China and Laos
No, I did not drop off the planet! Just got back to Bali after 6 weeks of travelling, and there were computers everywhere I travelled to, they were just very slow, and I was so much 'on the move' and without a few free hours to write... that I didn't.At the risk of being repetitive… I love Bali. I have had an amazing time everywhere else, but this is still where I am the happiest. I have undeniable, palpable physical and emotional elation whenever I set foot on this island. Never before has a 'place' affected me this way. Okay this may turn into yet another 'Gettysburg Address'... I have no idea how to condense my experiences of the last few weeks into anything remotely civilised in length? Other people 'impulse buy'.... I on the other hand 'impulse travel'. As I already said I 'last minute' invited (imposed?) myself on some new friends to join them on this trip to China because I had heard them talk about it, and then woke up morning knowing I 'had' to go too.
I have never before particularly had the desire to go to China... so this was perhaps the only way I was going to get there! For a start we were an interesting group, John the artist/craftsman, who has been going there for years to buy handicrafts and textiles, Symon, the wild and crazy painter(to call him a character and half would be a gross understatement) who followed suit after I invited myself, Nick from Alabama, totally laid back and very 'southern'... and his daughter who is a firefighter in the heart of Baghdad... and me; Ms 'Curiosity Incarnate' along for the ride.
We all arrived in Bangkok in batches and met at a hotel in the middle of the 'chaos'... many people love it, I just find it another traffic clogged dusty city (with granted some exquisite sites ). The night-life is definitely unique unto itself, and I did venture out (reluctantly, and within 10 minutes sorely regretted it) one night, but my ?prudish? feminist? there but by the grace of god go I (if life had handed me that card), who knows what? culturally uncomprehending? side finds the blatant 'sex for sale’ side of Bangkok really disconcerting. Definitely something to look at in my own psyche. In theory I want to 'see it all'... but… We all ended up in a club..."Super Pussy"...yes that's really the name. Women (girls) playing 'tricks' with cigarettes, ping-pong balls... and razors. There was a western woman in there engaging beautifully with the girls, giving them money and (seemingly) genuinely having fun... I on the other hand was attempting to crawl for the door.
We did a rush on getting our passports for China (we got them in one day when officially it takes 3…a little extra cash gets you just about anything)... which included being in a (literal) stampede to pick them up. There was no pretence of politeness, and much bribing of those who made it to the head of the queue. Then we flew to Kunming, in the Yunnan province (South West... bordering on Tibet, Burma and Laos)... and so began the culture shock(ing) experience of modern day China. A shopping Mecca; extreme and garish modern day glitz alongside the most ancient and simplest imaginable.... peasants with hand hewn tools and water buffaloes for work and transport.
Yes, I went to Wal-Mart in China. It is like two worlds in collision... and the old one is definitely losing. Travelling by bus, and stopping at rest stops I saw a side of China that makes India and anywhere else in Asia look positively gleaming. I saw some of the dirtiest places imaginable. Plus I would implore my most deeply animal-loving friends not to ever go, there is the lowest regard for living creatures I have ever seen (frogs skinned alive and piled in buckets... fish being fried alive... and I won't mention the dogs). It feels so 'tough' there... and again and again I feel stretched to accept that going to these places I have to see beyond my own perceptions and prejudices.
And it is also beautiful and the people unique. We were really lucky because travelling with John we met and spent time with some Bai (tribal) people, ate at their home and were shown around some places we may not ordinarily have seen. Their textiles and embroideries are exquisite(I have some wending their way across the Pacific, I hope). We went to Dali and Lijiang; beautiful traditional areas, but the most elaborate of super highways are under rapid construction and headed to all the loveliest corners.
I did have some beyond amazing massages in Dali, and the women giving them were all deaf-mutes. I heard much talk of how the Chinese are about to really start travelling, and when they do it will be an incredible tidal wave of people suddenly leaving the confines of their own country, the likes of which the world will never have seen before.
Probably the highlight of China for me was a trek I did (with John the only other person willing “fool enough?“ to do it) through 'Tiger Leaping Gorge'. Last year I did the 'Samaria Gorge' in Crete (supposedly the longest in Europe), this one is (apparently) the deepest in the world. It was 2 very intensive days passing through the most glorious dramatic, breath-taking scenery, with names like 'Jade Dragon Snow Mountain'. We were on the Tibetan border, just 120 km from the actual place Shangri-la. Tragically a dam is scheduled to be constructed that will radically change the face of the whole area. It hardly bears thinking about, I am just having to focus on feeling grateful to be able to experience these places while they still exist.
Oh, and by the way, ironically China is not the best of places to have Chinese food (at least not in the areas I was in). I am definitely not a 'foodie', but there was nothing to write home about being served up. One of the greatest hazards is the amount of MSG they pour into anything and everything, and when you say 'please don't', they think you're mad. I had many itchy, sleepless nights from overdosing on the stuff!
After China we all headed back to Bangkok, I had to spend 3 days there getting my visa for Bali (I am working on being able to spend a lot more time there). The group dispersed, John to the US, Noelle to Iraq, Nick to meet a girlfriend, which left myself and Sy... the crazy artist and the 'slightly' whacky astrologer. My plan was to go to Laos. and he had decided to go with me (he has even more 'Aries' than me!). So we hopped on a plane to Luang Prabang. I love Laos, it is stunningly beautiful, not saturated with tourists. I'm biting my typing finger (yes it's true, I am a 2 finger typist!) willing myself not to get on my soap-box. But, it holds the dubious honour of being the most bombed country in the history of the world and apparently they lost all their intelligentsia, they were killed or they left, not that they were even 'officially' in a war!
There is a undeniable flatness and lack of animation to the people, especially in comparison to the Balinese, who are so warm, expressive and creative. I met a German who has lived there for over 20 years who explained this seemingly disinterested quality as a simplicity of outlook, and he told me they have a tendency to consider themselves stupid, and even to joke about it. I found that really sad and alarming, and I did like the people and found it far less disconcerting to just think of them as shy. I am forever intrigued and mystified at how entire countries/cultures can embody life determining (be they positive or negative) ideas about themselves that somehow end up being the 'truth'.
Since Laos was a French Colony it is full of lovely (rather decaying) old colonial buildings, plus you can get a baguette on any street corner! Luang Prabang is in a loop of the Mekong (like Shrewsbury and the River Severn), and it is really beautiful. And probably the most striking thing is the Buddhist temples, full of incredible gold statues of all shapes and sizes. Sy spent most of his time painting them, and left there with an amazing series on both canvas and rice-paper.
Took trips down the Mekong to Buddha-caves and waterfalls. the river has many incredible outcroppings of rocks so it takes some skill to navigate... however the Chinese have started dynamiting the rocks as they plan to bring super-tankers through there.
I took a 2 day trek into the jungle, which made 'Tiger Leaping Gorge' look like a walk in the park. Primarily because it had been raining so it was unbelievably slippery, and unbelievably hot and humid, plus I got a few ferocious bites from 'god knows what'. One even flew up my pant leg and got a rather dramatic response from me, plus left me with a killer welt that is still there! But it was breathtakingly lush and picturesque. I was very lucky because I had a guide to myself (hiking solo is not recommended because there are still a zillion land-mines there), and he was an amazing young guy who told me about the different people of Laos and the various tribes and their traditions. He was only 23 but wanted me to slow down... I think he was more exhausted by my constant questions than anything else! He was Hmong and his father a village Shaman, who I was fortunate enough to meet.
Where we trekked was really remote... no roads whatsoever, and we spent the night at a village en route. They had no electricity (or plumbing of any description), one bamboo spout providing water for everything, and there was a lot of curiosity about how the 'extremely sweaty' tourist was going to wash herself. Never travel without a bathing suit being the moral of that story! And unfortunately (for me only) they had a generator they turned on for 2 hours a night. I say that because it was right next to the hut I was 'sleeplessly' comatose in. There was 1 TV and everyone jammed into a room to watch it (being charged a nominal fee by the enterprising TV Baron).
There is a distinct lack of wildlife in the area, and you rarely hear or see a bird, apparently because having a bomb dropped on them every 9 minutes for 8 years either killed or drove almost everything undomesticated away (apparently except for those fearless biting things that like to fly up pant legs!). Laos used to be the 'Land of 1,000 Elephants', now they have less than 100. We concluded the trek with an amazing river trip (a tributary of the Mekong) and people were panning for gold, fishing, collecting rocks, washing clothes; the place was teeming with life.
I then left Sy in Luang Prabang and went exploring the rest of Laos (we had done marathon bus/train trips in China, and he refused to do another, plus I was ready to go solo for a while). The buses weren't great, but neither were they overly full of people so it was tolerable. I headed east to the 'Plain of Jars', where they have these giant stone jars that there are many theories about, but no-one actually knows what they were for. The area actually reminded me a lot of the Shropshire Hills, except this is where most of the bombing took place. Every town was flattened and the land is pock-marked everywhere you look with craters from the bombs.
All over Laos you'll see quaint little touches, like planters made out of missile casings and the likes, but in this area whole sheds and homes were constructed from bomb parts, and you can do tours to see how creative they've been with them. They also have tours to the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which is apparently just as it was left, strewn with artillery. Considering how I got physically ill after going to Auschwitz last year I decided to pass on more 'war tourism'. Plus if I worried about land-mines before, here there were signs everywhere telling you to 'stay between the markers', and I heard 2 go off… but there are teams of people officially finding them and detonating them, so I choose to believe that's what I heard.
The town I stayed in was called Phonsavanh, as ugly and characterless a place as you can imagine, nothing old because nothing survived. And, horror upon horror, this is a large town that does not have a single chocolate bar in it! I'm not kidding, I scoured the place. Oreos they had,but nothing else. This was enough to drive me out of town, so I headed south to Vang Vieng, another 8 hour bus journey, but the scenery again made every pot-hole worth it!
Ah, Vang Vieng, this may have been my favourite place in Laos. It is on a small river surrounded by amazing stark and dramatic limestone outcroppings, just like in those old Chinese paintings. There are caves, lagoons, lovely waterfalls and some spectacular monasteries. I spent a couple of days in a little hut on the river. I rented a bike and toured the whole area, it took me about 2 minutes to realise the bike had no gears, and being torturously hot and hilly, I do confess I was often seen 'walking' my $1 a day bike! The town itself is 'backpacker' heaven; pizza parlours, 24 hour bars and 24 hour reruns of 'Friends' (not kidding). I was probably the 2nd oldest person there, but I only showed my face in the town centre to buy yoghurt, and okay I admit it I indulged myself and had a lemon/mint shake while watching "Friends'. But I was completely satiated after one and a half episodes.
Fast forward to Vientiane; Capital of Laos, felt obliged to see it, another boring, dusty city, biggest, most impressive temple was the highlight. Bussed it over the border to Thailand and caught a night-train to Bangkok. A kid from Shrewsbury in the bunk under mine. 6 degrees of separation they say. Spent the night with a fan that was a helicopter propeller in a previous life about 2 inches from my head, sorely tempted to disable the thing, but resisted lest the whole train came to a grinding halt. Met up with Symon again in Bangkok and our last night there we went to see Chinese Acrobats, it was beyond amazing and a wonderful finale to our trip.