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Archive for July, 2014

Our train leaves Kula Lumpur on time at 8.30am. We pass through a small tunnel and emerge into the light. I am drawn to the doors of the carriage eager to see something of the city but mostly I think just from habit. The tracks are surrounded by motorways and non-descript buildings but my patience is eventually rewarded by a fleeting glance of the Petronas towers. I feel at last like I am in Kuala Lumpur and not in some rushed dream. The infrastructure closes back in and I never see them again.

Leaving Kuala Lumpur the final day of travel

Leaving Kuala Lumpur the final day of travel

Our train picks up speed and thirty minutes later we are flanked by palm plantations on both sides. They appear attractive and somewhat representative of where we are but then I am reminded by what has been destroyed in order that they should grow. Old growth rainforest now only appears in patches on the surrounding mountains. The scenery is by no means the best we have encountered on our journey but I find myself wanting to stare at it. To take in everything I possibly can, every blade of grass, every bird in the sky and every child that waves as we pass by.

Passing through palm plantations

Passing through palm plantations

We reach the straits of Malacca by lunch and I note our position on a map. It can’t be long now. Just a few more hours to go. A smile creeps across my face…we are going to make it. I think we knew this after getting our Tibet permits 8 weeks ago in Nepal, but now finally it begins to really mean something. With the end so close my mind drifts back to the start. Back to the Cape of Good Hope. I can see us sitting on a rock with our feet dangling in the Atlantic Ocean with the world in front of us. Is it really possible we have come this whole way without flying? That we have crawled across the globe like two small ants for one and a half years to reach this point.

Back to  where it all started

Back to where it all started

The train rocks and rattles and the palm trees begin to blur. I lose focus on where I am and the memories start to flow. First the big memories the obvious ones, the significant moments in time. I can see the bus station in Cape Town and us waiting to be called, feeling apprehensive and so excited. Being stuck on a crippled train in Mlimba Tanzania for 24 hours with Imogen and Flynn.

The train breakdown in Tanzania

The train breakdown in Tanzania

The setbacks, disappointments and relief at finally receiving the Ethiopia visa. The dreamlike Serengeti sunsets and the twenty magical minutes we spent alone with the cheetah while a storm approached. I think about crossing the equator back in Kenya and I look down at the copper bracelet I was talked into buying at the time. I’m so glad I have it now. I think about the morning we finally left Africa on the Aqua Hercules after four days of Industrial action in Port Said.

Crossing the equator

Crossing the equator

Adrian on the Aqua Hercules

Adrian on the Aqua Hercules

Then some smaller thoughts that I have not considered for some time start to return. They feel in some ways even more precious. I think about being on a beach in Zanzibar talking to some small children.

Zanzibar

Zanzibar

Spending time with Adolfo on the boat from Sudan to Egypt and watching the sunset on Abu Simbel. The debacle of going through Egyptian customs and then eating a Big Mac in Aswan. The bus conductor in Sudan who had the smile of an idiot and was more interested in spraying the bus with air-freshener rather than helping me get a jumper out of my bag.

The road to Ethiopia

The road to Ethiopia

The crossing of the border between India and Pakistan and standing with one leg in each country. Of Rehan who came to see us in the morning and brought a walnut cake for us to share before we left.

Pakistan India border

Pakistan India border

Of being stuck on the Karakorum highway for ten hours. Feeling like it didn’t really matter and being entertained by the Pakistani passenger’s. Pakistan a country among so many other wonderful nations continues to stand out. I think about long lazy days in the Hunza Valley and my afternoon walks along the water channels. The local villagers inviting me in to their homes for apples, grapes and chai. I think about Mr Yaqoob a special man in the world who has touched many people hearts. Of Amin the loveable Balti cook and of course Nasir and Habib. Nasir and Habib who helped us so much and have become such wonderful friends. Of Irfan who went out of his way to return our passports from Islamabad.

Bus travel in Pakistan

Bus travel in Pakistan

I think of our days in India. Without doubt the most vibrant country in the world. I think about the wedding in Mumbai and the days spent with Dan and Sophie on the houseboat in Kerala. The beer we had together at Varkala beach just because we could. There are so many characters who popped into our life sometimes for just a few moments and sometimes for a few months.

Sita from Jaisalmer

Sita from Jaisalmer

I think about our months spent in the Himalayas, with Sue, Phil, Liam and little Jaylan who had the heart of a lion and kept pushing over the pass when so many others turned back. Of the day we crossed the Kongma la and met Chris who was so sick but stuck it out for 8 hours and made it. Of August who was reading “The Climb” in Gokyo and fell of a plastic chair when one of the legs broke.

Jaylan in Nepal

Jaylan in Nepal

I think about how when you travel just a glance or hello can lead to having lunch and spending the day with someone like Matt who we met in Madurai. I think about sitting with him in the great temple and hearing his story about a bus driving off with his bag still on board. I think about Peter who met in Kashgar and then again in Hong Kong almost a year later.

Adolfo in Egypt

Adolfo in Egypt

I think about Kathmandu and having pizzas in “fire and ice” and being surprised by Matt who flew out from the UK to see us and the girl who worked behind the desk of our hotel. I don’t even know her name but I can see her face clearly.

And then I think about Rick. Who spent almost six months travelling with us through Africa and Nepal. I miss him very much and miss his humour, his kindness and support he always showed us. I miss all the memories we have shared with him. All the border crossings and all the cramped mini bus rides. All the times we were called Muzungu in Africa. I miss our breakfasts at Olive in Pokhara and studying the dinner menus in the tea-houses searching for price weaknesses together. Of saying it’s okay to buy a Snickers bar. I can’t imagine a journey without him to be honest.

Coffee with Rick one of many

Coffee with Rick one of many

The memories speed up and they become a blur like the scenery outside. We get an announcement that we shall be arriving into Woodlands station in ten minutes. Up ahead I can see the bridge that spans the channel between the mainland of Malaysia and the island of Singapore. We cross into the bridge. The wheels on the track roar… we have left Malaysia behind. We are now in Singapore but I guess we still have to go through Immigration before its official.

This sign back in Zambia seemed appropriate at the time

This sign back in Zambia seemed appropriate at the time

The train squeals to a halt and I look across at Emma. She doesn’t say anything we just pick up our bags after the other passengers leave. Before stepping off the carriage I quickly film the moment. Emma remarks that this is it. After 70,000km and almost 18 months we are here. This is where it ends. I keep looking for some grand entrance something momentous to mark the occasion. I glance back to the empty carriage one last time and step onto the platform.

I watch the most important person on this journey walk towards immigration. She is without doubt my best friend and I could not imagine ever doing something like this without her. She struggles slightly with the heavy pack.

I can see her sitting on her backpack on dirty street corners sometimes in the dark while I go looking for hotels never complaining. She has endured heat rashes, broken toes, robbery, sickness, dirt, filthy toilets, military coups, and more recently deadly caterpillars and always managed a smile. I know she has touched the hearts of everyone she met and at this moment I am bursting with pride. That along with all the memories suddenly becomes overwhelming.

The immigration officer calls me up. I hand over my passport. She asks what my purpose for coming to Singapore is. I can feel a smile trickle across my face. I want to tell her why I am here. I feel an urge to tell her everything but keep it inside and say… I’m just here for a holiday.

We exit immigration hoping to see a sign that says welcome to Singapore. But all I can see is one that reads Photos are prohibited and cameras will be confiscated. It’s funny how sometimes scripts don’t go quite according to plan. For so long it was about reaching Singapore. I want to find a place to take a photo… a fixed point to call the end but there just doesn’t seem to be anything significant. I think I always knew it was not about the destination but more about the journey. Standing here in Woodlands station that cliché is resonating loudly.

I feel so lucky, I feel so fortunate to have experienced something like this. To have seen such amazing landscapes. To feel what it is like to cross continents, watching jungles merge into forests and deserts. To cross the world’s great rivers and mountains and to see the sun set on new horizons almost every day. But what shall stand out most in my mind are the people we have met.

We have both been greatly inspired to make this journey by a man some of you will be familiar with and some of you will not, and so I find it fitting and necessary to end with a quote that perfectly sums up our most valued lesson while travelling.

“The enjoyment of the world is immeasurably enhanced not just by meeting people who think, look, talk and dress differently from yourself, but by having to depend on them.”

Michael Palin

Lastly thank you to all of you back home and around the world. Thank you for staying with us on this journey. Your words of encouragement meant so much and after all the best experiences are those shared.

So for now this is the end of the peel, but I guess there are always other apples in life.

Till the next time love Greg and Emma…

We did it...

We did it…

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I think when we set out on this journey I described this style of travel as knowing where you want to go but having little idea of what lies ahead. So our disappointment at missing the last bus to Krabi for the day is short lived. We go looking for a hotel and spot along the way a Pizza Hut. Make a mental note of its location before discovering the My Place Hotel. Inspect a decent room for 550 THB with air-conditioning, no need to look elsewhere this is indeed my place. Return to the Pizza Hut passing a night market along the way with no desires to sample local cuisine… at least not tonight anyway. I suppose upon returning home I will ignore fast food offerings and opt for Thai cuisine just to complete the irony.

The next morning and we are trying to purchase tickets to Krabi with mixed results. Prices vary from 150-300 THB. One gentlemen after asking where we are from informs me his son is studying in Monash University. A prestigious college, he must be very proud I say. Yes but the fees are very expensive he replies. He sells us two tickets for 150 THB each and we board a fairly decent looking bus across the road. The journey time to Krabi is as varied as the prices offered so I expect the lower priced tickets to produce a longer journey time. Four and half hours later I am proven correct.

We stop at the main station where all the locals on the bus depart. We go to get off but the driver with limited English motions for us to wait as he will let us off at another stop. Ao Nang, I ask now breaking the rule of travel that… thou shall never ask a question where yes can be provided…Yes he says. Ten minutes later we pull up at a deserted station where conveniently a lone truck sits waiting. We are not at Ao Nang. With us is Ryan a young man from South Africa who is teaching English in Surat Thani. The truck driver asleep in the front seat stirs like a crocodile on the river bank and gets out of the truck. He agrees to take us to Ao Nang about ten minutes away for 100 THB each. A very steep price for such a short journey but there is nowhere else to go and we accept the offer.

Arrive at Ao Nang hoping to see calm blue and inviting waters but are greeted instead by brown waves and dangerous rips. I had hoped that the rainy season was restricted to occasional heavy downpours but it seems the prevailing winds and currents make the ocean almost un-swimmable regardless of whether it’s raining or not.

We stay for a few nights around a cove at Railay beach which can only be accessed by boat. On this occasion a frightening experience of rolling waves and soaked luggage. Our entrance onto the beach must be timed to perfection should we be tipped over in the surf. The driver executes a precision landing with steely expression and years of experience. Hop over the side with pants rolled up and manage to cut my foot on a rock wedged in the sand. Ryan sporting massive biceps helps with our luggage and runs up the beach before the next wave comes crashing down. He hops back on the boat and makes for the next cove about five minutes away. Yet another act of kindness on a very long list.

Railay Beach

Despite poor weather Railay is still a paradise

I gaze around and despite the inclement conditions the splendour of Railay prevails. Soaring cliffs and jagged islands erupt from the ocean. The palm trees bending over in stiff winds. It’s not ideal but still very beautiful. Later that night after finding cheap lodgings we spend our savings on several expensive but incredibly well located cocktails. The grotto bar at the Rayavadee offers an experience of Robinson Crusoe meets martinis and mood music. Cast away chic with inebriation.

The grotto bar at the Ryavadee

The grotto bar at the Ryavadee

Three days later and the driving wind and rain have literally dampened our resolve and there are only so many lychee martinis one can consume. Well actually budget is governing that figure more than constitution. With some regret we abandon ship and head back to Surat Thani. While weather is at its worst on the west coast of the Thai peninsula, reports indicate that Koh Samui in the Gulf of Thailand on the east coast are currently ideal.

Krabi

Krabi

We book a prepaid ticket from Railay to Koh Samui for 750 THB or around $26.00 USD. This includes a boat back to Ao Nang, a transfer to Krabi, followed by a bus to Surat Thani and finally a high speed ferry to Koh Samui. I try to price it up separately but it adds up to be more and that’s provided we don’t run into any problems, which of course one must expect. The journey across the peninsula goes smoothly and with no real issues we reach the island of Koh Samui in about 6 hours.

Minivan from west to east coast of Thai peninsula

Minivan from west to east coast of Thai peninsula

Koh Samui is not nearly as beautiful as Railay but under blue skies and washed by calm waters is certainly more appealing at this time of year. The choice of locations and accommodations are almost endless as are the bars and restaurants along Chaweng beach. I can’t say I would ever deliberately come here on a holiday but it makes for an excellent place to eat, drink and reflect before we make our final push to Singapore.

Chaweng beach Koh Samui

Chaweng beach Koh Samui

We hire a small motorbike for a few days and explore the rest of the island. Disappointingly most of the views along the road are blocked by buildings and resorts. It also appears to be a very dangerous place to ride a bike as we witness three very bad accidents involving foreigners in as many days. It’s a sobering experience to ride carefully and to assume every vehicle around you is a potential killer. The third accident is particularly nasty involving a young Russian tourist. His head has been badly cut and the front of the van he collided with looks like it has been hit by a wrecking ball. After so many months on the road I really don’t want this to be our fate so we return the bike to its owner.

Bike accidents in Koh Samui

Bike accidents in Koh Samui

At best it’s supposed to take one and a half days to reach Singapore from Koh Samui so we allow three days just to be safe. It seems a reasonable margin for error while allowing some degree of risk and adventure. What remains uncertain is will we be able to get train tickets from Hat Yai to Kuala Lumpur later in the day. The first ferry departs at 8.00am and transfers to a Mini Van that will take us five hours south to Hat Yai. The expected arrival time is 3pm. The overnight train to KL departs at 4pm so there isn’t much in it.

The day starts poorly and we are not picked up until 7.30am. Now with slight panic we head to the pier wondering if we have failed to make the ferry let alone the train in Hat Yai. Arrive at the pier late but the ferry has not arrived yet and ends up departing not until 9.15am. Will this mean getting into Hat Yai too late for the train? The driver of the van must be telepathic and responds accordingly. His speed is a little unnerving but not frightening and I am just grateful that based on distance and glances to the speedometer we seem to be back on track. Arrive into Hat Yai at 2.30pm but the driver does not want to stop at the train station and instead drops a young lady outside the university before continuing to the bus station.

The race to Hat Yai

The race to Hat Yai

Feeling a little frantic we go in search of a taxi, tuk-tuk or tout but none to be found. Punishment no doubt for all my cursing’s along the way. Make some form of mumbled penance and get rewarded by a tout who leads us onto the street. A man with a beige car will drive us to the train station for 150 THB. Seems a good offer considering our surrounds and imminent departure of train for which we have no tickets and it smells new inside. Not a fragrance I can remember for some time.

Lift for 150 Thai Baht

Lift for 150 Thai Baht

When we get out at the station I thank the driver and watch the beige car disappear into the traffic. That was certainly never scripted. My anxiety regarding space on the train is somewhat justified. There are no sleeping berths available for tonight’s service nor are there any seats available in 1st class. She can provide two 2nd class seats for the 14 hour trip down to Kuala Lumpur. We engage in a quick meeting and decide that 2nd class train is still better than the bus although others might disagree as the bus is quicker by three hours but I don’t see the point of arriving at 3.30am.

Platform four is underutilised by a short train of just two carriages. The rains have cleared and the afternoon sun has dipped low enough in the sky that the roof of the platform no longer provides ample shade. The doors are still locked despite a planned departure in thirty minutes. I look longingly into the carriage, streams of air-conditioned condensation running down the window. Decide to pass the time by looking for a money exchanger. Swap Thai baht for Malaysian Ringgit, my penultimate currency. If all goes to plan I shall require it for only 20 hours and I begin to wonder why I am bothering but it’s such a hard habit to break. Return to the train to find the doors have been opened and take my place in the soothing air-conditioned comfort with a plastic bag filled with mangoes and cut pineapple.

Hat Yai station

Hat Yai station

The train departs on time and we head for the border at a slow and considered speed. Nothing remarkable outside to look at we arrive about an hour later at a very modern station. We exit Thai Immigration and notice a sign that warns that aliens of a Hippy nature will not be allowed to enter. The board then explains in great detail what exactly constitutes said Hippy Alien. Long scruffy hair, wearing ragged clothes and the unnecessary use of sandals are all deemed valid reasons for rejection. I can’t say based on our experiences that this policy is ever greatly enforced but hippies beware. Or are they trying to prevent some E.T looking character with dreadlocks entering.

Hippies Beware!

Hippies Beware!

The ladies at the Malaysian counter are wearing head scarfs. It’s been so long since we were in an Islamic country I had almost forgotten about Malaysia. We are given an entry stamp and allowed back on the train which I notice is considerably longer in length. I go to the ticket counter and ask if I can upgrade our tickets to sleeper class. Seems now we are in Malaysia with added carriages this is not an issue. Bit of a relief as I was not looking forward to a bad night’s sleep in a chair. The train pulls out of the station as the sun sets. This seems to be a common theme of late. If it runs on time we will arrive at 6.30am and hopefully be able to secure seats on the 8.30am to Singapore.

Leaving the Thailand and Malaysia border

Leaving the Thailand and Malaysia border

I go to sleep on a train crawling its way south during the night to Kuala Lumpur. I wake the next morning but it’s still dark outside. The conductor tells us we will arrive into KL central in 10 minutes. He tells me the time is 6.30am. This is good news we are still on schedule. We arrive into an underground station which is a little bleak and disorientating. Upstairs resembles more the inside of an airport terminal perhaps an early preparation. The ticket office is yet to open so we sit on some steel chairs looking and feeling a little discarded in the huge empty hall. I go out onto the streets of KL. Dawn is coming and some of the street lights begin to turn off. There is nothing to suggest where I am. I could be anywhere really.

Waiting in KL central for the train to Singapore

Waiting in KL central for the train to Singapore

The ticket window opens at 7.00am and we manage to secure two tickets on the 8.30am train to Singapore. I hand over some cash. The significance of the moment does not go unnoticed. I have just purchased our last two tickets. I hold them in my hand and examine them like precious documents. Sunlight is beginning to stream into the terminal a new day has begun, the final day of our journey has arrived…

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It’s been a few weeks since we have experienced life on the rails. The Bangkok Express lumbers rowdily along tracks less smooth than those we experienced back in China. I pass an open door on the way to the bathroom affording irresistible views of the rice paddies now gleaming under a Thai sunset. I stand by the open door taking in the fragrance of the jungle transfixed as the sun slips slowly below the tree line. The passing of each day is beautiful but more so in recent weeks I am also left with feelings of melancholy.

Nong Khai train

Heading south to Bangkok

The last of the sun is extinguished and the spell lifts. I return to my seat which is now being converted into a bed by an enthusiastic and high-spirited conductor. He is a good natured man and while tucking in sheets explains the dinner choices on the menu. I order the set 2 option which consists of red chicken curry and some steamed rice with vegetables. The beds in 2nd class are not contained within a private compartment but they are extremely wide and could almost accommodate two people. My only complaint being that the main lights in the carriage are never darkened during the night and the pale blue curtains do a terrible job of blocking it out. But more so I am just grateful to have a bed to sleep in.

2nd Class sleeper Thai trains

2nd Class sleeper Thai trains

Our train makes steady progress during the night and we arrive into Bangkok just before sunrise at 6.30am. Despite being the final stop the conductor is keen for us to vacate the beds so he can pack the sheets and convert them back into seats. I try to extend my stay in the bed with desperate and tired looks but he is having none of it and claps his hands with a smile to hurry me up. I exit another train and step onto the platform of yet another city. The ground beneath my feet feels a little unsteady as I walk towards a sign that says Bangkok.

Bangkok train station

Bangkok Station

Despite feelings of tiredness we wait in line to purchase tickets for the next leg of our journey. I ask a man for two sleeping berths to Surat Thani. He seems a little surprised by my request and casts me a doubtful look before searching. I can see already by his expression that the news is not good. There are no seats available for several days; it would seem we have stumbled into Thailand during summer holidays. I ask him to check the morning train which is notably slower than the evening express trains. He finds two seats but it doesn’t leave until two days later. We could try for a bus but I feel a longing for the romance of trains and a weariness for buses. We book two tickets on the day time train which at least has the bonus of allowing the scenery outside to be observed, even if it is at a greatly reduced speed.

We then try to book onward travel south into Malaysia but advance bookings can only be made in Hat Yai from where the train departs. This is an issue as we won’t be in Hat Yai until the day of departure so securing a reservation might be difficult. And there I was thinking that things were becoming too easy. The disappointment is fleeting and washed away by positive thoughts. I think the philosophies preached to me by the station master in India are finally sinking in but do they extend to the Thai Rail network. I feel a consultation is in order. I want to ask him for emergency quota or tourist quota but those days are now many months behind us. There is nothing more we can do for now and that is comforting in a small way. I oddly begin to feel that some adventure has crept back in and I am almost a little happy by the uncertainty of it all.

The normally busy streets of Bangkok are empty and still in the early morning light. A city still sleeping after a busy night. It looks lethargic and unwilling to wake up which I can currently relate to. It’s a place renowned for its smiling people, glittering temples and garish girly bars. I remember back to a time when Bangkok was the most exotic city I had ever visited. But Bangkok once so far removed now seems an oddly familiar place. Women walk to work in designer outfits. Packs of teens take selfies and giggle on their way to school. Buildings are tall and sparkling. The streets look clean. Has Bangkok changed or have I?

We arrive at the Four Seasons hotel looking ragged and very much out of place. The staff also seem surprised and unsure about offering assistance. I don’t think they are used to seeing clients arrive with luggage strapped to their backs. I am feeling very tired but we are just in time for a buffet breakfast. This has become a recent treat while travelling; an all you can eat extravaganza that lasts for hours should you want it to. I see a boy aged around 11 at a table nearby. I notice he has taken a huge chunk of camembert cheese; in fact he has taken the entire block from the cheese counter. I stare at him with distain as he pushes the cheese around his plate with no intention of eating it. I look at his parents, both of whom haven’t even noticed as they’re so engrossed with their smart phones. As we’re leaving his mother has taken her attention momentarily away from her cyber life but only to ask the waitress to clear the plates. The lump of untouched cheese is taken away. I shake my head as I walk past thinking of the many children who might have appreciated just a small slice.

With little time remaining we make use of the fast access to internet and commit to booking flights from Singapore back to Australia. The thought of flying feels treacherous. For almost one and a half years I have noticed thin white streaks passing high above me in a blue sky. I always considered them the enemy in some way. A representation of modernity and fast paced life not linked to our world of buses and rickshaws.

It seems incomprehensible to me that we are planning our final days on a journey that stared so long ago. I feel as though any movement forward is killing me and the trip. The trip has become an entity in my mind, the memories make it whole and I don’t want to let it go. For so long we have been going forward with purpose and commitment on our journey, now ironically I feel am being carried unwilling to an end I no longer want.

We scan the internet for the best possible deals around a date that allows us sufficient time to reach Singapore. The traditional carriers are all very expensive but we find a reasonable fare with the budget carrier Scoot airlines. They offer such luxuries as in-flight meals, entertainment systems and extra leg room at an extra cost. But none of these seem relevant at this point in time so we purchase two tickets at the lowest possible price. With the push of a button we have now for the first time a line in the sand, a date that we must finish on. I feel like I am on some sort of travel death row. I know it all sounds terribly morbid and negative but there it is.

Heading up to the Grand Palace

Heading up to the Grand Palace

We try to turn things around by focusing on where we are and making the most of the time we have left. We head for the river and catch a high speed long tail boat up to the Grand Palace. Apparently the public boat is not due for 90 minutes. It seems unlikely but I need a rush and some instant gratification. Our boat driver seems to understand and obliges with death defying speed on the water. We arrive at the pier a man tells us there is a 30 THB or about $1USD landing fee. He even has tickets as proof. I ask him to come to the office with me but suddenly he moves on to the next tourist. Apparently sceptics need not pay landing fees.

A high speed river ride in Bangkok

A high speed river ride in Bangkok

The Grand Palace is by no means an exaggeration. A striking collection of buildings and temples adorned with golden tiles and colourful glass mosaics. Tourists pay $15.00 while Thais are admitted for free. At least in India they deemed the local population partly responsible for the upkeep of their own treasures but here in Bangkok the burden is exclusively shouldered by foreigners. I don’t blame them in some ways as I don’t think the Thai’s hold the behaviour of western tourists in high esteem. They wander the temples wearing clothes provided at the entrance as most have arrived inappropriately dressed.

The Grand Palace in Bangkok

The Grand Palace in Bangkok

The distance to Wat Pho is short however the late afternoon sun makes for a difficult walk. The road side vendors selling water and orange juice are greatly appreciated. The entrance to the temple is only 100 THB or around $3.00 USD…Thai’s are still admitted for free but it doesn’t matter despite the fleeting irritations, I love the inconsistencies of Asia. The Wat Pho temple houses an immense reclining Buddha that stretches the better part of an Olympic sized swimming pool. His huge face smiling down on mere mortals below almost looks appreciative to be out of the blistering sun. My mind wonders back to the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya India where he originally sat gaining enlightenment 2500 years ago. I contemplate the power of ideas and how the teachings of the Buddha have reached across all the lands we have traversed to get here but in an ancient world before trains and buses existed.

The reclining Buddha at Wat Pho

The reclining Buddha at Wat Pho

Small metal leaves hanging from the eaves of the building begin to tinkle. To the west is a bank of grey cloud. It billows thousands of meters into the air like a vast volcanic eruption. The brass leaves rustle metallic in a cooling breeze. The sound and the smell of the approaching storm is refreshing. A few drops of heavy rain strike my face. We take refuge in a building nearby which conveniently offers massages for 450 THB or around $15.00 USD. The rain is now coming down hard so we decide to take stay and pass the time with a traditional Thai massage. Actually we probably would have had one even if it were not raining but the weather outside helps remove any fiscal guilt. I ask for a firm massage demonstrating hard gestures. She calls for a stern faced replacement who looks like she enjoys administrating pain. Small in stature she has learned over the years how to harness the forces of gravity with excruciating results. A combination of pride and ego prevent screams from escaping but eventually I yield to her tortures. She seems pleased and smiles.

Bangkok Tuk Tuks

Bangkok Tuk Tuks

The storm has helped reduce the temperature outside but the humidity has increased as compensation. I guess any change is appreciated. We will be returning soon to winter in Australia so any complaints are quickly dispatched. It’s time to play our favourite game of guess the Rickshaw price back home. The rickshaws in Bangkok and particularly those tethered to the Grand Palace are some of the sleekest found anywhere in Asia. More streamlined and high powered than any we encountered in India and Africa. Their owners obviously have taken great pride and it shows. Fluorescent upholstery, low profile wheels, colourful lights and booming sound systems dazzle prospective clients. I think it is the only place in the world where a Tuk Tuk commands a higher fee than a taxi, but looking at the machines I can understand why. We strike a deal for 300 THB the original asking the price starting at 500 THB back to Siam square.

The sound of the engine is in accordance with the style of the Tuk Tuk. Deep growls released through chrome exhausts power us around and through seemingly impossible holes in the traffic. It’s an exciting ride and almost an essential experience with any trip to Bangkok.

Monks in Bangkok getting a ride home

Monks in Bangkok getting a ride home

The following morning and we are headed back to Bangkok station. It’s early and for obvious reasons I get a feeling of déjà vu. Was it only two days ago we arrived. I find time is not behaving in ways I am used to or perhaps more in ways I don’t want. We wait on platform 9 for the 8.20am train to Surat Thani to arrive. Without apologies it finally shows up just before 10am. We were to arrive in Surat at 4.30pm with a chance to reach Krabi 3 hours away an outside possibility but already that seems in doubt. I notice for the first time some signs of the coup that occurred in Thailand a few months ago. There is an increased number of soldiers carrying guns and wandering around the station. But I can’t say aside from the presence of the army that there is any change in behaviour or attitudes.

waiting on platform 9

waiting on platform 9

Our train leaves Bangkok just before 10.30am. I don’t expect it can make up time along the way and nor do I want it to as the ride is very rough and terribly un-assuring. A few hours later we pass through Hui Hin and a few hours after that the rails draw close to the coast and the gulf of Thailand. To our right is a long chain of green mountains that mark the border with Burma. We continue to run south down the Thai peninsula reaching a point that is only 30km wide. Eventually we reach Surat Thani just before 6pm. A tout offers to take us 17km into town for 150 THB. He hold up a picture of a Bus with a time underneath indicating a 7pm departure. Maybe we can get to the beaches of Krabi tonight after all. He loads us into the back of a converted Hilux jeep with 3 other tourists from Denmark. The jeep accelerates to frightening speeds and sweeps around bends without concern for physics or its consequences. The Danes are going to Koh Samui and headed for the ferry, 10km later we are transferred with some gratitude to a less menacing Tuk Tuk. By the time we reach the town centre we are dropped outside a fruit shop that apparently runs a bus to Krabi in the morning for 300 THB per person. I ask to be taken to the actual bus station which is difficult to convey but we eventually get there. The station looks devoid of activity and a little gloomy. There is no 7pm Bus the last one left at 5pm.

We are stuck in Surat Thani for the night…

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The main street of Luang Namtha is abruptly vacant and calm. The emptiness is occasionally broken by an odd motorbike. Most of the locals don’t even bother to look up at the momentary traffic passing through. A few rusted awnings are squeaking in the breeze and a neon sign flickers to life in the dying light. It could be a scene from a western, but we are in the north of Laos not far from the China and Burma borders.

Conveniently across the road is the Thoulasith hotel which is just as well as its obvious we are going no further tonight. A large room downstairs comes with that all-important luxury in the tropics, air-conditioning for a princely sum of just 110,000 Kip. We have gone from dividing by 6 to 8000 for $1 USD. Having changed our money at the Laos border I have since become an instant millionaire.

Laos Tuk Tuk

A Laos Tuk Tuk

That night we lie in bed plotting new adventures with remote hill tribes in Phongsali, sleeping in jungle tree houses and zip lining with gibbons in Huay Xai. But while calculating the time required to reach these locations, something that has been pushed deep into the recess of my mind surfaces. An ugly unwanted thought. A feeling of dread, reality and sadness .We are running out of time and we simply don’t have enough left to do as we please any longer. It comes as a shock after living a life so long without limits. I know it’s been coming for a long time but up until now it simply had no relevance. Now for the first time on our journey I can see the end and I’m not sure I like it.

We start to plan an itinerary based on reaching Singapore in three weeks. The figures are not good and as expected we have to stop thinking about detours up wild rivers and focus on reaching our goal. It is a bitter pill to swallow, to turn your back on exotic experiences but our objective must be to reach Singapore and not to stretch ourselves too thin with the short time we have left.

The next day we book a bus to Luang Prabang, 380km south of Luang Namtha and the cultural heart of Laos. The station is about 5km out of town. The mini buses are not permitted by the local Tuk-Tuk drivers to pick up passengers from the town centre thus ensuring monopolised employment by captive clients. I am surprised the same rule did not apply when we were dropped off last night. A large bus sits waiting for passengers when we arrive but across some broken concrete is a modern mini-van that is only 20,000 kip more than the bus. That’s about $2.50 for those slow to divide by 8000 which is perfectly understandable. I am going to miss making such calculations. The total cost per person being 110,000 kip. The journey time is supposed to be around 8 hours which I treat with suspicion.

Luang Namtha to Luang Prabang

Lunch Stop heading south to Luang Prabang

The driver is a surly man who seems disappointed by the turn out. He draws back on a cigarette and then dashes it to the ground. He hands out plastic bags to the few passengers gathered before we even set off. Not an encouraging sign for a smooth journey ahead. The locals grab at the bags with prior experience and nauseated desperation. I decline and try to keep a more positive but ignorant outlook.

 

The driver seems determined to put the plastic bags to “good use” and sweeps around unrelenting bends. I try to keep focused on the road ahead and pretend that I am driving the vehicle. Fortunately we are seated near the front and have good vision ahead but it’s not long before we suffer our first casualty. A lady behind us starts to falter and lowers her head into a bag. The driver mercifully slows down for five minutes allowing her to recover somewhat before speeding up again.

Another stop this time to buy fruit

Another stop this time to buy fruit

The hills around us are dripping with rain forest. The sun beats down on the green canopy sending insects into an orchestral frenzy. We make the journey to Luang Prabang in just over 9 hours. The driver still appears to be in foul mood and deposits our bags into a shallow pool of brown water. He closes the rear of the van and speeds off leaving us to face another Tuk-Tuk cartel, although they appear to be more Truck-Trucks in Laos. A wily driver and some friends approach us and enquire as to where we are going. Luang Prabang I answer sarcastically. His starting price is 70,000 kip a ridiculous figure as we are only 3km out of the town centre. Even the tourist price is supposed to be 20,000. We get him down to 30,000 after having to walk away for about the 500th time on our trip. It’s not annoying anymore it’s just a way of life. We are let off outside the Apsara Hotel and give him 30,000 Kip. He looks at the money and feigns confusion then offence. 30,000 each he explains and even points to both of us 30…30 as though I am grappling with mathematics. We smile at him and I give him a pat on the shoulder as if to say nice try and walk over to the Bamboo restaurant. The long day of travel has made us hungry and we order a rather excellent plate of fresh spring rolls with pork and tofu.

Luang Prabang is an immediately charming place of style and sophistication located on the Mekong River. Although I notice its strength and power is greatly diminished from the river we saw in Jinghong China. No doubt due to a Chinese dam further upstream I imagine. It’s still a lovely scene though, made picture-perfect by passing long tail motor boats ferrying goods.

Mekong River Luang Prubang

Mekong River Luang Prubang

Later that night we begin what becomes a culinary love affair with the cooking at Rosella Fusion. It’s by no means a stately affair but the food is amazing and the green curry is plate licking delicious. They also make an excellent mango smoothie with yoghurt that chills your throat and freezes the brain. An excellent cure for tropical fatigue.

The next day we hire a truck to take us to Kuang Si about 30km south of Luang Prabang. Lining the rural roads are locals carrying umbrellas. A very useful apparatus in Laos as it’s either beating down with intense sunlight or pouring with biblical rains. Our driver waits with trust in a car park while we trek into the jungle in search of the famed blue swimming pools. In reality there is a walking path and a restaurant to guide us but it’s easy to pretend otherwise.

Kuang Si Waterfalls

Kuang Si Waterfalls

Aside from excellent restaurants and stylish hotels, Luang Prabang is an important religious centre for the people of Laos. There are many monasteries and some fine-looking temples that are beautifully decorated with colourful mosaics and topped with elaborate multi-tiered roofs that sweep almost to the ground. Although expensive to enter we are glad to at least seek refuge from an unrelenting sun. Inside is a gilded budda. His features are very different from those we saw in Tibet as is the temple is which he sits.

Wats in Luang Prubang

Wats in Luang Prubang

Early each morning Monks leave their monasteries in search of alms in a ceremony known as Tak Bat. Locals and an increasing number of tourists deposit sticky rice balls in the monks begging bowls. It’s a striking and contrasting scene of saffron clad monks walking along dawn grey streets. One advantage of travelling during the off season is that not many tourists are present which makes for a more authentic experience this morning. It’s a silent march and very understated and after a few minutes I return to bed happy to have witnessed just a small part of the ceremony.

Tak Bat ceremony

Tak Bat ceremony

After a few more nights of green curries we sadly leave upmarket Luang Prabang behind and continue south to scruffy Vang Vieng. We have reconnected well and truly with the tourist trail. I am somewhat concerned about what we will find in Vang Vieng. Our bus is completely filled with foreign tourists and I can’t ever remember that happening anywhere on our journey. I feel oddly out of place and slightly irritated by my surroundings. The drive to Vang Vieng is spectacular but most of the passengers have drugged themselves and seem more interested in just sleeping their way to Vang Vieng which is a terrible shame.

Heading to Vang Vieng

Heading to Vang Vieng

A common theme of Laos’s bus depots is there inconvenient distance from the town centres. Tuk-Tuk drivers obviously hold greater power here in Laos than their counterparts in Asia. We walk out onto the street after a fruitless debate with the local cartel. A passing driver picks us up a few hundred meters south of the depot and happily takes us into town for the correct price. I feel a resurgence of stubbornness to hold true to correct fares in our last few weeks. Soon we will have to suffer the boredom and convenience of fixed prices.

The road to Vientiane

The road to Vientiane

The main street of Vang Vieng is crowded with all the trappings of a tourist town including Irish bars and Italian restaurants but they are poor replicas and geographically out of place. There are thankfully some Laotian restaurants among the imposters and enough of the town feels authentic enough to make for a pleasant stop. We hire a motorbike and escape the bars playing Friends into the surrounding farmlands which are spectacular and surrounded by dramatic limestone Karts. We ride a loop and pass a sign showing Vientiane the capital 175km south. I look back behind us imagining a sign that reads Cape Town 75,000 km. I am somewhat tempted to ride the bike all the way to Vientiane but can’t quiet work out where to store Emma and the backpacks.

Vang Vieng

Vang Vieng

 

Back roads of Vang Vieng

Back roads of Vang Vieng

We avoid the travel agencies in town and go directly to the bus station hoping to find a local bus to the Capital but are taken to another station south of town where a herd of tourists sit waiting in the shade. The bus is late to arrive and even later to depart. We sit waiting for 30 minutes without moving for no apparent reason I can determine. No one else seems to have noticed as more sleeping tablets are consumed.

It’s a four hour journey to Vientiane and finally the beautiful roads and dramatic mountains of northern Laos give way to flatter and infinitely less appealing scenes. There is some confusion when we arrive in Vientiane as to whether we have reached the final stop. It would seem we have although the bus is continuing to Cambodia. Vientiane must be the smallest capital in Asia with a population of under a million people. Small in proportions the central part of the city rests against a disappointing stretch of the Mekong. Its restaurants on the other hand are far from disappointing and offer world class standards. I am beginning to think that no one goes hungry in Laos.

I go to inspect a few hotels as we shall have to stay a night; it’s too late to cross the border with Thailand. I notice many of them including some pretty cheap hostels have shoes piled up outside. No doubt to protect the travertine marble inside. I find a hotel not pretending to be a home for just 130,000 kip about $16.00 USD with ensuite bathroom and air conditioning. The young man at the front desk is a little nervous as it’s his first day at work at the Mixok Guesthouse.

Mixok Guesthouse in Vientiane

Mixok Guesthouse in Vientiane

 

The next afternoon we catch a Tuk-Tuk to a small train station that sits on the edge of the city. The rail network of Laos must also be one of the worlds smallest. Just a few kilometres of track that runs across a bridge that spans the Mekong River to the border of Thailand. I am feeling a little nervous as we have just read some information that indicates that Thai customs can refuse entry if you don’t have onward proof of departure. Laos’s only train station also acts as an immigration building and before boarding the two carriages we get stamped out.

The small train trundles along the tracks and makes its way across the border bridge. I look across the Mekong which is at this point is very wide. Laos flags flash by then in the middle they stop and change to Thai flags. We are now geographically in Thailand. A few minutes later we stop at Nong Khai station and disembark. I walk along the platform until we reach Thai immigration. They scan my passport and I notice a photo of me on a screen taken five years ago when we started our first trip and entered from Malaysia. It feels so strange to see a picture, a moment captured in time you had forgotten. I notice how red my backpack looks. Now it is a pale and sun bleached rust colour after so many years of travel.

Laos Thai border

Laos Thai border

The officer stamps us in without any questions or hesitations. No visa is required for Australian citizens but we are only permitted to stay 15 days. We go to the ticket counter and purchase two berths on the Bangkok express due to depart in 40 minutes. The sun is setting as the driver blows the horn. I take a picture as I have so often done of our different modes of transport. The driver sticks his thumb out the window giving the all clear. I allow myself a feeling that surely now nothing can stop us from reaching Singapore. The carriages jolt roughly and we pull away from Nong Khai. Tomorrow morning we will awake in Bangkok…

 

The Bangkok Express thumbs up

The Bangkok Express thumbs up

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There are no rail lines extending south of Kunming towards Jinghong in lower Yunnan province. So we make for the southern Bus terminal located on the outskirts of the city. Out Hotel receptionist has recommended we allow two hours to get there which seems almost impossible to believe; is it located in another city? I reluctantly agree and we are picked up at 7am.

Despite ample time our taxi driver is rushing through traffic at a terrifying speed. He changes lanes abruptly as we approach a traffic island but has not seen there is a truck approaching from behind. The two vehicles nearly collide and I rate the experience as frightening as any we have encountered so far on our travels. I turn to him with my hand out and wave downwards. I think he apologises in Mandarin but I can’t be sure as there is no adjustment to his driving. As such we arrive at the south bus terminal about forty minutes after leaving central Kunming, but I think allowing an hour for more normal speeds would be prudent.

Chinese Bus stations are as well organised as the trains but the busses do come and go quickly and obviously there are no announcements made in English nor signage for that matter. Fortunately it’s very quiet this morning and the staff are able to put us on an earlier bus departing at 8.30am. I would say from our experience that advance reservations would not be required here as there are busses leaving every thirty minutes. The tickets are relatively expensive though 225 Yuan each which I double check with another bus company.

Kunming South bus station

The journey down to Jinghong is supposed to take 10 hours. Judging by the distance (around 500km) this seems a very long time but I can only assume this is due to winding roads and small mountain passes. By the time we stop for lunch the roads have dried and the heat and humidity is back. We have come down over a thousand meters in elevation and passed through the tropic of cancer for the final time in our travels. The vegetation has changed and I see for the first time since leaving India palm trees. By the time we reach Jinghong signs of South East Asia are evident everywhere. Mostly due to the temples that dot the land. They are distinctly Thai in their style although I am sure the Laos’s and Yunnanese would not appreciate my crude comparison.

Mekong River

The Mekong River in Jinghong China

We cross a bridge and I get my first sighting of one of Asia’s great rivers the Mekong. Our progress south has been good, three days ago we were looking at the Yangtze. It just gone after 5pm when we set down at what I assume to be the central bus depot, and for once we seem to be truly in the centre of town. It also happens to be where tomorrow’s bus to Laung Namtha in Laos departs. I purchase two tickets for only 60 Yuan each which seems very little considering it’s a six to seven hour journey.

Although a struggle I do enjoy that feeling of being lost and without a clue. The streets of Jinghong are filled with Palm trees and devoid of taxis. I sense an overpriced fare if we eventually ever find one. I think one finds us as a foreign tourist on the street is a temping morsel for a circling shark. Normally we pick a hotel that is at least close to some others so we can inspect a few before making a decision. We agree to pay 30 Yuan which is at least double the correct price but heavy bags and tiredness after a long bus ride weaken our resolve. It only takes a couple of minutes to get to the Many Trees hostel, I feel thoroughly ripped off but that’s capitalism for you. Survival of the fiscal fittest.

Jinghong China

Jinghong

The next morning and we set off from the hotel at 10.00am. Determined not to be done in again we end up walking to the bus station which only takes 15 sweaty minutes. It’s our last day in China but it feels as though we have already left. The streets are crowded with stalls selling bizarre tropical fruits and vendors barbequing Chicken wings and sausages. Mangy dogs have returned. A lady at the bus terminal checks our ticket and walks us to an old bus at the end of the station. It looks like an ugly duckling among the more modern and larger Chinese swans. But despite its appearance it is at least punctual and departs at 10.40am.

Bus to Laos

Bus to Laos

Two hours later we stop in Mengla for lunch. The driver holds up two fingers which I take to mean 20 minutes. After returning from the bathroom I am a little concerned to see our bus is no longer where it parked. I go in search of it among the other buses but it’s nowhere to be found. Surely he did not mean two minutes and even if he did would they really leave. I think about Matt in India who had been left behind in Tamil Nadu under such circumstances. Panic has not set in yet but there is an uncomfortable feeling growing in the pit of my stomach. I start looking for some of the other passengers that were on the bus, the only other westerner is missing but then I see a Japanese lady and man who was sitting in front of us. I think they sense our concern and motion for us to sit and wait. I can only assume that they have left the compound for either mechanical repairs or to pick up some cargo. I certainly don’t like the idea of our bags being unattended for so long especially when we are about to cross a border. I know it’s being a bit paranoid but you can’t be too careful in these situations. It’s well over an hour now since we were dropped off and I am beginning to hope the two fingers did not mean hours. Thirty minutes later and I am beginning to believe they did.

Heading south to Laos

Heading south to Laos

Finally our bus arrives back in the compound and oddly the missing western passenger is on it. I find this very strange as our bags have also been removed from underneath the bus and are now sitting on the back seats. Innocent restacking or foul play the mind boggles so I soothe it by unpacking them and checking nothing is missing or more importantly nothing has been added. It’s difficult to search on a bus that is negotiating bends especially when the conductor is telling you to sit down… or is it that he is worried what my search might find. Intrigue and mystery, now I am being paranoid as I find nothing but at least I feel relieved. I don’t fancy ending up on the news and spending time in a Chinese prison.

We arrive at the Laos border just after three. We take our bags off confidant they are not filled with drugs but inside customs the signs seem more concerned about the trafficking of baby formula. It is the most relaxed immigration I have ever encountered at a Chinese border. Our bags are not searched and we are stamped out within five minutes and allowed to reboard the bus. We drive two hundred meters before crossing a small stream which I take to be the geographical border. Ahead is a large golden stupa gleaming in the afternoon sun. I don’t think I have ever encountered such an opulent and ornate immigration building before. I wonder if it doubles as a temple.

The Laos China border

The Laos China border

Australians are entitled to a visa on arrival which costs us $32.00 USD each. For those who can’t get a visa on arrival there is a Laos embassy in Jinghong. The bus waits with our bags on board. Apparently Laos’s immigration is not concerned with the smuggling of baby formula. The officer sticks a rather colourful and attractive visa into our passports and stamps them. The whole process has taken around ten minutes. I note when we get back on the bus that the westerner has disappeared and we proceed without him, very odd again.

I can’t see any significant differences around me as we depart the border. The villages and vegetation mostly changed yesterday but I do notice that the road becomes smaller. Its surface less smooth and rather than going through mountains and across rivers, it bends and follows the contours of the land. I don’t think the Laos government has quite the same budget allocated for public works as their northern neighbour.

Luang Namtha

Just before we arrived into Luang Namtha

Around an hour and half later we set down on a very quiet street in Luang Namtha. It is dramatically empty and calm compared to China. The clocks have gone back an hour and I try to recall if we ever did this on our trip which has had us moving north and east for most of the time. I think maybe when we crossed from Ethiopia to Sudan but then again we also changed month and year so I am not sure that counts. The entire trip has taken around 7 hours. Another country now behind us and a new one ahead…

 

Luang Namtha in Laos

Luang Namtha in Laos

 

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We depart Guilin under dark and threatening skies. Our journey will take us westward to Kunming the capital of Yunnan province and onto the historic city of Lijiang. As is usual in China the boarding of the train is well organised and punctual and the same must be said of scheduled departures and our fellow passengers. At precisely 3.18pm the train jolts gently and we pull away from the station. The trip to Kunming will take 20 hours with a further 10 hours up to Lijiang. The carriages are a little old but the 4 berth compartments are very comfortable and make even the longest of journeys manageable.

The limestone karts that have dominated the landscape for the last few days draw further away until they are just a distant line of teeth on the horizon. Further to the west they blend into a range of moderate sized mountains that are blanketed in storm clouds. I stare down at two parallel lines of steel as our train rushes towards the storm. They are perfectly straight never deviating in course. The sleepers upon which they lie are a swift blur. Uncountable, I wonder how many we have passed over so far in getting here. My digression from the landscape is broken by long streaks of water hitting the window. They cling to the glass for a fraction of a second before being blown away. The fields below are saturated and the roads are struggling with the deluge. Despite the conditions our train shows no sign of hesitation and crosses a bridge at full speed. The river below is swollen and churning with brown mud. A few buffalo stand near the bank too frightened to enter.

 

Summer Storms

Summer Storms

I take from my bag a KFC dragon twister which I procured with great difficulty before boarding the train. Almost everything in China is difficult while travelling independently. The language barrier turns even the most simplest of tasks into a complex treasure hunt. To have found and purchased fast food is a feat worthy of celebrations.

The storm eases and we eventually break into sunshine but the land is still showing symptoms of the heavy rains that have been recently lashing southern China. We managed to miss the end of last year’s monsoon by staying high in the mountains of Pakistan but now we have little choice. We must push through the worst of this year’s rainy season as we enter South East Asia.

Yunnan Province

Speeding west through southern China

Recent news stories have been concerning with flooding and road closures reported in Yunnan province and northern Laos. But for now the sun is shining and the scenery outside is stunning. Certainly the best we have seen so far on any of our train trips through China. The land is so entertaining that I find it hard to concentrate on anything else. We speed westward into a magnificent Chinese sunset. Our train is moving fast, as if almost trying to catch the sun and prevent it from setting, which eventually it does with splendour. I feel buoyed and lifted by the experience and eager to see more tomorrow.

During the night I am woken in a sweat. It would seem the air-conditioning has failed. I open the door to discover people sitting in the passage way. The conductor has opened the doors to allow some fresh air into the carriage. Outside we are passing beneath small mountains bathed in moonlight. It looks beautiful and a little unworldly. I go back to bed and throw the blanket to one side.

Our train still heading west is ultimately caught by a rising sun in the east. Sunlight is flashing through the window. The curtains are just a few inches too short and do a terrible job of shielding my face. The hills are a brilliant bright green in the daybreak. They are speckled with colourful rocks and far atop a ridge a collection of graceful wind turbines turn gently in the morning breeze. There are rows of cabbages planted in twisting lines and fields of what appears to be lavender, certainly the colour matches. We pass by men working the land wearing traditional pointed straw hats and water buffalo pulling carts, it’s a scene straight out of a storybook. The north might have been drab and disappointing but southern China is certainly making up for that.

Seated opposite us and in stark contrast to the scenery outside is a couple whose sour faces can only be matched by their personal habits. The man is wearing a thin and rather revealing pair of sweat pants. He spreads his legs wide open without the slightest care or concern. He spits out bits of food on the floor despite there being a small bin provided. The only time his wife stops speaking is to clear her throat. She sucks up phlegm with great force and heaving motions. Then she coughs all over the compartment. Her hand reaches to her face only to support her jaw. Her gaping mouth remains open as wide as her husband’s legs. I don’t think it’s possible to offend the Chinese with personal habits but I would at this moment love to know how. Outside in the corridor the hawking noises resinate through the carriage. The husband consumes his breakfast. I can see the food spinning in his mouth like a tumble drier. The wife finishes another sentence with a massive hawk. It almost becomes part of the language.

Kunming

Kunming

By the time we reach Kunming it’s clouded over and my love affair with the landscape has temporarily ended. Kunming at an altitude of 1800m above sea level brings a welcome relief to the heat of the lowlands. We only have 12 hours before our next train to Lijiang departs. I would like to say we make good use of the time but aside from sleeping we spend the rest of our time walking in a non-descript park and searching for a Burger King we spotted on the way to the Hotel. It would seem not many people have heard of Burger King in Kunming, including the staff at Pizza Hut and KFC. Perhaps they just don’t want to help out the competition. Eventually we close in on our prey. A process of persistence brings us to our culinary goal. It’s been well over a year since I have tasted a flame grilled Whopper. Sad I know but it’s a very exciting moment.

Not exactly cultured

Not exactly cultured

We arrive in Lijiang the next day to a cool morning. Having risen another 500m in altitude the heat and sweat of Guilin almost seems forgotten but a trace of humidity still lingers. Emma’s rash is now vastly improved owing to the cooler climate. The taxi cartels in China are well disciplined compared to their Indian neighbours. I suppose that might be a product of living in a communist country but the Chinese are also great entrepreneurs… except when it comes to driving taxis and Tuk-Tuks. But I am feeling well rested and comfortable so we wait a while to see if someone will break ranks. Eventually they all agree to a more reasonable price. I know it probably seems insane but even a reduction of $2.00 USD is worth just a small investment in patience. Aside from saving money it just makes you feel like you are not completely being taken advantage of, which is important when you’re travelling. You want positive experiences… even if you have to fight for them.

Mu Residence Lijiang

Mu Residence Lijiang

Lijiang old town is now a UNESCO world heritage site. I’m not sure what’s required in order to become listed. I imagine it’s a site deemed beautiful and worthy of protection, though Lijiang seems to be a confused city. The narrow lanes, water ways and beautiful buildings are indeed visually pleasing but the entire town now seems to be dedicated to the sale of Bongo Drums. The lower floors of Ming Dynasty houses now resinate with the amateur beats of Bongo sales staff. To make matters worse they all play the same song on a CD and try their best to play over the top with varying degrees of proficiency. I’m not sure how this came about but we do our best to investigate why.

Lijiang China

Old city of Lijiang

It would seem that some years ago a local Naxi artist recorded the song which became a hit around China. Once a hit the people of Lijiang seemed reluctant to let its success fade and devised a cunning plan to play it relentlessly in the hope that repetition would prevent it slipping off the charts. I have no idea of wether this worked but certainly in Lijiang it’s considered still a hit and I suspect will remain so for many years to come. One shop next door (while taking lunch) replayed it 7 times, which is just long enough to order a very tasty Pizza in N’s café and devour it. The local Chinese tourists of which there are millions each year are completely captivated and many leave town with an extra piece of musical luggage.

Lijiang

Lijiang

Later in the evening we attend a musical performance of a very different nature. An Orchestral recital of traditional Han Chinese music. Only a thin crowd has turned out this evening and we are the only two westerners in the audience. A young graceful woman with long black hair introduces the Orchestra first in Mandarin and then in English. She glances over to us almost a little nervous slightly struggling with the words but always holding our gaze. I feel really touched that she is clearly making an effort on our behalf. I nod and smile almost wanting to coach her through the sentences. What is immediately apparent is the age of the musicians. Most of them look to be over 65 and a few clearly older members are asked to stand. Out hostess informs us they are 85 years of age. Their moustaches and beards droop long and thin. She then tells us that the music we are about to hear is over a thousand years old and unaltered from its original composition.

Black Dragon Pool

Black Dragon Pool

They pickup instruments that were once hidden from the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution. Such music at the time was deemed irrelevant and frivolous, and had no place in contemporary communist China. Now the music of long ago is kept alive by just a few aging men while the beats of pop music resonate in next doors nightclubs. I feel a little sad that they are now playing to such a small audience while just outside thousands of people are mingling in a modern world. The music is wonderful and transports you to another time. It is without doubt one of the highlights in our visit to China. The young lady with the long hair thanks us for coming.

Naxi Orchestra Lijiang

Naxi Orchestra Lijiang

Two hours north of Lijiang towards the border with Tibet is The Tiger Leaping Gorge. Here a young Yangtze River just starting its journey is squeezed between one of the world’s deepest valleys. It’s a final chance to glimpse the high snow-capped mountains before we turn south and head to Laos. It’s an amazing formation but our days here are made more interesting by two young Canadians. Matt is travelling with his friend John who is here in China to compete in a Mandarin speaking talent quest. Through John and his fluent Mandarin, I get to see a very different side of Chinese people. He is able to laugh with them and they are genuinely delighted he can speak their language so well. We pass a few local tourists who beckon us over and give us a chocolate biscuit each. They all watch with amazement as though John were some sort of performing freak such is their disbelief. He has them in stitches and I feel certain based on today’s efforts he will prevail in a few weeks’ time in Beijing.

John and Matt from Canada

John and Matt from Canada

I can’t be certain where we will be in a few weeks but I know it’s time to leave China. We take a bus south to the city of Jinghong from where we plan to cross the China Laos border…

 

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I stand in line waiting to be allowed back into China. It is the third and final time on our journey I shall do so. For some unknown reason I always get a little nervous in immigration. What if they don’t let us in, what happens if we are delayed and miss our onward connections? Such are the misgivings of the Trans-Global traveller. I needn’t have worried as our entry back into the mainland is swift and without concern. As I walk further into China I can feel the convenience of Starbucks and 7-Ellevens ebbing away.

Hard Sleeper carriages in China

Hard Sleeper carriages in China

We pass through a friendly barrage of touts offering bus tickets to Guilin. This is a rarity in China and a welcome relief in many aspects. But we have already purchased train tickets travelling overnight in hard sleeper class. The name does nothing to inspire a good night’s rest. The beds are open plan stacked three high and at least have ample luggage racks to stow our bags. We leave Shenzhen with a mostly empty carriage which is a blessing but our personal space is short lived when two hours later we stop at Guangzhou; a city once known throughout the world as Canton. Guangzhou is a giant in China which makes it one of the world’s most populated cities. This is certainly in keeping with the army of passengers that board the train. And when I say army I do mean army. Dozens of young soldiers fill up the empty berths with excitement and vigour. They note our presence and take turns saying hello. One chap who can speak a few more words of English is encouraged to communicate on behalf of the platoon. I sit up and we both do our best to converse for a while.

Hard Sleeper China

Catching up on some reading

We plough through the night heading west to Guilin. The soldiers are noisy but it’s entertaining to hear them laugh. I’m not used to seeing the Chinese have so much fun, maybe I just haven’t been looking hard enough. Then all of a sudden the laughing stops and the men with military precision retire and switch off the lights. An officer walks through the carriage and gives me a small nod as if to reassure the Chinese army won’t be of any trouble to us civilians.

Heading west to Guilin

Heading west to Guilin

We arrive into Guilin station shortly after 7am. I check the sheets and the blankets thoroughly to make sure nothing has been left behind. I think I shall find it a hard habit to break when I eventually return home. The soldiers form into immaculate lines on the platform while we walk without bearing into another city. But the bigger the tourist destination the easier finding transport and this is certainly the case in Guilin. We emerge into a hot and humid square and are immediately beckoned to a bus headed to Yangshuo about 60km south of bustling Guilin. This is almost too easy but I never take such opportunities in China for granted and gladly pay 20 Yuan each which seems a bargain. Yangshuo is smaller than Guilin and where most of the large cruise boats finish their trip down the spectacular Li River. But it is by no means a secluded piece of paradise. So with this in mind we take a private taxi a further 6km out of town along the Yulong River to the Yangshuo Mountain retreat for 40 Yuan. The bus was good value after all.

The Hotel is small and sits sympathetically in the sublime landscapes. We have now entered a realm of giant limestone karsts, a feature found throughout South-East Asia and not to the best of my knowledge anywhere else in the world. But here in southern China they are very tall and thin and bloom is vast numbers. No wonder then that these lands are found on the back of the Ten Yuan banknote. Along with the Yellow Mountains and the Potala Palace this is now the third such place of currency we have visited.

Bus ride to Yangshuo

Bus ride to Yangshuo

It’s still early in the day when we arrive but already the temperature is rising steeply. The air is thick with water and the insects in the surrounding jungle sound like they are being tortured on a rack. We are in the tropics now and from here down to Singapore it’s only going to get worse or better depending on your love for such conditions. There can be no doubt that balmy tropical nights are the stuff of dreams but during the middle of the day it can be a nightmare. It’s difficult to see into the distance the air above us is completely saturated and bursts with a heavy down pour while we take a late breakfast. Given the heat it’s a soothing sound and the drops fall warm and heavy to the ground.

The middle of the day is reserved for only the foolish or hard at work, we are definitely not the latter so spend most of the hot hours inside watching condensation and rain run down our windows. Going from an air-conditioned room back outside is shocking and confronting. If not for being in an exotic and foreign location I should put my shoulder to the door and force it shut. Even my camera is having trouble adjusting and fogs up inside the lens. I remedy the problem by leaving it in the bathroom which is acclimated to something like the conditions outside.

Cycling in Yangshuo

Cycling in Yangshuo

The heavy rains have cleared the air a little and we cycle north through farm fields and old Chinese villages. I think when travelling I look so often for clichés. They are after all the stuff of travel dreams and here in Yangshuo those dreams come true. We stop for a drink in Jiuxian at the aptly named Secret Garden guesthouse. The village is adorned with red lanterns and sloped Ming dynasty roofs. The surrounding karsts are now shrouded in the humid air while a group of Chinese runner ducks waddle by in formation. We continue after a life preserving drink onto the Yulong Bridge which takes considerable more patience and navigation to find. A short detour onto the main road and many questions and map pointing gets us to our destination.

Yangshuo

Yangshuo

The Yulong or Dragon Bridge may be old and could be an attractive scene if it were not for the small amusement park that has been set up around it. The crowds seem un-proportioned to the structure. The old bridge looks almost embarrassed by all the fuss. At first I am disappointed by the calamity but then I remind myself that this is China and this is how they like to do things. I become more fascinated by the local tourists and how such mayhem seems completely oblivious to them. I sip on a rather good pineapple juice and survey the scene.

Jiuxian village

Jiuxian village

A man who guided us along the last section is now wanting to take us on a river cruise back down stream. We politely decline but the thought of a long ride back in adverse heat is not appealing. He recruits a young Chinese girl to speak with us but she turns out to be an American working in China. The man is clearly a nice chap and instantly likable and he jokingly lectures us as to why we should take a ride on his raft. He points up to the sun and back down river making soothing noises, then points to the road and waves his hand. Fern our translator can speak half decent Mandarin and begins to negotiate on the 200 Yuan asking price about $30.00 USD. He then begins to lecture her and directs a doubtful tone and wagging finger in her direction.

He relents a little on the price and drops it down to 180 Yuan and somehow as part of the deal we are each given a cold bottle of beer. I can’t help to feel the price is still a little steep but who can turn down a complementary bottle of beer while cruising down a river on raft.

With Fern about to start our raft cruise

With Fern about to start our raft cruise

You don’t imagine you might be in peril when setting off on a river cruise but dangerous animals lurk everywhere in the tropics. You might consider crocodiles, tigers or even angry buffalo but how many of you have ever given thought to…Caterpillars.

As we drift down the serene river Emma complains of a biting sensation on her neck. I take a look but find nothing then she lets out a sharp cry. Still we can find nothing but notice a small innocent hairy caterpillar drop to the ground and think no more. By the time we get to our landing a large red rash has risen on the back of her neck and across the shoulders. It looks suspiciously like the heat rash that plagued her back in Zanzibar, but Emma is convinced it’s a result of the caterpillar and won’t be deterred. It looks very red and painful and the sweat is not helping. Our boatman walks to a shop and procures a small bottle of local medicine which he applies to the rash. It would seem that along with beer, medicine is also complimentary. Emma spends the rest of the afternoon researching deadly caterpillars on google and over the coming days becomes quite an expert on the subject. She develops a complex theory on how it became scared during my feeble search and injected fine hairs into her skin. I have to admit my search was somewhat lame and the photos of the rash do look similar.

Our boatman come bartender and Doctor

Our boatman come bartender and Doctor

About 30km north of Yangshuo the Li River bends almost 360 degrees before straightening at the small settlement of Xingping. I have been doing my own research and worked out that the famous bend and the amazing views of the distant karsts can be best observed by climbing a small mountain called Loa Zhai Shan. I say small but in reality when we arrive it soars about 200 meters above us. The sign indicates a thousand steep stairs to the top. I think under normal circumstances it would register as a tough effort but these are not normal circumstances. The sweat pours from your skin and even your eye lids and ears. Every part of your body is conscripted into keeping you cool but it’s a losing battle. Emma is burdened by the extra task of… caterpillar surveillance.

Xingping

Xingping

Forty minutes of solid and somewhat clammy struggle brings us to the top and an outstanding view of the Li River and its surrounds. I don’t think it’s possible to be this wet even when taking a shower but the setting sun over the karsts is ample reward for such discomfort. It’s a difficult place to turn your back on but we descend and make preparations for the next leg in our journey…

 

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