Saturday, 25 April 2015

Welcome to China

Well we weren’t expecting life-size concrete elephants, but here they were, dozens of them lining the boulevard, all rearing up in their twinkling jewelled frontlets, trunks poised ready to herald our arrival. And where had we arrived exactly? The pristine sky up ahead was fractured by a hulking vermillion stupa equipped with ornate barbs and a delicate golden finial that caught the sun and flashed high above us. Buddhist statues, golden spires, a parade of concrete elephants... it was hard to comprehend that this was just a housing estate.

Welcome to China. You may have heard, but it’s on the rise. The world’s largest economy by purchasing power and still the fastest growing, churning out 10% average annual growth over the last three decades. Though its not a new player on the scene, of course. The Shang Dynasty had been established for 300 years before Tutankhamun reigned in Egypt. When Socrates was knocking back hemlock in Athens, China’s great philosopher, Kong Fuzi (“Master Kong”, anglified over the years to ‘Confucius’), had been and gone for almost a century. And in 251BC, while Rome was battling for European supremacy in the Punic Wars, Chancellor Lu Buwei was trying to shake off the dangerous affections of the Queen Dowager by hiring a man with an especially large penis to perform a seductive dance while hoisting a large wooden wheel on his willy.*  

We’d only been here a few days but we’d been staggered by the size of it several times (China that is, not the man’s penis). The border crossing looked like it was made to hold off dinosaurs, dominated by this vast metal gateway well over a hundred feet high. The duty free was quite a sight too: a carpark of market stalls selling an unfathomable collection of tumble-dryers, jewellery, fluorescent dildos, cauldrons, mobile phone accessories and tins of bear bile. We didn't buy anything. And then once we got going our road was a cyclist's dream: ruthlessly flat, shot straight through the hillsides and suspended soaring over the cultivated valleys below. For a couple of days, riding on that road with that blue sky above us, it was like we were floating through some old cadillac advert. 

So really by now the concrete elephants, while obviously not expected, were not exactly incongruous. We pedalled past them and over the wired suspension bridge to the regional capital of Jing Hong. We’d been taken aback by our first Chinese “town”—which we did not expect to have the twin-towered, twelve-storey art deco hotel that greeted us when we arrived—and now we were going to be taken aback by our first Chinese city too. No, not a congested hive of pollution. We arrived into clean air and palm-lined streets. The walkways were swept, the traffic was calm, and between the glass-fronted shopping malls and balconied apartments we found botanical gardens and Thai-style temples basking in the afternoon sun.

Our budget hotel was a little less attractive, cast in concrete with clanging metal steps and loose shower fittings. But we were both far too relieved at getting here to care about any of that. Both of our bikes had been on the verge of terminal catastrophe for weeks. Liv’s wheel rims were dangerously eroded and my tyres and bottom bracket were several hundred kilometres past their usable service lives. We wheeled the wounded machines into an upmarket bicycle shop across the road and left them in the care of the mechanics. Now we had a few days to fix our plans.

The situation was this: we had a one-month visa and a three-month plan that would take us through the Hengduan Mountains and on to the final sprint to the finish line in Tiananmen Square. Our success hinged on two factors. The first was our being able to renew our visas. Renewing a visa twice for one month at a time was technically possible in China, but it required a mountain of paperwork, some of which was virtually impossible for us to provide. For example, we’d need to show proof of our hotel bookings over the entire month for which we wanted to extend. The trouble was, of course, that we rarely knew where we’d end up on any given evening, let alone several weeks in advance.

After some digging, we learned that the way to get around this was to find a visa office with a more pragmatic interpretation of the rules. We’d hunted through online forums for months now and whittled it down to two promising candidates: one in Zhongdian, an old Tibetan town on the edge of our entrance into the mountains; the second in Leshan, roughly where the mountains would spit us out again afterwards. Timing was crucial. We could only renew the visas a few days before they expired, and the game was up if we overstayed by even one day. We were also stuffed if either visa office decided to fully enforce the regulations when we got there.

So that was the first issue and it was as resolved as it could be. The second issue was not.

Every cyclist we’d met over the last few months who’d been up in the mountains had warned us that a large section of the Tibetan Highway was undergoing major reconstruction work that rendered it impassable. Without that road there didn’t seem to be any way for us to get out of the mountains once we got there. Ever since we heard the news, we'd many long afternoons staring at maps and delving into internet forums trying to piece together an alternative route, but every track we traced either took us too far north, where our visas would expire before we’d have chance to renew them, or else they led to more dead-ends and broken roads.

As the sun baked the pavement outside, we were sat at the back of a Jing Hong coffee house, surrounded by maps, notepads and guidebooks. It was the third day we'd been there. Our bikes would be ready soon and once we got back on the road there just wouldn’t be time for this level of research again. We had less than a month until we got there. But nothing worked. I glanced glumly at the alternative: a highway diversion around the mountains that skirted all the interesting bits.

Liv had by now gotten very tired of plotting and replotting routes that never quite worked, so while I was glaring angrily at my map, she decided to take a quick break and take a look at some photos to motivate her. With the Hengduan Mountains zoomed in on Google Maps she hit the ‘photos’ button… and an interesting thing happened.

“Robin. I think I’ve found it.”

She turned the netbook around and there, running right through a stretch unmarked by any road on any map was a breadcrumb trail of photographs dotted along from the apparent dead end of one trail to link with another a hundred kilometres away. She clicked one of the pictures. It showed a precarious sand track pressed against a sheer drop, and there in the bottom edge of the frame was a black blob. A bicycle pannier. A lone cyclist had found an unmarked trail and geotagged his way down and now we had a track to follow around the closed roads. Our mountain route was on!

* China: A History, John Keay pg 89

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Laos VI: Royal Rest

Friday 5 October 2012, somewhere near Phou Khoun, Luang Prabang District, Laos

Somewhere in the greasy inner workings of the spindle on which my pedal arms turned, a little ball bearing was preparing to mutiny. For months he had laboured diligently alongside his ring of colleagues to guide each rotation smoothly round, but the work had been getting heavier lately. These Laotian hills demanded heavy turns that laid sustained, warping pressure on the chrome-steel crew, and this little ball had reached his limit. As he was tossed around another grinding turn he finally rebelled and broke rank with a defiant clonk.


We were halfway up the hill when the noise came. Liv pulled up beside me as I dismounted to inspect the damage, tugging the pedals to feel the mechanism chatter inside. This was not good. We had neither the tools nor the skill to fix this, and the last time this clonk-and-wobble had occurred the entire bottom bracket had given out within minutes. Miraculously that end had come within metres of the final summit of the Cameron Highlands, giving us a 55 kilometre clear downhill run to the next bike shop. But luck like that doesn't come round twice. Now we were facing a day and a half of heavy riding until the next town. So if this bracket gave out anywhere near as quickly as the last, we’d have no choice but to hitch a lift and break the spell of cycling the whole way across Asia.

The riding up to then had been glorious. From the Plain of Jars our road had cut west over rising waves of shrub-jungle hills. The hillsides were patchy where the jungle had fallen to farming or logging, yet forests remained and in the fields between the land still teemed with saplings and wildflowers trembling in the warm meridian wind.

Our road wound on and the landscape steepened and grew. Great rocky outcrops tore above the trees in the far distance, and at dusk the fog crept over the landscape to pour down into the deep, river-creased valleys below. By the second day the ascents had become afternoon-long affairs, but we were fit enough to enjoy them by now. The shift from easy rolling to stiff, doughy climbs was never pleasant, but we’d learned to ease down a notch and hold a steady pace. Aching legs were just the prelude to a cosy buzz of endorphins—that same warm contentment you earned as a kid chasing through fields on long summer days. We fired those feelings on the way up and in time we’d reach the top and find a whole new realm unfurled before us, just as the momentum caught us and sent us storming down the far side, fingers clenched and the wind roaring in our ears.

So we were getting the hang of the hills, but our judgement of distance still left a lot to be desired. At the end of that second day and with miles to go to the next town, the sky revolved through dusk, the road darkened and we found ourselves riding through a void of black geography and stars. There was no moon, no distant glow from any towns; the night was pitch blackness and as it fell the frogs and crickets shrieked with delight.

For two strange hours it was as though we had passed into another world. All the amphibious, anthropodic, creeping, croaking creatures of the woods seemed to have risen together to proclaim their dominion here. We were in their realm now and only barely tolerated—a sentiment regularly batted home by the wings of the fat moths and katydids that kept thumping into us.

Progress was slow with our bike-lights waning, but finally a glow did appear beyond a rise and we rolled at last into the yellow glare of a little junction town called Phou Khoun. As we climbed the wooden steps to our room that night we saw a dozen moths dancing around the landing lightbulb, and through the window an electron-cloud throbbed around the porchlight.  

The next day the junction set us north for the final run into Luang Prabang. There were two days and two large hills to go, and it was on the first of these that my bottom bracket cracked out of place. We knew there was nothing we could do to fix it, and yet despite the rattle and our past experience, the pedals did still turn. So we vowed to push on for as long as we could, fully expecting the mechanism to collapse within the hour. But it held. It held all the way till dusk that day when we turned in for the night. And then it held again, though crackling and grinding, as we ascended the final 700 metre hill the next day.

We came clattering into Luang Prabang in the late afternoon, gazing relievedly at the white-washed town houses and the street vendors’ smouldering grills, pleasantly surprised to have made it. Despite its city status, Luang Prabang had a country town feel to it. The streets were quiet, the buildings low and pleasant with louvered shutters cast in pastel shades, and the town itself seemed to have somehow slipped in between the forest, leaving broad-leaved trees free to flourish between the houses and drape their canopies over the roads. This ancient royal capital, caressed by the lazy waters of the Mekong, was to be our refuge as we rested and dealt with the bikes.

The next day we awoke to find a city twinkling with stupas and the high golden gables of Buddhist temples, barely risen from its low season and yet still amply supplied with cafes and cushioned seats to collapse in with a book. But we couldn’t find a mechanic. A guy who ran a cycle hire told us there was probably someone in Vientiane, but the idea of a two-day bus ride with a bike was not appealing, not without confirmation and not if we could avoid it.

I took my toolkit and a rag and found through gritted teeth that I could just about tighten the cups of the bracket by hand. This restricted the wobble of the pedals and some of the strain on the inner mechanism, but it made the pedals too stiff to turn and so forced a compromise that fell not far short of the state it had been in three hours earlier before I’d got black-handed meddling with it. Putting the hours in, however, left the impression that I’d somehow improved the situation so it no longer warranted the previous level of concern. We should have looked into the mechanic in Vientiane the next day, but when the time came our research was desultory and inconclusive. All we managed to do was confirm the existence of another mechanic 450 kilometres away north over the border in China.

Considering the care we had taken with so much else on this trip it was uncharacteristically sloppy of us to let our efforts here peter out and lay our faith in good fortune to see us across the border, but that’s exactly what we did. I can only say that we had a lot on our minds. In four weeks it was our plan to ride into the Hengduan Mountains, a curling storm of snow peaks on the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. The topographic profile of the months ahead showed a forest of jagged inclines that dwarfed the very highest of the Laotian hills. Within weeks we would be climbing up to almost 5000 metres—more than three times higher than anything in Laos and well into the realm where severe altitude sickness could set in. Beyond the risk of fatal pulmonary edema that this posed, and not forgetting those wolves and bears that apparently lurked up there, we realised we would be entering right at the onset of winter with temperatures looking set to dive double figures below zero. 

But, technically speaking, these things we could deal with. We could buy warmer bedding, we knew how to handle altitude sickness (descend, descend, descend!); and okay there probably wasn’t much we could do about a bear or a pack of wolves, but we knew that such an encounter was extremely unlikely. The one thing we could not resolve was how we were actually going to get out of the mountains once we got there. We’d read months ago that our exit road, the Tibetan Highway, had been rendered impassable by major roadworks, but given the speed China put up skyscrapers we assumed these would be finished long before we arrived. Yet the online reports remained the same and the cyclists we met in Laos who’d been up there all confirmed our fears.

“You can’t go that way. The road is totally gone for, like, 70 miles or something.”

Without an alternative route our mountain plan was scuppered, but an alternative route was not forthcoming. An airy fatalism descended on us in Luang Prabang, the success of the coming months now left at the mercy of road workers or the off-chance that we discovered some secret unmarked trail. Unless something changed in the next four weeks we’d just have to turn back at the edge of the mountains, at the edge of what should have been the pinnacle of a year’s riding, and instead take a long diversion down a string of busy intercity highways. Really, what did a loose bracket matter now that our mountain plan was in dangling by a thread? And what hope would we have in the mountains anyway if we couldn’t even handle a mechanical failure without assistance in these clement conditions?

Luang Prabang is not the kind of place to permit any kind of stress to take root for long. By the third day we probably had every intention of taking decisive steps to get the bike fixed, but the riverside cafe we visited for breakfast was just that little bit too comfortable to desert so soon. Pots of tea arrived and were resupplied as the sun sailed over the river, tilting shadows out from under the pillared arcades that lined the town’s streets, and circling dials around the stone dogs that sat guard beneath the sparkling old temples. Hours and days slid by like the pages of our books, and all thoughts of mechanical failures and road closures dissolved into endless pots of tea and hot plumes of steam in the old town sauna. 

It was with a guilty start one afternoon that we realised we’d been in Luang Prabang for two whole weeks. Vague plans to take a wending trail through the north of the country burst as we eyed up the most direct route to the border and realised that even this left us barely enough time to get there before our visas expired. I bitterly regretted our negligence as soon as we set off the next morning. The bracket chewed at itself far worse than I remembered and now we had no choice but to trust to luck that the bracket would hold the 300 kilometres to the border.

The omens were not good. Within a couple of hours a stone knocked a puncture through my thinning front tyre, and as we stopped to fix it a Swiss couple cycling south pulled over to exchange details of our respective roads ahead. We told them about our plan to ride through the mountains and they earnestly warned us to forget about it; the road was unrideable sludge.

Hard hills came on the second day and with them came hard, heavy rain. We arrived at a guesthouse hours after dark, damp and exhausted, but relieved at least to have made it to within a day's ride of the border. Then, early the following afternoon, the bracket made a sharp crunching sound and the pedal orbit jolted another half inch out of place. I chewed my lip and jiggled the pedals hopelessly, before Liv and I took a deep breath and gently pressed on.

Not long after this our quiet road began to thicken with lorries and HGVs and then the red-roofed offices of Laos immigration rolled into view. Our relief at arriving was quickly tempered by the unavoidable conclusion that we were rattling into the final stages of our journey grossly ill-equipped and ill-prepared for the challenges ahead. Yet as we bedded down in a truckers’ lodge that night, phoneticizing and transferring Chinese phrases into our notebooks, our anxieties settled and the dull thuds of adrenaline leant to that final night in Laos a growing sense of excitement. Despite the distance and the mountains and the dire state of our bicycles, Beijing, our final destination, felt suddenly within our reach.


Sunday, 15 March 2015

Laos V: Ghosts and the Plain of Jars

Saturday 29 September 2012, Phonsavan, Xiangkhouang, Laos

Legend has it that the plains of central Laos were once ruled by a tyrant called Chao Angka. His barbaric governance held his subjects in fear and misery, but none could oppose his powerful army, and the merest whiff of insurrection would be met with terrible punishments. Yet there was only so much suffering his people could take. Driven by desperation, some fled and risked their lives to seek assistance abroad. A few made it beyond the borders, but were captured and hauled before Khun Jeuam, the powerful king who ruled the lands of the north. He listened as they trembling relayed their treasonous case for the deposition of their king; and Khun Jeuam thought awhile, for he was a just man. After a long silence he rose to his feet. He took up his spear, marshalled his army and marched them chanting south.

The two great armies collided on the plains: Khun Jeuam leading the charge into battle; Chao Angka raging furiously at the oncoming invaders. The battle was long and violent, but finally the defending army were routed and Chao Angka, the tyrant of the plains, fell lifeless and bloody to the ground.

A roar of elation went up. Khun Jeuam was victorious! The people were free! This called for a celebration like nothing seen before. This called for a megalithic piss up! They wasted no time, promptly firing hundreds of stone jars large enough to carry gallons of rice wine. These pots were huge, with many standing taller than a man.

It makes you wonder if these really were men at all. Their stone jars are so massive that surely only a giant could lift them. So perhaps instead we should imagine an army of giants, drunk on victory and gargantuan quantities of booze, rolling about on the plains, kicking their feet and singing songs to the sky in triumph. They must have had a suitably giant hangover the next day too, because nobody cleaned up and the aftermath is still spread over an area of 5,500 square kilometres. It is called the Plain of Jars.

Our stay in the central plains was low key in comparison. After our night with the Lao shopkeeper and his family, we rolled down out of the hills to the region’s capital, Phonsavan. We found the town basking in a wide cropped plain at a confluence of roads flowing in from the south, east and west. After so long riding through thatch and bamboo villages, the pillared balconies and solid construction of the houses gave the town a striking sense of permanence. We rode down the dust-blown boulevard until we reached a proliferation of restaurants and guesthouses—a proper tourist district, the first we’d seen in weeks. After days of eating noodles and rat meat and not being sure where we’d sleep each night, I’m sure you can imagine the excitement we felt about a few days of good food and a guaranteed bed. 

On the road to Phonsavan
We were scrupulously restful, lounging around for days as we caught up with sleep, calories and the blog. Then early one morning we wheeled our bikes unloaded out of our room and pedalled towards the low grassy hills behind the town. We locked the bikes up and continued on foot, and then ahead of us as we climbed we saw dozens of enormous stone jars rising into view.

They really are huge. They’re rounded like barrels and beaten out of tonne-lumps of granite, the largest standing ten feet tall. There are also hundreds of them, spread like autumn seeds across the hills and tapering away over the horizon. We approached the nearest cluster and peered inside. Their original contents are lost and their hollow interiors are now filled with plant-life or rainwater, transforming them into little capsule kingdoms for frogs, spiders and lizards. We ambled from cluster to cluster in the hazy morning sun, cresting hills to find new swathes of grass speckled with more giant jars. Confronted by a spectacle on such a scale, we couldn’t help but wonder why anybody had gone to the trouble of making them. The legend of Chao Angka is good, and like so many folktales I suspect it has some basis in reality (probably one in which Khun Jeuam is no more kind and just than the last king, but victorious nonetheless), but sadly it’s unlikely these pots were ever used to store wine for a victory party.

Drawn by the mystery and hoping to find some answers, a French archaeologist called Madeleine Colani arrived in the region back in the 1920s. She was a curious lady, dressing all in black and bringing her younger sister with her to serve as a much-suffering assistant. Together they set out along dilapidated tracks into monsoon jungle, sleeping beneath banana leaves and venturing into subterranean caverns—Madeleine apparently once lowering her sister down into the darkness on a rope and refusing to pull her back out again until she found something interesting. The pair spent years gathering evidence from ashes and bone fragments and finally proposed the now generally-accepted theory that these mighty jars were built to hold the mortal remains of the chieftains who once controlled the salt route that ran through the area around two thousand years ago. They are funerary pots. Traces of this history still inhabit the folklore of Muang Phukoot district, where it is believed that to disturb the jars is to risk disturbing the ancient spirits that sleep inside.

A butterfly that was fluttering around the jars.

As we wandered between the jars that day, the restlessness of Laos’ more recent history was also apparent. Deep, half-sphere craters were blown out of the hills, and there was a boundary of red and white markers all around to indicate which areas had yet to be cleared of explosives. A strategic junction thousands of years ago, the Plain of Jars remained so in the 1960s as the forces of the Second Indochina War boiled up out of Vietnam and Laos.

Following the Second World War, communism exploded around South East Asia in opposition to the lingering stench of colonial rule. By 1954 the Anti-French Resistance in Vietnam had driven their old masters out, fast-tracking French-ruled Laos’ to independence.

Laos was undecided about its future. Three paths lay before it: left to communism, right to maintain its monarchy, and a vague trail of middle-ground neutrality somewhere between. In a bid to balance these conflicting pressures, the last King of Laos, Sisavang Vatthana, named three princes rulers of a new coalition government. Each fiercely believed in one of these paths and it was hoped that together they might steer Laos through the troubles ahead.

And there were troubles. As France withdrew from Vietnam in 1954, America tagged in to pick up the war against the communists in the north. Twenty years of gruelling conflict were still to come, on top of the ten already endured between the French and Viet Minh. The Viet Minh had already spilled into Laos and were occupying significant areas of land to secure their supply lines to South Vietnam. A maelstrom was converging on South East Asia, and Laos was desperate to keep out of its way.
Hard to see here, but that brownish patch in the middle of the photo is a bomb crater

In many ways it is not surprising that the 1962 International Agreement on the Neutrality of Laos was a failure. The North Vietnamese depended on their Laos-side supply lines for their war against the Americans. They also saw an ally in the Pathet Laos, and became increasingly active in supporting and directing these Laotian communists. America for its part could not sit back knowing that the Viet Minh were sneaking down the wings of the conflict zone, but they could not engage in open war there due to Laos’ neutrality. So the CIA enlisted the help of a Laotian General called Vang Pao, a man of influence in the Hmong tribes who inhabited the crucial area in the north. In the early 1960s Vang Pao hiked from village to village to gather an army to fight the communist forces. This “Secret Army” was financed by the CIA, and supported by US air drops and reconnaissance. As the conflict intensified these aerial support missions would evolve into the cataclysmic bombing runs that would contaminate Laos with unexploded munitions and wreck or end the lives of over 50,000 civilians in the decades to come.

The ground war for Laos was largely played out on the Plain of Jars. For a decade, it was here that Vang Pao’s forces dug in and fought the encroaching communists. Each year they were overwhelmed and beaten back; but then the rains came and washed the trails away, throttling the communists’ supply lines, so Vang Pao and his Hmong Secret Army could charge in again, retake the plains and dig in for the next spin of the wheel.

With the popularity of the Vietnam war waning in the US and the press getting wind of its involvement in this clandestine war in neutral Laos, by 1973 the US was making for the door. Vang Pao’s aerial support dwindled, so too did his army, suffering unsustainable losses on the battlefield. In 1975 the Plain of Jars fell to the communists for the last time, sending the Hmong people scattering for their lives. In June of that year the Pathet Lao marched into the royal capital of Luang Prabang and by December they held Vientiane. 600 years of monarchy in Laos was ended on 2 December 1975. Sisavang Vatthana, the last king of Laos, was sent to an internment camp where he died in unknown circumstances sometime between 1978 and 1984.

The Hmong people were now trapped in a country ruled by the army they had spent a decade fighting. Some, including Vang Pao, were able to escape before the Pathet Laos could close off the borders and airfields, but thousands were left stranded with their new rulers bent on hunting them down. Facing death squads and napalm strikes, many fled into Laos’ forested mountains where they hunkered down and prayed that their US allies would return to save them. 

Thirty years later, in 2006, 400 Hmong veterans and their families emerged from the mountains. They had spent three decades living like hunted animals, but they could stand it no longer. They were promptly arrested and they have never been heard of again. It’s thought there may be many more Hmong still hiding out in these mountains, possibly thousands, trapped in the hills with nowhere to turn. While across the towns of Laos each year, the celebrations of the communist victory go on, with fanfare, fireworks and plenty of rice wine.

The people of Laos carry their history lightly. Travelling through the country it’s easy to miss the signs of the old horrors amid the stream of smiling faces. There’s a quiet determination to get on with life here. In the tourist district of Phonasavan, empty bombshells are welded together to make cafes, while up by the jars we were offered cutlery and necklaces fashioned out of shrapnel. On the edge of town, Mulberries Silk Farm has established a sustainable silk industry: rearing silk worms, growing mulberry trees to feed them, and training local people to work the looms.

Laos gets on with things with great dignity and warmth, despite having every reason to rail at the players and circumstances that conspired against them only a few decades ago. It puts the challenges of our rather contrived adventure very firmly in their place. That night, however, I was feeling a little less stoic about our challenges. A dose of mild food poisoning left me crumpled round the toilet with my head against the porcelain, so we were forced to take another day off so that I could recover. Ahead of us were some of the biggest hills of the trip as our road cut west towards the old royal capital of Luang Prabang.

*    *    *    *    *

Leaving Phonsavan

Working the looms at Mulberries Silk Farm
A barrel of night: indigo dye from Mulberries silk farm
Working conditions for the silk moths are poor.