Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Whisked Across Laos

I checked and double-checked my web-access back-up plans for China. I was up early in Huay Xai, the Laotian border town I'm made it to yesterday from Thailand, borrowing a random open signal that was near the Kaup Jai guesthouse. The typical travel route from here is to proceed on to Pak Beng and then Luang Prabang, Laos—which I'd done in the year 2000—but I was taking a bus to China this morning.

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 censorship policies would inhibit my ability to do my job when I was downloading wi-fi hotspot VPNs and paying for paid web proxies, but I figured I'd need them for Twitter and Facebook. China confirmed my suspicions and more pretty quickly. And irritated the hell out of me in the process, but that's for another day.

But in Laos, getting online wasn't a problem, and anyway, I could still use my Thai mobile phone SIM even if I hadn't found an open signal nearby. I was only just across the river from Chiang Khong, Thailand.

I was ready at 8 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 canceled 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. 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 barking dog was trying to tell me, so 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 may not have known what was going on but every single other individual on the bus did. I'd be fine.

I became hungry. I ate all my peanuts I'd banked in the first hour. Why hadn't I bought cookies too?

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 pee.

I tried to disembark, but the driver waved me back on and started the bus again.

"Na Toy!"

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 bag had been taken off the bus. I sat down, ordered a Coke, and contemplated the bag 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 taxis. The drivers looked bored when I approached, but one of them put me into his mini-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 rumors I'd heard that China had spiffed up its border towns. This had worked—I was impressed.

Now it was time to choose. In one hour, I could go 5-6 hours by bus to Jinghong, find a hotel, seek out an onward bus ticket, 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 5 p.m. overnight sleeper bus to Kunming.

I'd seen sleeper buses years ago. They looked like hell. Crowded, uncomfortable, smoke-filled, loud movies. Hell. But then...China had been on a modernization 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 IE threw me off my web-proxy and shut down.

I headed to the bus. This was risky. 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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