Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Up The Mekong (1 of 4)

Flying into Houey Xai is flying into one of those tiny little provincial airports you can only love. A golf cart pulling a trailer brings you luggage from the plane and you have to grab it yourself. The boys in the Vientiane airport wrapped the Specialized in cardboard for 33,000 Kip.

Houey Xai is just plain flat ugly, and full of tourists transiting to and from Thailand, forming queues in front of the Gibbon Experience office. There are restaurants offering continental breakfasts, or muesli and fresh fruits, Internet cafés with miraculously fast connections. I went into town to buy my plane ticket back to Vientiane and thought it was really funny when the girl told me to check in two hours ahead of time – I knew 15 minutes would be enough, and so did she. But that’s the sort of mind-fuck you get used to.

I couldn’t wait to get out of there and so didn’t even visit a food shop to stock up on trekking food like dried fruits. Big, big mistake.

North of Houey Xai the Chinese have built a monster casino with a good road leading there. I bypassed the nightmare, of course, but was able to see the golden dome shimmering in the heat mist. That whole part of the trip is flat. The traditional farms have been evacuated to make way for massive banana plantations with Chinese plated cars parked there, the signs are in Chinese. You know who The Man is up here. My reading material for the trip was The Grapes of Wrath, by Steinbeck, which was perfect reading for going through a land in transition, a land used for cash crops and farmed by people who do not own it.

A propos of nothing, it was wonderful reading American literature again, and it made me want to re-read Mark Twain and Walt Whitman – all those fabulous writers who remind me that America wasn’t always the shithole you see on Jerry Springer Live; it wasn’t always a country full of tearful emotive vegetables suing each other every time they twist an ankle. America really once was a land where an independent spirit could soar … but I digress.

It’s my blog and I’ll digress if I want to, digress if I want to, digress if I want to… when you are on that bike and bumping along those shitty roads, always climbing you would digress, too, if it happened to you. To the left was the Mekong and Thailand and further up Burma. 

The land was wrapped in either mist or smoke from slash-and-burn agriculture. Huge fires burned in Burma and in Laos – bits of charred ash would float down onto the road and forest. The air was alive with the smells of honeysuckle and flowing streams and bamboo groves; animals I could not see called to each other from the hidden intimacy of the jungle.

No motorbikes went by. No pick-up trucks or tractors. I was alone in the world. Once that good Chinese concrete ribbon ended the road, the real road began.

Few names are more evocative than that of the Golden Triangle. It brings up memories of the opium wars, British rule in Burma, smuggling through misty mountain passes and tribal life lived as it has been for centuries.

The land is vast, as broad as the eye can see. Of course on a bike I was chained to one small part of the landscape: the ribbon of dust and loose gravel called ‘road’. And since I was not trekking I could not see some of the even more remote places.

The road up the Mekong is magic and rough. I started the trip riding north; with Thailand and later Burma on my left thinking that a road following a river should be easy going so I could ease my way into it slowly. I was so very wrong.

We are not in France anymore and the road was carved out of the hillside above the river, obviously to keep it out of floods’ way. The road was hilly and uncontrollable, made up of either very fine sand my tires could not grip or loose gravel they would slip over.

You cannot gain speed by going downhill quickly to make it up the other side: downhill means thanking good fortune for the Specialized hydraulic brakes and at the bottom of the hill there are often little streams you have to ford. The distances between villages are great. The road is empty.

You are alone in the world. 

Down By The River (2 of 4)

We live on the Mekong. Our lives are measured by her pulse: low in the dry season, she grows islands and vegetation; high in the rainy season, she is like a vein throbbing alongside the City carrying debris at high speed.

When you go north or south in Laos on the Mekong axe, it is the same river and it is not the same river. Up in Bokeo Province the river grows huge glowing granite rocks and at one point you are no longer facing Thailand. Thailand has become banal, a place to go shopping … but as I climbed north along the Great Arm I was no longer facing Thailand – I was facing Burma. As I rode, watching the mysterious other bank, great changes were happening there, but its massive silent hills bathed in mist let none of that appear.

My eyes faced West and I let my imagination run wild and dreamt of another land, a far off land, and a future cycling tour into the heart of yet another darkness.

Say Goodbye to Hollywood (3 of 4)

There are no maps. All my efforts to procure something more detailed than the Gecko map, or that German map I ended up using failed, although James Barbush – who does the field work for Gecko – was able to assure me that a route did indeed exist.

But the fact of the matter is that once I left the Mekong I was entering into the outer reaches of my comfort zone. The paradox was that the Mekong road was new, hence being built, hence really torture whereas the old inland route was established. Fear is fear.

I was coming into deep Golden Triangle, le pays réel, the arrière pays and I was not reassured.

The map said there were 30 kilometres between Moung Mueng and the National 3 but there were more than 70, of course. When the going got too tough I would hitch a ride with a tractor or a truck, but only one or two passed me a day.

Also, the problem of food and water began to present itself most cruelly: there are no more restaurants or even soup stalls out there. No more pho even, and if you want to eat you have to stop in a village and say “eat?” It is impossible to buy bottled water. In these villages there are communal taps for drinking water, bathing and washing and that is the water you drink. When I had to stop and sleep I would request the hospitality of the nay ban, village chief and share their dinner. I still do not know how they manage to make food that is both bland and painfully spicy. The people are Lao gentle - with that sweetness that binds, and it was an honour to sit with them.

Also, since I’m bitching, the problem with the nay ban’s house is that he is often the richest man in the village. Ergo, he is the one with a television set so instead of having the eternally romantic silent Indochinese night during which the sound of insects and geckos rocks you gently to sleep you listen to the mindless riot of Thai television and its eternally stupid drama of insistent mothers-in-law, bad guys with guns and beautifully evil home wreckers. For my next trip out I am going to have to figure out how to say, “may I stay in your village in a hut with no television, please?”

The landscapes were less dramatic than I had expected, especially considering the difficulty of the terrain. When you spend 25 minutes climbing a radical dirt path you feel you should be rewarded with a fabulous view, but sadly you mostly have stomach cramps from the lousy food and water.

None of this stopped me and in five days I was able to cover 250 kilometers and return to Houey Xai red with dust, tired, hungry, satisfied and grateful.