th century, until it fell apart into three separate kingdoms which became united again under French colonial rule, from 1893 until 1953. There are different hill tribes living in the country, divided mostly by altitude lines. The Lao are the majority and the people of the lowlands. The Hmong are the people who live on the highest mountain tops.

Hmong house
Hmong house

The current communist party came into power in 1975, after a long and devastating civil war. During the war, which played out parallel to the conflict in Vietnam, the USA fought out it’s own ideological battle in Laos by supporting the royalists against the communist Pathet Lao. Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. dropped two million tons of bombs on Laos, making it the most heavily bombed country in history. The CIA funded Hmong hill tribe fighters to defend the royalist side, resulting in a lasting conflict between the Hmong and the Lao government. Tens of thousands of Hmong fled to Thailand and were eventually resettled in the USA. Today there are still Hmong in refugee camps in Thailand, unwilling to go back to Laos and face persecution by the Lao government who still see them as traitors. Laos, apart from being laid-back and lovely, is a poor and conflicted country. It relies heavily on foreign aid and investment. We see a huge Chinese dam being built: Laos exports a lot of hydroelectric energy to China, Thailand and Vietnam. Tropical hardwood disappears to the same neighbouring countries.

Tourism is another important economic sector, with the number of foreign visitors growing from 80.000 in 1990 to a whopping 4,1 million in 2014. This brings a lot of money into the country which is great. Unfortunately for us this comes at a price: a transaction is often expected, killing the spontaneity we know from non-touristy places.  There are efforts to brand the country as an ecotourism destination and curb the impact of tourism on local culture. We are a little bit conflicted as know very well we are part of the ‘problem’ of overrunning a small country with a foreign invasion. So here’s the solution to saving Laos’ laid-back loveliness: only admit bicycle travelers from now on. We spend ten thousands of kip on food in the local village shops. We only have one beer and then we fall asleep. We high five with the kids who run along with our bikes when we roll through their village. And most of all, we do try to fully appreciate the never-ending ups and downs of Laos, in altitude and in attitude.

And to end on a sweet note: here’s a compilation of the Lao/Thai molam music we hear everywhere around us. Enjoy!

 

Zài jiàn Zhōngguó, sabaidee meuang Lao!

After two and a half months the time has come to say goodbye to another one of our favourite countries. Goodbye China, and hello Laos! We loved the last stretch along the quiet country roads of Yunnan. We moved from subtropical Kunming, crossing the Tropic of Cancer, into the lush jungle of Xishuangbanna, China’s most Southern prefecture and home of the Dai people.

Our newest team member Hong

We are currently in the small border town of Mohan, and tomorrow morning we will attempt to cross into Laos. This should be pretty straightforward. The only complication is we have found a pet on the road and we want to bring him along for the ride. At least until he is big enough to stand on his own chicken feet. Right now Hong (meaning ‘wild swan’) is still a fluffy little chick who likes nothing more than hiding in our pockets and tweeting like a canary. We found him in Mengla where a lady was selling chicks, dyed in all the colours of the rainbow. Later on that evening we found Hong, all alone, wandering the pavement, squeeking. He is dyed a bright pink so we call him the Only Gay in the Village sometimes. He travels in the snack pouch I have attached to the handle bars. When we stop for a break we let him out to eat and drink and then he follows us like a puppy, running after us with his little pink wings flapping. At night we make a warm nest for him, filling up our hip flask with hot water to keep him cosy. How could we possibly leave him behind?

Hong on the loose
Hong on the loose

Update: it is with great sadness that we found little Hong dead in his box this morning. But we are happy with the good memories of the last few days. We will miss his tweeting and nesting under our wings. 

Wild swan, red book

Hongs name is inspired by the book Wild Swans, written by Jung Chang. Her birth name was Er Hong, meaning second swan. She later changed her name to Jung, meaning ‘militant action’. The book tells the turbulent history of China in the last century by chronicling the life of her grandmother, her mother and herself. It is an amazing read and although it is still on the blacklist in China I found it secondhand in a bookshop in Kunming. It is hard to believe just how many changes and how much upheaval China has been through in only three generations. The book starts during the reign of the last emperor Pu Yi of the Qing dynasty, ruling a country bound by ancient traditions until 1912. Quite literally bound; as were Jung Changs’ grandmothers feet. Through war, famine, oppression, all the way down to the lowest point: a sustained campaign of terror by a totalitarian ruler, who kept a whole country in the dark by cultivating ignorance and fear and division. It is especially hard to believe since China appears so different today. Most people we meet are working, cheerfully going about their business, building houses, traveling, interested in us foreigners, dancing together in the city squares in the evenings. This was unimaginable only 30 years ago.

Square dancing
Square dancing

In the same bookshop we bought the famous Little Red Book with quotations from Mao, translated into English. I’ve read a few and with the clear hindsight of recent history it is hard to believe that this was followed like the gospel for a long time. The titles of the chapters alone are interesting: ‘The correct handling of contradictions among the people’. Whereby people are classed as being with the communists or as enemies. One thing I like however is the fact he wanted equality for women, after a long history of brutal suppression in imperial China. Even if the primary goal was not so much a better life for women but to have a larger work force in order to surpass the capitalist world with rapid industrialisation. Unfortunately today this equality is mostly visible in hard labour jobs such as road works, and not so much in high profile jobs or political functions.

Crossing into Xishuangbanna

Since we left Kunming we have mostly followed a country road with little traffic, closely following the Eastern border of Yunnan with Vietnam and Laos. The S218 takes us away from the mud and dust of road works and into the jungle.

China's country roads

As it veers away from the busy main road a few kilometers below the Tropic of Cancer it also takes us into the tropics and into the home of the Dai people, the autonomous prefecture of Xishuangbanna. We anticipated the change in climate and we saw early signs of the tropics in the palm trees we saw here or there. Still, crossing the tropic line marks an immediate and profound change.

Crossing the Tropic of Cancer
Crossing the Tropic of Cancer

Banana, tea and rubber plantations, a different people who live in a different kind of housing suitable for year-round hot weather, nights that are no longer uncomfortably cold and beautiful mornings with steaming forests around us.

STEAM
STEAM

The earth is red and the rivers run brown, flanked by lush green hills full of exotic sounding birds. The nights when we are camping we hear crickets whirring loudly, owls and other animals we haven’t heard before.

Welcome to the jungle
Welcome to the jungle

We camp a few more nights. Usually we find a spot where we are out of sight and on land that is not in use, in the bend of a road or close to a mountain pass. One night we spot a village with a church and try our luck with the builders who are working nearby. They indicate it is fine with them if we put up our tent wherever, so we pick a small field empty of crops on the edge of the village square. An old man comes to check on us from a safe distance. Later on in the night five police officers with torch lights arrive. Cyril talks to them in his best Chinese (hello, thank you, we are from Holland, thank you, hello) and eventually they leave us alone. We don’t sleep so well after that. This is the first time authorities have disturbed us during our wild camping nights and it is quite unnerving. It is officially prohibited in China, as it is in most countries. The language barrier makes it harder, even though we have a nice Chinese note explaining we are nice people who will leave early in the morning.

The rest of the trip down to the Lao border is peaceful and very beautiful. The road goes up and down a lot and we do about 1000 climbing meters every day, making for great views, a nice sense of accomplishment and ever stronger legs. Cyril logs our rides on Strava and we accomplish the monthly climbing challenge of 7.500m in no time.

Climb with a view
Climb with a view

We see traditional Dai villages with large wooden houses, open all around and raised on wooden pillars, with roof ornaments similar to those in Thailand.

The Dai people are related to the Thai in language, religion (theravada buddhism) and culture. And in cuisine: we have a fried fish for lunch with lemon grass, chili and coriander.

Luofei fish. More please!
Luofei fish. More please!

The famous Pu’erh tea comes from this region, and we see shops where they sell the double fermented black tea pressed into fancy shapes like large coins or sculptures. The tea gets better with age so it keeps for a long time. Special vintages can be collected, like wine.

Xie xie China, you have been wonderful. After two and a half months we have only had a glimpse of everything we could possibly see and experience here, so we definitely hope to come back. We are happy with the choices we made: the historical and culinary highlights of megacities like Xi’an and Chengdu, the time off and a chance to make some local friends, far away Silk Route places like Kashgar and Turpan, and finally the weeks of cycling through the countryside of Sichuan and Yunnan. The countryside which in many ways showed us the un-touristy, only ever so slowly changing and ‘real’ China of the minority people and the peasants, in contrast with the polished face of the future we saw in the city centers.We loved meeting the people of China, who never treated us as tourists but were always interested in us in a friendly, helpful and curious way. This will surely be different in Laos and Thailand, where we will no longer be the only white people in the village.

Our hotel manager in her festive garb

So, thank you Zhōngguó, we salute you in a way you will surely understand:

Happy New Chinese Year

Gear reviews

After 7 months of the road we take a critical look at our camping gear and come to strict but fair conclusions in our verdicts. Check out our thoughts on our favourite things and on the not-so-favourite things we left behind, right here in the camping gear review page.

We also finally found the time to update our Tools and spare parts page. This is the area where you potentially can save a lot of weight, so don’t forget to check this page before you set off on your trip.

We will do a similar review on our clothes later but we can give you our conclusion now: merino wool, everything merino. Socks, shirts, long johns, jumpers, buff, hat. Mmmmerino! We love you.

Merino sheep feeling a bit meh
Merino sheep feeling a bit meh