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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Is this China? – Tales of a Mekong Stowaway


Bang Bang Bang! Bang Bang Bang! [there was definite urgency in the bangage]. I flung the door open in my PJs to find an exasperated Mike standing there: “Let’s go!” “What? Where?...” I jumped in his car with disgraceful hair and disgracefuller morning breath and sped off to immigration.

I knew there was a chance I’d be hoping on a boat sometime on Monday, possibly… but it was meant to be afternoonly and the reality of all the maybes made me half suspect it would never happen… But there I was at 8am, stamped out of Thailand with about half an hour to make it to the port to board some sort of boat that would allegedly take me to somewhere in China for a yet to be discussed cost… There was no turning back now!

I threw my belongings into my saddle bags, did a facebook update so people could know where my bodily remains could be located [if it came to that], got on my bike and pedaled like the wind [on a particularly breezy day].


I made three wrong stops on route, but there before me lay my glorious timber boat – Fengshun 3. Mike and May-ee, who I’d met on Saturday while trying to organize the non-existent, allegedly impossible vessel, met me onboard. Mike speaks some English and Thai, May-ee speaks Thai and Mandarin and the crew speak ONLY Mandarin… Through the various interpretation channels my 800 yuan ($125) fee was negotiated, and the rules were laid down:
1)   Under no circumstances am I allowed to go to the front, the roof, or the captains sector of the ship.
2)   If they point to my room, I need to go there as quickly as possible and close the curtains.
3)   I am not allowed to disembark in Laos or Myanmar

Mike and May-ee
And that was it – not a lot of rules considering it’s currently illegal to take passengers up the Mekong and that my mere presence onboard made them far more likely to be targeted by Mekong pirates, of which there have been a lot lately!
   
I bid my translation duo farewell and settled into life as a semi-stowaway. There was no need to have hurried though – it took hours before we eventually departed.


With the Golden Triangle drifting further and further away, the scenery became increasingly awe-spaculous! I met the crew in bits and pieces, but with only charades to communicate with I couldn’t even get their names.


The shower slash toilet....
Meal times bought with them table-fulls of delicious foods and plenty awkward conversation [I assume] about the stranger in their midst! At dinner I was overloaded with rice wine (I think) as they “Gambei-ed” me in rounds trying to out drink me. They did. I was honoured to share a room with the cook – she won the love and appreciation of both my heart and my stomach!

The rest of the 7-person crew included one man manning the wheel, 2 men who sat at the front of the boat with bamboo sticks to check the depth of the water, one man in the boiler room, one man keeping watch, and at any given time - for no apparent reason - there was always one person doing laundry. Geraldine was the only one who had any time to spare, so I spent a lot of time babbling to her – but I tried not to get too attached, I feared she too may be joining the dinner table soon!

Geraldine

Monday evening had me chased to my room for the first time where I sat for a couple of hours with the curtains drawn shut while the world went by outside, Tuesday morning again. On Tuesday afternoon, after I’d finished washing my bike (yup – I had to at least pretend to look busy), we had military board our ship with guns… but the excitement was short lived and they too departed.


Being the dry season and heading up stream is no easy task. Every time we hit rapids or a sand bank (which was quite frequently), 2 of the crew would swim to shore with ropes and tie us to the closest country where an intricate uber pulley rig would slowly lug us forward to easier waters. The crew didn’t mess around.

One section of rapids we conquored
The engines fired up by 5-30 am each morning, and we docked at the very last light – around 8pm. By 10pm (latest), the generators were off and a world of moonless darkness with no light anywhere engulfed us. The others, having worked a 14.5 hour day would all drift straight to sleep, I would lie awake feeling the bugs crawl on me and having a few unwarranted reunions with ‘the rat’.

I’d heard that the trip could take anything from 2 days to a week, so from the second afternoon, any time I saw any sign of civilization my heart would start beating – “is that China?” – I lost track of how many times I asked that question– it sucks to not know, not that it would have made much of a difference I suppose, but I had to ration my coffee and…

Is this China???


Eventually, by afternoon the third, we definitely crossed into Chinese waters – there was no mistaking the flashing lights and massive “Border police” sign. I packed up all my belongings in anticipation, but it would still be hours before we reached the port.

I climbed down the stairs to find Geraldine tied up and stick man number 2 holding her by the neck with something shiny in his hands. I went straight upstairs – I couldn’t watch – she’d come so close to surviving…  Minutes later I watched her be placed on the roof, along with her cage – stick man motioned a “shhhh!” to me and I breathed a massive sigh of relief and broke into smiledom!

When we eventually did arrive, border control were very surprised to find me there and, after they excessively searched some of my luggage, I touched dry land for the first time in three days. Because all the forms were in Chinese, it took me 5 attempts to fill in my immigration card, but apart from that it was problem free. Far too easy even.

I had arrived in China unmurdered, un-shot-at and unrobed; and my little Chinese bicycle [and probably most of the other belongings] was home!

  

Saturday, May 19, 2012

"Impossible!!"

SOoooooO I've done it... I've cycled to the border! My calves are bigger than ever, Teddy is dirtier than ever, I feel gypsier than ever,  but after those early days in Vietnam where I swore daily I'd be throwing my bike away, I can't believe I survived this far! My gears are absolutely destroyed to the point that it's impossible to pedal on anything more than a 30 degree incline [which really sucks because I'm finally fit enough to pedal uphill]  My chain is half oil, half mangled metal, my shocks are gone and my spokes are poking in every direction except the right ones. But I'm here! I'm finally here!

Best sign in the world


The 125 km ride from Fang to Chiang Rai was phenomenally picturesque and even though I had to push my bike uphill for 11 exceptionally steep killometers, and the road suddenly vanished in places, and the snakes were actually living this time, it was my best day of riding yet! And it sucked me into exploring the area's awesomenesses!

Worst sign in the world...



The white temple Chiang Rai - it even has pictures of spider man and the simpsons inside




There's something about going to bed at 6 am that starts you off a little shaken and when the roads are half dirt, half stone, half oncoming trucks on a single lane - riding is a little rough!!


Chiang Saen is great though - while trying to negotiate my way onto a cargo ship, I've met at least half of the town including immigration who assured me my quest was impossible, the customs officials who have great admiration for my Teddy bear but also tell me I'm not going anywhere; I've met the cops who led me to a travel agency specializing in Chinese travel ('Not possible" was their response), I've met the people who used to operate the now cancelled ferry ("too dangerous"), I've met many curios onlookers who just shook their heads and pretended to hold guns and then shook their heads again and I've met Mark.

It's amazing that after so much certainty that I have to cycle to Chiang Khong and take the ferry to Laos first, it takes only one person (Mark) to listen properly to your request and try and understand and it takes only about 24 phone calls, a few interpreters (Chinese, Thai and English) and before you know it you're probably boarding a ship that is probably leaving some time on Monday to somewhere in China. And that's just about more than I could have hoped for at this point.

Apparently today's Saturday which gives me just enough time to finish up Thailand with a few more massages and green curries and good coffees before jetting off into the unknown abyss that is China and it's perfect really - I'm the first person to ever stay at my just opened guesthouse that overlooks the Mekong river and Laos and Myanmar and well, life is pretty brilliant. For now at least; we'll see what Monday holds!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Willfully Delayed

I was dreading the return to the bike. More butt aching agony, and hopeless hills and I'd be back in the middle of nowhere where I'd be hanging out with snakes and rodents and smiley people with whom there'd be no understanding apart from hand actionings and happiness - every person [should] understands happiness!

Finally  leaving Dee Jai hostel, Chiang Mai - Not an easy thing to do 

A few technical issues on the way... the buckled wheel, the  unfixed seat, the chain that has decided it wants to be one with the gears.... 
But no. Four days into my quest for the border, I'm sat in a lovely garden coffee shop in Fang (Middle of nowhere, Northern Thailand) sipping my fourth cup of coffee; teaching the manager how to promote their hotel on the internet and gain many many other happy customers because this coffee is that good...

...When I set off on Saturday, I had every intention to cycle my manly legs off - but after checking into Mon and Kurt's in Chiang Dao, I found myself lingering in a hotspringed forrest mecca and decided to stay an extra day. I dragged myself out of there at dawn yesterday to cycle the beautifully challenging mountain ranges and, as chance would have it, bump into some friends with motorbikes who talked me into another days delay in Fang... waterfalls, hills, litchi plantations, more coffee...




Chang Dao Hotsprings








At the rate I'm going I'll never make it out before my visa expires, but I suppose it's all part of the fun really. Besides, I've already been to Thai prison [Longgggg story]... it's not all that bad....

Friday, May 11, 2012

Off to be shot at...

So it's official, I've become a lazy slob, Northern Thailand has sucked me in and hippyfied me. And two weeks later I'm till sitting here talking about leaving... I almost did today - almost - but... 

I was so sure I was over cycling for ever - so sure I was ditching the bike, so sure I'd be doing something new and meaningful (or at least easier) but I've just spent a lot of money (Almost $15) replacing tyres, repairing spokes, changing bearings and brake cables and buying a bell; and now I'm committed. It's me and Mao (the bike) to the border - hills and all!

I'm excited though (not quite enough to actually leave, but excited enough) - from here (Chiang Mai) it's a 5 day cycle to the border (Chiang Saen) where I shall hopefully board a boat and sail all the way into China. They've recently suspended the passenger ferry because of Bermese/ Chinese/ Loatian military shoot outs, but there are supposedly cargo ships that may [or may not] carry a maximum of two passengers for the 3 - 5 day float up the Mekong, all the way to Jinghong, the capital city of a Chinese province I've never heard of; and if I survive that (the internet seems to suggest I'm likely to be shot at and with my Thailand belly I'm an easy target) I'll be South East Asia free and in a whole new world where hot air balloons cost $10 000 (anyone want to sponsor??) and electric bicycles run free and donkey taxis exist (as a food source too) and anything is possible.




And I will leave - eventually - I have to... but not today... today I might find a hammock and a  fruit shake... maybe some chang... come to think of it, today's going to be to a tough one.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

What's Next??

So what's next??

I'm clueless - stumped - bewildered and desperately in need of motivation, inspiration, and challengisation. And for this I need you... yes, that's right - YOU!

Come Thursday I'll have my Chinese visa and be free to rome the world and move onwards - but I have no idea how.

I could carry on cycling, but after 1563 km I'm getting too close to 1000 miles and that sounds far too much like a Vanessa Carlton song for my liking. Besides, what Google tells me separates me from mum's house in China is 1000s of hills and I detest uphills on a bike almost as much as I dislike tomatoes (which is a lot).

I could resort back to conventional travelling, but I think that may destroy the fragmented remains of my soul.

There's walking, but google informs me that this will take me 1 month and 24 days and that excludes sleeping...

Motorbikes aren't allowed into China. Neither are horses or water buffalo or tractors or cars or armoured vehicles or tanks...

And so this is why I need your help. Fresh perspective. Creativity. Madness. I've looked at this from almost every angle and I'm afraid I come out the loser every time... I need that new challenge to get me from Thailand, through Laos and into China and I'm not leaving until you give it to me.

Any suggestions welcome. My future's in your hands so start suggestionisng now... ok? Great! I look forward to it!