Well...No...China wasn't exactly in the plans. Not really on the radar at all. However, for those who have looked at our Itinerary
page, I did say that the road was uncertain, and we were at the mercy of the whimsical fates. Still, China? This is the "wildly off course" that I never expected.
Let me explain. We found ourselves in the clouds of northwestern VietNam eager to see something other than fog and the next stop was Laos. Back in the States, I had looked at a few possible routes to Dien Bien Phu and onto the border through the mountains, but now that we were on the scene, those routes were much less feasible. Only one of about a dozen travel agents even thought that the border was open, and even he suggested NOT going there. We would need an alternative.
Traversing half way back down the length of VietNam to the northernmost Lao border was possible -but it was an insanely long bus ride, and I hate to back track. A flight from Hanoi to Vientaine was also possible -but not quite our style. (We are, after all, on a budget.) After much consternation, I found an overland route that would take us through China and into northern Laos. Ann (ever the adventure wife) agreed, and one poorly photocopied guidebook later we made a break for the border. (Actually, this had been in the works since Hanoi -we had to organize visas, but I like the seat-of-the-pants feel of the text!)
After being herded around like tourist-cattle through VietNam, we were excited to get off the beaten track, to ford our own way, and have authentic cultural exchanges with people. We would soon find out that China wasn't for the faint hearted, and the very things that enticed us to travel here would prove to be the biggest challenges. In this small corner of China, virtually no English is spoken, and at this point we are better off using our Chinese (well...to be honest, Ann's Chinese) than English. (Geez -that didn't take her long!)
The problems started almost immediately.
We weren't even officially into China (and we were having doubts that we would ever make it) when Ann's passport reared its ugly head one more time. Her passport was issued years ago under her Paglee maiden name. Despite my instructions to the contrary, the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi issued her visa under Paglee. At the border when the immigration official put her passport number into the computer however, the name Bozick came up. Shortly thereafter, there were many officials speaking frantic, rapid fire Chinese -not to mention a growing queue of anxious people behind us. (Keep in mind that no one speaks English.) Ann's passport was taken to a high ranking official (he had three stars on his lapel; everyone else had only one), and then to his office, and just when mayhem was about to break loose behind us, she got the official nod to enter. Phew!
We made it to the bank to change money, stumbled across a supermarket for some snacks, found the bus station, and even managed to buy tickets to our intended destination almost without incident. (Almost -but that's another story.) It was then that the only English speaking person in the whole town found us on the bus. Although we were initially excited to have help in English, it wasn't long before he invented a bogus fee to charge us extra for our bags. (And I thought we had left all of this behind us in VietNam!) When we steadfastly refused, he started swearing at Ann and picked a fight with me! The rest of the bus was on our side, but they weren't exactly jumping to our defenses. They couldn't understand anything being said, but they knew this guy was trying to get money from us, and many were shaking their heads "No!" Finally, cooler heads prevailed, our bus pulled out of the station, and this jerk jumped off at the next block.
We were looking forward to some R&R on the 5 hour bus ride when we hit a bump in the road -and a really big one at that! Construction for a new and improved road in this area pushed a large pile of dirt into our path -and continued pushing dirt our way for the next two hours! Finally darkness began to fall, the construction stopped, and a dozer was nice enough to clear our way -but our day wasn't getting any easier. (On a sillier note -our bus driver had the voice of Barney from "The Simpsons" -but in Chinese. Very funny!)
By the time we finally arrived at our desination, it was almost midnight. So here we were -tired and frazzled, entering a largish city in the dead of night, very obviously not from these parts, unable to communicate effectively with anyone, with no place to stay. We slung on our packs and started hiking around to find a suitable hotel. Oddly, in China foreigners are not allowed to stay in just any hotel, and night clerk after night clerk sent us briskly away when we were barely through the door. Just about the time when Ann was going to break down, we found a room!
I can't wait to see what tomorrow holds!