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Soundtrack: 'From Four Till Late' - Robert Johnson

I forget whether I bothered to ask how long this bus would take and the answer would surely have been ten hours even if I had, but the actual duration was about fifteen hours, getting us into Kunming for the morning rush hour.  The route was through hilly territory but mostly on good-quality highway.  There were two long delays for traffic jams plus a shorter delay as we queued to get past a car engulfed in fierce flames.  We all peered through the windows as we crept right past it, trying to make out if there was a skeleton inside.  I couldn't see any and was relieved to notice three people huddled together by the roadside two hundred yards further on, who I assumed had been the passengers. 

My original planning to get out of China on time had assumed that I would get here in the evening.  It also assumed I would leave in a morning and have to take a bus to Jinghong before getting another bus to Mengla the day after.  It turned out that there were direct night buses to Mengla from here, so all of this rolled together to give me two and a half days to see the city.  I bought myself a bus ticket before walking off to the hostel.  Departure time, two days later, was three-thirty in the afternoon.  Estimated duration until arrival in Mengla was, of course, "about ten hours". 

After checking in, resting a bit, eating and catching up on some admin, I actually did very little with the rest of the day.  I tried to order a cheese and egg sandwich for breakfast, but the grinning Chinese guy taking orders kept insisting that they only made cheese sandwiches or egg sandwiches.  I explained that I had ordered this before, with no problems, from the same menu at other hostels, but the levels of his lack of understanding were breathtaking.  It wasn't a language issue, it was that, in his Chinese way, he had no concept of even the possibility that one could deviate from what was written down.  Another girl working there came to my help, although saying I would need to pay a bit extra (fair enough), but he still couldn't grasp it.  Back at my seat a few minutes later, he brought me a plate of processed cheese slices (still in their wrapper yet cut corner-to-corner) and explained that the egg sandwich would follow later, whereupon I could add the cheese to it myself.  From the bemused, laughing expression on his face, you'd think this crazy western guy was asking to put the plate in the sandwich. 

The next day I went out to get a couple of things ready for Laos.  Everything I had heard told me that visas were available at the border, but I wanted to confirm this and also confirm what paperwork was needed.  I walked across town to the Laos consulate and it turned out that there was nothing to worry about.  Next job was to find a bank to get some US dollars.  Laos kip are not available anywhere outside the country, but the dollar is accepted in many places with a weak economy so I wanted to make sure I had something useful with me when I stepped into the country for the first time.  I soon found that only the Bank of China could do this for me, but I found a branch and all was good. 

After further walking, I was in a city park, full of small lakes, connecting bridges and thousands of locals enjoying the pleasant day.  Gathered around an archway were a crowd of people watching a display of traditional dancing and music from a pensioners group.  I hope they wouldn't be offended by that description even if they did ever read this, but they did mostly look of pensionable age to me.  There was a small band playing some instruments, an informal choir singing and a dozen women in a succession of outfits dancing around in formation.  The whole troupe was lead by one of the dancing women who wore a strong forced smile that broke into a scowl if something displeased her or even a shouting temper on one occasion when the band and choir got something wrong and a routine had to be restarted.  Still, every group needs a focussed leader to keep it all together, so we mustn't criticise.  The whole exercise was very out of character from my experiences of China because it didn't appear to be an officially-organised display.  It may be the most normal thing in the world to us, to have a local club learning and displaying dancing or music or another type of hobby, but what I have learnt of Chinese culture and what I have seen on the streets suggest the total opposite here. 

I found a vegetarian restaurant for dinner.  They specialised in recreating meat dishes by styling, shaping or colouring the meat substitute in whatever way required.  This produced such oddities as fish, birds or even a whole turtle with its shell.  I ordered the shredded eel but forgot on this particular occasion to specify that I didn't want it spicy.  This was a particularly foolish omission given how much spicy food dominates in this region, so I had to force most of it down me when it arrived, even after picking all of the chilli pieces out. 

Back at the hostel, I prepared to watch the FA Cup fourth round replay between Everton and Liverpool from Goodison Park.  A ten-past-eight kick-off time wasn't until ten past four in China.  I sat up late and dozed for an hour on the bean bags before it commenced.  After ninety goalless minutes, it pushed into extra time where still the stalemate persisted.  However, I was finally rewarded with a goal a minute from time and, unlike viewers back in the UK, I was watching it through a feed from Chinese television so I didn't have to endure ITV's cock-up of accidentally switching to adverts just before they scored.  The hostel staff were beginning to open up the bar for breakfast when I started clapping furiously and punching the air in celebration. 

Exhausted, afterwards I went to bed at almost seven AM for a few hours sleep before checkout.  I went back out into town for a stroll around, some essential shopping and food for the bus, before a taxi to the bus station.  The ride was reasonable enough through the night.  We seemed to stop in a yard at four AM, but I wasn't sure what we were waiting for as no one was getting off.  It turned out that we had arrived in Mengla, but the driver was happy to let everyone continue sleeping until the morning.  We were turfed off at seven thirty.  I had seen Mengla described in two different editions of the Lonely Planet.  One describes it as a "dire town" and the other as a "grim town" (their italics).  Mercifully, I saw little of it.  With a little help from a local taxi driver who was still keen to assist even though I didn't want his services, I was able to get a bus to the border.  Infact, I got a bus all the way to Oudomxay inside Laos, leaving at eight-thirty. 

Off we went.  It took us an hour to get to the Chinese border town of Mohan, when we got off for passport checking, then reboarded to ride from the PRC into the PDRL.  One chapter closes and another chapter opens. 


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China - 3rd visit

Hefei, Harbin, Lanzhou, Xi'An, Chongqing, Kunming, China