February 28, 2007

Vang Vieng

Quick update from Sunny Vang Vieng. We came down by bus yesterday morning to find a much changed riverside town from Dee's last time here. Lots of new buildings but still the lovely backdrop of the Karst landscape and the cafes with lots of cushions and movies to accompany your fruit shakes. Tubing down the river and some more motorbiking are just some of the things we are looking forward to here.

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February 25, 2007

Laos update

:: Beautiful Luang Prabang ::

We caught an early bus from Luang Namtha to Pakmeng intending to connect with a tuk tuk to take us to our final riverside destination of Nong Khiaw that evening. After spending an hour watching locals load goods and a motorbike onto the roof of the bus we were all set to go. At 9am (an hour later than we'd been informed the bus would depart) the entire tourist population of the town suddenly appeared and boarded the same bus. It very weird to see so many westerners around, almost out numbering locals, and strange to actually understand what everyone is saying. It was also annoying that everyone else had the correct information and an hour extra in bed.
Having a big group of backpackers on the bus turned out to be a stroke of luck when we reached Pakmeng when the only tuk tuk driver in town wanted over a hundred thousand kip per truckload of foreigners he ferried on to the next destination Nong Khiaw. Without a group you're forced to pay big or simply wait for people to randomly turn up.

We stopped for a night in Nong Khiaw before taking a small long boat up river one hour to the village of Muang Ngoi. Each expedition on these long boats feels like a Guinness World Record attempt for most amount of tourists ever squashed into a small space. Sitting knee to knee opposite someone else your forced into the foetal position. Not matter how uncomfortable you look there is always a guy motioning you to squeeze along a little further so he can make room for 5 more tourists with gigantic backpacks. When everyone is wedged in tight the ticket collection begins causing uproar as people desperately try and elbow their way into their own pockets.

:: Our View ::

The squashing, squeezing and loss of feeling to the rear end was more than worth it though. Arriving up the river to the small town of Muang Ngoi we could see lots of little wooden bungalows with hammocks perched high above the river. 20 minutes later and less than 2 euros a night the worse off we were swinging in our hammocks enjoying the scenery.

:: Ours is the one with the biggest roof ::

Mong Ngoi village can only be reached by boat making it a sleepy isolated little town. Limited electricity (6pm to 10pm) adds to the appeal; after 10pm the village is lit by candles and torch lights. From a tourists perspective it's a fantastic place, lots of trekking, lovely beaches, clear river water to swim in, kayaking, tours and many riverside restaurants to eat in. We did all of the above but our favourite activity was walking up river before sunset and floating back down with the current to our bungalow.

We're in Luang Prabang city now... we got here a few days ago after a taking a slow boat down river. This 6 hour trip (made all the more pleasant by lots of leg room and cushions) took us past numerous small villages and through the beautiful Laos countryside. A couple of times we had to disembark so the boat could be navigated through rapids or shallow waters. In one such village all the kids rushed into the river to push the boat along past the shallows. Obviously the highlight of their day ... and a source of some pocket money.

Arriving in Luang Prabang late in the afternoon we started the usual search for accommodation. We soon realised how complacent we've become, we've always had a choice of places to stay no matter how late we've arrived into a new place. Finding accommodation in LP is a full on foot race where no one takes any prisoners. I've never seen such a squeeze for accommodation. Scores of backpackers were roaming the streets with their bags all getting a "no room in the inn" response. It was impossible to get away from the crowd. In the end I stuck with the bags and Marcus went off in search .. he ended up running into places ahead of people with bags trying to pip them. Eventually he found a hotel who only had a room because they had mislaid the key. There's a big turnover every morning but come 6pm in the evening you have to feel sorry for today's new arrivals forced to wander around in heat.

:: Monks passing a Papadum maker ::

Luang Prabang is the same beautiful charming city that I passed through 6 years ago. Thankfully the no high rises or department stores muscled they way in over the years. The old quarter is particularly attractive with it's leafy streets, funky restaurants and cafes and decorative wats. Hundreds of orange clad monks with black umbrellas fill the streets adding to the uniqueness of this city.

We're waiting for our Vietnam visas at the moment, once we have them in hand we'll depart south for Vang Vieng. This place has long been known as a backpacker hangout, over the years it's become more western and touristy and these days people either love it or despise it. We're going in with an open mind, to be honest, gently tubing down the Mekong and watching some reruns of "Friends" doesn't sound like the worst way to while away an hour or two. Who knows... we'll let you know how we get on!

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February 12, 2007

Welcome to Laos

Pushing South from our Internet HQ of Jinghong (did anyone notice the new website ? ) we headed for the Laos border at Mengla. Overnighting on the Chinese side, we enjoyed our last Chinese dinner (for a while) and prepared for the day ahead which promised to bring the fun that crossing land borders brings.
Bumping along yet another 'broken' road (below a spanking new one being built) we made it to the Chinese departure offices and smoothly made our way across. Arriving at the Laos side it was a different story. The horizontal queueing that we thought the Chinese had perfected was on show here, leading to a very long delay in fighting our way to the window to get stamped into the country.
Once across we were very clearly in a different country. The Chinese made road aside, things were alot less populated, alot more laid back with very different farming on display.
We have camped out for the last few days in Luang Namtha, about 50kms from the border. This is a developing town with some guesthouses and trekking organisations popping up in recent years. The villages around the main town are all very reachable on motorbike. We scooted around today doing lots of waving and "Sabadi" ing to the kids who have great smiles as they run out of the houses. We are on the move tomorrow heading further South, stopping at a few smaller places before we hit the relative big smoke (and the crusty baguettes).

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February 7, 2007


Our route to warmer Kunming in Yunnan province took us on a snowy journey through Liping, Kaili, Duyang (we went here by accident) and on to the provincial capital Guiyang where we caught the overnight train to Kunming. At all the stops along the way people stared at us more than usual - it's definitely not tourist territory around here. If you smile and say "Ni Hao" to small children here there more likely to burst into tears than do anything else.

We travelled along brand new toll roads for most of the journey - new road engineering has produced roads perched high up on huge concrete bridges hundreds of metres in the air. These new roads rise high above hilly terrain and where they can't they use tunnels to go through. From the bus we spotted a couple of "new cities".... cities where hundreds of thousands of apartments have been constructed. For the moment these cities lie completely empty. No doubt part of a huge government relocation project in the near future.

We spent a week in Kunming doing two things... looking around the plethora of sports and outdoor shops around the city and internet catchup. After spending hours and hours in an internet cafe uploading pictures and getting the blog up to date we finally have a clean slate and conscience.

Currently we are in Jinghong in the south of Yunnan province... This weekend we'll be heading towards more sun - in Laos.

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Zhaoxing : Wooden Bridges, Metre High Arsonists and a Beard Butcher

The journey from Sanjiang to Zhaoxing is a breathtaking ride up high into the mountains. There are amazing views of surreal green terrace fields and valleys below - through the fog we caught a glimpse of some of these. The experience is aided by the new smooth road that snakes along the route.

Zhaoxing, another wooden Dong village which has a picturesque location in a green valley, it looks like a Swiss alpine village tucked away in the mountains. With it's five drum-towers and many covered bridges over little rivers it has a unique character of it's own. Local craft making is a big industry in this town. Women make an indigo cloth which is pounded for hours with a wooden mallet; the dyed cloth can be seen hanging out to dry throughout the town. The cloth is embroidered and used for batiks and traditional clothing.

The village streets are overrun by an army of small boys up to no good. While their female counterparts are off helping around the house these 4 year olds are busy throwing bangers (grenade style - they've seen the movies) in doorways, under old peoples feet and into rubbish bins then running away around the corner. It's like Baghdad - the explosion noises are deafening. Those who have no bangers can be found in little groups on the ancient wooden bridges with a lighter and any flammable item the arsonists can find - toilet paper seemed to be easy to source! The fires are lit with great excitement, once they've gone out, a search party heads out to find more fuel. It's not the wisest of "games" to be playing in a village constructed solely of wood.

Marcus couldn't resist getting a closer look at the "exploding banger underwater" move .... after revealing he'd a supply of matches in his pocket he quickly attracted a crowd.

Marcus picks up the tale...

One of the obvious activities while travelling is getting a haircut, well for most anyway. I have had the nervous pleasure of striding into barbers in Mongolia and China, gesticulating vaguely then walking out a dollar or two lighter, clean cut. Under our hotel in Zhaoxing was a small hairdresser so I decided to head in to get the usual blade 3 all over ( beard included).
As is custom I set a price before he got going - it would cost 10 RMB which is 1 euro.
Round 1 - Gesticulation from barber (translated as " do you want a hair wash?"
(The old tactic of changing the service to change the price me thinks....so " no thanks")
Round 2 - clippers vs hair, no problem at all.
Round 3 - clippers vs beard, quick run through, no problem.
Round 4 - Barber produces a cut throat and starts tidying up the outline of the beard, during this he motions to the washing station - OK, I think, he wants to lather me up and do a proper job.
Round 5 - Mr barber guy washes my hair and starts getting out all these steamy towels.
Round 6 - The razoring continues...and continues...I'm thinking he has made a mistake and is balancing things up...but it continues...and continues...until he is done.
Round 7 - Merv or Chopper ? ......(Oh and all that razoring was still 10RMB )

We had Zhaoxing village completely to ourselves.... all the other tourists had sensibly stayed in the southern provinces out of the winter cold. The tourist information centre was closed for the winter and even the locals were wearing multiple layers and huddled around fires to keep warm. Marcus remarked that something is wrong when it's too cold to enjoy a cold beer.

Taking a hike a couple of miles out of the village (to keep warm) we decided that we'd be miserable further north where it's even colder being cold all the time is too much effort ..... so we're calling a spade and spade and running south to the sunshine.

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February 2, 2007

Chengyang Village

:: Chengyang Wind & Rain Bridge ::

A guesthouse owner commented that no tourists were coming to Chengyang these days because the main road between Longsheng and Sanjiang was "broken". It is a perfect way to describe the "route"; for hours we were thrown around in a little local bus, there were road works (huge boulders and deep holes) the entire way and the conditions got progressively worse as we approached Sanjiang. As usual all the men on the bus chain smoked so to get a breath of fresh air meant opening the window and letting the biting cold in. Our little bus had a double bed and mattress tied onto the roof - this was a light load in comparison to some of the other buses which had beds, sofas, entertainment units and huge boxes stacked high. When stuck in these situations all you can do is let the mind wander and hope that the good road is just around the corner. We stopped a few times en route to squeeze in more passengers, let a man on with a bag of piglets and to let the old woman and her roof top bed off.

Making it to the town of Sanjiang just as darkness fell we located the local minivan drivers and went about finding one to take us to the small Dong village of Chengyang some 20km away. As usual 10 minutes were wasted trying to find a driver who would take us for the correct price there were at least six vans sharking around us with out of this world quotes. We eventually found an honest guy who wanted the business and climbed into his van, half an hour later, after we'd a bum on every seat, we headed off.

Chengyang is made up of eight minority Dong villages, the Dong villages were traditionally built alongside rivers so people lived opposite each other. To connect the villages "Wind and Rain" covered bridges were built. The covered wooden bridges are built without using any nails, the interior corridor is ornately carved, they contain tower like kiosks and a long bench lining each side - a resting spot for the locals (selling spot to the tourists these days). Chengyang or Yongli Bridge is regarded as the best preserved "Wind and Rain" bridge in the region.

In pitch darkness the van let us off at Chengyang Bridge that apparently lead to the Ma'an village. We were barely out of the van when an official looking guy in a uniform appeared from nowhere (just like the troll in Billy Goat's Gruff) and told us we couldn't cross the bridge without a ticket. Taking out our miner headlamps we told him we'd be back tomorrow and looked around for the concrete service bridge. In the darkness we settled for the first guesthouse we came across that had a light on. Wandering around looking for food later we happened upon a small new guesthouse & restaurant run by a local tourism graduate Yang and his girlfriend. He generously invited us to his nephew's "one year old" birthday party - a Dong tradition where the whole village is invited to celebrate. He lead us to his sister's house and into a room full of people of all ages sitting on little wooden stools around a big cooking fire in the centre of the room. The women were busy stirring huge mass catering pots of what looked like stew over the fire.

We had a fantastic evening where everyone welcomed us to the village. When it came to eating multiple servings of sour fish, pickled pork, pickled vegetable and bowls of rice congee (rice porridge) were placed on the table (The Dong like their sour food). The grandfather of the family sat beside us serving warm rice wine and leading the table in the local toast "pong bei". We were initially concerned that our presence might leave things a little tight on the food front... far from it ... there was enormous quantities that we never even touched. We were very lucky to have tasted all the Dong dishes in this setting. Dong food is very distinctive, lots of the dishes are pickled and prepared like a stew, their local speciality is pickled duck which is best eaten a least 5 years later. (The duck is dried over the fire then packed in pots for at least 5 years - the longer the better)

The villagers told us that the best time to visit the Dong minorities is during Chinese New Year. This is the one day the Dong people are permitted to marry - there will be about 200 marriages this year. This brings the whole village out in celebration as dowry exchanges and traditional parades are part of the Dong wedding tradition.

:: Ma'an Village Drum Tower & Performers ::

We moved to "Yang's Guesthouse" the following morning and explored the surrounding villages. The houses are wooden and built in a unique Dong style with the proud focal point of each village being a drum-tower. For a small donation you can have your name immortalised on slate in one of the towers. There is a thriving local industry in the area and on our walk around we saw the local butcher slaughtering and gutting a pig, rice being thrashed, quilted covers being packed and the busy local market's comings and goings.

:: Some for pickling, some for dinner & maybe even some for the pooch ::

The Dong minority didn't have a writing system of their own until 1958, their history and stories were all recorded and passed down through songs. The most popular form of song is the 'grand song' which contains various themes ranging from love stories to historical events to moral lessons. These are all performed by a chorus, and the formal performing place is the village drum-tower.That afternoon at the Ma'an village drum-tower we got to see some locals (some of which we had met at the party) perform these songs and dances - we even got to join in in the finale!

Cold weather and subzero nights are keeping us on the move.

Thanks to the generosity of Yang and his family, we fantastically unique experience in this village. When the road is "fixed" it is a worthwhile spot to spend a couple of days exploring.

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Picturesque Ping'an

:: Terraces all around ::

From Yangshuo we caught a bus north to Guillin followed by a bus up into the mountains to the Zhuang minority village of Ping'an perched high up in the Guangxi mountains amongst spectacular terraced rice fields. We had read and heard that there was a chain of villages, representing different local minorities worth exploring around this area. We weren't hitting it during the season to see the area at it's best but we hoped for the best.
A small local bus dropped us off and we hiked up the mountain (with our backpacks) into the village. Lots of old women with big baskets on their back were loitering around the bus stop hoping that some tourist would pay them money to carry their bags up the mountain. Sedan chairs were also on hand for those in need. We like to think we packed light enough to be able to drag our packs up a mountain... and we did ... eventually.

:: Remember - no nails (but hopefully foundations) ::

Tourism has taken this little Zhuang village over, most of the houses have been turned into wooden hotels and guesthouses. When we were there the locals were in from the fields,using the low season downtime to construct new hotels and restaurants. Some of the construction looked very precariously balanced and there were steep drops down hundreds of feet everywhere. We pretty much had the whole village to ourselves in the evenings when the Chinese day trippers left on their tour buses.

The main attraction for tourists visiting this area is the terraced rice fields. Each season brings a different look to the slopes. The terraced fields are built on the slopes winding from the riverside up to the mountain top dividing the mountain into layers. This complicated irrigation and farming tradition has been in place for 800 years. About 66 square kilometers of rice terraces are built into the hillsides. It looks like great ribbons or chains that wind from the foot to the top of the hill. It's amazing to look around 360 degrees and see the impressive sight of terrace upon terrace.

:: Ping'an villages nestled amongst terraces ::

On our first day in Ping'an we hiked the paths around the area to look out over the various viewpoints. Along the way we met the local indigenous Yao women huddled around little fires selling dried chillies, chili paste and handicrafts. Traditionally these women all have long long black hair, about 2 meters long (needless to say - much taller than themselves), that they wear wrapped up around their head in a scarf. Even the old women keep their hair long - and there's not a strand of grey to be seen. If the price is right these ladies will gladly "let their hair down" for a photo opportunity. Apparently their village has an entry in the Guinness book of records for the Longest Hair Village.

The following morning we got up hoping do a hike over to another local village but a dense blanket of fog brought low visibility and really cold weather. It was too nippy to hang around hoping for things to improve so we headed back down the mountain for the bus to Longsheng. Our plan from here was to move through several minority villages heading up into Guizhou Province.

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