Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Week 22 Lancang to Luangnamtha 146km cycled

Highlights: Lao herbal steam sauna
Low blows: 320km round trip to an ATM that takes foreign cards
Music of the week: Time and Space – The Cinematic Orchestra

Lancang to Menglian and back   by bus
Got up late, discovered hot shower only works when there is sun (solar powered) so had a cold ‘refreshing’ start. Also dropped my soap which slithered off towards the squat bog, as I muttered ‘noooooo’ and went after it, I slipped over on the suds and ended up almost sat in the bloody bog. Luckily the soap perched itself on the edge and didn’t go down into the hole. Prime comedy.
Bought dumplings up road and ate them back in gh before getting a bus to Menglian. Took an hour to get there on narrow windy roads busy with trucks and busses, lots of blokes smoking on bus too, the driver had 5 fags in the 1 hour journey. Then a  20 minute walk through new town to get to the old town which promised to be pretty adobe bricked houses. Well, owners probably got fed up living in mud brick and all the houses had been upgraded with real bricks, although the roofs looked to be original. 2 old temples and an original wooden Dai chiefs house left remaining. Dai house entrance being done up so I went in round the side entrance and had a look around. Back to bus stop and to Lancang for 4:30. Passed a few corners with about 40 bee hives and people collecting honey from them. Several road workers chopping at roadside vegetation with sythes but many just had sticks or pieces of wire.
Been over cast all day so had a warmer than cold shower when I got back and a shave.

Old Dai temple

Ornate window inside a 13th Century Dai clan house

Mural on school wall in the 'old' town

Back in Lancang, locals take a nap

Lancang to Menghai   111 km
Dumplings for bf then set off. Over cast sky that started spitting as I headed up new road into hills. Light traffic. 3 lads on motorbikes passed me and had slowed, sneeking a look around the long bend before turning back - Poilce check point stopping traffic and a lad with handcuffs behind his back looking sorry for himself. Near a small quarry blokes breaking up rocks into aggregate with hammers and chisels. Farmers hearding buffalo down the road, some with calves.
Spitting turned to drizzle turned to rain, and the temperature dropped. Was gonna stop at a town 60kms into ride but bugger all there and feeling strong so carried on. Road wound its way up tree covered valley of mixed woodland, Rain continuous and feeling very cold, got hot water for drinking bottle whenever I could. Had lunch in some bus stop place where portions were measly and she wanted 10Y so haggled to 7 although still overpriced.
Eventually got to top of pass air very cold here so stopped in a truck stop where a bloke was wrapped in a blanket and invited me to a seat. I just put on my fleece and gloves, got some hot tea and carried on. Really cold now, fingers, toes and knees freezing. After all the uphill Id done the 7km downhill was a bit disappointing, but so cold going downhill then flat along a plain, a sea of lush green young rice plants as far as eye could see either side of this straight narrow treelined road. Im sure this would be so impressive in the sunshine.
Came into a town and stopped next to a shop with people huddled around a rice cooker with steam coming out. They invited me to join them which I did and then I wanted to buy noodles from next door but the last bowl went to the person just before me. Looked around village but only cold pot stall food and need summat hot. Feeling a bit dizzy/odd and toes and thumbs tingly. Munched on my peanuts and raisins and carried on. Soon came to the Octagonal pavilion in a village along the way 20Y to get in. I thought it would be a Chinese pagoda but its actually part of a Dai temple complex, swifts darting in and out of small holes in the wooden roofing. Rain stopped, hurrah. Surprised it is 5pm. Final stretch, road filthy with muck and spray and quite a bit of traffic now. Acres of large polly tunnels across the entire valley floor, quite impressive to see so many and watermelons growing inside. Lots of people huddled around small fires as has been the case all long the way down this valley.
Arrived 6:30. Eating was first priority so had a big feed at friendly place, then in search of hotel – a lot of overpriced crap here. Not starlings settling in trees to roost at dusk but hundreds of swifts flitting about between the trees lining the city streets. Thought Id negotiated 60 for one but when Id got bags in and went to pay they wanted 80, room was crappy and still had condom wrappers , cigarette burns on floor and dingy so no ta. Looked at several more and ended up back at first one Id looked at  just up from resto. Its on a junction so was worried about noise but itll have to do. Room good, but solar heating means ice cold water. Sink had a plug so filled it with water from kettle and had a decent enough bird bath using a drinking glass. Fancied tea and biscuits but all small shops not selling anything munchable so gave up and just had tea in room. Nice to be under the quilt and reading a book. Really cold outside and everyone wandering about half frozen clasping thiers arms to body.

House martins roost in the Octagonal Pavillion

Menghai to Mengla   by bus
Overcast and cold. Found a noodle shop. Cold murky day. People gobbing everywhere. Bus station only over road. Had to pay driver and extra 10Y for bike and had to carry it on to roof rack and tie it down myself, later discovered Id torn muscle in shoulderblade, but yesterdays cold long ride probably not helped.
Short bus rode to Jinghong, ate lunch in tasty pot stall then another bus to Mengla. No rack on this so took front tyre off, lowered seat, slotted it into boot and made sure nothing was dumped onto wheels or they tried to bend bike into a funny shape ramming other parcels beneath/around it.
Beautiful scenery, very mountainous, some Dai villages still with traditional wooden homes and a lot of new build in the same shape but made from concrete, tiles etc. Saw one brand new house with the old wooden kitchen stuck onto the side. Toilets at halfway stop a stinking disgrace. Acres of rubber trees on terraces and then later deciduous forest mixed with bamboo. A lot of downhill and tunnels, the treelined old road running alongside new highway and looking tempting. Saw a cyclist coming up the highway fully panniered up despite no cyclists or other slow vehicle signs everywhere, surprised the cops hadn’t got him.
Weather better in Mengla and sun popped out by late afternoon. Looked at a load of places from bus station down road and all grotty and overpriced at 60Y. People here really ban nok. While I was looking at one place a bloke actually opened his door, hawked, gobbed in hallway and then went back inside. Filthy, although Ive seen people gobbing on halls and stairs of gh’s before. Wonder if they do it in their own homes. About to give up my search, but spied a new appt complex down an alley and what looked to be appt lobby area turned out to be hotel reception. Brand new rooms for 80Y after haggling. Pretty much same as the 60Y rooms Ive had all along but my room has a computer and internet access!
Went in search of a bank and discovered from a teller that there are no ATMs in town that give foreign cards money – arse! Back to Jinghong tomorrow then cos Laos ATMs are useless, usually don’t work and only give you 10p per transaction. Took a while to find somewhere that could figure out how to cook meat and veg, although it came as soup which was a surprise. Had a fizzy beer then bought munch from supermkt.

Mengla to Jinghong and back again  by bus
Eventually found a dumpling shop then onto bus for Jinghong for my 320km round trip to the atm. Sun out today and countryside looking better for it. Sun out in full at Jinghong so nice to feel warm. A lot more traffic about today too. Had lunch at pot stall in bus station again, woman surprised to see me again.
Walked down jade street to Bank of China and got money from ATM. Bank closed between 11 and 3 so went in search of money changers. Jade st people didn’t change cash but one helpful bloke took me to Agricultural bank which was open. Queued a while only to be told by skeleton staff Id have to wait for the foreign currency section to open at 3pm. Asked if they couldn’t just do it and complete paperwork later but they said no. Headed for bus station via small pleasant park, but decided better to wait than have hassle at border. If money changers there didn’t have dollars Id be in a fix.
Lots of old people playing Mahjong around rows of tables in a shady area, in park itself same scene- one area a kind of draughts with characters written on them- players looking thoughtful, another area was plain old cards with poker faced hordes sat around the shady concrete tables slapping cards down in the middle. Pleasure boats puttered around the small lake, little fish swam and a beautiful shiny peacock  blue kingfisher dived down and plucked one out of shallows right in front of where I sat. Had a beer and sat in a pagoda over the water, woman who sold it me in shop very rude grabbing my money off me and upset that Id actually opened fridge and spent less than a whole minute looking at the different beers before making my choice.
Went to bank just before 3. Guard and manager opened shutters and told people to step back – the armoured van was here to drop off money. A piece of theatre then commenced. Two blokes with shotguns and Kevlar vests hopped out of the side then took up position, scanning around and looking alert. When they gave the all clear 2 more blokes hopped out carrying steel boxes of cash and scurried into the building. They soon came out and hopped into van, followed by gunslingers and away.
Got ticket and waited turn in bank, number 4. At window asked to buy $50. Sorry , foreigners cant buy foreign currency! WAH. Manager came to help cos she spoke English. I told her my story about the trip here, waiting for 3 hours for bank to open and asked if she would buy the dollars and Id buy it from her. She agreed but $100 was minimum so I said yes. Very kind of her to help me and thanked her accordingly. Nice to meet someone a bit flexible!
Walked back to bus station and onto bus home. Hungry so decided to eat in place opposite bus station, wary cos no one in there but what the heck. Ordered off English menu- beef with sour bamboo shoots 15Y and chips 6Y. Sat at a table but young server girl decided I was gonna sit across the resto so plonked the stuff over there then actually called me over to eat it there. I told her to bring it to me, which after getting stroppy she actually did. Food ok but bamboo shoots very sour and would’ve had summat else had I known. Came to pay. The bill had magicked itself up to 32Y. Complained and it immediately went down to 28. Managed to get hold of the menu then showed the owner clearly that it was printed 15 and 6 – surely that makes 21? Apparantly the chef had used fresh bamboo rather than bamboo in a container – as if I have any control over the chef. Argued. I decided to walk out. She came after me and realized I was serious. Went back inside, they gestured to police sign on wall and I said yes, bring the police, maybe they can add up. Paid 23Y in the end (2Y for rice) and left.
1am loads of noise from teens arriving from night out – spent ages shouting to each other (talking Chinese style)  in hallway and taking ages to go in their rooms, doors banging. At least here it’s a key card so they don’t take ages trying to use a key which has happened in a lot of places Ive stayed . Adults arriving at 2 and 3am, same story, noise, tapping on doors farting about in general. Went out and shouted at a woman whod been banging on neighbours door for 10 mins. Seems there is no hotel etiquette here, or rather this is hotel etiquette here- hawwwwwwwwwwwwwwk.

Mengla  35km
Chatted in dumpling shop with Chinese bloke who could speak Thai for a while then set off to Bupan Aerial Park 15kms away. Nice ride through countryside past rubber and banana plantations. Bananas in a production line in field at edge of road being unwrapped from blue plastic, dunked in water then put into boxes and onto a waiting lorry. Arrived at the park, nobody spoke English, but soon figured out it was 60Y just to walk in the forest and an additional 100Y to go on the treetop walkway. Not spending that much so cycled back into town.
Had a look around a Dai village on way back, traditional wooden houses with wooden roof tiles, surrounded by big walls. Basically all roof, suppose sheltered and warm in winter and cool in summer. They all had solar water heaters. Some new blue tiled monstrosities had gone up too and looked really out of place.
Back in town got a plastic bag wrapped around rear derailer so had to take wheel off and spent a good 30mins digging it out of the cogs as it had jammed the whole thing up. Old Chinese pedicab bloke came to help, first wanting to burn it off but that would just seal it in, but he then found me a tooth pick (still with a relic of a picked piece of food on the end) to work away at the plastic, which eventually worked. Surprised bike totally disabled by a small placcie bag.
Ate at pot stall then back to gh. Had a wander in late afternoon and found a pleasant road leading off to a university/college with some traditional Dai houses along it too. Very peaceful residential area with good vibes, ate at popular pot stall there for only 4Y – lots of food too and owners really nice.

Field side production line

Traditional village home

Old meets new - solar water heating

Traditional wooden tiles compete with newer roofing materials

One of a few remaining traditional homes in the town centre

Border hop to Laos and Luangnamtha  by bus
Manager had agreed I could leave my bags at hotel so after dumplings I went up to bus station and caught 8:40 bus to LNT for 47Y. Wouldve been a quick journey but had to wait for an hour for paperwork on buses cargo to be completed. Couldve gone back to China same day if Id wanted. Sat outside an expensive Chinese run resto on Laos side. Wanted to eat but charging 22000kip (2 quid) for what youd normally get for 50p so didn’t bother. Eventually wandered up to next Laos resto and bought a bag of sticky rice for 2000kip to tide me over. Only an hour from here to LNT then into town on shared songtheaw for 10k chatting with an English couple who’d just got off bus from HuayXai. Ate bowl of foe then back to same gh as last time. 70k for room. Overcast sky and cool although sun eventually came out mid afternoon. Went for a beer and sat in sun outside a shop before dinner then joined English couple and a Thai general and his son in nightmarket for several beers.

­Felt a bit dodgy and hot in the night from all the beer but was ok. Megaphone news broadcast going in the morning. Misty morning – but I have an electric shower so plenty of hot water for me Ha! Wouldve been miserable if hungover in a dark cold room with no hot shower to wash the cobwebs away. Felt ok once mobile. Had omelet and coffee for bf then changed money and bought some bananas for 4000k in mkt before heading back to gh. Sun about to burn through the haze so did the large pile of laundry Id brought with me and by the time I hung it out the sun was blazing. Mixed veg and sticky rice for lunch then back to gh with biscuits to go with the tea I drank while watching a film in afternoon. Town feels really sleepy and not a lot going on. Last time I was here there were loads of cyclists and quite a few tourists but its really quiet at the moment.
Went for a sauna at 5 but the old boy was just stoking the vat of water up. Chatted with lady owner and theyd just rebuilt the sauna with brick so looks very sturdy. Only problem was took a long time to heat so didn’t really warm up till 6pm.Good once it was hot enough and made my shoulder blade feel better.
Pleasant warm evening- tshirt weather. Had pad kapow for dinner which was a Lao variant on the dish, then watched film at night. Nice lazy day.

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