Wednesday, 5 March 2014

North by northeast

I got up at 6, so I could go to breakfast at 6.30 and be ready for a 7am bus.
Typically for Lao, the bus did not arrive until 8.
Typically for southeast Asia, the bus picked up a few passengers near the hostel, did a circuit of the town picking up a few townsfolk, then stopped back at the hostel for 20 minutes. I've never quite been able to come up with a reason for this, other than that of ensuring all of the people paying five times as much for a ticket manage to get a seat. Which I am happy to admit makes sense as a business model. It's a little annoying when you're travelling on a tight budget, but there's no getting away from the fact that you're still going to have significantly more disposable income than the locals.

The journey to the border passed uneventfully. At the border, a Chinese couple behind me advised me that slipping a few hundred kip into my passport when I handed it over would facilitate proceedings. The French couple in front of me had no kip, nor yuan. They had only USD. Unwilling to part with those, they forswore greasing the wheels of bureaucracy. Since they had no problems as a result, so did I. As with Cambodia to Thailand and Thailand to Lao, there is quite a gap between the Lao emigration administration point and Chinese immigration. Not realising this necessitated a quick return visit to Lao around the border fencing to use the loos, which are for some unknown reason only available on the Lao side of the border checkpoint.

The Chinese border building was somewhat more imposing than the Lao offering.

Armed guards meet the bus and inspect your luggage, and dire warnings describe what will happen if you bring so much as a marshmallow into China. Once through immigration (a nervewracking process as the border staff seemed to realise I had more than one visa on the page – the consulate had simply pasted one over the other – and much time was spent holding it up to the light and squinting), I was immediately collared by a highly amused Chinese man who wanted his photo taken with me.
This was not a rare occurrence as I passed through China. Most of my time in China, I garnered more than my fair share of being unabashedly stared at (either there is no cultural association between staring and rudeness, or it doesn't apply to foreigners). This was the first hint of that. I failed to twig quite how much it would happen.

Arriving at Jing Hong, I had several sets of directions to my hostel depending on which bus station we had come in to. Establishing which one we were at took half an hour of failed miming and ineffective phrasebook use with helpful locals (who got as far as telling us we were in Jong Hong, then kept directing us to the ticket office), being ignored by the non-English speaking tourist information staff (to the point they would leave the desk when we approached), and trying to find a sign that seemed in any way to be relevant. Eventually, one local had enough English to let us know which of the bus stations we were at, and I made it to the hostel about an hour later, after one missed local bus, one that refused to stop, one bus journey and two wrong turns on foot. These involved more comedic sign language, again largely unsuccessful. I should play charades more often.

Sometimes I miss my smartphone.

At the hostel I met Jane. Another lone traveller, she was on her 4th visit to China. Discussing itineraries, she advised that it would be easier to get a bus to Lijiang than to Dali (which is the closer of the two) heading north. As I intended to come back south anyway before heading east into the rest of China through Kunming, it seemed sensible to at least look into both options.

I hadn’t been sure how long I would spend in Jinghong, but as the afternoon temperature climbed into the high 30s – forcing me indoors and putting me in either a poor humour or heat-induced torpor – I decided that continuing to move north swiftly was the best course. Jane came with me to the bus station to try to book tickets. She had already secured hers, and had experience of not only the difficulties of the booking process but the layout of the buses and which seats to avoid.
The main issue with booking the tickets was with getting anyone to pay any attention. In a pattern that recurred frequently throughout my travels in China, officials are rather reluctant to assist Westerners. Approaching the ticket desk, the attendant continued to do paperwork, ignoring me completely (despite several attempts at the correct Chinese pronunciation of ‘excuse me’). Eventually I gave up and changed queue to a different window. As the person behind me in the queue approached Aloof Attendant, she immediately put away the paperwork to assist them. At the next counter, when I reached it, I asked for bus times to Dali and Lijiang – doing my best to ask in Chinese, and pointing to the kanji in my guidebook in case my pronunciation was as bad as I thought. Part way through my explanation, a local cut into the line ahead of me and the attendant immediately turned away from me to assist them. There was no explanation or apology – just an instant abandonment of my cause.

Given the already significant communication issues, the whole process was rather protracted. Eventually, however, with Jane’s assistance, we worked out that the only night buses to Dali were to the new city – about 20 km away from the old city, and containing little except the airport – and arrived at times not conducive to onward travel. Lijiang it would be.

Tickets booked, Jane and I went to explore Jinghong.

The following day, having watched three buses and two taxis sail past before a taxi stopped for me, I made it to the bus by the skin of my teeth and finally left the Mekong region.

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