An overland journey home

Kiwi journalists Mauricio Olmedo-Perez and Charlotte Whale are taking the scenic route home from London.

China and Laos: From superpower to super minnow

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Roadside dentistry in Guiyang: The greater the pain, the bigger the audience. Photo / Charlotte Whale
Roadside dentistry in Guiyang: The greater the pain, the bigger the audience. Photo / Charlotte Whale

When we got off the train in the city of Huiahua to do our excursion to Fenghuang, Charlotte left her e-reader behind. The train had left by the time she realised. She does this kind of thing a lot.

With the help of a friendly passerby who happened to know some English, the train officials said they'd have it back in two days when we came back to leave town. We thought: no chance.

But when we returned to the station we were invited into the staff's private office, with plush sofas and excited officials including the station master. Only one of them spoke very basic English but she let us know the Kindle was on its way back from goodness knows where.

While we waited, there was a constant stream of station staff coming to check us out - it wasn't often they had such a close encounter with foreigners. We were given frequent updates on the progress of our prized possession until it finally arrived.

China rail has its own newspaper and the staff wanted a photo for The People's Railway Daily. I had a great laugh as the workers lined up next to a very embarrassed Charlotte with the centrepiece of course being the Kindle.

"You must look at the Kindle" shouted the station master, so Charlotte looked at the device for the photo, the workers smiled, gave peace signs, job done.

We were then given a special escort to our departing train, the station workers waving us of as if we were family members leaving on a long journey.

And we did have a long way to go. It was a big haul to Kunming, in the far southwest.

We stopped over in Guiyang to break it up. This was yet another massive nondescript city with a population far exceeding New Zealand's, but we quite like stopping in random places that the guide books tell you not to bother staying in. You get a real taste of everyday life for the average Joe Wang.

Taking a wander through the suburbs in China is a feast for the eyes. In Guiyang we saw people in parks practising Tai Chi, ballroom dancing and aerobics. We witnessed people getting health checks out in the open, having their ears and eyes cleaned. Some were even getting dental work done, right there out in the open. The more work needed, the greater the pain, the bigger the audience.

Elderly people played Mahjong, listening to others tell stories or play instruments. Right next to them, pornography and sex lotions were on sale. No one seemed to mind. Everyone just lives and lets live. There's a real sense of community, and most of the time they had big smiles for Charlotte and me.

Kunming is a major university town with more than a dozen higher learning institutions. Lots of westerners teach English there as they themselves learn Mandarin.

I was surfing a Kunming website aimed at foreigners and saw a review of a Kiwi cafe called Slice of Heaven. We headed over and as soon as we went in the door we heard some Salmonella Dub beats and saw signs for Sunday roasts and potato top pies... ah bliss.

We met the owner, Barbara Duff from Christchurch, and spent the evening chatting with her. She came to Kunming six years ago to teach English and after a few years thought it might be worth opening the place.

Duff has a Chinese business partner called Yan Bin, who was a colleague at her university. She said it would be almost impossible to set up something a business venture like the cafe without a Chinese contact. Not just because of language, but because of all the red tape that needs to be sorted though. The country is extremely bureaucratic.

Throughout the evening Westerners came and went, grabbing good coffee and homemade bread.

Our next destination was Laos so we passed through Jinghong and breezed through the border.

I'm giving away my age here, but I was last in Laos 13 years ago. It was one of my first backpacking experiences and one of the main reasons I decided to leave New Zealand to travel the world. Back then Laos, which is one of the world's poorest countries, was in its very early stages of building up tourism so I was looking forward to seeing what had changed.

I first noticed that the roads are sealed now. China has invested a lot of money in Laos' roads to get business going. They are also pumping electricity into the north. But even with the influence of its massive neighbour, Laos is a place where basic living is the norm.

The scenery was incredible. A beautiful, mountainous and forested land dotted with an array of indigenous villages. We headed to the border town of Muang Sing to do a hill trek and see some of those villages up close.

Getting around Laos is the hardest thing about the place, it takes around an hour to cover 30 kilometres of winding and twisting roads in very cramped overloaded minibuses. That hasn't changed at all in the north.

Our forest guide, Khamla, was only 22 but he grew up in a nearby village so knew the jungle inside out. For six hours he led us through dense tropical forest teaching us about how the locals live in the bush, showing us the food they gather and hunt and the way they use flora for medicine and resources.

At one stage he suddenly stopped and yelled out at Charlotte to jump back. She had stepped about a foot away from a very poisonous snake.

Charlotte didn't even flinch - from bellinis in Notting Hill to a female Bear Grylls... okay that's probably a bit of a stretch but it's great to see how so many weeks on the road have changed her.

Khamla had been learning many Western songs from his trekkers over the years and he seemed to really like Lionel Richie. There was something quite odd about tramping through the middle of nowhere to the sound of Say You Say Me.

We were quite exhausted, legs burning, when we finally came out of the jungle singing "We all live in a yellow submarine" and arrived in the Akha village where we were to stay the night. It was picture postcard stuff, lots of bamboo houses on stilts with scruffy but smiling kids everywhere. Chickens, ducks, pigs and water buffalo were roaming around freely with their young behind them. We did notice the odd satellite dish though, which always looks strange on top of a bamboo home.

We happened to arrive on a very special day, a new house had just been completed and this was a major event in the village. It only took two days to build because one man from each family had to lend a hand.

Once finished, the village celebrates by slaughtering a massive pig inside the house. Charlotte and I watched as its hair was removed with boiling water and a spoon, then chopped up, once again, all inside the house.

We were given a special invitation to join the festivities. It was a real honour and we couldn't turn it down. It was basically a massive banquet with copious amounts of fairly lethal local moonshine passed around liberally.

All the older people eat first, the woman wearing traditional head dresses. We were soon downing shots as the men from the other tables kept showing us their empty vessels so we had to keep up. It was well needed once the food came, very very local food mostly made up of the freshly killed pig. Raw pork was the main dish, then pig blood, raw pig fat, mashed heart of bamboo, mashed banana tree. We couldn't say no, of course, so down it all went, with eager eyes all around waiting for our reaction. I don't know if was the moonshine, but it wasn't actually too bad.

We gave up in the early hours because we had an early start and we left as the trance music was starting. These guys sure knew how to party, and it was only just beginning: the festivities would go on for the rest of the next day with the slaughtering of an ox and water buffalo. For us, it was a hangover and more trekking.

Laos has definitely done it again in my books and although modernisation is finally happening in the remote north, the region hasn't lost any of its quaint charm and should be near the top of any adventure traveller's to do list.

Next up is more agonising minibus travel to Luang Prabang, and then onto the party town of Vang Vieng.

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