After leaving my guesthouse early, the narrow piece of tarmac was replaced by gravel then red dirt and finally stones and boulders leading me through the hills and down to a rivers edge where it stopped. That was odd, my 'Google Map' sat-nav has never failed and it explicitly led me here. There was no ongoing road on the far bank and had there been a local fisherman would have been persuaded to row me across so I could continue. The river would go deeply into the mountains. I imagined where I am at night, a river, the Mekon flowing into the heart of the jungles of Indochina. Joseph Conrad said, “I don't like work, no man does, but I like what is in the work, the chance to find yourself. Your own reality, for yourself not for others, what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means.”
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
I found a guesthouse lodging for the night (£4) and because I found no one in the area to speak any English it was impossible to do anything but take the long way round to Vang Vieng through the Ban Nalouang mountains. A fella who was welding a large boat that he said would be floated on the river at the next rains said that Phonsavan was miles away, way way over there and he gesticulated a long way high up over the far hills. Finding another route to the Plain of Jars was my task for the day, hardly a trying task in such a peaceful and beautiful country.
On the Road to the Road that Doesn't Exist
It was all going so well, no punctures, no injuries, no bad stuff at all and I'm in the middle of the mountains that separate Laos, China and Vietnam. It would take me a day or so to cross into China. Then in all of this, my present world of faraway places the road stopped at a river and it shouldn't have done, or so I thought. So I retraced my route, on and on, cycling in a warm morning that got hotter until I found a guesthouse and settled down for the night.
Retracing last nights ride I returned to the junction where my sat nav had faulted, went north for Vieng Vang and found a Cafe Amazon and stood myself a flat white. Even here amongst an area the world knows little about, within sight of the Hmong Hill Tribes, there are tiny vestiges of a life I have long left behind.
Beside the cafe, the PTT gas station had a small mini market, a stand selling corn dogs, serving up fries and hamburgers whilst opposite a small travel agency advertised a menu of local tours. The weather is sunny and dry and should remain so for months yet. The cars and vans look new and young ladies sit quietly sunning themselves, taking selfies and a couple apply their make up. It’s a snapshot of a society that has polemicised; the young are not like the old. The young wave at me and want to engage, the old do not. The young have grow up with the world on their telephone, the old have not.
The School Run
All I see are youngsters riding their bicycles to school laughing and being really happy, and they really do have so little. Yet mum makes sure that they have nice clean white shirts, every day.
I ride all day and when I get hot I stop at an 'Ice-Stall' and buy a flavoured drink - cream soda syrup, condensed milk, lots of ice, a dry power flavour of choice - green tea, strawberry, coffee, chocolate - my favourite is vanilla - all whizzed up in a blender.
The Special Laos Flavoured Drink
If you ever make it to Laos you will see these drinks stalls everywhere. Marvellous. The condensed milk is a huge taste and the crushed ice keeps everything super cold for ages.
The final climb, 20kms in the dark, battery management all wrong so ride without any power. Corners ankle deep in sand dust pulverised by trucks sliding through their gears to get the traction they need to belch forward. I push the bike, the tyres hidden by the dust which rises above my head the colour of a rusty sky. I try not to breathe and stand until it settles. The hill steepens. I knew about the guest house from Google Maps. Halfway up the hill I stop to take breath when a minibus stops and the driver is a tour guide and asks me if I need help. He’s staying at my accommodation with his six Hungarian clients and they share freshly cooked goulash.
The guesthouse was a favoured country retreat for the Thai royal family long since used only by weary travellers chancing on it being open. 102 miles ridden. Time to sleep. I'm gone.
Map of the Day