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We met a few Canadians in Luang Namtha who recommended we head to a small village called Vieng Phou Kha for some trekking instead of staying in Luang Namtha which is fairly pricey and full of tourists. We signed up for a trek in Luang Namtha anyways but the next morning when we showed up, it had been cancelled. So we ran to the hotel, picked up our bags and got to the bus station right on time to catch the bus to Vieng Phou Ka. Buses to less visited towns, are actually pick-up trucks with benches installed in the back and a small wire roof covering passengers. All the baggage is tied to the roof of the truck, and then 13 people are crammed into the back, 5 on each bench and 2 sitting on the floor, and one standing on the bumper holding on to the wire roof (designed for this). The first problem is that its really really cold, so you are definetely happy to be crunched between people on all sides, the second problem is that the road is bumpy and curvy, so people start puking, and did I mention we are all really really close to each other? The last problem is that its the dry season, so the roads are incredibly dusty, our clothes, faces, noses, eyes, ears were completely covered in dust when we finally arrived in Vieng Phou Kha 3 hours later, the Laos black hair was now a lovely shade of beige.
Vieng Phou Kha is a poor, tiny Kamu village in North West Laos. The bus station is a small shack with seemingly no attendant (until we find him sleeping on a bench later on) and it takes us a while to find the eco-tourism office. The office was set up in 2003 by the EU and the Lao government in a bid to boost the local economy. We each pay 800,000K for a three day all inclusive trek around the area. This is a huge amount of money (relatively) but we are given a breakdown of the distrubution of our money and we feel more comfortable signing on.
Our guide is a local 40 year old Kamu man, called Somhak, he shows up for the trek wearing flip flops and over-sized track pants, I think he must have weighed no more than 100 pds. He is a good English-speaker, explaining to us that all the guides were given intensive English courses, as well as courses on the local environment and customs of the various ethnic groups whose villages we would visit. He is extremely knowledgeable and stops along the trek to show us various medicinal plants and other stuff (he always managed to find "interesting" reasons to stop when he was getting out of breath on tough climbs). Every time we enter a village we hire a guide who brings us through the village and on part of the trek (each family in the village is on a rotating schedule for this job). Both nights we slept at Akha villages, an ethnic group in Laos whose villages are traditionally places at the very tops of mountains facing west. The first village is only accessible by jungle trail (about 6 hours), has no electricity or running water. In fact it doesn't even have a water source nearby and must hike over two hours for water every morning (another job traditionally done by the women). There is a small lodge built for the trekkers where we sleep and eat. Locals are hired to cook us dinner, we feast on a chicken killed right in front of us (men are the cooks in the Akha villages). The guides are taught that Westerners feel that things like washing your hands before you eat are important. Somhak brought a bar of soap along and insisted that we wash our hands before meals. This didn't seem unreasonable as we eat with our hands, communally. Of course the whole purpose of washing hands was defeated when we rinsed our hands, once in the bucket where the chicken had been skinned (blood and chicken parts still clinging to it) and once in a bucket with a dead rat floating in it. Oh well, we tried.
Children come running up to us all night but are too scared to come too close. They usually yell out "Sabadee, okay" the only Lao word they know(hello) and the only English word they know. The women keep their hair short, wear traditional clothing, the signature item a black cap on which the hang anything silver. Nowadays this includes many different silver coins (we even spotted some American ones), nail clippers and keys. Most men no longer wear traditional clothing, they are mostly in baseball caps, t-shirts and jeans. During the day, anyone of working age is in the field, this means children take care of their grandparents and baby siblings. A common sight is a small child (maybe 7 or 8 years old) carrying their sibling on their back, which they do from morning to night. It's no surprise that they become mothers as young as 13.Despite constant pressure from the government to move their villages closer to a road (and to stop the growing of opium), the villages remain completely self sufficient. They grow their own cotton and make their own clothing, they grow all their food, they even make their own guns and bullets (incredible! the bullets are made in part with bat droppings) for hunting. Apparently in the past few years, villages have been forcibly moved using police, as part of the governments plan to be off the list of least developped countries in the world. From the way our guide spoke (having come from a village that was forcibly moved), we could tell this was not a very popular decision. However, none of the children are educated and the villages are extremely poor. The village chief explained to us (over a few shots of home made rice whisky at 7:30 a.m.) that elders are reluctant to change and the younger children are desperate for some modern comforts.
After three days of trekking, including one night where we were kept up by "rats, ugggh I mean cats" as Somhak explained, we were eager to move on to a bigger town to spend Christmas Eve there. We waited on the side of the highway for a passing bus for three hours, until we were finally told it was probably too late to catch anything (it was about 5 p.m. at this point). Sunburned and dejected we spent Christmas Eve in Vieng Phou Kha its even difficult to get someone to cook you something for dinner. We had a feast of boiled greens, sticky rice and fried eggs. I washed my hair in ice ice cold water, giving me a terrible headache. At least Santa Claus filled our stockings with a can of pop each, a real luxury.For Christmas we ended up in the Chinese-Lao trade hub Oudom Xai, where we got a cheap hotel room with a much needed hot shower and a great Christmas gift: HBO movie channel and BBC News.
After some debate as to whether we wanted to continue in uncharted territory, we bought a direct ticket to Yuanyang, a town reputed to be surrounded by spectacular rice terraces. We ended up about an hour away from Yuanyang. As you might know, the Chinese are pretty lax when it comes to copyright laws, and this also seems to apply to town names. If a local town is popular, the next town over will take its name. This causes foreign tourists a little bit of difficulty. We managed to get on a rickety local bus and get to the real Yuanyang. When we arrived, the town was bustling with people, the roads were completely blocked with buses, trucks, taxis and motorcycle taxis. We all got off the bus on the side of the highway and walked into town. Yuanyang county is populated mostly with non-Han Chinese, and with years of relative isolation their culture seems to thrive here. Most people on the streets of Yuanyang are in traditional dress, even children, and Mandarin doesn't seem to figure in the list of languages spoken here. The fog in the city creates a strange gloomy atmosphere, as you can't really see any further than a few feet ahead of you, but no one there seems to mind.
In the evening we ended up at a small local restaurant and as we were leaving a Chinese man carrying an extra large camera bag and a tripod. We left the restaurant, but then Yann made me go back to ask him what he was doing the next day. As we had no idea what to see, where the rice terraces were etc etc... After a few seconds of conversation we realised no English would be exchanged, but we understood to meet him the next morning at 6 a.m. in front of the hotel next door (which happened to be our hotel). The next morning he was there waiting at 6 a.m sharp with a local driver and a little three wheel van.
We drove in the most unbelievably thick fog for over an hour, until we reached a lookout spot, near the village of Duoyishu (we didn't know where we were at the time, this was clarified later). We couldn't see anything, we were completely engulfed in fog, but the local boiled eggs salespeople were there waiting for us. Within about ten minutes the clouds and fog started to shift to reveal the rice terraces. We watched the photographer wait for the perfect shot (film camera) and copied his moves, although we could shoot a little more freely. We waited patiently there for over three hours, watching the fog drift in and out of the valley and eating lots of boiled eggs. At some point another tourist arrived, an English speaking tourist from Shanghai. He was able to translate for us, and he tagged along with us the whole day, making communication much simpler. He explained to the photographer whose name we now knew to be Mr. Yang, that we would follow him wherever he wanted to go.
We spend the afternoon trekking through rice terraces in a different village called Mengping where we were greeted by many local farmers happy to pose for a photo or two. One local grandmother working barefoot in the fields asked our guide if we had any candy for her. I was happy to whip out my Confucious temple candies for her.
In the late afternoon we headed to an area of Mengping village overlooking the spectacular Tiger's Mouth rice terraces. We spent about 3 or 4 hours there, with 3 other professional photographers (other than Mr. Han) shooting away at the sunset over the terraces. We were slightly outclassed, but it was fun to watch them work. After over 14 hours visiting terraces, shooting photos and driving between villages, we were dropped off at the hotel where we subsequently pigged out and fell asleep.
We then had a full two days of backroad bus travel to get to Jinghong (where we are now). Our worst ride was a 10 hour one, mostly on dirt roads, where our bus broke down half way, the villagers smoked their bamboo bong right behind us the entire way, and the small children did their business on the floor. The constant gurggling of the bong and the follow-up hork is especially irritating. Thankfully the bus didn't have a dvd player blasting Chinese pop music, the bamboo bong, and possibly a small child might have been thrown out the window.
Since Christmas is fast approaching we are asking our loyal readers to send us their favorite Christmas food item. After many long bus riding hours Yann and I have come up with our top five lists:
1 Mom's turkey stuffing
2 Matante Charlotte's sucre a la creme
3 Dad's left over turkey curry
4 Nicole's seafood fondue with garlic dipping sauce
5 Tree cakes from Stubbe's chocolate shop
1 Fondue chinoise avec sauce a l'ail
2 Farce a Grandmaman
3 Brie fondue au four
4 Carres aux dates
5 Susan's turkey stuffing
Tiramisu a Matante Chantal, fudge a Matante Denise, Grandma's oatmeal cookies, Aunt Jean and Marg's shortbreads, Gateau avec glacage a l'erable de Grandmaman, Laura Secord mint chocolates, mandarin oranges
I woke up at 6 a.m. so that we could catch and early bus, Yann got up about an hour later, after a little bit of whining. We took a public bus to the bus station, determined to follow our guidebook's advice : Do not get on a tourist bus, make sure you get a direct bus to Shilin. We walked up to the ticket booth, where we were pointed outside to the parking lot, where the ticketsellers were waiting for us. There was a small mini-bus, already half full with some old villagers and some businessmen. We spoke to the salesperson asking repeatedly if there were stops between Kunming and Shilin. No no, Kunming - Shilin, Kunming - Shilin we were told. We had found the direct bus, hooray! We waited half an hour for the bus to fill up, then we took off, we reached the next stop 30 seconds later, a parking lot, where we were shuffled into a new bus, with seats half the size of the first one. A feeling of impending doom came over us.
With only 40km left to Shilin, I was now feeling pretty confident about our bus choice, but then, we saw it in the distance: dozens and dozens of tour buses surrounding the mega jewelry "factory outlet" along what was an otherwise desolate highway. Our bus joined right in (how could we miss such a great opportunity)! We weren't the only ones in the bus to look mighty pissed. Of course this stupid scheme wouldn't work if people didn't then get off the bus and proceed to shop at the jewelry store! (To the credit of my fellow bus-mates, only one couple actually shopped, I gave them the evilest glances I could, but I think they might have been the only people who signed on to the tour bus knowing it was a tour bus) The salesperson who had earlier told us there would be no stops, now told us there would be only two short stops, 25 minutes each.
On our second stop, Yann and I refused to leave the bus, as did another Chinese woman. We were now at a temple, obviously newly constructed and surrounded by hundreds of vendors. The 25 minute stop turned into 1 hour and 25 minutes, mainly because the jewelry buying couple from hell thought it was a great site and the whole bus waited for them. Of course it would have been too easy to set a departure time, no, no actually the "come back to the bus when you are done visiting" policy proved highly effective.
By the time we arrived to Shilin almost 5 hours later, Yann had begun to feel ill. Being the nice guy that he is, Yann saved his vomit for the parking lot, I thought the bus floor was highly deservant. We sat in the parking lot for about an hour until we decided there was no way in hell Yann would be hiking through the park for the rest of the afternoon. We got on (a different) bus, that took less than 2 hours to get us to Kunming. Yann proceeded to lie in bed with the flu for the next 4 days, I joined in two days later. I blame the tour bus...
We took a few excursions outside Dali, including a morning at the Friday Yousuo Market, a colourful extravaganza of vegetables, animals, spices and anything else the nearby villagers might need until they return the next Friday. It was fun to see the thousands of people arriving with their big empty baskets, on foot, by bike, by scooter or crammed into the back of trucks. We didn't buy much but we had fun haggling for some shoes and dried fruits, tasting all the fresh snacks and meeting the always smiling villagers. The next day, the young driver we had hired to drive us to the market, picked us up early in the morning to go fishing with his father, Mr. Yang. His father is a cormorant fisherman, an old fishing practise now almost extinct in the world. Cormorants (big water birds) are trained to fish for their masters. A small blade of grass is tied around their neck to prevent them from swallowing large fish and these large fish are then degorged onto their master's boat. According to Mr. Yang, there are only 7 families left on Erhai Lake who cormorant fish (Erhai Lake, near Dali, is the 6th largest Lake in China). He explained he would have long been out of business (no more fish left in the lake) if it weren't for the tourists. We eached paid 30Y to go out fishing with him, in comparaison to the 5Y per kg he would make selling his fish at the market. He was friendly, weathered from years of fishing, didn't speak a word of English but gave us a good show.
We ate dinner and lunch at the same dumpling stand for three days in a row, and would have continued had we been staying any longer. After waiting patiently for our order the first time there, we became regulars and were promptly served before anyone else the next times we showed up. Unforunately I developped a condition that required the use of our trusty Ex-Lax chocolate bar which I must say worked very well (maybe a little too well).
Having now been on the tourist circuit for over 2 weeks, we opted to head south west to a town called Tengchong, a volcanic area with lots of geysers and hotsprings. You would think it would be quite touristy, but its quite out of the way 8 hours on the bus in the complete opposite direction of any major city in the province. We arrived there only to find that every single hotel in the Lonely Planet no longer existed, luckily our kind taxi driver drove us around (on the flat fee we had agreed upon leaving the bus station) until we found a hotel that would accept us and that was in our price range. The young hotel attendant was incredibly sweet, speaking not a word of English, and yet insisting on talking to us extremely quickly and extremly Chinese. The first night she walked us to a restaurant for dinner and helped us pick dishes, then headed back the hotel with a "I don't know if they're going to make it" look on her face.
The next morning, we were primed to go see the volcanoes, that were about 30km outside Tengchong. We followed the Lonely Planet instructions to head to Huguo street where "frequent mini-buses head to the volcanoes". We walked down the street for over an hour (Tengchong is not a large place) with no luck, but locals encouragingly pointing us onward. As frustration was setting in, two young girls (maybe 11 or 12 years old) on their bicycles started following us, and practising the few English phrases that they knew. We explained to them our wish to see the volcanoes. They didn't know how to get there, but they were determined to help us, they asked people, they led us in a hundred different directions around town, then they used their own money to call their English teacher at the school. After a brief discussion with us, she explained to them where to catch a bus and what the price should be. We headed to the two local bus stations where these two tiny girls haggled with dozens of large Chinese men to try to get us a cheap ride. After at least half an hour and older woman came running down the street, (everyone around was now trying to get us a ride to the volcanoes) she had found someone willing to take us to the volcanoes for 8Y each (the original quote had been 150Y), we rushed off with the two girls waving goodbye, jumping up and down and celebrating their conquest. We handed them a giant (revolting, unfortunately) Chinese "Euro-style" chocolate bar from outside the mini-bus window (hopefully they'll enjoy it more than we did). The mini-bus driver dropped us off right at the ticket window to the volcanoes.
We were two among about 5 tourists at the volcanic site (a very large site). We climbed up to the largest of the volcanoes, aptly known as the Big Empty Hill. Sad-looking locals tried to sell us their lava rock sculptures in the blazing sun. Black Empty Hill and Small Vocano looked about the same as Big Empty Hill so we headed back to the entrance where we caught a minibus back to Tengchong with little difficulty.
Our next destination was the border town of Ruili, sitting only a few km from Myanmar. We were interested in visiting a town whose population was purportedly only 50% Han Chinese. The town is the entry point for the highly in demand Burmese jade, and is also the heart of the opium and arms trade. You don't see any evidence of this, except for maybe the rich looking people driving around in Audi's or Hummers. For us, the town didn't really live up to our expectations, although it was nice to meet some Burmese people and admire their beautiful dark skin covered in gold paint or tattoes. We also drank lots of freshly squeezed lime juice and mango juice and enjoyed the hot weather. We were however, eager to leave our crazily crusty hotel.
We took a 15 hour sleeper bus to Kunming where we were squeezed like sardines into absolutely miniscule beds enduring all-night smoking in the non-smoking, air-conditioned bus. We stopped at various military checkpoints, one where we were all escorted off the bus so that soldiers could search mattresses, take apart bunk beds and tiles and search through the cargo compartments to check for drugs. A process which they repeat for every single bus coming out of Ruili and lasts almost an hour. Oh, and a note, you stop for bathroom breaks if the bus driver feels like it, kind of like long distance car rides with Dad!