Overland Out

Accommodation location

We set out to travel from England to Asia without flying. A slower, more sedate approach, in a time when time flies and life is gone in a flash, we wanted to slow time and see things properly. We also wanted to see how we would cope with life on the road. So after 190 days rocking and rolling the final transport count from Kenilworth to Kuala Lumpur is:-

Trains – 30
Buses – 25
Tube/metro – 20
Taxis – 14
Tuk Tuks/Songthaews – 8
Minivans – 8
Ferries/Speedboats/dinghies – 11

If anyone is considering doing it, do it.

Is there anything I would do differently? At my age, I’d bring nasal hair trimmers.

Have we learnt anything? Well, we already suspected but now we know that your average person is kind and helpful and stereotypes are not always true. Russian and Chinese train conductors, grannies, shopkeepers, dinnerladies, waiters, hoteliers, policemen, security guards and people on the street have all helped us when we have been lost or in need of something. We thank them all.

8.1.17 JingHong, China to Luang Namtha, Laos

After four months on the road, today we head to Laos in South East Asia, where we plan to spend the winter months. This morning we realised we could meet gap year travellers born in the year we last visited Laos, eighteen years ago. Ouch!

Our seven hour journey starts at JingHong southern bus station on the 11 o’clock.  The bus looks tired with broken seats, curtains and cobwebs which we don’t mind but a group of young Laos tourists don’t like at all and they hold their noses as they board.

We drive through the delightful JingHong set on the Mekong and begin the steep ascent out of the city. After about 15 minutes a car drives past and shouts at our driver who pulls over. The car stops too and a man gets out and shouts at us before driving off. A commotion starts on the bus. The drivers mate darts out of the door followed by one of the Laos lads and I follow to see them closing the boot. The drivers mate runs off down the hill and we get back on the bus which turns around and heads back down the hill. The other passengers are stood scanning the road and I can only assume the boot was open and our luggage is strewn over the road. We catch up with the drivers mate who gets back on and we continue down the steep hill. Everyone is shouting and looking out of the windows. We have a conversation about what we would miss the most and secretly, I think Al dreams of a new wardrobe. After 10 minutes we turn around, head back up the hill and pull over at the place where we first stopped. We all pile out and check the boot and there is only one sad gap in the middle of the luggage, where a suitcase belonging to one of the Laos lads used to sit. I feel really sorry for him but he doesn’t seem bothered at all. The girls in his party do all of the negotiations with the drivers mate.

We carry on through pretty valleys on a road so new its still being built. Concrete works scar the landscape and aggregate and tarmac trucks slow our progress on hills. We go through many tunnels, one that is four kilometres long and so thick with dust that fog lights just make the dust storm seem pretty. In this tunnel, on a bend, we overtake a truck. We get diverted through thick mud, follow a truck that is emitting plumes of smoke from his engine, stop in the middle of nowhere to pick up passengers and nearly slam into a truck stopped for repairs on a hairpin bend.

At about 3pm we stop for food at Mengla. The drivers mate tells us we can’t wait on the bus but we have to go into the bus terminal, through security and wait in the departure lounge for 20 minutes. We go through and see the bus drive away. Forty minutes later the bus returns and all our bags are on the back seats. There are bunches of vegetables in the overhead compartments, under the seats and presumably in the boot.

A form is passed around and we have to complete name, nationality, gender and passport number. There are twelve of us on the bus and we are the only westerners. The drivers mate isn’t happy and we have to fill it in again as some people had done it incorrectly.

We arrive at Mohan, the Chinese border town where feral dogs with broken paws run across the road. We stop and are immediately boarded by about five money changers. We get offered a poor rate but haggle and are happy with the outcome. We walk with our hand luggage into Chinese immigration where we complete a departure card and get our exit stamp. We walk through no mans land to the Laos/China border marker for the obligatory photo then onto Laos immigration.

At the Visa on arrival desk we pick up two forms to complete and hand them back with a passport photo and $70 and our visa is quickly printed into our passport. We queue at the desk for our stamp for 30 days entry and we only take slightly longer than our Laos bus mates who are waiting by the bus outside the immigration building. It has taken no time at all though, as we have gained an hour. The whole enormity of China uses one time zone and so Laos is an hour behind.

At 4.30 we drive into Laos!

At 4.40 we stop at the customs building where the driver and his mate get off but only 10 minutes later we’re through! At no point have our rucksacks left the bus or been checked.

The roads on the  Laos side are not as complete and progress is slower. We wait at one point for a giant roller to compact dirt before we drive over it. The bumpy road twists through low green hills and the sun drops adding an orange tinge. We pass small villages of wooden huts where kids chase after chickens in scenes very different from those we saw on the other side of the border. There is a sign for a golden triangle checkpoint which tourists were discouraged from visiting eighteen years ago. 

At 7pm we arrive in Luang Namtha, only 2 hours late and we’re dropped at our hostel. Our rucksacks are passed through the bus window.

The hostel recommend a place to eat and although we are both tired and ill, we have to toast our return to a country we loved so much.

 


7.1.17 JingHong

The suncream is required today! I fetch Boazi from round the corner, pork again but also shitake mushroom. On the way back I shake hands with a toddler whose tentative steps are halted when he sees me. He stares at me and holds out his hand, his dad motions for me to shake it which I do and he seems more confused than happy. We have noticed people staring at us here more than other places we’ve been to in China.

We sit outside the room in the sunshine and after finishing breakfast, catch up with emails and news.

Tomorrow, we finally aim to leave for Laos so we go to the southern bus station and buy tickets. The sun is out and we are heading to Laos. There is a very happy team Roberts.

We walk to a Buddhist temple which seems very Thai in its architecture. Theravada rather tha Mahayana Buddhism ? Our knowledge of South East Asian design is limited so you’ll have to bear with me but it definitely looks right framed by palm trees and under a blue sky.

We wander through some back street housing areas and see the recycling truck taking away Alison’s empties from last night.

Al needs a siesta, so for lunch I indulge in a fast food Chinese chicken outlet which I have not researched yet. My conclusion was efficient staff, probably not free range chicken but tasty.

After a bit of yoga and TaiChi its time for a cold one on the terrace. You all know the drill. The temperature fades as the sun falls and you think,  its well past the yardarm and a cold refreshing drink would be perfect now. It is.

Its Saturday night in JingHong and the sociable locals are out in there hoardes. Many restaurants have huge areas of tables where large groups gather, sharing a hotpot and a few beers. We haven’t seen this elsewhere in China, but maybe the warm weather allowing street side dining means its more noticeable here.

We have a noodle dish that we think is called Zhajiangmian for one last time. Its delicious. An Asian spag bol.

Back in the hostel we see Milena, the lovely Italian lady we met on the bus and chat for hours putting the world to rights.

6.1.17 Jinghong

Even after 2 and a half months in China (that is if you are including Taiwan as part of the One China policy!) we are still not able to sleep through the cocaphany of noise in this country.  The numerous scooter alarms, rats running around, cockerels crowing, locals hacking up and piano practice all keep us awake at some time or another. The hard chinese beds are also taking its toll on our bodies, it is like being on a plank of wood with a thin sheet on top.  I know it might be good for your back if you sleep on your back, but as I get accused of snoring like a warthog every time I attempt back sleeping I am resigned to lying on my side. 

Anyway, the hostel we are staying in is really friendly so I thought I would go along with the mood and chat to our fellow travellers.  The conversation started up on the usual, where you from, where you been…..I said we had overlanded it all the way from UK and had a slight smug feeling about that. On asking Hans, the young German whom I was speaking to, where he was from and how he got here, he responded with ‘I cycled from Germany’. I had been well and truly top trumped. He is a lovely guy though, he had cycled through Turkey, Iran (‘You English can’t go there can you?’ he said with a cheeky grin!), a few Stans then China. When Guy appeared he also was impressed and had some bike chat going on…

Boazi were recommended by another fellow traveller, and who are we to turn down a dumpling recommendation? Guy bought 2 pork and one meat rice. He raved about the pork one so much I had to try it, it was the tastiest pork we have had so far.

Botanical gardens were on the agenda, so we set off walking with the sun out through the bustling, photogenic streets of Jinghong. We are in need of some beauty essentials as well, so stop at Watsons for toothpaste a day face creams. I have sadly run out of my fancy, forever youthful, western serum cream so may look haggard and old from hence forth. The creams on offer here are staggering in their names, Horse Hair, Dragon Cream, and price, no 3 for 2 offers here! I choose the cheapest and hope it has nothing too harmful in there.

We carry on to the gardens, past the amazingly shiny mobile phone shops, one of which had to be Geordie owned, Huawei! The shops are pristine, white, glossy and totally out of character with all other shops. They must be doing well.

As we we get to the gardens the clouds dispurse and the blue skies appear. Guy gets the camera ready. We walk around the gardens, stumble upon an area with loads of magnolia trees, which when not in bloom look prehistoric and eerie. When in bloom they must be beautiful. 

There is a lake so Guy can take his obligatory carp fighting for food photo.

We stop for some tropical fruit, a pomelo, which is like a less bitter grapefruit. 

We see a few cocoa beans hanging from a tree.

Out of season and with the chinese ruining the views all around by building concrete towers it isn’t the best gardens ever.

We head towards the food court Guy went to yesterday and I order a noodle soup, which is bland and full of veg, just what I need.  Guy orders a Burmese fermented tea salad, full of flavour and action! We both have coconut drink in the hope to revive me and calm Guy’s chilli stomach. 

We have tea with our new hostel mates which consisted of a sour fish dish, aubergine and green spinach dishes. It is quite bland but fills the stomachs. 

5.1.17 JingHong

Al was still bad so she rested in bed and I set out to fetch oranges and paracetamol. I was also supposed to buy two bus tickets to Laos for tomorrow as we are now only a seven hour bus journey away!

As I walked around Jinghong, I could see a huge south east Asian influence. Some building, temple and gate roofs reminded me of Thailand rather than China. Street lamps and statues were S.E. Asian in design and palm trees and banyan trees lined the streets. I passed a Dai (local people) temple which wouldn’t look out of place in Bangkok. People sat crouched on stools by food stalls where the fragrant aromas of lemongrass, corriander and chilli filled the air, new smells for us in Chinese cuisine. Jinghong is less than 100 km away from Myanmar and Laos and you can tell. Towns near borders are always a fascinating mix of the cultures from either side of the line on the map that seperate them. 

I bought the paracetamol and oranges but not the bus tickets. There was no need to rush away from such an interesting, attractive, relaxed city and a few days rest would definitely help the patient. I told Al there was a botanical garden here and she agreed to stay.

I headed back out for a meal for one. A lonely planet recommendation of a food court where local food was available as well as Myanmar cuisine. I had a delicious spicy, pickled pork dish with rice and a side of a chilli and garlic sour sauce and a bowl of savoury stock with lemon. The pork had fiery small chillis and smoky dried chillis for flavour. My bald patch leaked and my eyes watered it was so spicy but as I write this my mouth is watering at the memory. It was so delicious to have S.E.Asian fragrant, spicy food again. The lemony savoury stock was unusual but really good.

Back at the hostel Al had showered and dressed but was still resting so I shouted at my phone which was better at chess than me. I paid for another night here and did the washing, then hung it to dry on the roof. The sun came out and you could feel the warmth.

We went to another LP recommendation for tea so Al could have plain fried rice and avoid the spice. I had Bu Lan, a local spicy salad of chilli, garlic, mint, lime, tomatoes, red onion and soy with shredded chicken. Oh yes. I don’t need to tell you.

I then tried some local liquor. The 38% tasted ok but the 50% and 53% were harder work. 

4.1.17 JianShui to JingHong

The roof drumming continues from yesterday as rain batters the plastic roof and drips through cracks onto concrete, two floors below. The warter torture has a casualty and team Roberts is a woman down. Al has a bad head cold or bird flu as we know it. She’s so bad she doesn’t want food.

 The Horror……..The Horror……..

I use my excellent mandarin skills to order two pork boazi, which are steamed dough dumplings. Both are full of vegetables. Tasty.

We pack, checkout and paddle a coracle down the road to the only coffee shop in Jianshui where we aim to while away four hours until our 4pm bus. We manage one. We catch the number 13 and head out of Jianshui to the bus station. It’s a shame to leave as it’s a fascinating place. The province of Yunnan is the most ethnically diverse in China and there are many people here in tribal clothing. Babies are carried in decorated slings on women’s backs, old ladies wear charms and bells in colourful headbands. Poverty is also on show though, in the tanned faces and durable army fatigue clothing of the rural labourers. 

We arrive at the bus station at 2.00pm and decide not to go through the security check to the buses but wait outside where there are toilets and photo displays of people killed in traffic accidents. Al is suffering and cold so eventually we decide to go through but before we do, I nip to the gents. I’m used to amonia burning my middle aged nasal hair by now but I stand momentarily frozen, confused by the toilet. I’m faced with a set of small dividing walls raised about half a metre off the ground by two long rows of tiled blocks. Between the long rows is a trough. I notice a head at the far end, floating above a dividing wall and realise he is crouching over the trough. I can’t see any flushing mechanism. I look around. No water anywhere. Do I really need the loo? Is the bus journey really 12 hours? Someone walks in and climbs onto the long block and aims into the trough. I do the same between a different dividing wall. I still can’t see a flushing mechanism. It is easily the worst toilet I have used so far on this trip.

We go through security and put our bags through the x-ray machine which someone is watching. Wow! We wait and notice people wandering in and out of security and no-one is bothered. We watch buses come and go but they are all small and our seat numbers are 32 and 33 so we reckon we must be on the back seats which can be bouncy on an overnight trip.

A man shouts Jinghong and we get up. He checks the tickets and points to the road outside the station where a coach is parked. We go back through security and the suprised coach driver moves two young girls from their seats, cleans their food debris away and sits us down. The bus is full of adolescents, mainly boys. Seat numbers are irrelevant here.

We snake through mountain passes looking at clouds in the valley below until the light is gone. A couple of hours later we stop at a building for food. Its dark now and we don’t fancy food on an overnight bus but a toilet break is welcome. I enter the gents and am faced by two blokes crouching next to each other over the trough, confirming its use. They both stare at me. One is smoking. I have never been in this situation before so don’t know whether to smile or say hello, so I do neither.

We chat to the other westerner on the bus, a lovely Italian lady who teaches English in Sichuan. We seem to be making excellent progress toward Jinghong and maps.me indicates we aren’t far. At 11pm we arrive, 5 hours early! We have no room booked so cab it to the hostel we had booked for tomorrow night and thankfully they are still up and have a room available.

3.1.17 JianShui

Torrential rain continued throughout the night. The hostel was an old design of rooms off a central square open courtyard, with three floors. We were on the second floor (or first floor in the UK ), perfectly placed to hear the rain drum against the modern plastic corrugated roof and the loud rythmical splats of the drips from the holes in the roof hitting the concrete floor. An upgrade of Chinese water torture. The duvet kept us prisoner for some time.

Food drove us to escape and in damp cold conditions there are many things better than blueberry yoghurt and coconut bread but we couldn’t find them.

Further escape was needed so we paid 12p and caught the number 13 to the bus station. We dodged the touts and bought tickets on the 12 hour overnighter to Jinghong at 4pm tomorrow. 

Despite the relentless rain we decided to walk back into town. The road was being redeveloped but between the rubble and puddles shopkeepers sold shoes, baskets, steamed buns, shovels and optimistically in this weather, solar panels. We passed a place which had a picture of xiaolongbao and although the shop was, by western standards, filthy, we had to stop for one last taste. The buns were doughy but the flavour of the chinese black vinegar with the addition of corriander was sublime. We also had a steamer of dumplings too.

We pottered around more, trying to enjoy the beautiful, old architecture of Jianshui but the rain became even heavier, so to avoid drowning, we went back to the hostel to listen to the roof drumming. It was a shame because Jianshui is beautiful. If you imagine old Chinese architecture of grey tiled rolling roofs and wooden carved doors along tiny cobbled alleyways, here it is. So much of the China we have seen has been redeveloped or facelifted or repainted but Jianshui was beautifully old and decrepit. I loved it for its honesty.

Dry time was spent blogging, reading and planning a route for the next three months. Paula and Dave, we’re excited to see you soon!

Food once again meant battling the deluge so we headed straight to a restaurant the hostel recommended to us. We were happily given an English menu and ordered happy duck, spicy fish, peanut and herb soup and broccoli. It was very tasty. The duck had a spicy coating but also came with a spicy bbq sauce which was very, very good.

PEOPLE, PUT SOME HOT CHILLI IN YOUR BBQ SAUCE. TRUST ME.

The fish looked amazing. Count those chillis! We really enjoyed the meal.

We swam home.

2.1.2017 Kunming to Jianshui 

After tossing a virtual coin we decided against leaving China on an overnight bus to Laos, where it is 27 degrees and sunny, and prolong our chinese adventure by going to Jianshui and Jinghong on our way to Laos. 

We (stupidly) ignored the easy option of train travel to Jianshui instead opting for a bus which left from Kunming South bus terminal, a 45 min, 65RMB taxi ride away.

After the usual pointless xray machine checks, involving unloading and reloading of all our bags whilst no one checked the xray screen, we found the bus stand. About 4 locals came to ask where we were going, for no other reason that they wanted to know, they weren’t there to help us, just curious, which is fine by us.

Our bus left the stand at 11am sharp, it reversed about 5m and stopped for 15 mins. This reoccured a few times. We then had a policeman come on board before we eventually left the bus station.

The journey was fascinating, travelling through towns and fertile lands absolutely full of vegetables, with a few goats and water buffalo wandering about the fields. There were loads of people working the land as as well, most crouching down planting or tending the seedlings and some spraying god knows what over the growing veg.  One town we went through seemed to be the vegetable processing town with trucks piled high with veg, pak choi, spring onions, peas, Chinese cabbage that had been prepared for the chinese markets. 

We had a lunch stop, although we weren’t hungry we saw a lass with some fried spicy potatoes and got ourselves a portion. They were hot, spicy, and as usual undercooked, potatoes with garlic, spring onions, chilli, rice vinegar, coriander and salt.

With various stops on the way to pick up people from the roadside we made it to Jianshui in 4 hours. A local bus ride later we were in our new room, it was cold and slightly damp with a sign lowering our expectations for a hot shower. 

The reason we came to Jianshu was for the food, it was supposed to be great, so we set off for a snack.  The streets were wet from previous rain and the pavement was like walking on sheet ice. I have never slipped so much, sober, so we walked at a snails pace. There is little English signage here so we are somewhat out of our depth,  we spy a street stall with the spicy potatoes we had earlier and queue for a portion. They are similarly undercooked, with mint instead of coriander and another aniseedy spice we do not recognise however as it was 5 RMB, including chicken, we eat them eagerly. 

Everywhere the cafes had old ‘Aunties’ crouched over some embers with small round things on a grill, I was hoping they were goats cheese, however I was greatly disappointed to find out it was the local speciality of grilled tofu. Guy ate 13 of them before he could work out how to stop them coming.  The bill was worked put by Auntie putting a sweetcorn kernel to one side every time Guy had a piece of tofu. Genius!

We shared a wild mushroom rice, yum.

It is amazing we have come just a few 100 km and the food is so different, the tofu, the rice, the potatoes are not found anywhere else.

After more careful walking around in the pouring rain, we ducked into our last restaurant and ordered the local Cai Yu  (vegetable similar to bamboo) with pork, and some aubergines in brown sauce. The Cai Yu was probably the most tasteless food we have had in China (well, apart from tofu, but that is supposed to be tastless). The plate was swimming in oil as well, so we ended up leaving some food, a rarity for us! Aubergines were really oily but tasted delicious.  

We did tai chi in the room,  admittedly mainly to to keep warm, and wondered what 27 degrees would feel like…..

1.1.2017 Kunming comedown 

Today was mainly spent eating western food and listening to Guy sighing or complaining about being hungover. 

In the interest of balance, he did laugh, occasionally…..

Full English breakfast at Lost Garden Guesthouse. 

Me chatting to our drunk mates over breakfast…….Gez, Si, Rod, Di that was you!

Lunch at Salvador’s, burrito and Tiramasu mocha for Guy, burger for me

We also enjoyed our last night of underfloor heating with a bottle of red in our lovely room.

31.12.2016 Kunming and the bar where we couldn’t pay for a beer………

Woken to the smell of bread baking meant muesli was a distant memory. Therefore breakfast was home made bread, butter and home made jam with a double shot americano.

As we are on our way to Laos we are in need of dollars for the visa on arrival, so a trip to the Bank of China furnished us with dollars to leave this country.

Tourism next, and a wander through the Old Streets of Kunming was on the cards,  only these old streets were in the middle of being demolished, rebuilt and rebranded as the Old Streets of Kunming…..so typically chinese. Instead we wandered the Bird and Flower market, after a while wishing there were more flowers than birds / animals in tiny cages.

Our map showed a Dai restaurant close by so we went in and had a refreshing, vibrantly tasty meal, using lots of herbs, chilli and oil, you can tell we are close (800km) to Thailand. 

We also thought it best to try the Dai sweet wine, not sure it had much alcohol but it was like a sweet vaguely fermented coconut drink, lush.

Nearby was a night market area, thinking it would be great to see in the day we naively visited the streets, they were desolate apart from the trail of blood down the pavement and the soldiers practising marching in the middle of a square made up of tacky,  shiny night clubs. We hurriedly moved on.

Carrefour was around the corner so we ventured in, again it was a sprawling mish mash of assistants, weird foods and live turtles. We stuck to what we know and bought french wine. None of the assistants came near us.

Since last nights sunflower seeds were so good we made a trip back for more and also splashed out on a thermos flask and some lucky red chinese socks for Guy.

A sugar fix was required so we took a photo of this bakery for me mum.

And bought donuts from this bakery.

It was now happy hour at the local Irish bar, so being good British citizens it would be rude not to visit and hand over our well earned cash in exchange for cheap (£3.50 a pint) belgium ales….. 

The place was deserted! How different to the UK we thought, and so got on whats app and informed our mates.

Back to the guesthouse bean bags, heated floor, sunflower seeds and ale we listened to some music and called family and a couple of friends to wish them a Happy New Year. It was great to catch up.

We then needed to pay our bill at Humdinger bar, so made our way there, loving the scenery on the way. 

Outside the bar they had set up a smaller bar where they were giving away dark ale for free, he wouldn’t take any money for the ales previously and now was giving us more beer for free. It was like all our Christmases had come at once……we chatted to the expats, and eventually had to sneak inside the bar to to actually pay for a beer. 

The huge bar was packed with chinese enjoying the live music, we got tenny plastic stools to sit on at the front of the stage, felt like small royalty.  By this stage of the evening the ale was taking effect on Guy so at 11.30 I decided to get him out the bar……He still got us home and we were passed out by 11.45pm, the first NYE we have slept through…..we are getting old.